How his “love of risk” is perhaps encoded in my DNA

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“The first thinHg I teach my journalism students when I teach at Yale in the fall is the best stories really come from what you’re curious about. If you can convey your curiosity to the reader and then take the reader on a journey where about you satisfy that curiosity then you usually have a pretty good story. If it’s something that you’re not really curi- ous about, it does really not work because you’re not going to try to find the answers.”—Steven Brill (February 13, 2015)
“The true wellspring of civilization isn’t writing; it is editing.”

—Nathan Heller (July 24, 2017)

We have assigned three 1,200- to 1,500-word papers this semester, each centered on one of the books we read (Shreeve’s The Genome War, Zimmer’s She Has Her Mother’s Laugh, and Atwood’s Oryx and Crake). You will choose to write two of these papers, practicing the intellectual skills of close reading, critical analysis, and polished communi- cation.

The first thing you need to understand is that we are not providing prompt questions. You have to write your own prompt. Once you have done so, you will use it to develop a thesis statement—a point you will try to prove—that will form the core of your paper. From there, you will marshal convincing and well-organized evidence in defense of your thesi


This handout will guide you through the writing process, from creating a prompt to com- pleting an effectively argued paper. We will also discuss the paper assignments in lecture and in discussion section.

1. Approaching the paper

Avoid two common ways to botch the paper assignments.

The first is to mistake the paper for a book summary—you must advance an argument and provide critical evaluation, rather than merely describe contents of the book.

The second is to express only personal feelings—you have to have more than just an opin- ion. Daniel Kahneman, a Nobel laureate for his work in behavioral economics, notes in his book Thinking, Fast and Slow (2011) that the human mind is primed to make judgments driven by emotion: “Do I like it? Do I hate it? How strongly do I feel about it?” Because we can tap immediately into our likes and dislikes, all of us find it easy to reach conclusions that merely rationalize our emotional responses. When asked a hard question (“what do I think about it?”) all of us have a strong natural tendency to answer an easy one instead (“what do I feel about it?”) without even being aware of it.

Perhaps you’ve adopted Craig Venter, the scientist at the heart of The Genome War, as your new personal hero. Maybe you find him to be a dishonest blowhard. Neither response, by itself, provides a solid basis for a successful paper. You need to explain clearly and in detail why his dishonesty or his heroism matter. Your goal is not to tell your readers what you feel but to influence how they think about the crucial issues raised by Shreeve, Zimmer, or Atwood.

2. Crafting an effective prompt

You will devise your own prompts. Good ones do not ask for simple factual answers or emotional responses.

At the top of the handout you will find a quotation from Steven Brill stressing the im- portance of “curiosity” in journalism. The sentiment holds equally true for all forms of intellectual inquiry. Mary Lynn Rampolla reaches a similar conclusion in her Pocket Guide to Writing in History. Historians, she observes, “come to their work with a deep curiosity about the past; to satisfy that curiosity, they ask some of the same questions detectives ask: Who? What? When? And Why?

Curiosity should drive the questions you will ask of the assigned sources. Design your prompts around something you want to know.

Rampolla’s Pocket Guide provides invaluable guidance on fashioning a workable prompt. She stresses the importance of context in her introduction. We need to understand how facts fit together:

For instance, a historian interested in nineteenth-century science would not examine events such a Charles Darwin’s publication of his theory of evolution by means of natural selec- tion in terms of its impact on science alone. As we know from the heated debate of our own time, science takes place within a social and cultural context, and scientific ideas can have a deep impact on politics, religion, education, and a host of her social institutions. Therefore, the historian would also consider questions about historical context: What role did political issues play in the acceptance, or rejection of Darwin’s theory? What other theories were current at the time, and how did they influence Darwin’s thinking? Why did some theologians find his ideas threatening to religion, while others did not? What impact did larger social, political, and intellectual movements and institutions have on the study of biology in this period? In other words, historians do not examine events in isolation; rather, they try to understand the people and events of the past in terms of the unique his- torical context that helped shape them. (8th ed., pp. 4-5).

