26 Feb 2008 [ Prev | Next ]

Ex 3: In Defense of Manuscript Culture


While we are starting to talk about the printing press, and we have in class discussed the relationship between digital culture and print culture, note that this exercise asks you to focus on manuscript culture.  The book as we know it is about 2000 years old, but each book was painstakingly built by hand.  How does the standardization introduced by the printing press affect the act of writing? The act of reading? Look at Trithemius, DeRenzo, Ong, various sections of Brookfield, for evidence to support your answer. Rather than answering right away, and then looking for evidence support your knee-jerk reaction, first look through the readings for evidence. Assemble quotes, look for patterns, seek connections. (The study questions in Writing Material are a good start, and the introductions to the "Suggested Groupings" in the back of the book offer interesting ways to connect the readings.)

That's all I have to say about the content of this exercise -- I am very open, as long as your thesis is rooted in the assigned readings.  The rest of this document deals with the form of the paper.


As with Ex 2, I am interested in seeing how well you can synthesize.

This means, instead of spending one paragraph summarizing what one author has to say, and the next paragraph summarizing a different author, and so on, I would rather you divide your paper up on general points, so that one paragraph might make subpoint 1, supported with quotes from authors A, B, C, and D. The next paragraph might contain an argument against subpoint 1, supported by quotes from authors B, D, E, and F.

Pick a narrow topic. "Books and the Middle Class" is too broad. "Books and the Middle Class in London, 1700-1800" is narrower.  (I don't expect you to do any outside research for this exercise; quoting from the sources we have read will be enough.)

Use quotes to launch discussion, not silence it. There's nothing actually wrong with ending a paragraph, section, or paper with a quotation. But if you have a habit of asking a bunch of random questions, poking around the issue, and then "proving" your point by finishing up with a quotation, as if there is nothing more to say about the topic now that you've presented your quote, then you're not demonstrating the ability to engage critically with a complex problem that might have numerous plausible solutions. You may instead be trying to discourage your reader from questioning your claims.

Integrate short quotations into your own original sentences

Quotations can make or break an academic argument. Some quotations, like the ones Johnson calls "the bedrock of scholarly discourse" (35), are "tightly integrated into the very fabric of the argument" (Smith 234).  The author carefully selects "the juciest, most meaning-laden words" (Lee 125) from multiple different authors, and works them into "an original chain of thoughts" (Johnson 131) linked by a structure designed to guide the reader toward a "non-obvious conclusion" (Brown 101).

But I also want to talk about a different kind of quotation -- one that the author prefaces with a wordy introduction that wastes words by referring directly to the mechanics of scholarly work.  We see an example of this kind of wordy, inefficient use of an outside source in the way that I am introducing the next quotation.

When an author spends two or three sentences calling attention to the fact that a good quote is coming that will illustrate a certain point, the author has usually already made that point through paraphrase by the time the quote actually comes around. Continuing with a paragraph that summarizes the outside author's main point makes the quote itself even more painfully extraneous. (McTeague 156)

As this quote shows, the habit of first talking in general about a topic, then quoting a long passage that supports a specific claim, and then following up with several more sentences that summarize the content of the quote, distracts from the author's ability to support an original argument. McTeague is saying that the habit of writing three separate sections -- the introduction, the quote itself, and the explanation of the quote -- can be very wordy, if you think in terms of writing several sentences for each section. You can generate a lot of words that fill the page, but the redundancy means that those words will contain few ideas.

On the other hand, a scholarly argument that quotes only the "most meaning-laden words" (Lee 125) not only avoids redundancy, but "results in more persuasive arguments" (McTeague 158) that enable both reader and writer to "engage with abstract ideas on a more advanced level" (Smith 230).

Look at the first and last paragraphs above.  The first and last paragraphs include brief quotations from several different sources, strung together to form an original claim.  The middle section simply presents and summarizes a long quotation from McTeague.  The following revision is a much more efficient use of the point McTeague contributes to the author's argument, and uses some of the recovered space to extend the original idea.

Prefacing a quotation with a long introduction makes the quote itself "redundant" and following it with a detailed paraphrase makes the quote "painfully extraneous" (McTeague 158). Rather than wasting words making exactly the same point three times, "efficient, carefully wordsmithed prose" (Jones 123) can support the same point with three completely different examples, or make three completely different points that support a more complex main idea.

