Six Steps for Finding and Evolving a Central Claim
In their Writing Analytically, David Rosenwasser and Jill Stephen, outline six steps for evolving a central claim. Getting the central claim to respond more fully to evidence, either by formulating a mostly new central claim and beginning again, or by modifying the existing thesis, is the primary activity of conceptual revision (as opposed to correcting and editing). Your aim here is not to go round and round forever, but to go back and forth between thesis and evidence, evidence and thesis, allowing each, in turn, to adjust how you see the other, until you find the best possible fit between the two. The central claim not only directs a writer’s way of looking at evidence; the analysis of evidence should also direct and redirect—bring about revision—of the central claim.
What follow is a six-step guide for formulating and reformulating a central claim. As an overarching guideline, allow your central claim to run up against potentially conflicting evidence in order to build upon and revise your initial idea, extending the range of evidence it can accurately account for by clarifying and qualifying its key terms.
Let’s trace these steps using the student’s work on Velázquez’s Las Meninas
Go through your draft and underline potential central claims. View the presence of multiple, perhaps even competing, claims as an opportunity rather than a problem. In an exploratory draft, a range of interpretations of evidence constitutes raw material, the record of your thinking that might be developed in a more finished draft.
In the Las Meninas paper no single idea emerges clearly as the central claim. Instead, the writer has arrived (in Paragraph 7) at three related but not entirely compatible ideas:
“I think the king wants to. . .”
Central claim 1: give Velázquez “the recognition he deserves by including him in the ‘family’.”
Central claim 2: show that Velázquez’s status and brilliance [as an artist] have been appreciated.
Central claim 3: give Velázquez “the credit he deserved for being a loyal friend and servant.”
These three ideas about the painter’s intentions could be made to work together, but at present the writer is left with an uneasy fit among them. In order to resolve the tension among her possible thesis statements, the writer appears to have settled on “I think that Velázquez wants the king to give him the recognition he deserves by including him in the family.” This idea follows logically from a number of the details the writer has focused on, so it is viable as a working thesis—the one that she will, in revision, test against potentially complicating evidence and evolve.
It helps that the writer has specified her interpretive context—the painter’s intentions—because a writer’s awareness of her interpretive context makes it much easier for her to decide which details to prioritize and what kind of questions to ask about them. A different interpretive context for the Las Meninas paper, such as the history of painting techniques or the social structure of seventeenth-century royal households, would have caused the writer to emphasize different details and arrive different conclusions about their possible significance.
The success of analytical arguments often depends on a writer’s ability to persuade readers of the appropriateness of her choice of interpretive context. And so it is important for writers to ask and answer the question “In what context might my subject best be understood and why?”
It is okay, by the way, that the writer has not concerned herself prematurely with organization, introductions, and transitions. She has instead allowed her draft to move freely from idea to idea as these occurred to her. She might have come up with the useful ideas in Paragraph 7 had she pressed herself to commit to any one idea (the divine right of kings idea, for example) too soon.
Notice that this writer has prompted a sequence of thought by using the word “interesting”. Repeated use of this word as a transition would not be adequate in a final draft because it encourages listing without explicit connections among claims or explanations of how each claim evolved into the next. In an exploratory draft, however, the word “interesting” keep the writer’s mind open to possibilities and allows her to try on various claims without worrying prematurely about whether her tentative claims are right or wrong.
The writer of the Las Meninas paper has offered at least some evidence in support of her working central claim, “Velázquez wants the king to give him the recognition he deserves by including him in the family.” She notes the symbol on the painter’s vest, for example, which she says might have been added later by the king to show that the painter’s “status and brilliance have been appreciated.” She implies that the painter’s “confident stance” and “steady stare” also support her central claim. Notice, however, that she has not spelled out her reasons for making this connection between her evidence and her claim.
Nor has she corroborated her claim about this evidence with other evidence that could lend more support to her idea. Interesting, the potential central claims advanced in Paragraph 7 are not connected with the rather provocative details she has noted earlier in the draft: that “Velázquez dominates the painting along with the little girl,” that he “takes up the whole left side along with his gigantic easel,” and that “the king and queen are not as visible as they might be” suggesting that “they are not always at the center where everyone would expect them to be.”
In revision the writer would need to find more evidence in support of her claim and make the links between evidence and claims more explicit. She would also need to tackle the complicating evidence that she leaves dangling earlier.
This is a key step in evolving a central claim—pursuing the piece or pieces of evidence that do not clearly fit with the working central claim, explaining why they don’t fit, and determining what their significance might actually be. For this purpose, the writer would need to zoom in on the details of her evidence that she describes in her draft.
- So what that there are size differences in the painting? What might large or small size mean?
- So what that the king and queen are small, but the painter, princess, and dwarf (another servant) are all large and fairly equal in size and/or prominence?
Proposed answer: Perhaps the king and queen have been reduced so that Velázquez can showcase their daughter, the princess.
Test of this answer: The size and location of the princess (center foreground) seems to support this answer, as does the princess being catered to by the ladies in waiting. But, if the painting is meant to showcase the princess, what is the point of the painter’s having made himself so large?
Another possible answer: Perhaps the small size and lack of physical prominence of the king and queen are relatively unimportant, in which case, what matters is that they are a presence, always overseeing events (an idea implied but not developed by the writer).
Test of this answer: Further support for this answer comes from the possibility that we are meant to see the king and queen as reflected in a mirror on the back wall of the painter’s studio (an idea the writer mentions), in which case they would be standing in front of the scene depicted in the painting, literally overseeing events.There isn’t much evidence against this answer, except, again, for the large size of the painter, and the trivializing implications of the king’s and queen’s dimunition, but these are significant exceptions.