She’s writing about historical research but the point holds generally for all scholarship in the arts and humanities. An effective prompt creates the framework for fitting people, ideas, economic interests, laws, public policies, and events into a larger historical web of relationships. Just as Rampolla identified key questions about the Darwinian revolution, you should formulate similar questions about the role of the public and private sectors in biomedical and biotechnological research, recent scientific breakthroughs in understanding and modifying heredity, the role of fiction in shaping our hopes and fears for the present and the future, and so forth.

Your Notebook entries will provide essential material for creating a suitable prompt and then building an effective argument around it. In addition, there will be Notebook entries that explicitly require you to draft potential prompts for each of the three books.

With a little work and imagination, you will find something in the books that will not only fulfill the requirements of the assignment but allow you to interpret the world in a way that’s meaningful to you.

3. Moving from prompt to provisional thesis

A stimulating prompt is where you start. It’s not where you can end. The prompt asks a question. A thesis answers it.

Your formal Notebook entries and your informal notes on the books will resemble a tangled wad of string: all sorts of ideas, issues, and perceptions jumbled loosely together. The job of your prompt is to help you to untangle this muddle and pull out relevant threads.

The thesis weaves your threads together into a general proposition you’ll advance over the course of the paper. You do not want your paper to be a bland recitation of facts. A thesis statement must make a definite argument, one which answers a disputable question. Avoid a patently obvious thesis; papers which illustrate only an incredible grasp of the obvious tend not to be particularly successful. A good thesis is precise, focused, and creative, some- thing that demonstrates insight rather than merely regurgitates what you’ve read.

You also will want to define your argument as narrowly as practicable. Inevitably, the broader your thesis, the vaguer your paper. There are several advantages to narrowing your focus. It will make the process of selecting what to include in your paper easier, and the writing more manageable. You will have a better opportunity to express your insights in- stead of falling back on generic arguments in order to cover impossibly broad terrain. The sharper the argument, the better. Reading an ill-defined paper is like ordering a beer and getting a pint glass full of foam.

As you move from prompt to thesis—from question to answer—keep the following advice in mind.

What a thesis is

1. A thesis should answer a question.

2. A thesis should make a specific claim, not general one

3. A thesis should advance a debatable point—something that might be false but the author will demonstrate is valid.

Examples of an effective thesis:

“Charles Darwin gave his theory a persuasiveness that it had not previously had by tying evolution by natural selection to specialized botanical research.”

“Charles Darwin was able to make important new discoveries in botany because he applied his theory of evolution by natural selection to questions of floral reproduction.”

“By drawing evidence for evolution from the plant world, Darwin was able to sidestep many of the intense religious controversies that swirled around his theory.”

Certain statements do not qualify as a thesis and cannot form the basis for an effective paper.

What a thesis is not

A thesis statement is not a description of the topic.

Bad: “This paper will examine the role of botany in Charles Darwin’s evolutionary theory.”

A thesis statement is not a question.

Bad: “Was botany important for Charles Darwin’s evolutionary theory?” A thesis statement is not a factual statement.

Bad: “Charles Darwin wrote on botanical subjects.”

Other statements might have the bare qualities of a thesis, but are still not adequate to the job.

What a thesis should not be

A thesis statement should not be vague.

Inadequate: “Botany was important for Charles Darwin’s evolutionary theory.”

A thesis statement should not be a simple personal preference or opinion.

Inadequate: “Charles Darwin’s botany was cool.” A thesis statement should not be indisputable.

Inadequate: “Charles Darwin applied his theory of evolution to his research on plant form and function.”

Until the paper is completed, consider your thesis “provisional.” Your argument will evolve as you work on the paper. If your thesis doesn’t become more precise during the writing process, that’s probably a worrying sign.

A statement can be more than a single sentence. That means you do not necessarily need to corral your thesis into a single sentence. The thesis statement is often the worst sentence in an entire paper because the writer had desperately crammed it into a single overstuffed sentence.

