As I was working my way through a stack of twenty-six literary analysis papers this weekend (I know – don’t ask. It’s my own fault for letting students in over the enrollment cap.), I spent a lot of time thinking about what I and many other English teachers refer to as “the so what question.”
The so what question distinguishes the outstanding papers from the competent ones. The so what question, as its name implies, simply looks at the interpretive claim you’re making and asks, “So what?”
Three other ways to phrase the so what question are as follows: What is significant about your claim? How does this enrich my understanding? What are the implications of your claim? In each case, the reader is asking the writer to look beyond his or her own navel and connect the paper’s idea to a larger conversation in which both the writer and the reader are stakeholders.
When you’re in an academic writing situation, it’s easy to think of your job in terms of completing assigned work (or, to put it more bluntly, earning a grade). And of course you are doing that. But paper assignments ask you to think of your writing as a scholarly endeavor, a chance to share your interpretation of (in this case) a literary text with your peers and to persuade them of your claim’s validity. The most compelling interpretations are the ones in which the reader feels that the writer’s claim is significant, that it matters. The so what question asks you to explore your claim’s larger stakes in the hopes of uncovering significance.
As I was contemplating the importance of the so what question, I realized that the so what question itself had broader implications. Imagining your reader looking at your writing and asking “So what?” can be beneficial in myriad writing situations.
For example, at work, asking the so what question can help you focus on your document’s importance to its stakeholders, whether colleagues, supervisors, or clients. It could also help you streamline emails, focusing on the message’s importance to the recipient.
Even the creative writing world could benefit from a healthy dose of “So what?” Asking the so what question could keep you focused on a complex scene’s driving force and prevent it from getting lost in extraneous details or vague dialogue. Bloggers can also focus on a post’s relevance to readers.
Considering the larger stakes of the way in which we spend and allocate our resources – including our time – could potentially be the best way to use the so what question. Demanding significance from our daily lives (thinking, for example, I’m watching Battlestar Galactica right now, but does this expenditure of time have a solid “so what?”) could revolutionize our sense of living consciously.
The so what question is powerful. I’ll warn you, though, that the so what question is often difficult to answer. Larger, what-does-it-all-mean questions often are. In fact, the modifier I hear most often applied to the so what question is “dreaded,” as in The Dreaded “So What” Question. (Cue the dramatic music.) But, as I encourage my students, we can do hard things. And the hard-won answers, when they come, are sometimes the most significant of all.
If you like what you read, I hope you’ll become a regular reader by subscribing to Writing Power’s RSS feed. In addition, please consider sharing your favorite posts through sites like digg, StumbleUpon, or del.icio.us using the “Share This” link below. Thank you for your support!
This entry was posted in The Power of Writing and tagged significance, so what, thesis, writing. Bookmark the permalink.
Look for images or metaphors that the author uses consistently. What other sort of pattern can you identify in the text? How do you interpret this pattern so that your reader will understand the book, essay, poem, speech, etc. better?
What philosophical, moral, ethical, etc. ideas is the author advocating or opposing? What are the consequences of accepting the author's argument?
Explain how the work functions as a piece of rhetoric--how does the author attempt to convince his or her reader of something? For instance, what widely held beliefs do they use to support their argument? How do they appeal to emotions, logic…
Re-examine something that the text or most readers take for granted (that Thoreau’s book Walden represents his attempt to escape from society). Question this major premise and see where it takes you
Ask yourself if an author’s literary argument is inconsistent with itself or is in some way philosophically "dangerous," inadequate, unethical, or misleading.
Examine how characters are presented in a story. How do they help the main character to develop? Which characters are trustworthy? Which are not? Why are they presented this way?
Structure: How the parts of the book or essay follow one another; how the parts are assembled to make a whole? Why does the author start where they start, end where they end? What is the logical progression of thought? How might that progression be intended to affect the reader What effect might this progression of ideas have on a generic reader or on a reader from the time period in which the work was written? Does the piece move from the general to the specific or vice versa?