Another possible answer: Perhaps the painter is demonstrating his own ability to make the king and queen any size—any level of importance—he chooses. The king and queen are among the smallest as well as the least visible figures in the painting. Whether they are being exhibited as an actual painting on the back wall of the painter’s studio (a possibility the writer has not mentioned) or whether they appear as reflections in a small mirror on that back wall, they certainly lack stature in the painting in comparison with the painter, who is not only larger and more prominent than they are but also who, as the writer notes “dominates the painting along with the little girl.” The little girl is the princess, herself, and the supposed subject of the painting within the painting that Velázquez is working on.
Test: This answer about the painter demonstrating his control of the representation of the kind and queen seems credible. It has the most evidence in its favor and the least evidence to contradict it. The writer would probably want to choose this idea and would need to reformulate her central claim to better accommodate it.
On the basis of the writer’s answers in Step 3, it would appear that rather than showcasing royal power, the painting showcases the painter’s own power. This idea is not a clear fit with the writer’s working central claim about the painter’s intentions, that “Velázquez wants the kind to give him the recognition he deserves by including him in the family.” So, what should the writer do?
What she should not do is beat a hasty retreat from her working central claim. She should use the complicating evidence to qualify, rather than abandon, her initial idea, which did, after all, have some evidence in its favor. Good writing shares with readers the thinking process that carried the writer forward from one idea to the next.
The writer’s evolved central claim would need to qualify the idea of the painter wishing to be recognized as a loyal servant and accepted member of the family (which are, themselves, not entirely compatible ideas), since there is evidence in the painting suggesting a more assertive stance on the part of Velázquez about the importance of painters and their art.
The writer is now ready to pursue the next step in the revision process: looking actively for other features of the painting that might corroborate her theory. This takes us to Step 5, the last step the writer would need to go through before composing a more polished draft.
The need to find additional corroboration is especially pressing for this writer because her new central claim that the painting demonstrates the artist’s power—not just his brilliance and desire for recognition—suggests an interpretation of the painting that would be unusual for an era in which most other court paintings flattered royal figures by portraying them as larger than life, powerful and heroic.
It is unlikely that any one central claim will explain all of the details in a subject, but a reasonable test of the value of one possible claim over another is how much of the relevant evidence it can explain. So the writer would try to apply her new central claim to details in the painting that have not yet received much attention, such as the painter himself with the large dwarf on the other side of the painting.
This pairing of dwarf and painter might initially seem to spell trouble for the new central claim about the painter demonstrating his power to frame the way the monarchs are represented. If it was, in fact, the painter’s intention to have his power recognized, why would he want to parallel himself—in size, placement, and facial expression—with dwarf who is, presumably, a fairly low-level servant of the royal household, unlike the meninas, who are the daughters of aristocrats? SO WHAT? that the dwarf is parallel with the painter?
The writer might argue that the dwarf suggests a visual pun or riddle, demonstrating that in the painter’s world the small can be made large (and vice versa, in the case of the king and queen). No longer “dwarfed” by his subordinate role as court painter, Velázquez stands tall. If this reading is correct, and if it is true, as the writer suggests, that Prince Philip himself later had the honorary cross added to Velázquez’s vest, we might assume that the king either entirely missed or was able to appreciate the painter’s wit.
Similarly, another of the writer’s key observations—that the painter “plays” with viewer’s expectations—fits with the central claim that the painting asks for recognition of the artist’s power, not just his loyal service. In subverting viewers’ expectations both by decentering the monarchs and concealing what is on the easel, the painter again emphasizes his power, in this case, over the viewers (among whom might be the king and queen if their images on the back wall are mirror reflections of them standing, like us, in front of the painting). He is not bound by their expectations, and in fact appears to use those expectations to manipulate viewers: he could make them wish to see something he has the power to withhold.
It is tempting at the end of the exploratory writing process for the writer to simply eliminate all the ideas and analysis that did not support her final choice of central claim. Why should you include all six steps when you know what the best version of your central claim is going to be?
Good analytical writing is collaborative. To a significant extent, good writing recreates for readers the thinking process that produced its conclusions. It shares with readers how a writer arrives at ideas, not just what the writer ultimately thinks. It takes readers along on a cognitive journey through the process of formulating and reformulating that results in a carefully qualified statement of ideas. Having made the trip, readers are more likely to appreciate the explanatory power of the most fully articulated statement of the central claim.
In a final draft, a writer can capture for readers the phases of thinking she went through by, for example, wording the central claim as a SEEMS TO BE ABOUT X claim (SEEMS TO BE ABOUT X, BUT IS REALLY—OR ALSO—ABOUT Y.) This wording would allow the writer of the Las Meninas paper to share with readers the interesting shift she makes from the idea that the painting promotes the divine right of kings to the idea that it also endorses the power of the painter to cause people to see royalty in this light (a visual pun, as the light on the princess is actually produced by the painter’s brush).
The writer could also set up a central claim that puts X in tension with Y, while granting some validity to both. In this case, X (the painter wanting to be recognized as a member of the family) would serve as back pressure todrive Y (the painter wanting to demonstrate, tongue-in-cheek, the power of painters).
In an inductively organized paper, you would begin with a working central claim somewhat closer to the final version of the thesis that was the case in the exploratory draft, but you wuld still take the readers along on your step-by-step journey to your conclusions. In a deductively organized paper, wherein the central claim must appear from the outset in something close to its full version, you would still be able to show your readers how your thinking evolved. The writer of the Las Meninas paper could do this by beginning with details that seem to obviously support the central claim (large size and prominence of the painter and his easel relative to the king and queen) and then move to details (such as the large dwarf) that readers would be less likely to connect with the central claim without her help.