Rail yard background, from the Library of Congress

Connections

A Hypertext Resource for Literature

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The Pitfall of the List

This page and the next one describe two of the most common types of student papers that college English teachers see: the paper structured as a list and the simple comparison and contrast paper. In general, papers in those categories tend to be clear and correct. They also tend to bore writer and reader alike out of their respective gourds.

A paper organized as a list usually comes out of an overly correct thesis, a thesis that nobody could reasonably dispute. A paper might say, "Pride and Prejudice is a love story about overcoming financial, personal, and familial obstacles to a happy life together." Most readers would agree with that statement at first sight, but that very agreement creates a problem: nobody who has read Austen's novel needs a critical paper to tell them that it portrays people overcoming obstacles to a happy life.

Such a thesis creates organizational clarity at the expense of intellectual excitement. That tradeoff is the curse of the list. The reader expects a paragraph (or section) on financial obstacles, one on personal obstacles, and one of familial obstacles, all culminating in a creative restatement of the first paragraph. Rearranging the paragraphs or sections would produce no substantive changes in the thesis, as the paper would likely indicate with transitions such as, "Another obstacle Elizabeth faces is financial." If you find yourself writing transitions that follow listing logic to create nearly interchangeable paragraphs, stop writing. Change your opening paragraph to one that will allow your paper to develop from one step to the next rather than laying our a series of correct, interchangeable, and boring blocks. Then rework the rest of the paper, and it will interest you and your readers more than the first draft would have.

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