One definition of beauty is: aptness to purpose. (Ezra Pound, ABC, p. 64)
A few months ago I argued that as an academic writer your job is to support claims. Preparing for our afternoon workshop on argumentation, reading Booth, Colomb and Williams' classic The Craft of Research, I am reminded how utterly non-earth-shattering (indeed, entirely foundational) this idea is. In the workshop, we will look at the logic and rhetoric of academic argument, which is to say, we will look at what it means to support a claim in the context of a conversation among knowledgeable peers. I will define some basic terms, of course, like "claim", "reason", "evidence", "warrant", and "objection", and I will talk about what Graff and Birkenstein call "the moves that matter in academic writing". In this post, I want to develop the metaphor of "support" in the sightly less metaphorical perspective of the "craft" of writing.
Consider the apprentice carpenter who is learning how to build cabinets, chair and tables. The finished product must, crucially, offer support. It must be structurally sound, and this will come both from the quality of the materials and the workmanship that goes into joining them together. The master carpenter draws on years of experience with various techniques and kinds of wood and guides the apprentice, not so much towards the right techniques or right materials, but the right experiences of joining materials together soundly. Some joints work best with some kinds of woods, others not so well. The support that is offered by a shelf in a cabinet is not of the same kind that is offered by a tabletop or a chair, though they all, it is true, "hold up". The apprentice is exposed to the possibilities that are implicit in the materials, the way they hold their shape, and the way the "give" under various kinds of pressure.
A chair can be tested in various situations. The elegance of its design is apparent in the efficiency with which it passes these tests. Now, there may of course be a great deal of "ornament" in a piece of furniture, features that serve no useful purpose ("all this useless beauty," Elvis Costello sings), and one must evaluate these features by the way they manage not to get in the way of the table or chair's primary function, namely, that of providing a stable thing to sit on and to put, say, your food on when you eat it. That is, the primary function of furniture is to hold things up in various ways: books on shelves, bodies on chairs, plates on tabletops. The alternative would be to leave them lying around all over the floor.
Your writing does the same thing, I want to argue, for your ideas. It holds them up, keeps them from lying around uselessly in piles on the floor. Even your most decorative ideas can be given a place in your writing, a place where they don't interfere with the orderly arrangement of the rest of your ideas. Most importantly, by furnishing your mind with structures (arguments) that support your ideas, and keeping things relatively neat and orderly, you are building a place where you can invite others in. They, too, can test these structures by putting ideas of their own on them. To situate an idea within the structure of argument (whether your own or someone else's) is to make a claim. Instead of holding the idea up yourself, you are putting it down somewhere, but not all the way down on the ground. You can pick it up later.
I hope I'm making my point. You are trying to build something that will help contribute to an orderly conversation. It must have a certain elegance, a kind of beauty, but it must also, very importantly, serve the purpose of supporting the argument you want to make, the series of claims you are trying to get across. You will learn how to do this well, not by exposing yourself to a set of principles or rules (whether mine, or Wayne Booth's, or Gerald Graff's), but by going into your workshop and joining the relevant materials (reasons, evidence) together to support claims against all manner of objections. The carpenter has to imagine how the table he builds will be used. And he will build it in such a way as to indicate its proper uses. He will not build a coffee table to look like a workbench or a dinner table to look like a writing desk. Likewise, when writing, make sure you build something that will serve your purpose, and make sure that this purpose is on the surface of the text. It is much more likely to hold up under the criticism of your peers in that case.