4. Use of sources

You are not required to use sources additional to the assigned book. If you do, chose and use them appropriately.

The paper to be successful has to remain grounded in the assigned book. Any supplemental source must enrich rather than distract from your analysis of the assigned book—the pa- per’s core source of information. Students sometimes succumb to the temptation to exploit book reviews or online summaries of the assigned book to avoid developing their own judgments. Doing so produces an unsatisfying paper—and a low grade.

If you use an additional source, you need to annotate its entry in the bibliography to answer the following two questions: what service to your argument did the source provide? and, why couldn’t you use the assigned book to acquire the necessary information or perspec- tive?

See the section on “Formatting your paper” below for instructions on including the anno- tation.

5. Moving from provisional thesis to rough draft

Once you have a provisional thesis you can start drafting the paper. Introduction and organization

Think of the organization of your paper as a journey from point A (your thesis) to point B (convincing the reader of your thesis). Make the trip with as little meandering as possible. You must determine which arguments you need to support your thesis, and what evidence you have to bolster those arguments. Include nothing that does not help prove your thesis.

Some general points: state your thesis explicitly in the introduction. You want to lead the reader to your thesis; readers tend to follow more readily when they know from the start where they’re going. All paragraphs must support the thesis, be internally consistent, and flow logically one to another.


A perceptive thesis is necessary, but not sufficient. Even the most compelling ideas disin- tegrate if not solidified by convincing evidence. Your thesis is nothing unless fortified by good arguments, and your arguments are terminally frail unless supported by solid facts taken directly from your reading.

Once you start writing, you will need to do patch-up research by returning to the book. You won’t get a full sense of what evidence you need to make your argument, or what argument your evidence can support, until you begin the writing process. The earlier you begin writing, the more time you’ll have to make necessary midstream changes.


All writers, no matter how accomplished and talented, can benefit from George Orwell’s perceptive essay, “Politics and the English Language.” Orwell’s following suggestions deserve especial emphasis:

A scrupulous writer, in every sentence that they write, will ask themselves these questions:

· What am I trying to say?

· What words will express it?

· What image or idiom will make it clearer?

· Is this image fresh enough to have an effect?

· Could I put it more shortly?

· Have I said anything that is avoidably ugly?

A writer should also adhere to the following precepts:

· Never use a metaphor, simile or other figure of speech which you are used to seeing in print.

· Never use a long word where a short one will do.

· If it is possible to cut a word out, always cut it out.

· Never use the passive voice where you can use the active.

· Never use a foreign phrase, a scientific word or a jargon word if you can think of an everyday English equivalent.

· Break any of these rules sooner than say anything outright barbarous.

6. Moving from rough draft to final draft

You must not think of a paper as a longer Notebook entry. The Notebook entries ask for quick and lightly-corrected reflections. This assignment, on the contrary, requires you to develop your ideas through multiple drafts.

Your paper will not succeed if you merely start typing until you hit the word requirements, stop, and then dump the result into the D2L Assignment folder.

Student papers with a poor or nonexistent thesis statement are unfortunately common. It’s also common in such cases to find that the conclusion contains what would have been a fantastic thesis statement, if it had appeared in the introduction. What happened is clear. The writer began with only a general idea of what they wanted to argue—that’s normal. By the time that they arrived at the conclusion, the process of writing allowed them to conceive a crystal-clear argument. Unfortunately, they didn’t then revise the paper in light of their hard-won insight. They handed in what was in essence only a rough draft and what could have been a fantastic piece of work fell flat.

Once you have a well-structured draft, your next responsibility is to proofread. At the top of this handout we quoted Nathan Heller’s observation in the New Yorker that “the true wellspring of civilization isn’t writing; it is editing.” In order to create ideas worth lasting, you need to refine them carefully and not pass off the first thing you jot down on paper or tap into a computer as the final product.

