The only true praise is thought. The only thing that can back-bone an essay is thought. (Robert Frost)
When you’re given a writing assignment in an English or History class, you’re being called on to interpret, evaluate, appreciate, condemn, praise – but, above all, to think. An essay, in that sense, is just like being called on in class. You’re being asked to say something thoughtful about the topic at hand. So just as you would in a face-to-face conversation, you’ll want to stick to the point and offer your response in a way that is understandable and that puts your ideas in the best possible light. If you try to keep the same guidelines in mind for your writing that you use instinctively when you’re talking, then your paper will read like a genuine human discussion rather than like an empty political TV commercial. Your readers will appreciate this very much!
By now you’ve (hopefully!) taken notes, reviewed them to find what interests you, identified a topic, and developed it into a tentative thesis. You’ve begun rereading specific areas of your texts or researching other sources for ideas that relate to your thesis. So the time has come to start building these ideas into an argument.
You may recall in our brief look at the different types of arguments, that there are appeals to emotion and appeals to reason. The type of writing we’re talking about here may make an occasional reference to emotion (especially if you’re writing about a controversial issue), but the argument should be logical.
The two forms of logical arguments you’ll probably end up using, depending on the material and the assignment, will be deductive and inductive. A deductive argument might begin with evidence from texts or from previous interpretations, and lead to a specific conclusion in a format like this: “if A is true, and B is true, then C ought to be true.” In the real world A and B are almost never absolutes that no one is going to challenge, so your conclusion is always going to be tentative. An inductive argument would begin with specific data and try to generalize from them, to a conclusion about the broader world. Its conclusion would also be tentative, but that’s no reason not to argue your point strongly and with conviction.
As you read and research, your goal is to find the building blocks of your argument: factual data, prior interpretations you can comment on, etc. As you prepare to write, you’ll want to organize your argument into a series of points that develop your thesis and that build on each other to support your conclusion. Ernest Hemingway once said that good prose is architecture, not interior decorating. By that we guess he meant that it is constructed, composed on a solid foundation – it’s graceful, but not primarily designed to be pretty. Since we’re using an architectural metaphor, we might also want to remember architect Louis Sullivan’s advice: “form follows function.” The mechanical structure that supports your ideas does not necessarily have to be apparent to the reader. But it has to be there. Its purpose is to help shape your argument so that the reader can understand and follow it. Without it, your reader would quickly become lost, wandering through a random pile of “Oh, by the way” points that lead nowhere.
There are a lot of ways to organize your argument. People have used – and some still use – index cards very effectively, even on multi-volume book projects. Other people use the outlining capabilities of applications like Word, or the note card-like interfaces of tools such as Scrivener. Still others are completely satisfied with a pen and a yellow legal pad. However you choose to do it, the object of this part of the game is to arrange your points into an argument that fits them and supports your thesis.
It might help at this point to begin a rough outline. Your main points will become the topic sentences that will control your middle paragraphs. They’re contained in, or at least implied by, your thesis statement. They will give coherence to your argument by connecting with each other as well as with the thesis sentence in your first paragraph and with the concluding sentence in your last paragraph. So you could start by writing these controlling ideas down in a preliminary outline. Do this if it feels comfortable to you.
If you feel you just want to get on with the writing, another possibility might be to write your rough draft first, and then try to outline it. Either way an outline, no matter how sketchy, helps to ensure that your essay is going somewhere and not just bouncing around or spinning in circles. Remember you are still going to reread, reconsider, add, subtract, rearrange, revise. At this point everything is tentative. A logical outline could be just the control you need to turn a rough draft into an essay that’s a model of clarity and readability. This is expository, analytical writing; your reader is not looking for baroque flourishes (we return to the architecture metaphor once again!). Whether you develop your argument by defining, describing, exemplifying, classifying, comparing, or contrasting, your reader is looking for insights.
Remember: you have a reader for whom you must define your terms, expose your premises, and state your purposes. Doing this clarifies the scope and course of your argument for both of you.
Even when you make a logical argument that appeals to your reader’s reason rather than to emotion, your essay’s success is often not simply a question of your argument being either “right” or “wrong.” Your argument will be more valid and persuasive if developed cogently and communicated effectively. Just as you look for author biases in texts, your reader naturally assumes that your interpretations cannot be completely impartial or “objective.” However, they can and should be interesting and plausible if expressed in a clear and readable manner. That’s what “good prose” is. But remember: this is the goal of your final draft, so don’t expect it to happen all at once. Work toward it.
Settling on a useful structure, you should keep in mind that
- Your purpose is: first, to set up a writer-reader relationship; second, to make your argument understandable, interesting, persuasive.
- Your organization will emphasize the material you think is important by controlling the sequence in which information is revealed.
The shape you give your “building” depends ultimately on you, the builder. But don’t forget that architects design structures for other people: your reader has to find a home in it as well. The basic model that has worked pretty well in high school and college classes looks like this:
- General introduction: get your reader’s interest right away; briefly provide only necessary background (Don’t summarize!). Make your topic clear; focus on a specific statement of thesis.
- Organize supporting ideas into coherent paragraphs with clear topic sentences.
- Create meaningful and smooth transitions between paragraphs. Try to vary your sentences so they are not monotonous.
- Support every assertion you make with evidence from the text or data.
- Connect ideas in conclusion. You might want to move from a specific statement back to a general discussion, reversing the order of your first paragraph, while adding a “so what” statement. This creates symmetry.
Abandoning the architecture metaphor for a moment, you could also think of this essay structure as a journey. You and your reader meet in the introduction, you go out together and have an adventure in the body paragraphs, and then you come back and reflect on what it meant in the conclusion.
Of course this is not the only way to structure an essay. Different goals lead to different journeys; to different buildings, if we return to architecture. If you’re building a different building and it’s working – that is, if your readers find your writing interesting and effective – then by all means stick to it and build on it, improving it all the time. Your readers and instructor will give you the necessary feedback. Whatever you’re building, it will ultimately need to communicate your thoughts to your audience. Organization helps, so your instructor will be looking for (judging, grading) criteria such as: logical sequence; theme keeps moving; good paragraph structure; smooth transitions; main ideas given proper emphasis; all generalizations supported; all paragraphs come out of the thesis and lead to the conclusion.