Dear Meandering Writer,
Before we go any farther, please don’t be concerned that I had to Google a definition for the word “meander.” I promise I’m qualified for my job. Really, I am. You can’t judge me too much because I bet you don’t know how to define “meandering writer,” either. According to a conglomerate of online dictionaries, “to meander” basically means to take an unnecessarily indirect or aimless journey. In the world of writing, this is the author who loses his or her audience by going off on an irrelevant tangent or taking too long to get to a clear point. In my experience, meandering writers are the ones who have the best ideas and most well-conducted research, but simply lack the structure to tie everything together into a nice, neat, presentable package.
Some might argue that meandering isn’t really a big issue to worry about, but the reality is, a wandering paper fails to show the intelligence and understanding of a skilled student because it does not clearly communicate with the audience. Every once in a while, meandering does pay off—just ask Alexander Hamilton and James Madison. Their proposed 25 essay project, known as the Federalist Papers, turned into 85 essays that took 6 months to complete. In the end, they eventually made their point: the Constitution of the United States is a document worthy of the full support of the states. If you enjoy being an American with free speech and a representative government, thank Hamilton and Madison for meandering around their topic, but unless you’re writing to define the direction of a new nation and establish a democracy, it’s probably best to stay on topic and to the point.
I know. That is easier said than done.
Here are a few things that may help prevent your essay from turning into a second edition of the Federalist Papers.
- Your paper is a tree, so avoid twigs. Every single point made within a paper either needs to support the thesis directly or directly support something that directly supports the thesis. (Is that as clear as mud?) In other words, your thesis is like the trunk of a tree. The limbs are your direct support because they connect immediately to the trunk. Branches are necessary secondary evidence for the direct support found in the limbs. Anything past the branches are flimsy twigs that barely link to the trunk. Chances are, these weak arguments can be pruned from your paper in exchange for a stronger, more straightforward essay.
- Keep your thesis visible. The farther you get from the introduction, the harder it is to remember exactly what your thesis is claiming. This is especially true when you’re looking at a page count that extends into double digits. Write your thesis down on paper and refer back to it at every new paragraph and every time you get stuck. If you prefer to write your thesis after you’ve finished the rest of your paper (this is a great strategy!), go ahead and jot down a working thesis anyway. It never hurts to have a roadmap handy, even if you plan on changing your route.
- Don’t delete stray sentences; save them for later. Nothing is more painful than composing a beautiful sentence, paragraph, or page, only to realize it is not necessary for the paper. Unfortunately, this is a natural part of the writing process. Never keep something that distracts from the thesis of your paper, but don’t assume that just because something doesn’t fit in one paper that it might not fit in another. If you find yourself consistently writing and removing eloquent passages, the kind you wish you professor could actually see, create a document where you can save your meandering words for later. That way, none of your work is ever really in vain, and if you ever find yourself stuck for ideas or brilliant sentence structure, you’ll know where to start.
And of course, it goes without saying that you should always bring your paper to the Writing Center! We all know what it’s like to have more thoughts, sources, and ideas than space in an essay, and we’ve all struggled at one time or another to stick to a thesis. Nothing helps guide a meandering writer quite like a fellow student who has walked the same, winding path.
Written by Savanna