Developing Thoughts; Organizing Writing

October 11, 2019

Writing primers or writing instruction may offer advice about how to create coherence in essays by identifying the key transitions used to indicate relationships: adding; comparing and contrasting; creating emphases; identifying cause and effect or conditions.

It is an important first step: describing what transitions are and then demonstrating how they are used by giving examples.

But this approach requires supplemental learning or instruction: identifying what transitions to use and what relationships matter in the first place means creating “distinctions” as part of a Critical Thinking process.

Critical Thinking

Meaning making relies on our ability to identify key distinctions.

Reflect, for a moment, on various modes of movement: wiggling, walking, running, driving, flying, riding a donkey and a horse. Our ability to make sense of the foregoing list depends upon a series of decisions we are making: how to identify commonalities and differences between items we list. Although it is true that all elements on the list are common as they all suggest movement, the category of movement is too broad, and the elements in that category too different to make sense of the list as a whole. On a merely intuitive basis, we might recognize how some elements of the list seem to belong, and others not: How would we connect riding a donkey with flying? In order to make better sense of the list: we have to make distinctions among fewer elements which we select.

We may decide that almost all the elements on the list belong under a common category of “locomotor.” You might have to google locomotor in order to find a definition: a machine, animal, or human that moves from one place to another. On the basis of that definition, I excluded wiggling, which we identify as constituting a key difference or a distinction: movement in place is distinct from movement from place to place.

Locomotor might be a concept you are not intuitively familiar with. From a more commonsensical approach: we might group wiggling, running and walking; driving and flying; riding a donkey and a horse.

The first grouping depends on recognizing the common likeness between wiggling, walking and running: we may group them under the heading of a human activity. The second grouping requires the operation of a machine. The third highlights the aid of an animal facilitating human movement. The grouping recognizes that the elements that belong under a significant group or category are more alike than they are different or distinct.

Alternatively we may decide to group running, walking, driving and flying as common ways of achieving mobility in a post-industrial world, and then decide that riding horses and donkeys would be distinct, no longer common modes of transporting humans from place to place.

It may seem natural to create these groupings, but unconsciously, we are creating the distinctions that make each grouping meaningful. What counts as locomotor movement (walking, running) vs. simply moving in place (wiggling); what movement is achieved by distinct agents: human vs machine vs animal movement; how do we differentiate between common modes of mobility in a pre- vs post-industrial age.

In fact, meaning depends on the distinctions we make. An essay on locomotion will address a very different subject than one on modes of mobility in a post-industrial world. The first may depend upon an understanding of physiology and anatomy, the other on culture and history.

Or even on how culture and history teach us to distinguish between animal, human, and machine.

Some of the distinctions we make are based on knowledge we already have. Others require specialized, academic knowledge.

Critical Reading

How does this understanding of critical thinking or meaning making translate to reading?

In order to interpret what a text means, you look for patterns and then work to make sense of the pattern. For example, you might notice that Jennifer Worth’s  Call the Midwife seems to offer multiple examples of mobility (what your instructors might then signal to you is important by suggesting that those examples form  a “theme.”)

Let’s collect some of them.

Bachelors own what they call Lady Chatterley’s car, so-named because it is associated with D. H. Lawrence’s novel, Lady Chatterley’s Lover about sexual freedom in general. The bachelors use the car, based on its meaning in the novel, as a symbol of the freedom of middle-class, post-adolescent male characters from the demands of married life. It is a house on wheels with its own flower pot and a knocker, but as a moving house it is used for sexual liaisons on the fly.

Working-class mothers use prams to cart their infants from place to place in Docklands, an East End community of London, but they also use those same prams to carry and deliver household goods they have purchased. The prams are a symbol of maternity.

Mrs Jenkins is an odd-fixture in the Docklands. She was once a working-class mother, but she isn’t a motherany longer, nor does she work. Instead, she travels on foot from one child-birth to another. Her ragged shoes seem to facilitate her travel from place to place, but they bring her unceasingly to multiple scenes of child-birth on which she is fixated as she has lost all of her own children. The shoes are a sign of her psychological impairment: being hobbled by the past that she cannot move beyond.

