Hacking into Prose

by Joshua Templin

A RACC Writing Studio tutor offers insights into hacking writing assignments.

Even if you know all the tricks to writing essays – formulating a clear thesis, connecting your body paragraphs, and transitioning to a perfect conclusion – you won’t be able to start until you have an idea. Invention is a crucial part of writing, but many students have difficulty with this essential step in the process. To help students overcome their writing blocks, Dr. C.L. Costello presented his first Writing Hacks.

The first in the Writing Hacks series was presented in the Writing Studio at 10:30 a.m. on October 25. The presentation focused on invention: coming up with good ideas that make for substantive responses to writing assignments. Costello explained that the Writing Hacks series will provide “the simple answers for life’s writing problems.”

“I will never tell you that writing isn’t hard,” Costello, an instructor in the Communications, Arts and Humanities Division said. “It’s hard. But there are some things you can do to make it easier.”

One of those things is using heuristics. From the Ancient Greek meaning “to find out,” heuristics are tools that employ concrete steps to find an optimal – not perfect – solution to a problem.

One kind of heuristic we employ all the time to examine ideas is the analogy: an analogy helps us understand something by comparing it to something else. Costello used the example of the llama: a llama is just like an alpaca, and we can start to understand a llama just by comparing and contrasting it to the alpaca.

The major heuristic that Costello outlined is called stasis theory. Stasis theory, associated with Roman orator Cicero, is a heuristic by which the writer comes to understand his or her topic by posing questions about it.

Using Marvel Comics character Deadpool as an example, Costello cobbled together a hypothetical academic essay, starting with broad definitions and narrowing his focus from there.

The first crucial question to ask is “Does the thing exist?” And Costello offered evidence that Deadpool is indeed a character by making references to appearances in various media.

Once a thing’s existence is established, writers should then proceed to definition: “What is it?”

“I had a professor who would always write on my papers: ‘What do you mean by that word?’” Costello said.

Costello said it was frustrating but the recommendation to be precise taught him that you should always start by defining your terms.

Once you’ve got a clear idea of what your topic is, you can start asking more specific questions like “Is it good?” and “What should we do about it?”

When you begin to ask a question about the value of the Deadpool film, you can pose a question that forms a central hypothesis. A hypothesis is, broadly, an “if then” statement. “If Deadpool is not good, then you should not see it” could be a central hypothesis. If you have a compelling argument that Deadpool is not a good film, then you’ve proved that it’s not worth anyone’s time.

Costello broke down the Deadpool character even further to assess whether the film is any good. By comparing Deadpool to Wolverine, another Marvel character, Costello showed that Deadpool is extremely formulaic. His backstory is nearly identical to a number of mutant superheroes. So what makes him different?

Costello argued that what makes Deadpool seem different is his ability to break the fourth wall, that is, to address the audience directly. But comics are a self-aware and referential medium already, he continued; therefore, Deadpool’s whole schtick merely puts a silly costume on the same tired tropes.

By continually posing these stasis questions and comparing similar ideas, Costello arrived at a topic that could be worthy of a six or seven page paper. The heuristic of stasis theory, while it sounds complicated, is as simple as trying to nail down what something really is. That, in turn, might seem rudimentary, but writers sometimes lose sight of these simple concepts in the pursuit of uncovering a grander idea.

Costello’s presentation helped at least one Communications student, Cynthia Morales, to understand the invention process.

“The way he breaks it down makes it easy to break down your own ideas,” Morales said.

By using a topic that students were familiar with, Costello showed that any subject could be a well for interesting ideas.

“[Deadpool] was a good subject,” Morales said. “Costello likes weird, out of the norm things.”

Students who are having difficulty writing those important term papers should consider attending one of Costello’s presentations, or meeting with a tutor in the Writing Studio in Berks 209.

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