Once you understand the assignment, your next task is to find data relevant to meeting it. The word data makes some humanists flinch, but we need a word that distinguishes all the facts, quotations, references, etc. that might support your specific claim or point. All the information related to your assignment is data; data becomes evidence when you use it to convince your readers to agree with your point. For data to become evidence in a particular argument, a writer must explicitly contextualize it as relevant to the central claim (or to sub-claims). Data becomes evidence when, therefore, it exemplifies a writer’s point. We will not take the time here to discuss the processes of close reading and data selection, thinking about what you have gathered, analyzing it, and discovering the point or claim that you want to make and support. Every assignment will ask you to look at your readings in a different way, and every text you read will raise its own problems of interpretation and analysis. In fact, that is what most of your classes are about: selecting and analyzing data (generously understood as the language, numbers, and the visual or auditory representations you’re engaged with), and arriving at a plausible and interesting conclusion about them.
The best generic advice we can give is this:
- Go through your readings once and mark everything you think plausibly relevant to answering the assignment.
- So that you can get a sense of it all, go through a second time, skimming what you have highlighted.
- Go through a third time, making note of terms, phrases, and/or passages that seem most central to your assignment. Try to assign each passage a key word that will help you sort them later.
- Now try to categorize those passages according to how they might support different points—which ones support one point, and which others support another point. (Spend the time it takes to find data that might support various, even opposing, points. You need such data so that you can critically balance one point against another).
- Jot down what you think are the central concepts that emerge from this analysis.
- To these central concepts attach subsidiary concepts. Note the kinds of relationships that the subsidiary concepts have to the central concepts and to one another: cause and effect, similarity, contrast, more important/less important; earlier/later in time, and so on. Spend time playing with these relationships. Make lists of the central concepts, order and re-order them, find categories and subcategories.
- Then, create a working outline or sketch around topics suggested by your categories of evidence.
At this point, you may have a fairly clear idea about the point you want to make; more often, you won’t. Either way, if you have even a dim idea about the shape of your general point, prepare to start your first draft.
Styles of Outlining
You may have been told in high school that you needed a detailed outline before you being to draft a paper. For some writers, that’s good advice; for others, it is not. Some writers can’t begin writing until they have a detailed outline consisting of their main point and every subpoint, in the order in which they intend to make them. Other writers need a sketch of some kind, but usually only of topics so that they know what the parts of the paper will likely be and the order in which they will likely appear. You will know which approach is best for you, and you may want to experiment with various approaches to planning. Almost everyone profits from at least a scratch outline or rough sketch that focuses your attention on particular aspects of your paper and in a particular order. A blueprint might look like this:
Harlem Renaissance—art using experience to develop urban identity
African-American art muffled in rural south
Migration north: transforming effect of urban life
Armstrong transforms mainstream song using folk + African elements
Significance of opposition to jazz
Motley transforms painting with bold color, form, and subject (stereotypes?)
Clash of dignified vs. primitive
If you can formulate a complete sentence that captures the central idea in each section you envision, so much the better. But it is likely that you will discover these sentences in the act of drafting, as your thoughts take more definite shape.