7 Organizing Output
My task…is, by the power of the written word, to make you hear, to make you feel – it is, before all, to make you see. Joseph Conrad (1857-1924)
Plans are worthless, but planning is everything. Dwight D. Eisenhower (1890-1969)
After you have absorbed sources, written Source Notes paraphrasing and commenting on them, and turned these into Point Notes interpreting and analyzing the ideas you’ve chosen to pursue, what’s next? Many note-taking apps and PKM systems are strangely silent on this question, since producing output isn’t strictly within the scope of a knowledge management system. I was dissatisfied with this, because I’m not a collector of knowledge. I’m a teacher and writer. Also, this handbook began its life as a guide to writing; so it makes sense to continue to our goal.
At some point in your life, you’ve probably been told by a writing teacher that if the topic is the main idea, then the thesis is the main idea statement. You develop your topic, which begins as a word or a phrase (your subject), into a sentence (your subject plus a predicate, or what you have to say about it). But that’s not enough, if you want the satisfaction of creating a fine thing or if you want to present your reader with an essay worth reading.
You’re well past the “But I have nothing to say” stage. You have already begun the writing process by highlighting and making Source Notes, and you’ve reviewed those notes to discover your interests. You’ve explored possible topics in discussion and by writing Point Notes, and have settled on a manageable topic. Your close readings of passages relevant to your topic have suggested interpretations that need to be developed. It’s important at the outset to dismiss any candidate for a possible thesis that is either factual or self-evident. Nothing obvious needs arguing, so a thesis that argues the obvious has no purpose. You don’t want your audience to respond, “So what?” to output you’ve just gone to a lot of trouble to produce. You can prevent this by anticipating your reader’s responses and asking yourself questions such as:
- What interpretation am I trying to persuade my reader is valid?
- What are my reasons for this interpretation?
- How is my interpretation different from other, accepted interpretations?
- What parts of the source material am I going to examine? To emphasize?
- What are my assumptions?
- Who would disagree? What objections can I expect? (If none, then do I have a thesis worth developing at all?)
A focused thesis statement connects a more general main idea with your specific development of it – in which you’ll use concrete illustrations, observations, quotations, analysis, and interpretation. Thus, the topic sentences of your supporting paragraphs will be contained, explicitly or implicitly, in the all-important thesis sentence(s).
If you have read texts before beginning the note-making process described in this handbook, and then decided to adopt this process when you begin a formal “research” project, it might be necessary to return to some of your sources. In this case, rereading your texts with your topic in mind and organizing your evidence into Source and Point Notes helps you move from your initial, open-ended exploration of a topic to creating a thesis and ultimately supporting arguments. In other systems this stage is often called “brainstorming” or “freewriting” or “prewriting.” It is imagined as an informal, personal part of the writing process. In the system I’ve outlined here, the process is still personal, but it’s quite a bit more formal. The work you do in your Note-making system before you begin to write will prevent you having to grope for ideas and evidence when you’re outlining and writing. And like producing the final output, this is also writing. You improve at anything by practicing it – this is another chance to practice writing.
An Example (from history)
Let’s suppose one of your sources is James Loewen’s book, Lies My Teacher Told Me, for a course that deals with our changing ideas about history over time. In Chapter 6, which is titled “John Brown and Abraham Lincoln: the invisibility of antiracism in American history textbooks,” Loewen says that history has mostly portrayed violent white abolitionist John Brown as insane, “narrowly ignorant,” and “a religious fanatic.” In contrast, Loewen says, “Consider Nat Turner, who in 1831 led the most important slave revolt since the United States became a nation. John Brown and Nat Turner both killed whites in cold blood…but unlike Brown, Turner is portrayed as…something of a hero.”
You begin wondering, does Loewen make a valid point? What is the difference between John Brown and Nat Turner? Loewen cites his sources in the book, so you can look at them to see how the ways the two men are portrayed differs and how these portrayals have changed over time. Your topic, “Why is Nat Turner a Hero and John Brown a Villain?” will probably be controversial, but after bringing your questions to discussion and finding that your peers and instructor are interested in the direction you’re taking this, you begin looking at other texts that mention Brown or Turner. Close reading reveals that many histories portray John Brown as ignorant, even though the record shows he was a highly educated man who had traveled in sophisticated social circles before Harpers Ferry. You review your Source Notes, write Point Notes about them, and begin to form an interpretation: maybe history can forgive Nat Turner for his killings because he was an escaped slave acting in a manner expected of his peer group, while John Brown was considered a traitor to his white, educated peer group. There are other possible interpretations, but you decide to test the thesis that “John Brown is vilified by history because Brown’s certainty that Christianity and slavery were incompatible was an intolerable challenge to the smug rationalizations of other whites in 19th century America.”
