An Essay's Shape by Kevin Sebastian

Post date: Feb 4, 2018 8:55:57 PM

When learning to draw from life, art students are typically reminded to look for spatial relationships instead of trying to depict an object as the object. Take for example a typical still life subject that involves fruits, a bowl, and drapery. Instead of trying to draw the apple based on what we conceive of as an apple (which we learn from an early age is shaped like a heart with a butt), we draw the shape that we see in front of us: the shape that is articulated by its relationship with the other shapes beside it. If we look closely, we realize that the curve that forms the apple’s cheek terminates abruptly because it is covered by another form—perhaps the orange, or the edge of the bowl. One can say that we are not drawing things—rather we are depicting the shapes of things. Writing involves something similar. Kurt Vonnegut, the celebrated author who wrote such classics as Slaughterhouse Five and Cat’s Cradle, proposed a thesis that posits that all stories have shapes. (The thesis, as intriguing as it sounds, was rejected by more traditional academics sitting upon their ivory thrones in their ivory towers. However, if you, like me, respond positively to Vonnegut’s idea, you can find a cool visualization of it here, or you can listen to a short talk given by the man himself here.) According to Vonnegut, a creation story is shaped like a set of steps. A Cinderella story, on the other hand, is charted by a steep incline upwards that then dips precipitously until it once more flies heavenwards.

If stories have shapes, then perhaps all writing does as well—even the kind of expository writing performed in college. Consider, too, that one of the major principles in journalistic writing is visualized as an inverted pyramid, which diagrams how the most important ideas should appear earlier and how specific details follow. (Here is Wikipedia’s entry on the subject for those who might want to learn more about it.)

What does a college essay look like? I’m not sure. Sometimes when I read early drafts (of mine and of students of mine), I envision a Gordian knot of incomprehensibility. But perhaps it is instructive to think of the essay indeed as having a definite shape. After all, an essay, especially a college essay, must express a set of relationships between ideas: imagine a third body paragraph triangulating the main point, or a conclusion that rounds off all major points.

Perhaps I’m just being glib, especially in that last sentence. But if there’s a point to all this, perhaps it is this: arranging ideas in a way that is structured, sensible, and logical leads to an effective piece of writing. This successful arrangement can be thought of as a shape—whether it be an inverted pyramid or a regular pyramid (both of which are discussed in this handout from Yale).

However, I like visualizing the shape of an essay as making use of the double-helix iconography of DNA, and my explanation for this, by necessity and by my own lack of knowledge of the actual science behind DNA, may grate upon the ears of those who know more about this.

Imagine, for instance, the main ideas of each of your paragraphs as the bridges (or what are known as base pairs) that bind together the strands that form the backbones of DNA. Consider those two backbones as your thesis and conclusion. One strategy that I suggest to students when they revise their essay is to highlight their topic sentences and to embolden their thesis statement and concluding remark because I believe that visualizing ideas this way helps writers recognize whether their ideas are held together by a structure. Seeing these marked lines reminds me of DNA.

Again, this figuration is naïve and has little basis in actual science. (Exploring the double-helix structure of DNA on the Internet as I write this makes my head dizzy as I swim through words like phosphodiester and pyrimidines.) But I do like thinking that the stuff that makes us up, our DNA, also could describe (at least visually) the stuff of ideas in writing. Or, from another perspective, that the molecules that form the structure of an essay are its ideas—and for an essay’s argument to come alive, its molecules must come together coherently and shape themselves elegantly—like DNA.