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Evolving a Central Claim: Example 1

 

Your central claim (also called a thesis) lies at the heart of your argument. As a contestable and weighty statement, it anchors your essay, encapsulating the most important idea that you will unpack, unveil, and support in your writing. Claims don’t blossom fully formed from the phenomenon under consideration. They evolve, sometimes taking shape from the seed of a mere hunch you have about the object of your study, at other times, becoming more and more refined as you comb through your own and others’ various approaches to the material you’re examining, at still others marking out a distinctive way of understanding a subject. Even if you begin a draft with what seems to be a fine central claim, it is likely that you’ll want to refine it in light of the exact way in which your argument takes shape as you explain your evidence, address others’ positions, and discover what you have to say. Plan to revise your central claim–adjusting key terms, tweaking important verbs, clarifying relationships among its parts–as one of the last steps before your submit a first draft.

How an Initial Idea Evolves to Become a Central Claim

In their Writing Analytically textbook, Writing Studies scholars David Rosenwsasser and Jill Stephens illustrate how a central claim evolves by revealing a set of questions a student writer asks of her object of study. Here is their illustration of that process:

Las Meninas

Velazquez, Diego. Las Meninas. 1656. Oil on canvas. 10′ 5″ x 9 ‘.

Because the writing process is a way not just of recording but of discovering ideas, writers, especially in the early stages of drafting, often set out with one idea or direction in mind and then, in the process of writing, happen upon another, potentially better idea that only begins to emerge in the draft. Once you’re recognized them, these emerging thoughts may lead to your evolving a markedly different central claim, or they may provide you with the means of extending your paper’s original thesis well beyond the point you settled for initially.

Writers undertake this kind of conceptual revision–locating and defining the central claim–in different ways. Some writers rely on repeatedly revising while they work their way through a first draft (which, when finished, will b e close to a final draft). Others move through the first draft without much revision and then comprehensively rethink and restructure it (sometimes two, three, or more times).Whatever mode of revision works best for you, the thinking processes we demonstrate here are central. They are the common denominators of he various stages of the drafting process.

Our means of demonstrating how writers use exploratory writing to locate and develop a workable thesis [central claim] is to take you through the steps a student writer would follow in revising her initial draft on a painting, Las Meninas (Spanish for “the ladies in waiting”) by the seventeenth-century painter, Diego Velázquez. We are using a paper on a painting because all of the writer’s data (the details of the painting) are on one page, allowing you to think with the writer as she develops her ideas.

As you read the draft, watch how the writer goes about developing the claim made at the end of her first paragraph–that, despite its complexity, the painting clearly reveals at least some of the painter’s intentions (referred to elsewhere in the paper as what the painting is saying, what it suggests, or what the painter wants). We have underlined each appearance of potential central claims in the text of the paper.  Using square brackets at the ends of paragraphs, we have described the writer’s methods for arriving at ideas: NOTICE AND FOCUS, THE METHOD, and ASKING “SO WHAT?”

There are a number of good things about this student paper when considered as an exploratory draft. Studying it will help you train yourself to turn a more discriminating eye on your own works in progress, especially in that all-important early stage in which you are writing in order to discover ideas.

 

 A Student’s Work in Progress 

Draft Title: Velázquez’s Intentions in Las Meninas 

Paragraph 1

Velázquez has been noted as being one of the best Spanish artists of all time. It seems that as Velázquez got older, his paintings became better. Toward the end of his life, he painted his masterpiece, Las Meninas. Out of all his works, Las Meninas is the only known self-portrait of Velázquez. There is much to be said about Las Meninas. The painting is very complex, but some of the intentions that Velázquez had in painting Las Meninas are very clear. [The writer opens with background information and a broad working central claim (underlined).] Paragraph 2 First, we must look at the painting as a whole. The question that must be answered is who is in the painting? The people are all members of the Royal Court of the Spanish monarch Philip IV. In the center is the king’s daughter, who eventually became Empress of Spain. Around her are her meninas or ladies-in-waiting. These meninas are all daughters of influential men. To the right of the meninas is a dwarf who is a servant, and the family dog who looks fierce but is easily tamed by the foot of a child. The more unique people in the painting are Velázquez, himself, who stands to the left in front of the canvas; the king and queen, whose faces are captured in the obscure mirror; the man in the doorway; and the nun and man behind the meninas. To analyze this painting further, the relationship between characters must be understood. [The writer describes the evidence and arrives at an operating assertion—focusing on the relationship among characters.]

