By David Cregar, Expository Writing Program at New York University



What happens when you look, one more time, at your essay as a collection of pieces, bits and pieces glued together one way now, but that you can still break apart, try out new orders of the parts. Let’s start by playing with a piece you have already read, earlier this term, about developing an inquiry in “on the one hand... on the other hand… so…?” form.

Pair up and decide on an order of the parts below.  Below, put your names and the numbers of the part in the order you like.  Here is the text to re-sort:

1-When you’re getting ready to write an academic essay it’s tempting to come up with your idea or thesis first and stick to it, researching and employing only evidence that supports that claim.  BUT to do the level of thinking and analyzing expected from you in college, you’ll need to think – and write – more in terms of inquiry.  Developing a genuine inquiry, however --- some uncertainty or question that is truly unsettled in your mind and not easily resolved -- is sometimes NOT so easy as it seems.

2-Here are two rough approximations – two different versions -- of the inquiry in an essay on essaying itself, Cynthia Ozick’s “Portrait of the Essay as a Warm Body”:

Ozick, “Portrait of the Essay”

On the one hand, essays of the “genuine kind” do not aim to teach, instruct, prescribe or indoctrinate their readers to any particular “thesis.”  On the other hand, the essay is a force for persuasion, does lead us to ideas, even without seeming to be.  So how does an essay work?  To what extent and in what ways does an essay provide “answers” for its readers?  How can an essay lead us to an idea, without seeming to?

Ozick, “Portrait of the Essay”

On one hand, essays are mediations, concerned only with themselves, never troubled by the end to send a “message” or “moral.”  And yet, nothing, one might argue, seems so persuasive – nothing changes minds – so powerfully as an essay – one that affords us a window into the “mazy” complications of another person’s thought. So what IS the art of persuasion? How is it that writers might lead their readers to a deeper reconsideration of what they know? To what extent might essays, and the essay form, be uniquely suited to persuade.

3-We are often tempted to believe that if we just think and ponder hard enough, the inquiry will just pop into our brains, almost magically.  Sometime it does happen like that!  But not really, and hardly ever.  So you can also help your brain along some.  One way is to try to form your inquiry into an “one the one hand, on the other hand” structure.

4-Depending on your opinion, the typical five-paragraph essay looks like this:

Capital punishment is wrong.  It is:

1) racist in its application,

2) morally repugnant, and

3) an ineffective deterrent.

Therefore, capital punishment is wrong.




Capital punishment is right.  It is:

1) fairly applied without regard to race,

2) a just punishment for evil deeds, and

3) a useful means to prevent crime.

Therefore, capital punishment is right.

5-In writing an inquiry in “on the one hand… on the other hand… so…?” form -- ALL the pieces are important – the thesis and the antithesis are both “spelled out,” not just for the reader, but more important, for the writer herself.  When she begins to “spell out” (articulate, make explicit) both the thesis and antithesis, she can see the real question with greater clarity.

6-In the typical five-paragraph form (that is used on the SAT, and is often practiced in middle and high schools) the writer’s task is relatively simple: make a claim, support it three ways, restate the claim.  

7-Write a version of the inquiry in your essay.  Remember to use all three parts of the form, “on the one hand.. other hand… so….”

8-Not much thinking is needed in a five-paragraph essay – it is and not very effective, either.  If you already believe capital punishment is wrong, you won’t have much reason to read the essay that simply confirms that, and you almost surely won’t read the one that argues against that, and even if you do, you probably won’t be swayed by it.  Same thing the opposite way.  If you’re a believer in capital punishment, you’ll dismiss the arguments against as simpleminded and wrongheaded – and the essay that reaffirms your beliefs won’t do much for you either, except maybe to make you feel even more secure in your pre-determined beliefs.

9-In “spelling out” your inquiry, you are using writing to get your thinking going.  We usually think that it’s the other way around: If I want to make my writing interesting and complex, I’ve got to think complex thoughts and then transmit them to paper.  But almost any writer will tell you that they usually start with very little idea about what they’re going to say: it is only through the act of writing that they come to see something interesting and complex, something they never thought before.

10-The kind of essays we are working on in this class are demonstrations of a mind at work.  Essays are inquiries, “an attempt” or “trial” (as the dictionary actually says, when you look it up) – an attempt to understand more about some question or uncertainty or problem.

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What do your choices about the order of the parts tell you about how you thought about these pieces and how they might work together? Remember that you are not necessarily concerned with the original order, the way the author of the piece (me!) put things together. Rather, you are trying to articulate more about why you put things in the order you did.

Now try this out with your own draft.  Use this PowerNotes workaround to break your draft into its parts:

  • Open any online text, select any random word (this is just a way to get a bunch of PowerNotes comment boxes for this exercise), than copy and paste your first paragraph into the comment box.

  • Repeat, selecting the same word over and over, and pasting each of your paragraphs into individual comment boxes. (Don’t number them or indicate their original order.)

  • Go to your Project Outline screen (click the P in the lower left, then Project Outline).

  • Unclick the “highlights” and “citation info” boxes, in the lower right; this will leave you with just the source (in light blue) and your draft, with each paragraph in its own box.

Then, play!  Try out a new structure.  See what happens as you move parts around. Share the versions with your partner and what you think that change might mean -- how it might work differently than in the draft you already composed. Or, if you want or need help, work with a partner to see these different structures, and discuss what happens to your draft as you re-arrange and re-organize.

Finally, think some about possible new pieces -- pieces you might add to what you already have. What might this re-ordering show you about your draft and what else you might need, for the final draft?

Export your new version as a Word Doc, then convert or cut and pasted into your Google Doc portfolio.