Brilliant writing might require rare aptitude, but competent writing demands only practice, attention to detail, and effort. Everyone makes mistakes. (I’ll bet that you can find some in this handout!) Conscientious writers reread their work several times to eliminate as many of the inevitable gaffs as possible. Stylistic and grammatical errors will injure your paper just as cigarettes hurt your body: an occasional one probably won’t do too much harm, but one after another deteriorates health and frequently proves fatal. And sloppiness, like nic- otine, is additive.

Later in this handout you will find a photo of President Barack Obama editing the text of a speech. Notice the wide extent of his revision. Perhaps you’re a better writer than Presi- dent Obama. But probably not, which means that your prose will require at least as much improvement and correction as you see in the photo.

While these papers are individual projects, this does not mean you will complete them in isolation. In the professional world, creative intellectual activity always require collabora- tion with colleagues and friends. You will work through your ideas and discuss methods of writing in the discussion sections. We encourage students to share their ideas and read each other’s work informally.

The assigned word lengths are general guidelines, not strict requirements. The TAs will look for a certain scope of analysis and density of supporting detail that is appropriate to 1,200 to 1,500 words. When grading they will rarely notice the exact length of a paper— unless it is factually thin or analytically underdeveloped. But the problem is its thinness and lack of development, not the fact that it fell short of the assigned length. Your overrid- ing goal is to write the best paper you can; if you do, inevitably the length will take care of itself. If your draft does fall under 1,200 words, ask yourself where you can add genuine substance to fortify your thesis. You don’t want to pad the paper with argle bargle to puff it up to the minimum length—this will make the paper worse (and therefore the grade lower).

Interior pages

Use page numbers on the interior pages but do not include your name anywhere other than the title page. (The TAs might decide to fold back the title page to blind grade.) Double- space and use a 12-point font.

Bibliography and notes

The “scholarly apparatus” (notes and bibliography) provides the foundation for any piece of scholarly work. By meticulously and accurately citing information, you acknowledge intellectual debts and authenticate your evidence. The reader can track down your facts and ideas—sometimes to check up on you, but usually just to learn more.

For this reason, you will include a bibliography and either footnotes or endnotes, following the Notes and Bibliography Style of the 16th edition of the Chicago Manual of Style. We provide examples below based on the assigned reading. If you draw upon additional sources, format notes and bibliographies following the same style although (as explained above) you also need to annotate the bibliography to explain briefly your use of the source.

Bibliographic entries

Atwood, Margaret. Oryx and Crake. New York: Anchor Books, 2003.

Shreeve, James. The Genome War: How Craig Venter Tried to Capture the Code of Life and Save the World. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 2004.

I Am Legend. Directed by Francis Lawrence. Warner Bros., 2008. Film.

If you use an electronic version of a book—say, a Kindle edition—cite it exactly as if it were print, except note its electronic provenance.

Zimmer, Carl. She Has Her Mother’s Laugh: The Powers, Perversions, and Potential of Heredity. New York: Dutton, 2018. Kindle edition.

The annotation should follow immediately below the bibliography entry.

Venter, J. Craig. A Life Decoded: My Genome, My Life. New York: Viking, 2007.

My thesis focuses on the role of personality in the race to sequence the human genome. Venter’s memoir provided his personal reflection on how his “love of risk” is perhaps encoded in my DNA. This direct personal reflection from Venter does not appear in The Genome War.

Endnote or footnotes

Provide the full entry the first time that you cite a source. Subsequently, use only the au- thor’s name or, in the case of a film, its title. Provide precise page numbers for books. If you are using an electronic version without page numbers, provide the chapter.

Below are sample notes to illustrate the format:

1 Margaret Atwood, Oryx and Crake (New York: Anchor Books, 2003), 18-19.

2 Cark Zimmer, She Has Her Mother’s Laugh: The Powers, Perversions, and Potential of Heredity (New York: Dutton, 2018), Kindle edition, chapter 16.

3 Atwood, 24.

I Am Legend, directed by Francis Lawrence, Warner Bros., 2008, film.

5 Zimmer, chapter 9.

I Am Legend.

