Arguments and plots

I recently had an essay due for my “Talking About Poetry” class (I know – I’m in another poetry class! This one doesn’t require any creative writing, though), and while usually essays challenge me only in finding the time to write them, this one stumped me altogether.

The assignment was to develop a close reading of a poem of our choice, provided it was of one of the forms we have studied. The first task, therefore, was to find a poem to write about. I ended up using one I had worked with last quarter, “A Description of the Morning” by Jonathan Swift, because I knew I already had some ideas about it. Next, I marked it up with all my comments.

There ended the easy part. I was left with a comment on just about every word, phrase, line, and couplet, and a single essay to discuss it all. So I chose a few of the patterns I saw and wrote about them. This I had done by Monday night, a week before the essay was due, and I thought I was golden.

Then my professor saw my thesis. Her response was that I had only observed what was going on and had no argument about why or what effect these observations had on the poem. Her point was valid, of course, and left me staring at the computer screen trying to figure out what on earth I wanted to argue about “A Description of the Morning.”

While this struggle was for an academic paper, I think the lack of an argument can be translated into fiction. Writers have whole worlds created in their heads, and there is no possible way that it can all be worked into a body of fiction. A good writer will follow an argument, or a plot, and include only the information necessary for the story being told. A bad writer will try to work it all in, be it by saturating a point of view with observations that character could not possibly make (in order to show us how all the characters are reacting), by writing pages of dialogue with conversations that are unnecessary (in order to show us how witty a character is, or how well they get along, or just for lack of another way to move the story along), or by going on tangents about elements unessential to the story simply because they have worked out those tangents in their heads.

So here is me passing my professor’s comment along: don’t just write down what you see on the page or in your head; follow an argument, plot, or plan. Your writing will be more concise, more accurate, and more meaningful for it.

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