This will be a controversial thesis to explore – you’ve already run into many histories that implicitly or explicitly deny this interpretation. The upside is that you’ll have the full attention of your audience. As you continue your research, you may find there were other factors leading to history’s rejection of Brown, or that not all histories rejected him. You’ll have an opportunity to refine your thesis – it’s not carved in stone – but for now it’s a good source of direction for your project.
Another Example (from literature)
Returning to the previous imaginary World Literature class, suppose you decide to pursue “Homer’s Portrayal of Women in The Odyssey”. Class discussion reflected on the emphasis on “family values” in recent news coverage of politicians looking for issues near election time. Perhaps you were stimulated by what the pundits had to say. Or maybe you were offended by the superficiality of the “soundbites” – after all, you had just read Odysseus telling Agamemnon in Book Eleven that “empty words are evil.” So you decide to take a closer look at families in the text. You reread relevant passages, making notes paraphrasing (Source Notes) and analyzing (Point Notes) the relationships of Odysseus-Penelope-Telemakhos on one side, and Agamemnon-Klytaimnestra-Orestes on the other.
You plan to contrast the “functional” families in The Odyssey with the “dysfunctional” ones, focusing on the role the wives play. You know you won’t use those terms in your final draft, as they’re both jargon and clichés, but they will get you started. It would be too obvious merely to point out that Penelope and Klytaimnestra represent “good guys” versus “bad guys.” That’s a “So what?” paper. As you analyze your Source Notes, you notice that Penelope is not such a one-dimensional character; neither is Klytaimnestra. You sense that Odysseus’s wife’s “fidelity” is motivated by causes more complicated than conventional, and Agamemnon’s wife’s “infidelity” is grounded in his sacrifice of her daughter for his brother’s honor. Now you’re interpreting and you know someone will disagree, so you prepare an argument. Your (tentative) thesis statement is: “Although some have proposed that The Odyssey was presented as an educational model prescribing rules and roles for generations of Greeks, a closer look at the characters of Penelope and Klytaimnestra suggests that Homer was as much a probing psychologist as a patronizing pedagogue.” Okay, the alliteration might be a bit much – but you’ll worry about that in a later draft; this is a good start. This thesis is also a bit too general: ultimately you’ll have to be more specific as to which psychological aspects of these characters Homer probes. But it will serve to focus your thinking and help you develop your argument.
You can (and often do) change both your attitude and your plan as you explore sources and your responses to them. As that happens, you refine or revise your thesis. Your original statement is meant to function as your guide; it directs your writing, but it serves your purposes.
The two forms of logical arguments you’ll probably end up using, depending on the source material and your goal for the output, will be deductive and inductive. A deductive argument might begin with evidence from sources or from previous interpretations, and lead to a specific conclusion in a format like this: “if A is true, and B is true, then C ought to be true.” In the real world, A and B are almost never absolutes that no one is going to challenge, so your conclusion is always going to be tentative. The other option, an inductive argument, would begin with specific data and try to generalize from them, to a conclusion about the broader world. Its conclusion would also be tentative, but that’s no reason not to argue your point strongly and with conviction.
As you read and research, your goal is to find the building blocks of your argument: factual data, prior interpretations you can comment on, and your own experience. As you analyze your Source Notes and write Point Notes, you’ll want to organize your argument into a series of points that develop your thesis and that build upon each other to support your conclusion. Ernest Hemingway once said that good prose is architecture, not interior decorating. He meant that it is constructed on a solid foundation – it’s graceful, but not primarily designed to be pretty. Since we’re using an architectural metaphor, we might also want to remember architect Louis Sullivan’s advice, that “form follows function.” The mechanical structure that supports your ideas does not necessarily have to be apparent to the reader (viewer, listener, audience). But it has to be there. Its purpose is to help shape your argument so the reader can understand and follow it. Without a structure, your reader would quickly become lost, wandering through a random pile of “Oh, by the way” points that lead nowhere.
It might help at this point to begin an outline. An outline is an opportunity to take all those individual building blocks of information you have been accumulating and start assembling them into a structure. Your main points will become the topic sentences that will control your middle paragraphs. They can be organized chronologically, in series of cause-effect pairs, or in any way your topic suggests. The logic of this organization will be contained in, or at least implied by, your thesis statement. They’re also typically the topics of the Point Notes you choose to use to build this output. They give coherence to your argument by connecting with each other as well as with the thesis sentence in your first paragraph and with the concluding sentence in your last paragraph. So you could start by writing these controlling ideas down in a preliminary outline. If you have made good notes, often outlining is as simple as arranging your note cards in a logical order, and then transcribing the content of the notes. Or, if your notes are digital, cutting and pasting.
