Sample Evaluation: Fitting a Fictional Puzzle into Place

What follows is a sample of an evaluation such as my students are asked to write for the Eval assignment in the Fall 2015 term at Oklahoma State University. As is expected of student work, it treats the same piece treated in the earlier (sample) textual analysis, and it borrows text from the earlier assignment–as is to be expected. Additionally, it adheres to the length requirements (the assignment asks for 1,750 to 2,450 words, exclusive of headings and citations; the sample is 1,905, judged by the same standards), although the formatting will necessarily differ due to the different medium of presentation. (This is particularly true for the Works Cited list, which is bulleted for ease of reading online; paper-formatted essays should not bullet their citations.) How the medium influences reading is something well worth considering as a classroom discussion, particularly for those students who are going into particularly writing- or design-intensive fields.

In a 15 August 2015 New York Times opinion piece, “Puzzling through My Fiction,” Ben Dolnick treats the use of crossword puzzles as practice for writing fiction. He asserts that solving puzzles is an analogous practice to sorting out narrative prose and plot arcs. The process he describes as common to both moves through at least four phases–“The Blank Beginning,” “The Walk-Away,” “The Dam Breakage,” and “The Slow Clap.” Each is provided illustrative examples of how crossword-solving reflects narrative construction, making clear the connections between the two. An end-note describes it as the last entry in the Draft series maintained by the New York Times, and it is good that the series ends on an effective piece of writing. It is good also that it ends on one generally representative of that series, and Dolnick’s piece is typical of Draft series essays.

There are limitations to such a claim, of course. At one level, pieces which end series are by dint of that ending atypical. A “normal” member of a series is written and presented in a context that implies more is to come. A planned end to a series is not, but will typically be written to bring to completion any lines of discussion that are still ongoing; it may also work to reflect upon the series as a whole, offering summative statements of the series’ accomplishment of its expressed purposes and other comments meant to offer a vision of the collection of works. Since such a reflection is not likely to be the ongoing purpose of a series, a work which offers such reflection cannot be typical of it; since concluding members of a series are likely to offer such reflection, it follows that they are not likely to be typical of their series; and since “Puzzling through My Fiction” is described in an addendum as “the last essay in the Draft series,” it seems likely to be atypical of that series.

Such an assertion, although sensible in itself, falters when the note is made that Dolnick’s essay does not take the reflective stance expected of concluding articles. It falters further when the article is assessed against a sampling of other entries in the Draft series. To offer some standards for evaluation of the last article in the series, the first article in the series–Jhumpa Lahiri’s “My Life’s Sentences”–seems a useful counterpoint. Six other articles from the series, some of which have proven useful for teaching–Aaron Hamburger’s “Outlining in Reverse”; John Kaag’s “The Perfect Essay”; Phillip Lopate’s “The Essay, an Exercise in Doubt”; Sean Pidgeon’s “Rapturous Research”; Molly Ringwald’s “Act Like a Writer”; and David Tuller’s “The Jargon Trap”–complete the survey sample. Taken together, they suggest some common features among the members of that series, helping to assert the typicality of Dolnick’s piece.

Perhaps the most obvious unifying feature of the series is its initial impetus, noted in an addendum to the Lahiri piece that begins it; Draft is “a [then] new series about the art and craft of writing [emphasis in original].” Other articles surveyed bear out the initial assertion; among others, “Act Like a Writer” gestures toward the subject in its title and addresses the utility of writing character biographies for actors, “The Essay, an Exercise in Doubt” treats an oft-derided writing genre, and “The Jargon Trap” treats concerns of style and usage. Dolnick’s article, linking the process of fiction writing to the processes involved in another activity, corresponds perhaps most closely to Ringwald’s among the examples surveyed, but it treats writing as a general topic, and in so doing, it marks itself as fit for inclusion among the Draft series in at least one regard.

Less obvious but more concrete concerns also suit Dolnick’s article to the Draft series. For example, “Puzzling through My Fiction” is of a length similar to the articles surveyed. Those articles range in length from the 700 words of Pidgeon’s piece to the 1,213 words of Ringwald’s, but they tend to cluster in the higher end of that range. The average word count among them is 1,020.86, with a standard deviation of 173.25 words. Dolnick’s piece is 1,118 words long, less than a hundred more than the average and well within one standard deviation of that number. As such, it is firmly in accord with other Draft articles in terms of word count, helping to mark it as typical of the series as a whole.

Other, similar concerns further position the end of the Draft series as representative of the collection. Reviewed essays in the series run from ten paragraphs–Pidgeon’s is again the shortest article among those investigated, being the one with ten paragraphs–to eighteen–Ringwald’s is again the longest, at that length. On average, Draft essays cover 13.43 paragraphs, with a standard deviation of 2.94. Dolnick’s “Puzzling through My Fiction” takes up some 15 paragraphs, no more outside a single standard deviation of the average than its word count. Its paragraph count is therefore every bit as representative of the series it ends as is its word count.

Average paragraph length functions similarly to indicate the representativeness of Dolnick’s concluding Draft article of the whole series. Paragraphs in the articles reviewed range in length from the 67.29-word average of Hamburger’s article to the 101.55-word average of Lahiri’s. The average paragraph length of the articles is 77.33 words, with a standard deviation of 12.78 words. “Puzzling through My Fiction” averages 74.53 words per paragraph, less than three words off from the average paragraph length of the surveyed contributions to the series. That it cleaves as closely to the average paragraph length as it does may be a small point, but it does serve to reinforce the idea that the last article in the Draft series represents the series as a whole.

