Essay damage control: Managing a broken argument
If you write enough papers, eventually you find yourself looking at a mostly-written essay with the conviction that it’s a complete disaster. I’ve certainly been there, and I know plenty of grad students and academics can say the same. When you find yourself mired in the despair that comes from watching a seemingly brilliant idea crash and burn in your hands, resist the temptation to delete the file and start from scratch. Your best course of action before you abandon ship is to begin salvaging what you can from the sinking wreck that was your essay.
This article discusses the reasons writers find themselves with broken essays and advises some courses of action they can take once they’ve reached that argumentative cul-de-sac.
How you arrive at a dead end
The crisis can arise in a few different ways. Maybe you realise that for one reason or another the argument you wanted to make just doesn’t work—you’ve simply changed your mind, or your research has established conclusively that your argument is implausible. Or maybe you’ve written a brilliant argument only to find in the late stages of your research that someone else has already written a paper arguing your point, making your current paper seem utterly redundant. Or, if you’re writing in response to an assignment sheet, maybe you realise that you didn’t read the small print, and you’re not doing what you’ve been asked to do.
Whatever the case, it happens to many writers, so there’s not much point in dwelling on the problem, and overreacting will only make matters worse. Be realistic, take a breath (or few days to breathe, if you can), and then set about making the best of a bad situation.
Diagnose the problem
First you need to determine the scope of the problem. This requires careful thought about your argument, pinpointing the location of the issue. Is your thesis not working, or is it only a sub-argument that’s giving you trouble? Have you simply been misled by your misinterpretation of a source, perhaps? If it’s the latter problem, you’re woes might be dispelled if you simply revisit your sources and seek clarification.
Find the most convenient and effective cure
Once you’re sure of the scope of the problem you’re facing, you’re ready to start dealing with it. You’ve probably worked long and hard on the paper as it stands, so you should prefer to keep as much material as you can moving forward.
A short list of your possible solutions is as follows:
Tweak the paper. The best of a bad situation, it turns out, is sometimes pretty good. Occasionally, the fix will be as simple as slightly changing a few words in the thesis to reorient the focus of the essay, and then going through the rest of the paper to ensure that any corresponding changes are made. Consider this option first.
Prop the paper up. Your problem might simply be insufficient evidence, or the wrong evidence, to support the arguments you make in your paper. Try doing some additional research to see if any other authors have offered arguments that might help your cause.
Amputate. You might have to cut only a paragraph, or you might have to cut a full fifteen pages, but like a limb or digit riddled with flesh-eating bacteria, the troublesome section of your essay may be best severed. Save a copy of your document, and then liberally excise any problematic portions of the paper. See what you’re left with, and go back to the planning stage if necessary. You may find that the essay remains essentially intact once you’ve made your cuts, or you may find that what damage has been done is repairable.
If you can’t beat them… Depending on your discipline, if you discover that you’re thesis is completely wrong-minded, and you can’t just rework or gut your argument, you can create a new thesis that simply argues that anyone holding your old thesis is wrong. At the very least, consider trying to find a way to spend some time discussing the rationale for and problems with the view you’ve recently abandoned. This approach makes use of the work you’ve done, helps future authors avoid the same mistake, and provides a natural avenue for you to continue discussion of the same topic.
You’ve still got your research. If all else fails, and you decide that there really is no way to salvage the writing you’ve done—and I should stress that this will be a rare occasion—you should try not to abandon the topic altogether. As discouraging as it may be to work with ideas that have failed you, the fact of the matter is probably that your investment of research and thought on the subject can still work for you. Try to find a new take on the subject, benefiting from the work you’ve done already.
Whatever you do, starting a new topic from scratch is almost always more work than keeping as much as you can of what you’ve done already.