Guilford College Writing Manual

This is the official Guilford College Writing Manual. A collaboration between the English Department and the Hege Library.

Geography of an Issues and Exploration Paper


Unlike a thesis/proof paper, an issues and exploration paper does not begin by firmly establishing a main point. Nor does it proceed by laying down an inexorable line of logic that is articulated at the beginnings of the paragraphs. Instead, the exploration paper proceeds by association. New questions are raised, new issues are introduced. The writer's understanding of the subject becomes progressively deeper and more complex. The point of the paper is less to lay out convincingly one single correct interpretation of a topic than to record the mind's journey toward meaning, a meaning that is always subject to revision as new elements are added to the complexity.

In this paper, then, we do not see a tight chain of reasoning extending through thesis, topic sentences, and conclusion. The thesis is more likely to be a hypothesis, and the body paragraphs tend to proceed inductively rather than deductively. That is, the writer begins with a question or issue rather than an already cemented point in a proof. A question is raised or a thought articulated, and then the writer sees where it leads. The conclusion may pull things together, but tentatively rather than with a clashing of cymbals.

Take, for example, the following paper written by former Guilford student Claire Narensky. Claire is writing about an etching in the Guilford College Art Gallery. In her paper, Claire begins by looking at the etching's literal elements, but she soon moves to a more complex appreciation as she opens herself to her own personal associative responses and also to what appears "between the lines" in the etching. Her developing assessment of the etching takes on added resonance as she then considers the etching's formal elements: texture, color and line. She concludes with a provisional statement of the "picture of reality" which the etching presents to her.

A Picture of Reality

Have you ever had the feeling that you were being unexpectedly drawn into something? That beyond your will you were being forced to stare at something? It was this phenomenon that lured me into Luigi Lucioni's etching, "Shadow and Substance." Before you can understand the emotions that this etching stirs, you must have a mental picture of it. Literally, it is a barn or stable, with tall silos in front of it. The rear of a cow can be seen through one of its windows. This barn is backed by a looming expanse of mountains, But this descriptive view on its own is not what the etching is about; its powerful message seeps out like a secret from between the lines.

The etching evoked a primitive duality in me: the partnership of chaos and stability. It firmly murmurs the universal fact that the world contains both the arbitrary unknown, as well as the assured and concrete. The mountains possess a sense of danger and mystery. My imagination and memory probe the depth of the mountains and I remember being six years old in California, evacuating our house because of an approaching forest fire. Nature seemed overwhelming and omnipotent. As mere humans, we have no power or control over it. This was the feeling I had then, and this is the feeling I have now when looking at the sky and mountains this etching holds. There is a mystery in what can actually happen within the folds of these mountains and the stirring of the dark sky. This mystery leads to a sense of potential danger and helplessness, ultimately, to chaos.

Opposed to this is the barn in the forefront. In the middle of the etching is a familiar object that looks normal and reassuring. It stands in the midst of these mountains in a somewhat dilapidated way; as though it has weathered a lot, and as though it will go on standing through the storms to come. Therefore, the barn scene gives us the opposite side of the partnership: the stability and endurance always to be found within randomness and mystery, such as the eye of a hurricane. Also, I think the rear of the cow showing through the window is an almost comical depiction of life still existing, in a simple way, as though to bring us to concrete reality.

This theme, I believe is based on more than just my imagination and search for meaning. The elements of the way the etching is composed lend themselves to these ideas. The mountains' ominous feeling comes from the complex intricacy of the lines of which they were made. The lines move both vertically and horizontally. giving the sky and mountains a rolling feeling, with lots of folds, texture, and definite movement. On the other hand, the stable is composed solely of straight lines, which gives it a very rooted, grounded feeling, as though it is not going anywhere. The colors, black, white and gray, leave no room for distraction, but focus your attention completely on the texture, the lines, and the subject matter. It also does not seem like there is much room for light in this picture, which is a main reason that the etching has a stormy feeling. The nature part of the picture, such as the mountains and sky, has a somewhat more blurred or softer texture than do the harsh, immediate lines of the stable in the forefront.

On one hand, Lucioni could have been sketching a simple portrait of his home state, Vermont. But I believe there is much more to it than that. It can be seen in this compacted little etching, where the eye is led from stable, to roof, to mountains, to sky, that everything is wrapped in together. The world consists of the powerful unknown and also the simple safe things. These two opposites are inseparable, for each relies on the other to exist, which Lucioni presents to us in "Shadows and Substance," consequently giving us a full picture of reality.

An important final note about exploratory papers: even though they are assembled more loosely than is the thesis/proof paper, even though they often proceed by digression and personal association, the final product must be accessible to the reader. These papers must often be revised more thoroughly than their thesis/proof counterparts, so that the reader doesn't get lost in the jungle of your thinking. You must embed subtle transitional cues and polish those spots where the coherence is rough. Keep in mind that whereas you can skip steps when writing for yourself, because you know what you mean, you must provide these steps for the reader.