I like to imagine all the thoughts and ideas I’ve collected in my system of notes as a forest. I imagine it as three-dimensional, because the trains of thought I’ve been working on for some time look like trees, with branches of argument, point, and counterpoint and leaves of source-based evidence. Actually, the forest is four-dimensional, because it changes over time, growing as I add more to it. A piece of output I make using this forest of thoughts is like a path through the woods. It’s a one-dimensional narrative or interpretation that starts at one point, moves in a line or an arc (sometimes a zig-zag) through the woods, touching some but not all of the trees and leaves. I like this imagery, because it suggests there are many ways to move through the forest. The path I have chosen is one of these. Tomorrow I may choose another way to get to the same place, or decide to go to a different destination. I may touch some of the same trees on the way to that different destination (another reason to number notes so they can be located in different contexts!), or a new and different set of ideas and evidence. Either way, the whole forest is available to me for anything I may want to do.
If the arguments in your Point Notes are strong and complete enough, and you have enough evidence in your Source Notes, you may feel you just want to get on with the writing. Another possibility might be to write your rough draft first, and then try to outline it to verify that it makes sense. Either way an outline, no matter how sketchy, helps to ensure that your essay is going somewhere and not just bouncing around or spinning in circles. You are likely still going to reread, reconsider, add, subtract, rearrange, revise. At this point everything is tentative. A logical outline could be just the control you need to turn a rough draft into output that’s a model of clarity. In expository, analytical media, your audience is not looking for baroque flourishes (we return to the architecture metaphor once again!). Whether you develop your argument by defining, describing, exemplifying, classifying, comparing, or contrasting, your audience is looking for insights. You have a reader, listener, or viewer for whom you must define your terms, expose your premises, and state your purposes. Doing this clarifies the scope and course of your argument for both of you.
Even when you make a logical argument that appeals to your audience’s reason rather than to their emotions, your output’s success is not simply a question of your argument being either “right” or “wrong.” Your work will be more valid and persuasive if you have developed it cogently and communicated it effectively. Just as you look for author biases in texts, your audience naturally assumes that your interpretations are probably not completely impartial or absolutely objective. However, your arguments can and should be interesting and plausible. That’s what “good prose” is. But this is the goal of your final draft, so don’t expect it to happen all at once. Work toward it.
Settling on a useful structure, you’ll want to keep in mind that your purposes are first, to set up a writer-reader (speaker-listener, presenter-viewer, etc.) relationship; second, to make your argument understandable, interesting, persuasive, compelling. Your organization will emphasize the material you think is important by controlling the sequence in which information is revealed. The shape you give your “building” depends ultimately on your goals and priorities, as the builder. But don’t forget that architects design structures for other people. Your audience has to find a home in them as well. The basic structural model that works pretty well in many cases looks like this:
- General Introduction: get your reader’s interest right away; briefly provide only necessary background (Don’t summarize!). Make your topic clear; focus on a specific statement of your thesis.
- Organize supporting ideas into coherent paragraphs with clear topic sentences (this applies both to written works and to the scripts of audio and video productions).
- Create meaningful and smooth transitions between paragraphs. Try to vary your sentences so they are not monotonous.
- Support every assertion you make with evidence from a credible source or a comparison of several.
- Connect all the ideas in your conclusion. You might want to move from a specific statement of the point you believe you have proven back to a more general discussion, reversing the order of your first paragraph, while adding a “so what” statement. This creates symmetry.
Abandoning the architecture metaphor for a moment, you could also think of this structure as a journey. You and your audience meet in the introduction. You go out together and have an adventure in the body paragraphs. Then you come back home and reflect on what it meant in the conclusion.
Of course, this is not the only way to structure your output. Different goals lead to different journeys; to different buildings, if we return to the architecture metaphor. If you’re building a different building and it’s working – that is, if your audience finds your output interesting and effective – then by all means stick to it and build on it, improving it all the time. Your readers, listeners, or viewers will give you the most meaningful feedback. Whatever you’re producing, it will ultimately need to communicate your thoughts to your audience. Organization helps, so in a class or workshop your instructor or peers will be looking for (judging, grading) criteria such as: logical sequence; whether the theme keeps moving; good paragraph structure; smooth transitions; main ideas given proper emphasis; all generalizations supported; all paragraphs come out of the thesis and lead to the conclusion. Ultimately, one of the best compliments that can be given to good prose is that it did not get in the way of a cogent argument or a compelling narrative.