Beyond ABC: Going Deeper with a Subject

Here’s a handout I just put together for my ENG 101 class when I realized (after more than a decade of teaching!) that my students might not know what I mean when I tell them to “go deeper” with a subject.

Frequently, a teacher will respond to an essay by saying that the author could stand to “go deeper” with an argument or discussion. What this frequently means is that the student has done a decent job of explaining the facts of a given topic or issue but hasn’t fully explored that issue. It can also mean that the student has only discussed what might be described as “obvious” or superficial concepts associated with the issue at hand but hasn’t really done anything interesting with the material or explained something that the reader might not have already known. One way of describing this problem is to say that the author has sacrificed breadth for depth.

Imagine, for example, that you’ve decided to write an essay about Facebook, and you’ve narrowed your subject down to the subject of marketing products and services on Facebook. Let’s further assume that you’ve personally had some good experiences with marketing a your band’s music on Facebook and that you’ve come to the conclusion that Facebook is a great marketing tool. Although this is a decent place to start, it runs the risk of leading to a paper that does little more than list some of the reasons why Facebook is a great marketing tool. A paper on those lines would tend to be somewhat formulaic and wouldn’t allow you to explore your position in great depth.

Let’s look a little more closely at what I’m talking about: It would be pretty easy to write a paper arguing that Facebook is a great marking tool. The opening paragraph would provide a little bit of background and end with the statement that Facebook is a great marketing tool. The next few paragraphs would then provide evidence of why it’s a great marketing tool. Body paragraph A would begin by saying something like, “First of all, marketing on Facebook is free.” Then it would go on to provide examples or explain why free marketing is a good thing. Body paragraph B would say something like, “Additionally, Facebook has many users.” The rest of that paragraph might discuss the numbers of users in different demographics and why they matter. Body paragraph C might mention something about the ability to target specific types of users. The paper would then end with a conclusion that says something like, “Facebook is a strong marketing tool because of A, B, and C. A is good for this reason. B is good for this reason. C is good for this reason. Therefore A, B, and C make Facebook the ideal marketing tool.”

The trouble with this approach is that it really doesn’t leave any room for debate and doesn’t fully address the complexity of marketing products and services on Facebook. Basically, it presents information that everyone probably agrees with. At the same time, though, it leaves some questions unanswered. For example, why do some products and services sell better than others on Facebook? Are the marketers of these products and services using the Facebook more effectively? If so, how are they doing that? Or is it a question of the type of product or service that’s being sold? Are Facebook users more likely to purchase some products and services than others? Which products and services are most conducive to being marketed through Facebook? By dedicating a paragraph to each of these questions, you will be able to write an essay that takes the reader much deeper into your subject matter than the basic A, B, and C pattern.

Two Things I Learned from Beth Kephart

Last night I went to the Radnor Public Library to attend a reading and launch party for Small Damages, a novel by one of my favorite writers, Beth Kephart. Beth’s writing is poetic and moving, and she’s so prolific that she makes it look easy. But what I especially liked about last night’s reading is that Beth revealed what many writers don’t: the amount of time and effort that went into her latest book. Small Damages, Beth revealed, took ten years and eighty drafts to get right.

As she introduced the novel, Beth showed the audience pages of various drafts that she worked on while figuring out exactly how to tell the story. Different story lines came and went. Characters fell in and out of prominence. Even the tone changed slightly from one draft to the next. What remained the same throughout the process, however, was the setting. Indeed, throughout her novel, Seville, Spain, comes alive on every page. As Beth revealed over the course of the discussion, setting isn’t simply an important part of a story; the setting itself can take on the dimensions of a character.

My takeaway from the evening was twofold. First, if a project calls out to you and is worthwhile, then you’ll stick with it — year after year, draft after draft — even if the final draft is so far off as to be all but imperceptible. Second, what keeps you going through all of those drafts may simply be a desire to capture in words a place that’s close to your heart, the need to be true to that place and to tell a story that allows that place to come alive for your readers.

Whatever it is that keeps you writing, the important thing to remember is that you’re doing it because you want to — because you feel a need to share a particular truth with the rest of the world, or maybe just because there’s something you’re trying to figure out for yourself and you can only do it through the written word. Regardless of the reason, Beth Kephart stands as a shining example of what a writer can accomplish through tenacity and hard work. If a story is worth telling, it’s worth telling right.