What Makes Good Writing - The Levels of Resolution
An essay exists at multiple levels. Peterson calls them "levels of resolution." Think of it as though you're looking at an aerial photograph of a particular location. You can view the place at the level of the city, you can zoom in and view a neighborhood, you can zoom in more and see a set of streets, and you can zoom in even more and see specific houses. It's the same idea here.
The levels of resolution in the crafting of an essay, from smallest to largest, are:
- The choice of words
- The formation of sentences
- The arrangement of sentences in a paragraph
- The arrangement of paragraphs in a logical progression, beginning to end
- The essay as a whole
A good essay works at every one of those levels simultaneously. Each word should be precisely chosen to fit your meaning. The words should be composed in the proper order in your sentences, expressing a thought. The sentences in the proper sequence should express the idea of your paragraph. The paragraphs should be arranged so there is a logical progression of your argument. And the essay as a whole should be interesting, important, and a strong defense of your thesis.
The template will help you achieve this with steps that craft and shape the essay at all the levels of resolution.
I. Choose a Topic, Make a Reading List, and Take Notes
Choose a topic
The purpose of an essay is to answer a central question; this is the topic. Make a list of your potential topic questions, either the ones you've been assigned to choose from or the ones you've thought up. If you are unsure of what topic to choose, you can start with constructing a relevant reading list of books and articles. Reading may lead you to your topic question.
Here is Peterson's list of some potential topic questions:
- Does evil exist?
- Are all cultures equally worthy of respect?
- How should a man and a woman treat each other in a relationship?
- What, if anything, makes a person good?
- What were the key events of Julius Caesar's rule?
- What are the critical elements of Charles Darwin's theory of evolution?
- Is "The Sun Also Rises," by Ernest Hemingway, an important book?
- How might Carl Jung and Sigmund Freud's theory of the psyche be contrasted?
- How did Newton and Einstein differ in their conceptualization of time?
- Was the recent Iraq war just or unjust?
Make a reading list
Your reading list will consist of books and articles that you will use in your research of the topic question. If you're not sure what you should read, you can start with encyclopedia or Wikipedia articles and look at their reference lists for ideas. Or if you have a text you know you want to use, take note of who that author refers to. This can lead to a web of other sources.
Rule of thumb: Assume you need 5-10 books or articles per 1,000 words of essay, unless instructed otherwise.
While you are reading the items on your reading list, take note of anything that catches your attention. Don't highlight or underline. (That doesn't work.) Read a bit, then write down what you have learned or any questions that arise. Don't copy word for word. Summarizing in your own words gets you to learn and understand what you've read. From your notes, if you haven't already, derive a list of potential topic questions.
Rule of thumb: Take about 2 to 3 times as many notes by word as you will need for your essay. To write about something intelligently you must know more than what you eventually will communicate.
II. Make an Outline
The outline is the skeleton of the essay and provides its fundamental form. It structures the argument. An essay that is 1,000 words requires a 10 sentence outline. If your essay length requirement is much longer, generally don't make the outline longer than 15 sentences. Beyond that, it becomes more difficult to keep track of the entirety of your argument. Instead make sub-outlines for primary outline sentences if you need to.
Here is a sample outline Peterson provides:
- Topic: Who was Abraham Lincoln?
- Why is Abraham Lincoln worthy of remembrance?
- What were the crucial events of his childhood?
- Of his adolescence?
- Of his young adulthood?
- How did he enter politics?
- What were his major challenges?
- What were the primary political and economic issues of his time?
- Who were his enemies?
- How did he deal with them?
- What were his major accomplishments?
- How did he die?
Here is another one with sub-outlines for a longer, 3000-word essay:
- Topic: What is capitalism?
- How has capitalism been defined?
- Author 1
- Author 2
- Author 3
- Where and when did capitalism develop?
- Country 1
- Country 2
- How did capitalism develop in the first 50 years after its origin?
- How did capitalism develop in the second 50 years after its origin?
- (Repeat as necessary)
- Historical precursors?
- (choose as many centuries as necessary)
- Advantages of capitalism?
- Wealth generation
- Technological advancement
- Personal freedom
- Disadvantages of capitalism?
- Unequal distribution
- Pollution and other externalized costs
- Alternatives to capitalism?
