Making Effective Arguments

As you begin your time at UC, one of the biggest challenges facing you will be learning to adapt to writing at a college level.  While in high school, you were likely able to get by (and even do well) writing papers that simply catalogued facts and/or retold the narrative of the book under discussion, in college literature classes you'll need to have your own opinions about the readings and also back those ideas up with convincing evidence.  Rest assured, however, there's a relatively simple process through which you can ensure that you're making a solid argument. Let's borrow a familiar symbol:

Idea: I think X
Evidence: this quotation/anecdote proves why I think X
Analysis: here's why the evidence makes me think X (and also why that matters)

For illustration's sake, here's an Idea/Evidence/Analysis construction from some of our Kerouac readings:

Idea: Kerouac's writing has a musical/sonic quality


  • "sketching language is undisturbed flow from the mind of personal secret idea-words, blowing (as per jazz musician) on subject of image" (Essentials of Spontaneous Prose)
  • "Blow as deep as you want to blow" (Belief & Technique For Modern Prose)
  • "It was the fantastic drowse and drum hum of lum mum afternoon nathin' to do" (The Railroad earth, 658-659)
  • "the reading rooms tick tock bigclock with creak chair and slant-boards" (ibid. 659)
  • "I should have played with her shurrouruuruuruuruuruuruurkdiei" (ibid. 660)

Analysis: Kerouac's work takes great chances with sound and syntax to yield poetic effect, as well as a purer, deconstructed sonority.

How do you put it together in prose?

In "Essentials of Spontaneous Prose," Kerouac advises writers to seek an "undisturbed flow from the mind of personal secret idea-words," which he likens to "blowing (as per jazz musician) on subject of image." In "The Railroad Earth," we see this idea manifested in various ways, from sing-song poetic constructions ("the reading rooms tick tock bigclock with creak chair and slant-boards") to more ambitious experiments with sound ("It was the fantastic drowse and drum hum of lum mum afternoon nathin' to do") (658-659, 659). At times, his prose verges into deconstructed typographical nonsense in search of pure sonorities: "I should have played with her shurrouruuruuruuruuruuruurkdiei" (660). "Blow as deep as you want to blow," Kerouac tells us in "Belief & Technique For Modern Prose," and in "The Railroad Earth," we see him do just that — he takes great chances and reaps great musical rewards.

A few things to note:

  • As your critical writing becomes more confident, you'll be able to "write through" your evidence — i.e. you don't say "here's my idea" and then "here's my evidence," but rather use the evidence itself (appropriately excerpted and/or summarized and woven into your syntax) to state your idea.  Likewise, above you see that I've wed evidence to analysis as well.
  • Note that when possible, I use signal phrases (i.e. "In 'Essentials of Spontaneous Prose'...) to identify my sources so that I don't have to include that in a parenthetical citation. Likewise, for both of the online texts used here, since there's no proper page number and I've identified the source in my sentence, I don't need to add a parenthetical citation.
  • Note that in the first two sentences, I've woven a number of quotations together to make a stronger sentence, and then cite them accordingly, separating the page numbers with a comma. More simply, note that I don't just use one piece of evidence for each idea.

Since many of you might not be used to reading, let alone writing critical prose, I'm going to give you one more, slightly longer example: a small excerpt from a recent essay of mine on poet John Giorno. Now, don't freak out — I'm not expecting prose like this from you! (and likewise, I'm not holding my own writing up as some sort of paragon of critical voice) — but this should give you some idea of how to write more concentrated and sophisticated work that's not bogged down in filler.

Having come to the realization that “poetry was 75 years behind painting and sculpture, dance and music,” and believing that “[i]t was the poet's job to invent new venues and make fresh contact with the audience,” Giorno sought to find novel and innovative ways “to connect with an audience using all the entertainments of ordinary life” (“Wisdom in His Voice;” “Giorno Poetry Systems” 182). His first attempt to achieve this goal was a series of Electronic Sensory Poetry Environments, or ESPEs, taking place between 1967 and 1969, in New York City and elsewhere, which infused the poetry reading with the energy of both Fluxus-style happenings and the psychedelic rock experience. 
The inaugural event, entitled Raspberry, would take place at NYU’s Loeb Student Center on March 7, 1967. Participants mingled in the empty theater ringed by blacklights, creating an environment resembling “a fish tank of ultra-violet water,” as they listened to tracks from Raspberry and Pornographic Poem, a 12-inch LP Giorno released the same year.Four months later, he’d stage Raspberry once more at the Filmmakers Cinematheque, and later that fall, at the School of Visual Arts, he launched Chromosome, during which seated audience members listened to four new stereo tape collaborations between Giorno and synthesizer pioneer Robert Moog—“Cycle,” “Rose,” “Flavor Grabber,” and “Chrome”—as spotlights “with changing color gels were moved randomly over [them]” (“ESPE—Electronic Sensory Poetry Environments,” 138). 
In her classic 1962 essay “Happenings: an art of radical juxtaposition,” Susan Sontag notes that, “The Happening takes place in what can best be called an ‘environment,’ and this environment typically is messy and disorderly and crowded in the extreme.” “What is primary in a Happening,” she continues, “is materials—and their modulations” (268). From 1968 through to 1970, Giorno’s ESPEs would grow increasingly elaborate, incorporating more and more gadgetry in an effort to engage the full range of human senses and drawing larger audiences in New York and throughout North America.

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