[Note -- all the above quotations are made up for this exercise; I'm not really citing any outside sources, I'm just demonstrating the process.]

Include quotes from sources that disagree with your thesis. Rather than silencing an alternate or opposing claim, aim to show your reader how a careful consideration of all the evidence -- both for and against -- leads a reasonable skeptic to agree with your perspective.

Avoid encapsulated, serial summaries of your outside sources. Your high school teachers may have rewarded you for writing good summaries. But a college paper requires you to think on a much more advanced level than a string of paragraphs, each of which summarizes a separate outside source.

Avoid writing a separate paragraph on each of your sources. In the image on the right, we see a typical five-paragraph paper, with a one-paragraph introduction, a one-paragraph conclusion, and three supporting paragraphs.

The student has found three good sources, but unfortunately, the student has chosen to devote one paragraph to each source.

That kind of layout presumes that your job as an academic is to summarize what other people have written.

In truth, your job as an academic writer is to demonstrate your ability to create new links between materials that have already been published. You can't do that if you treat your sources one at a time, in self-contained paragraphs.

In the following revision, we still have a five-paragraph paper, but notice that the first paragraph first introduces a main idea (represented here in dark green), then briefly introduces all three supporting ideas (represented by a full sentence devoted to the yellow, blue, and magenta ideas).

The first supporting paragraph, which presents the yellow idea, begins by restating the main idea. (Don't use the exact same words of course; see thesis reminders.)

Note that the blue paragraph begins by referring to the relationship between the main idea and the first supporting point. We see a reference to the yellow point in the middle of the blue paragraph, and the blue paragraph winds up by repeating the main idea and also offering a conclusion (here represented by white text on a black background).

The magenta paragraph begins by restating the relationship between the yellow and blue ideas, and refers briefly to both of these earlier points as it develops the magenta idea.

Note that the final paragraph does not merely restate the contents of the yellow, blue, and magenta paragraphs; instead, it refers briefly to the relationship between those supporting points and the main idea, but spends more time addressing the main idea.

Avoid a rigid, simplistic organizational structure focused only on the sources you have found.

  1. Introduction.
  2. Summarize Source A.
  3. Summarize Source B.
  4. Summarize Source C.
  5. Conclusion.
This structure won't permit you to make original connections between your sources and your main idea. You will end up writing too much summary and not enough original argument. The organization of your paper should flow from the argument that you plan to make. Consider the following:
  • Introduction
  • Point 1 (Sources A and B agree, but source C disagrees.)
  • Point 2 (Sources A and C agree, but source B doesn't mention it directly.)
  • Point 2, continued. (Based on things that source B says about related issues, suggest that source B would likely disagree with sources A and C.)
  • Point 3 (Sources B and C both disagree with A, but for different reasons.)
  • Conclusion

Note that the revised outline deals with each source in more than one paragraph, and due to the complexity of Point 2, the author devotes two paragraphs to it. This student might need to do additional research.

Perhaps source D only appears to support claims made in one section, and perhaps source E only exists to support a minor claim made about source B. If a source is not that important to your argument, but it helps you make one small point, then refer to the source where you need to and forget about it.


If you ask yourself questions about how your sources relate to one another, then you can avoid summary and still have plenty to write about.

  • What if source A is the only evidence in favor of point 3, while B and C oppose it. Source D doesn't mention this point at all.
    • Is that a weakness in D's argument?
    • A sign that D isn't a reliable source?
    • Or is that point simply outside the scope of the argument D was trying to make?
  • Did some authors have access to information that the author of D did now know about?
    • Maybe source D was published early, and new information has come to light since then. Is source D now irrelevant, or did the author raise good questions that are worth re-considering now that there is additional evidence?
    • Maybe source D was only looking at a problem in America, while the other sources also included Canada and Europe. Should you respond by narrowing or broadening your focus?

These are subtleties that you cannot really investigate when you introduce outside sources only in self-contained paragraphs that reference no other sources.




ChrisU said:

What kind of length are we aiming for here? 4 pages, like last time?

Yes, a the same length as last time.

Stormy Knight said:

Thanks for taking the time to post all of this information. I know this guidance is really going to help me work through this paper, as I had some trouble with the first one. Much appreciated.

Thanks for that note, Stormy -- it really helps me to use my prep time efficiently when I hear that something I wrote seems to have made a difference.

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