Paragraph 3

Where is this scene occurring? Most likely it is in the palace. But why is there no visible furniture? Is it because Velázquez didn’t want the viewer to become distracted from his true intentions? I believe it is to show that this is not just a painting of an actual event. This is an event out of his imagination. [The writer begins pushing observations to tentative conclusions by ASKING SO WHAT?] Paragraph 4 Now, let us become better acquainted with the characters. The child in the center is the most visible. All the light is shining on her. Maybe Velázquez is suggesting that she is the next light for Spain and that even God has approved her by shining all the available light on her. Back in those days there was a belief in the divine right of kings, so this just might be what Velázquez is saying. [The writer starts ranking evidence for importance and continues to ask, SO WHAT?; she arrives at a possible interpretation of the painter’s intention.]

Paragraph 5

The next people of interest are the ones behind the meninas. The woman in the habit might be a nun and the man a priest. The king and queen are in the mirror, which is to suggest they are present, but they are not as visible as they might be. Velázquez suggests that they are not always at the center where everyone would expect them to be. [The writer continues using NOTICE AND FOCUS plus asking SO WHAT?; in addition to looking for pattern in the painting’s details, the writer has begun to notice evidence—the minimal presence of the king and queen in the painting—that could complicated her initial interpretation about the divine right of kings.]

Paragraph 6

The last person and the most interesting is Velázquez. He dominates the painting along with the little girl. He takes up the whole left side along with his gigantic easel. But what is he painting? As I previously said, he might be painting the king and queen. But I also think he could be pretending to paint us, the viewers. The easel really gives this portrait an air of mystery because Velázquez knows that we, the viewers, want to know what he is painting. [The writer locates what she finds to be the most significant detail—the size and prominence of the painter.]

Paragraph 7

The appearance of Velázquez is also interesting. His eyes are focused outward here. They are not focused on what is going on around him. It is a steady stare. Also interesting is his confident stance. He was confident enough to place himself in the painting of the royal court. I think that Velázquez wants the king to give him the recognition he deserves by including him in the “family.” And the symbol of his vest is the symbol given to a painter by the king to show that his status and brilliance have been appreciated by the monarch. It is unknown how it got there. It is unlikely that Velázquez put it there himself. That would be too outright, and Velázquez was the type to give his messages subtly. Some say that after Velázquez’s death, King Philip IV himself painted it to finally give Velázquez the credit he deserved for being a loyal friend and servant. [The writer continues to analyze the most significant detail and to ask SO WHAT? about the painter’s appearance; this takes her to three tentative central claims (underlined above).]

Paragraph 8

I believe that Velázquez was very ingenious by putting his thoughts and feelings into a painting. He didn’t want to offend the kind, who had done so much for him. It paid off for Velázquez because he did finally get what he wanted, even if it was after he died. [The writer concludes and is now ready to redraft to tighten links between evidence and claims, formulate a better central claim, and make this central claim evolve.]

 

 

From Details to Ideas: Arriving at a WorkingThesis in an Exploratory Draft

An exploratory draft uses writing as a means of arriving at a working central claim that the next draft can more fully evolve. Most writers find that their best ideas emerge near the end of the exploratory draft, which is the case in this student’s draft (see the three claims underlined in Paragraph 7).

The Las Meninas paper is a good exploratory draft. The writer has begun to interpret details and draw possible conclusions from what she sees, rather than just describing the scene depicted on the canvas or responding loosely to it with her unanalyzed impressions. The move from description to analysis and interpretation begins when you select certain details in your evidence as more important than others and explain what they seem to you to suggest. The writer has done both of these things, and so has gotten to the point where she can begin methodically evolving her initial ideas into a perceptive analysis.

What is especially good about the draft is that it reveals the writer’s willingness to push on from her first idea (reading the painting as an endorsement of the divine right of kings, expressed by the light shining on the princess) by seeking out complicating evidence. The process of revising for ideas begins in earnest when you start checking to make sue that the thesis you have formulated accounts for as much of the available evidence as possible and does not avoid evidence that might complicate or contradict it.

The writer’s first idea (about divine right), for example, does not account for enough of the evidence and is undermined by evidence that clearly doesn’t fit, such as the small size and decentering of the king and queen, and the large size and foregrounding of the painter himself. Rather than ignoring these troublesome details, the writer instead zooms in on them. She focuses on the painter’s representation of himself and of his employers, the king and queen, as the most significant evidence to be taken into account and analyzed in depth.

 

 

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