Reading level also helps to demonstrate how “Puzzling through My Fiction” is typical of the Draft series. The Flesch-Kincaid grade level of articles surveyed ranges from the 6.6–that is six months into sixth grade, per idealized United States standards–of Lahiri’s piece to the 11.5–five months into eleventh grade, not long before most students in the United States will take a final battery of standardized tests for their schools, as well as college entrance exams–of Pidgeon’s; the average is 9.46, with a standard deviation of 1.70. Dolnick’s article displays a Flesch-Kincaid grade level of 10.0; it is aimed at those just beginning their sophomore year of high school. Being less than one standard deviation away from the average reading level of Draft articles surveyed suggests that it is in line with what is to be expected of Draft articles in yet another regard, further supporting the idea of Dolnick’s piece as a synecdoche for the series it concludes.

Examination of such mechanistic factors as word and paragraph counts or reading levels may not be something commonly thought of as appropriate to the review of texts, but they do offer quantifiable data that can be used to argue a point convincingly. More typical of the study of writing, however, is the identification of problems; a commonplace concerning those who teach writing (voiced among the surveyed essays by Kaag) is that they search out mistakes, pouncing upon them. Something to pounce upon in several of the essays reviewed is the use of second person reference, which often reads as presumptuous. It certainly does so when it appears in Ringwald’s piece and Pidgeon’s, Hamburger’s and Lopate’s and Kaag’s. (There are, admittedly, instances in some of those essays, as well as in others reviewed, in which the “you” used is appropriate–even when outside of quotation.) Dolnick’s essay, as is noted elsewhere, also deploys second-person references annoyingly (Elliott). Annoying as it is, though, it is typical of Draft essays; the annoyance appearing in Dolnick is another indication of its typicality.

Also typical of the study of writing is examination of opening devices, and in its opening, “Puzzling through My Fiction” is typical of the articles surveyed, suggesting it is typical of the series they represent. The articles surveyed tend to open with brief first-person statements that give context to the essays that follow. “The Perfect Essay” offers one such example, opening with the following five sentences: “Looking back on too many years of education, I can identify one truly impossible teacher. She cared about me, and my intellectual life, even when I didn’t. Her expectations were high — impossibly so. She was an English teacher. She was also my mother.” In doing so, it serves to offer the tone of the piece–reflective and not overly serious–as well as asserting Kaag’s ethos and indicating the vehicle for presentation. A sense of the author’s voice emerges quickly, making the piece more human and therefore more accessible immediately–as is the case for the other articles surveyed.

Something similar occurs with “Puzzling through My Fiction.” The piece opens with a sketch of a childhood construct:

When I was growing up, crossword puzzles were — along with watching Ken Burns movies and eating lox — among the unfathomable pleasures of grown-ups. My grandmother would sit in her den for hours, the puzzle in her lap, looking blankly around the room as if she had just read a piece of news whose enormity she could scarcely comprehend. Other adults would periodically drift by to offer their condolences (“A nine-letter religious figure, hmm…”) and I would stare from the rug in disbelieving boredom.

In three sentences, the author suggests the didactic tone of his article–a child at the feet of family elders is often in a position to learn–and the motion towards tone is typical of opening paragraphs among the essays surveyed. The sentences also assert authorial ethos through noting long association and involvement with the topic, a move common in Draft essays. The vehicle for the presentation–crossword puzzles–is indicated, as well, which also serves to align the opening with Draft standards. Dolnick’s introduction further constructs a vision of a simple childhood mystified by the pursuits of adults–something with which many readers can identify, having been similarly mystified children themselves. That identification serves a humanizing function also typical of Draft essay openings.

Essays in the Draft series also tend to return to the authorial first-person in their endings. Aside from Hamburger’s essay, which leaves off first-person references after the second-to-last paragraph, the essays surveyed all return to authorial self-reference in their final paragraphs, whether by making some statement about things that have been learned or through offering some heartfelt recommendation for actions to take. “Puzzling through My Fiction” does much the same thing, concluding with a comment about the thrill of realization “is why I [Dolnick] became a writer.” The piece comes close to ending on the word “I”; it certainly ends reflexively, and in doing so, it positions itself yet more decisively as a representative ending to the Draft series.

It is a shame that the Draft series has ended; there is more to say about writing than the contributions to the series can contain, other accounts of writing than those offered already. That it ends on a piece that is of a piece with the rest of the series, however, is welcome. If nothing else, Dolnick’s “Puzzling through My Fiction” is a fitting conclusion, serving to remind readers that more things are connected than might initially appear to be. Searching out those connections seems a thing worth doing.

Works Cited

  • Dolnick, Ben. “Puzzling through My Fiction.” New York Times. New York Times, 15 August 2015. Web. 23 October 2015.
  • Elliott, Geoffrey B. “Sample Textual Analysis: Picking apart a Fictional Puzzle.” ElliottRWI. Geoffrey B. Elliott, 30 September 2015. Web. 29 October 2015.
  • Hamburger, Aaron. “Outlining in Reverse.” New York Times. New York Times, 21 January 2013. Web. 23 October 2015.
  • Kaag, John. “The Perfect Essay.” New York Times. New York Times, 5 May 2014. Web. 23 October 2015.
  • Lahiri, Jhumpa. “My Life’s Sentences.” New York Times. New York Times, 17 March 2012. Web. 23 October 2015.
  • Lopate, Phillip. “The Essay, an Exercise in Doubt.” New York Times. New York Times, 16 February 2013. Web. 23 October 2015.
  • Pidgeon, Sean. “Rapturous Research.” New York Times. New York Times, 5 January 2013. Web, 23 October 2015.
  • Ringwald, Molly. “Act Like a Writer.” New York Times. New York Times, 18 August 2012. Web. 23 October 2015.
  • Tuller, David. “The Jargon Trap.” New York Times. New York Times, 4 August 2014. Web. 23 October 2015.
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