A Bigger Iceberg (2)

“In writing for a newspaper you told what happened aided by the element of timeliness which gives a certain emotion to any account of something that has happened on that day; but the real thing, the sequence of motion and fact which made the emotion and which would be as valid in a year or in ten years or, with luck and if your stated it purely enough, always, was beyond me and I was working very hard to try to get it.” (Ernest Hemingway, Death in the Afternoon, 1932, p. 10)

The ideal Hemingway story (perhaps simply the ideal story?) needs neither an explicit frame nor an explicit point. The story is just a “sequence of motion and fact” for which both the context and the consequences are obvious. The reader will understand what is happening because you are using ordinary words to refer to ordinary uses of ordinary things. Your reader will understand why you are telling the story because it involves a familiar predicament, with familiar moral stakes. It is our shared humanity that will imbue it with meaning.

This does, to be sure, make some assumptions about the reader, and in academic writing those assumptions often need to be made explicit. We can see how this works by imagining a somewhat bigger iceberg than the one I proposed in my last post. Instead of letting it be borne up only by your experiences, consider letting both your reading and your reasoning contribute to its mass. Scholars do a lot of reading; they normally stay abreast of current events and are also often interested in culture and literature. Being naturally reflective people, they also do a lot of thinking about the world around them, they ponder the state of the times, and worry about about the future. All of this shapes their interpretation of their experiences of the world. And this also shapes how they understand each other’s stories.

If we suppose your original anecdote consisted of 5-600 words we can think of it as the body of a five-paragraph essay. It can be organized into three moments or episodes (a beginning, a middle, an end), each presented in single paragraph of at least six sentences and at most 200 words. Now add an introductory paragraph that frames your story with something you’ve read in the news or in a work of fiction and a concluding paragraph that sharpens its point in the bright light of reason (or the warm glow of common sense). If you want to follow the five-paragraph essay form strictly, make sure you state the point already in the first paragraph (after framing it) and invoke the frame again in the last paragraph (after making the point). You end up with two (nested) three-part structures: frame, story (beginning, middle, end), point.

Altogether you should have no more than 1000 words now. But, as before, you should be sure that you could say 7000 more if you need to. Your introductory paragraph about what you’ve read will be no more than 200 words, but there must be over a thousands words you could say about the same literature. The 200-word paragraph that states the moral of the tale will draw on lines of reasoning that could fill an essay of its own. It is this unsaid component of your story that gives it its depth, its dignity.

Our iceberg has gotten little more complex, but we’re still in the familiar territory of classical storytelling and scholarship. We might say we’re still considering the sort of writing (stories, essays) that can be found in the liberal arts. Our experience-based anecdote has been enriched with erudition and reflection, but all we have really done is to make explicit what was implicit in the story. Our iceberg has three layers, all of which have a component above and a component below the surface. (I’m working on some illustrations, but I encourage you to draw these icebergs as we go along.) In my next post I’ll suggest two additional layers, both of which come from splitting a layer we already have. Here our text will find another kind of dignity, another kind of authority. We will find out what it means to write a scientific paper.

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