MTW: Weaving Argument and Description Together


Mentor Texts:

I used excerpts from the following reviews:

Note: Read Rebekah’s post about how she uses this mentor text to teach figurative language


In my search for resources that might help humanize the writers behind the writing we study, I discovered an interview with former New York Times Book Review editor Sam Tanenhaus about what he looks for in a great piece of criticism.

In the interview, Tanenhaus lists four qualities of effective reviews: engagement, narrative drive, the weaving together of description and argument, and attention to the prose.

I love when I land upon an instructional nugget like this one–especially from the writers themselves!

I knew that my students were ready for these next steps, even though, when I first introduced the review genre study, they had rolled their eyes, surmising that reviews were boring. But after showing them reviews like “Titanfall Supplants Its Ancestors With Speed and Scale” (a review of the video game Titanfall), and “Fred and Barney Would Feel Right At Home,” (a review of a New York steakhouse) I think they honestly became excited by the possibilities.

So now that I’ve captured their attention, I want them to dig in to the particulars of their experiences with the thing they’re reviewing without losing site of Tanenhaus’s third tenet of great review writing–the weaving together of description and argument. And I want them to do this with finesse!

How I Used It:

My students are working from a packet of all five mentor texts mentioned above. I asked them to take this packet out and to have a pencil handy.

Then I projected a photograph of Tanenhaus, briefly shared his biography, and projected the quote.

“Tanenhaus is a master reviewer,” I said. “So we’re going to take a page out of his book and try to figure out how other writers are managing this technique of weaving argument and description together–and then we’ll bring it back to our our writing.”

Then I projected the following excerpts from the first three mentor texts, asking students to mark them in their packets.

I read the excerpts out loud and talked students through my observations about how these writers successfully incorporate analysis and argument into the description of whatever they are reviewing.

Excerpt 1:

“The plain diction of “Independence Day” and “Separation” suits the poems’ emotional intensity. Elsewhere, the poetry ascends to music — “toward the sea, / the sound of singing ceases,” Powers writes in the gorgeous “After Leaving McGuire Veterans Hospital for the Last Time.”

–from “With Poetic Intensity, Kevin Powers…” para. 6

Excerpt 2:

“After seeing Claire prattle on to the kids about her professional adventures in the rough-and-tumble world of high-end closets, I was glad to see that it didn’t wind up being yet another “Claire is the worst” plot. Instead, it took on a sweet dynamic not often seen between all three of the Dunphy women, with Haley and Alex comforting Claire as Jay withholds his praise for her hard work.”

–from “A Hard Jay’s Night,” para. 5

Excerpt 3:

“His high voice can remind you of Smokey Robinson and Marvin Gaye, as can a few of his musical hooks, but his tone is also pleasantly ghostly, wafting in and out of a melody with sinuousness that can be sly or sexy or serene.”

–from “Pharrell Williams: Just Exhilaratingly Happy,” para. 2

Then I asked them students to return to the remaining mentor texts and locate two examples of the argument-description pattern in each review. Here are some of the excerpts they found:

“The skin of the trout au bleu, netted from a tank in the kitchen, conked on the skull with firewood, gutted and slipped into a tangy court bouillon, is meant to turn blue, eponymously. Does it, though? Hard to tell, because it was always covered up by fingerling potatoes, cabbage and tartar sauce. The flavor and feel of the trout seemed terrific, but with so many things competing for attention, that was hard to tell, too.”

–from “Fred and Barney…” para. 12

The frantic rhythm of pilot-versus-pilot combat takes a sudden turn a few minutes in when everyone is granted the ability to call in their own giant robot. These bots are the titans of Titanfall. A few seconds after one is summoned, it drops from the sky and smashes into the earth with a satisfying thud. Climb into the cockpit, and you’re driving a 30-foot tall steel beast. It’s an empowering feeling, and not just because you’ve suddenly got missile launchers or chainguns for arms. Something about the way your perspective of the conflict shifts in a titan reminded me of the first time I rode in the passenger side of a semi, sitting throne-like above the rest of the traffic.

–from “Titanfall…” para. 4

And here are some of the noticings from our discussion about how writers manage this technique:

  • Writers use figurative language to enhance their argument
  • Writers use well-placed, specific adjectives to describe the product
  • Writers combine details and argument in the same sentence rather than writing an opinion sentence, followed by a sentence with details
  • To support their opinion, writers incorporate details that the average player/user/wearer/listener, etc. might overlook–this is a writer’s job
  • Writers follow a description with questions like “Does it, though?”–questions that propel them into the argument
  • Writers use both nouns and verbs to show their opinion

Students copied these noticings into their notebooks for use during the writing process. Then they got to work!

For more information about getting your students to write beyond summary and description, check out Rebekah’s recent post.

– Allison


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