At the risk of extending the metaphor too far, DNA is the earliest version of a new organic being. The DNA becomes a plan, and the guts become the plan in action. At some point, our organic essay needs structure in its life, so it’s time to concentrate on “the bones.”
Writing needs structure in order to tell its story well or to make its argument clear. It needs a pace and an order. We need to map out a plan for an arrangement of paragraphs. By this point, we should have a sizable chunk of brainstorm text. Maybe its broken into paragraphs, but maybe its not. We approach the text looking for sentences and ideas that stick together naturally. Does our definition of a term — let’s say “artificial intelligence” — turn into a longer debate between different interpretations of “artificial”? Give that its own paragraph. Does “intelligence” digress into an historical narrative of the evolution of computer processors? That’s a new paragraph. Your brainstorm text sentences must develop into paragraphs or be lost. Chances are that we’ve already written some of them in paragraph “clusters” because rarely does an idea require just one sentence. Look through the text for divisions of labor: This paragraph defines; this one introduces a story and this one completes it; this one veers too far away from the topic and must be dropped.
We have divided our “guts” (concepts) into specific “organs.” Now we need to order them and make sure they stick together well. Now, for the first time, we begin thinking about the essay as temporal and linear thing. It does have to begin somewhere and end somewhere else. When we write the bones of an essay, sometimes it’s helpful to build an outline, a sketch, or a mind map of some kind. We construct what the essay will essentially do, and we imagine different permutations of those jobs.
Here’s an example of how on idea might become a 500 word essay or a 3000 word essay. You being with a bunch of brainstormed “guts” about the recent post-apocalyptic movies and you need to form it into an argument on media culture. You could divide your text into three categories that post-apocalyptic media fall into, perhaps zombies, natural catastrophe, and divine judgement. In a short essay, you might spend a paragraph on each one of these categories, giving examples and exploring causes. For a longer piece of writing, you might divide the category of “natural catastrophe” into the following ideas: current historical catastrophes, depictions of fictitious catastrophes in movies and film, a psychological approach to trauma, and a detailed analysis of one particular text (the movie “2012,” for instance). At this point, what would have been one paragraph in your 500-word essay becomes a block of 4 paragraphs satisfying the same organizational objective. The difference is depth.
It takes the inventive part of your brain to work on the bones of your essay. You have to think structurally, like an architect. Your piece of writing will have a foyer, a sitting room, a study, and a whimsical veranda. How will the occupants of your building move between these spaces, in what order?
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