10. Sample assessment sheet with criteria

On the following pages, you will find the assessment sheet you will receive with both of your graded papers along with the criteria the TAs will use when assessing the quality of your paper.

Writing Assessment



Excellent Very Good Satisfactory Needs some

more work

Needs much

more work

Strong introduction
Thesis statement
Organization of essay
Sound argument
Insight and originality
Appropriate depth
Use of assigned book
Paragraph development
Spelling, grammar, punctuation
Writing style
Bibliographic information


You will receive a version of this assessment sheet with both of your graded papers.

Criteria for Assessment of Papers

4.0 Well-argued, well-organized and well-documented with awareness of opposing theses where relevant. Written in a logical and critical manner, with a comprehensive understanding of the subject, evidence of wide reading and appreciation of all major points. Free from serious er- rors of grammar and style.


Many relevant points made, clearly argued, accurate and coherent. Includes major points in the course material and shows appreciation of their importance. Good grammar and style.
2.5 Generally acceptable work, although fails to meet all the requirements of the assignment. Some gaps, errors, or misconceptions.


Inadequately argued and poorly documented. Provides some relevant information but omits many important points and contains substantial errors or misconception. May contain serious grammatical or stylistic problems.
0.0 Unacceptable work. Fails to meet most or all of the assignment requirements.

Criteria Excellent/Very Good Satisfactory Needs some/much more work
Strong introduction Introduction shows a solid grasp of the issues and provides a clear outline of the scope of this essay. Introduction rambles and scope of essay is not precisely defined. No or poor attempt to introduce or define topic. Questions may have been misunder- stood. No or obscure thesis
Thesis statement A conspicuous, prop- erly limited and inter- esting thesis. Thesis re- quires engagement with primary sources Thesis present, but could be clearer or more compelling Thesis obscure or en- tirely absent
Organization of essay Clear and logical pro- gression of essay. Ra- tionale clear Could be better organ- ized by sequencing the material more appropri- ately Chaotic; haphazard or no progression
Sound argument Develops a solid, co- herent argument; prem- ises based on solid facts; sophisticated; thesis well defended Argument has some weakness, murky in co- herence; method is use- ful but could be more productive; premises are based on questiona- ble information Argument is unsound; premises are ground- less; naïve and simplis- tic

Criteria Excellent/Very Good Satisfactory Needs some/much more work
Insight and originality Clear evidence you’ve thought deeply about the topic and developed a creative solution Good work, obvious connections are drawn Routine work; simple transfer of information
Appropriate length The paper exceeds the depth of research and the breadth of argu- ment appropriate for a paper of the assigned length The depth of research and breadth of argu- ment meet expectations for a paper of the as- signed length The paper is not suffi- ciently ambitious for assigned length, or does not provide the level of detail and argu- ment appropriate to the assignment, or both
Note that this judgment is about density of information and extent of intel- lectual ambition, not simply filling sheets of paper
Use of assigned book Original and penetrat- ing analysis based on a sophisticated, thor- ough, and accurate un- derstanding of the as- signed book Assigned material ac- tively engaged and ana- lyzed Little evidence of meaningful engage- ment with the assigned book
Paragraph development Paragraphs have clear unity and continuity; helpful transition be- tween paragraphs Some paragraphs lack focus; transition be- tween paragraphs choppy Paragraphs incoherent; transitions confusing or nonexistent
Conclusion Solid concluding sec- tion drawing together important points made in essay Rather brief and for- mal. Could use more punch Essay ends abruptly, merely rephrases intro- duction, or omits im- portant points in essay
Spelling, grammar, punctua- tion No or only minor prob- lems Some errors. Greater attention required Errors are disruptive and impede reader’s engagement of essay
Writing style Clear, concise, well-or- ganized writing. A pleasure to read Straightforwardly writ- ten; could use more polish A mess. Extremely hard to follow or to find basic points
Bibliographic information Citations thorough, clear, easy to trace, and properly formatted Adequate citations, with some mistakes in clarity or format Absent, utterly confus- ing or in-correctly for- matted

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