Agree, Disagree, or Modify

In academic writing, there are three main writing moves.  Knowing the available options, we can choose among them.

If you agree with some writer or view on a topic, there is little to say or to add.  This can result in stale writing that patches together quotes from some other voice–often not even established as being credible (before source use) or interpreted in anyway afterward.  Agreeing wholeheartedly with someone may not let the writer into the discussion, or her readers. . .

Nonexample of a Thesis Where the Writer Merely Agrees: In “A Rose for Emily,” Southern writer William Faulkner features violence and small-town secrets.

Yes.  Yes, he does.  There is no argument here.  What about those concepts of violence or small-town secrets?  Do they combine in some way?  Is there some stereotypical view of Southern small towns being violent with which Faulkner–or I–can play?

Disagreeing is common, but even here 100% disagreement is rare.  For instance, if a writer claims that we should view the small percentage of Neanderthal DNA most of us carry as a fact that’s unsurprising and the opposition just goes “No!”, then where are we?  Monty Python’s “The Argument Sketch” satirizes those who just state the opposite of a position.

The third option is to modify _______.  So we would establish our authority by being “with it” enough to indicate which aspects of a statement are worthy of support and which are not.

Although most critics view Faulkner’s “A Rose for Emily” as being a Freudian story of displaced childhood rage, actually the story is most relevant if we apply those aspects to current North vs. South struggles, and not just conflicts of the past.”  See how I modified this while also showing an awareness of what most other people think?  Basically, I told them that–while not incorrect–they were at least missing some relevant point about this story.

If we modify something, we show under what conditions it obtains, or is valid.

Perhaps this will be easier to see if we consider Hamlet.  Hundreds of years of scholarship on one play?  When writing about the play, this is what we’re competing with.  No professor expects you to discover some aspect of the play that nobody has ever considered.  What they do expect, however, is that you show a working awareness of what some other people may have thought.  They want you to add your voice to an ongoing conversation.  In this case, if you’re not excited by the fact that around four hundred years of arguments, then your lack of interest or confidence will show.  Think of how amazing it is that one’s voice gets added to these debates.  They continue after you leave, too!  So by modifying some ideas or combining aspects of this or that critic’s take on Hamlet, we can fashion our own stance.

That stance, by the way, makes you more important than either Shakespeare or the critics you employed!  So modifying to some greater or lesser extent is the basic best move.  (“Yes it is.”  “No it is not!”  See how those binaries (yes/no, is/is not, and even right/wrong) can be limiting?

To what extent?  This is a useful question to follow the basic question when entering into prewriting or argument.  Crafting those follow-up questions and creating a habit of knowing to ask are vital academic survival skills.

Improve Your Writing: Tips

1. Be patient.  Improving skills takes time.
2. Expect to get stuck.  “Get nowhere fast.”
3. Remember that writing is really rewriting.
4. Be aware of what you do when you write.
5. Talk to other writers.
6. Study the responses to your writing.
7. Read, read, read.  Playing word games and reading challenging text are two ways to improve test scores.
8. Do not fear mistakes.  Make spectacular mistakes!