These various examples of mobility form a theme, but in assessing their relevance as a group in forming the theme, you must be able to understand not just their literal meaning (travel or movement by car, pram, foot) but also their symbolic significance.

A car may mean “sexual freedom.” A pram may mean “maternal responsibility.”

The last example is the most challenging: shoes, like prams and cars, do facilitate movement, but the movement leads to the same place again and again. And because it does, you need to shift your focus away from the meaning of the shoes to the context: being stuck in place.

The challenge here is double: moving from something concrete (shoes); to something abstract (movement).

Then understanding a paradox: how something that facilitates physical movement could in fact suggest, in context, its opposite: stasis, psychological inflexibility.

Applying Critical Thinking to Reading

How might I create the distinctions between the examples that would help me make sense of them?

I might find some commonalities between the examples of Mrs. Chatterley’s car and the pram and the shoes: on a literal level they all suggest movement.

What the examples of the prams and Lady Chatterly’s car also share, on a symbolic level, is that they are expressive of the characters’ attitudes towards married life.

However, they are also distinct: the car may suggest liberation from the norms of marriage for single middle-class men, whereas the pram suggests how women are tied down to marital norms. But they are not so distinct that I can't figure out how they relate to each other. Single middle-class men are exempt from the norms of marriage that working class women aren't.

On a symbolic level, it’s harder to join them all three of the examples on the basis of some commonality.

In considering an essay on the theme of literal movement or mobility, Mrs. Jenkins shoes might first seem like an apt candidate alongside the car and the prams. But on a symbolic level, Mrs. Jenkins’ shoes suggest psychological impairment or trauma. Nothing about the prams or Mrs. Chatterly’s car would allow them to be grouped with the shoes on this psychological basis. On a symbolic level the shoes just don't "fit."

It’s entirely possible that you would not be able to explain how the example of the shoes “fits” or doesn’t fit especially in the abstract terms used above. But even without that level of thinking, you may only notice that Mrs Jenkins, once a mother, now not a mother, and shoes don't join together like the other pairings between actor (bachelor, mother) and vehicle (car, pram) do. That’s another sign that the example of Mrs Jenkins does not offer us the opportunity to make a meaningful distinction. In other words, it is so distinct that it is an outlier.

Representing the Results in Writing

Now we must present those distinctions we’ve decided matter in writing, via an organization. And that organization depends first and foremost on learning how to compare and contrast.

The distinctions we've created helps to understand the meaning of mobility in the text, and also helps to organize the essay which we may build around a contrast:

Whereas Lady Chatterley’s car facilitates the escape of middle-class bachelors from the demands of marriage, the prams represent the enduring claims of marriage and motherhood on working-class women.

The prams may allow for some actual movement outside of the household affording a limited freedom, but women use the prams only to perform maternal duties to which they are tied.

Here the contrast presents a series of distinctions:

  1. Escape from middle-class life on the part of bachelors vs the claims of marriage and motherhood on working-class women;
  2. Literal meaning of the prams suggesting limited mobility outside the household vs the symbolic meaning of prams connected to an enduring duty.

Let’s observe how one of these contrasts work in practice as a transition between two paragraphs:

Whereas Lady Chatterley’s car facilitates the escape of middle-class bachelors from the demands of marriage, the prams represent the enduring claims of marriage and motherhood on working-class women.

A first paragraph would address how Lady Chatterley’s car facilitates the escape of middle-class bachelors from the demands of marriage.

A second would address how the prams represent the enduring claims of marriage and motherhood on working-class women.

And the transition (a contrast between the first and two ideas) would function to build a bridge between them.

It’s true that we only have two paragraphs and not an entire essay. How we might develop a more substantial essay depends upon building on what we already have, creating more additional and relevant distinctions.