If you could divide the book/essay into sections, units of meaning, what would those sections be? How are they related to each other? Note that chapters, while they form obvious sections can themselves be grouped.
Referring to the text: In writing analytic papers that address any kind of literature, it is necessary to refer to the text (the specific words on the page of the book) in order to support your argument. This means that you must quote and interpret passages that demonstrate or support your argument. Quotation is usually stronger than paraphrase. Remember also that your purpose in writing an essay is not merely to paraphrase or summarize (repeat) what the author has said, but to make an argument about how the make their point, or how they have said what they have said.
Language: includes the way an author phrases his or her sentences, the key metaphors used (it’s up to you to explain how these metaphors are used, why these metaphors are appropriate, effective, ineffective, or ambiguous). Is the way a sentence is phrased particularly revealing of the author’s meaning?
Please title your paper and make the title apt and enticing--I LOVE a good title. It puts me in a good mood before I start reading.
Be clear about whether you’re writing about a book, an essay (non-fiction, short prose), a story (short fiction) a poem, a novel (book-length fiction), an autobiography, a narrative (as in Captivity Narratives) etc. Walden is a book comprised of chapters. Each of these chapters could also be called an essay. Within these essays, Thoreau sometimes tells stories. The book itself is not a story, but closer to a narrative, which is non-fiction.
Always go through at least two drafts of you paper. Let your paper sit, preferably for 24 hours between drafts sometime during the process of your writing.
Eliminatefirst person pronoun ("I") in your final draft (it’s OK for rough drafts and may help you write).
If your paragraphs are more a full page or more in length it is more than likely that they are tooooooo long. Probably you have too many ideas "in the air" at once. Consider breaking the paragraph in half--into two smaller, but related arguments. Your reader needs a break, needs more structure in order to be able to follow your meaning.
If several of your paragraphs are exceedingly short (4-5 lines), it is likely that you are not developing your ideas thoroughly enough--that you are writing notes rather than analysis. Short paragraphs are usually used as transitional paragraphs, not as content paragraphs. (Short paragraphs can be used in the rhetorical devise of reversal where you lead your reader down a certain path (to show them one side of the argument, the one you are going to oppose) and then turn away from that argument to state the true argument of your paper.)
Employ quotation often.One quotation per argumentative paragraph is usually necessary. Depending upon the length and complexity of the passage or topic you're dealing with, more quotations may be useful to prevent you from getting too far away from the text. Your quotations combined with your interpretations are your proof. Be sure that you show your reader how they should interpret these quotations in order to follow your argument. (Almost every quotation should be followed by an interpretation, a deeper reading of what is being said and how its being said. This interpretation demonstrates how the quotation supports the claim you're making about it). Pay attention to metaphor, phrasing, tone, alliteration, etc. How is the author saying what they are saying--what does that teach us about the text?
Remember to write directive (sometimes called "topic") sentences for your paragraphs. The first sentence of any paragraph should give your reader an idea of what the paragraph is going to say and how the paragraph will connect to the larger argument. It should have more to do with what you have to say about the materials than what the author him or herself has said.
Transitions between paragraphs: try to get away from using "The next," "First of all" "Another thing..." to connect your paragraphs. This is the "list" method of structuring a paper--not an integrated, logical approach. A really strong transition makes the logical connection between paragraphs or sections of a paper and gives the reader a sense that you’re building an argument. To make sure you are making a well-connected argument, ask yourself how the last sentence of each paragraph and the first sentence of the next are connected. Each of the sentences within your paragraphs should be related somehow (follow from, refer to, etc.) the one that precedes it, and the one which follows it. This will help the reader follow the flow of your ideas. The order of your paragraphs should reveal a developing argument.
On the most basic level, you should be able to consciously justify the presence and placement of every word in every sentence, every sentence in every paragraph, every paragraph in every essay. To repeat: in revising your papers after the first draft (which is always, inevitably to some degree confused because you are involved in the process of working your ideas out), you should be highly conscious of what you are doing and why you are doing it.