- Consequences of these alternatives?
- Potential future developments?
III. Write Paragraphs
Write 10-15 sentences per outline heading to complete your paragraphs. Use your notes. You may find as you're writing that you need more subdivisions in your outline. You can work back and forth between changing the outline and your sentences.
For the first draft, don't worry too much about the quality of the writing and the grammar and sentence structure. Write first, then edit. It's more difficult to do both at the same time because the two processes interfere with each other.
Rule of thumb: your first draft should be 25% longer than your final draft. This will give you material to throw away during the editing process. Doing this, you will learn how to evaluate your ideas and keep only the good ones.
Rule of thumb: each paragraph in your final draft should be about 10 sentences or 100 words long. If your paragraph is much shorter than this, that is a sign that your idea isn't substantial enough. If your paragraph is much longer, it's a sign you have multiple ideas going and need to split them into separate paragraphs.
IV. Edit Your Sentences
By now you should have your first draft. Congratulations!
Working paragraph by paragraph, take each one of your sentences and write a better version of it. Peterson advises you place each sentence on its own line and write the revised version underneath.
Liberal and conservative thinkers stress efficiency of production, as well as quality, and consider profit the motive for efficiency.
Liberal and conservative thinkers alike stress the importance of quality and efficiency, and see them as properly rewarded by profit.
How to make your sentences better:
- Make your sentences shorter and simpler, eliminating all unnecessary words. See if you can cut each sentence by 15-25%.
- Make sure each word is precisely the right word to express your meaning. Don't use vocabulary you haven't fully mastered.
- Read each sentence aloud and listen to how it sounds. If it sounds awkward, try saying it a different way, then write that down.
After you've revised each sentence, bring them together again to form the new version of each paragraph.
V. Re-order Your Sentences
Within each paragraph, see if your sentences are in the best possible order. Get rid of any sentences that are no longer necessary. Peterson again suggests you place each sentence on its own line, so you can visualize the order and easily cut and paste them into a better order.
VI. Re-order Your Paragraphs
At this point, you may find that the order of the sub-topics in your original outline is no longer appropriate and may need to be re-ordered so the essay flows in the best, most logical progression. Move the corresponding paragraphs until they are in the most appropriate order.
VII. Make a New Outline
By now you should have a pretty good second draft. This next step will take your essay to the next level. First, read your essay in full. Next, try to write a NEW outline of 10-15 sentences. DON'T LOOK BACK AT YOUR ESSAY WHILE YOU DO THIS!!! If you have to, go back and re-read the entire essay again. The purpose of this step is to force yourself to reconstruct your argument from memory. Generally, when you remember something, you simplify it and retain only what is most important. Doing this, you will remove what is useless and keep what is vital.
Now with your new outline, look to your most recently completed draft, and copy and paste material from the draft into the new outline. You may discover you don't need everything you wrote before. Continue to throw away unnecessary material.
Once you have finished cutting and pasting your old material into your new outline, copy the newly constructed essay into a new Word document.
VIII. Repeat Editing Process
To continue improving your essay, you can repeat the process of re-writing and re-ordering your sentences, re-ordering your paragraphs, and re-outlining. It is a good idea to wait a few days before doing this, so you can come back to your work with fresh eyes.
Continue editing until you cannot improve your essay any further. Generally, you can tell this is the case if you try to rewrite a sentence or paragraph, and you are not sure if the new version is an improvement over the original.
IX. Add References, Construct a Bibliography
In your essay, if a sentence contains a fact or particular idea you've picked up from something you've read, you need a reference to the source. This usually takes the form of a parenthetical at the end of the sentence with the author's last name and the year the source was published.
Your sources must be listed in a bibliography or works cited page. A bibliography contains all works consulted for your essay. A works cited page contains only the works directly referenced. Your teacher may ask for one or the other.
X. Format Your Essay
Lastly, format your essay properly. Generally this means double-spaced text, 12 pt. font, with tabbed indents before each paragraph.
Peterson ends his writing guide with this encouraging note:
"If you write a number of essays using this process, you will find that your thinking will become richer and clearer, and so will your conversation. There is nothing more vital to becoming educated, and there is nothing more vital than education to your future, and the future of those around you. Good luck with your newly organized and refreshed mind."