Tristanne Connolly, Department of English, St. Jerome's University
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Essays usually begin with one introductory paragraph. The first section of this paragraph "eases the reader in". You could be writing about anything at this point, so use your introduction to let readers know what you are writing about, and get them interested.
Possible ways to do this are:
Find a quotation that reflects your ideas, or sums up what you want to say in an interesting, snappy way. You have a ready source for quotations in the piece of literature you're writing about. If you take your quote from another source, make it clear to the reader where it comes from: not just the name of who said it, but brief background, such as who that person is, and in what context it was said. Also relate it clearly to the topic (and text) at hand.
Give an example. Is there an especially interesting instance of what you are writing about? Use it to pull the reader in. Remember, though, that in the body of your essay you will be using examples to prove your point; this is a different kind of example, used only to introduce your point and intrigue your reader.
Start with the general and move to the specific--but not too general. Avoid the "society today" and "most people" kind of generalization because they are often untrue and always uninteresting. (William Blake once wrote, "To Generalize is to be an Idiot". Why? Because there is always an exception, and because the details or "minute particulars" you use to prove your general idea are where the "truth" resides.)
Give some background. What does the reader need to know about your topic, not only to get interested, but as a basis for what you intend to say?
Explain an issue. Why is your topic important? What is at stake?
Offer a definition. Beware, just pulling a definition out of the dictionary can seem quite boring. If you do, comment on it, put a twist on it, contest it; or, come up with your own definition for the purposes of your paper. Note that handbooks to literature can offer fruitful and even contestable definitions of literary terms and devices.
Ask a question. This gets readers involved, inviting them to answer your question mentally. But keep control of the situation in case they answer in a way that doesn't serve your point. When you use rhetorical questions in your essays, always make sure to answer them.
Make a comparison. The thing you are writing about, what is it like? Does your paper use comparisons that you can introduce right away? Is there a metaphor you can use to shed light on what you are saying?
Tell a little story or anecdote related to your topic. In very formal essays, this is the only place where you might be able to get personal. Make sure your introductory story is not too long. If necessary, give it its own short paragraph and let the next paragraph do the job of the introduction.
Present a mystery. Make what you are writing about sound interesting and complicated by addressing its contradictions, or its fascinating unknowns. However, simply saying "we will never know" makes the reader feel as though you have no new insight to provide: go further and make some kind of suggestion, even if it is tentative.
Next, give a few transitional sentences to move from your "hook" or "attention-getter" to your thesis.
A good thesis statement or main idea is the key to a good essay. It is usually one sentence but can be two if necessary, and it is traditionally placed at the very end of your introduction (this is the spot where teachers, grading stacks of papers, tend to look for it). It is the main thing you are trying to say or argue in your essay, and all of your body paragraphs will go to prove, support and elaborate on it. It is the pin that holds your essay together. A topic is what your essay is about, while a thesis is your stand, your particular, focused statement or argument on that topic, the insight that all of your points come together to show.
Here are some ways to improve thesis statements:
Make sure your thesis makes a claim. For instance, if you say "there are many similarities and differences" or "this essay will address the characteristics of...", you could get more specific. What similarities and differences? What characteristics? What do they have in common? And what does it all mean? Are there any interesting contradictions involved, e.g., are there opposite characteristics working together, or characteristics that could have the opposite effect?
Make sure your thesis is not obviously true: a statement of fact or a cliché. Instead, can you put a new twist on an old idea, or contest received wisdom? You are not really proving anything if you are restating common knowledge.
Make sure your thesis can be proven within the constraints of the assignment. Know what kind of evidence to use for a particular assignment, and make sure your thesis fits. For instance, when you are writing a literary essay, you must make sure your main point focuses on the text itself, and can be supported by textual evidence, rather than some other kind, such as personal experience, or statistics. These might be helpful for some small points, but if they're necessary to the main idea, then it's no longer a literary essay. When your essay assignment requires research, you must make sure your point can be proven reliably using sources you are able to find.
Make sure your thesis is not based only on opinion. Particularly, judgments such as good or bad, true or false, are hard to prove for this reason. Could you say something about the significance of the topic instead? Or examine why you think something is true or false, good or bad? Iif you are automatically stating your opinion without considering it, you are not thinking very deeply and may be in the realm of cliché. Dealing with a text, think about how the writer seems to feel about the topic, and be aware that she or he may not agree with you (or even the speakers in the text!). In all cases, question your assumptions. Imagine counterarguments and other views. Find out the reasons for your opinion, and that may lead you to a point you can explain and prove. Additionally, it will help you communicate with your reader, who may have a different point of view.
Make sure your thesis is focused: not too broad. Is your claim too general to be convincingly proven with a few examples? Try to define it: you do not need to account for "everyone" or "everything". Can you develop your point and prove it within the page limit? Sometimes it is better to say more about less. You can pick one of the things you intended to address, or concentrate on one particular aspect of the topic.
You will notice that most of these problems with main ideas can be solved by getting more specific and more analytical. Ask the questions, "What exactly?" and "What does it all mean?" or "What does it all teach us about ___?" Complications can actually help you. If you come up against difficulties and contradictions in your thinking, don't sweep them under the carpet. Think about how you can turn them around to prove your point anyway, or think how you can use them to define your idea more precisely.
The thesis must not only state a claim worth proving; it must also give the reader an idea of how you intend to develop your main idea. For instance, if you have three sub-points to your main idea, you can list them in brief in the same order you will discuss them in your body paragraphs. Also, make sure that your main idea effectively ties together all three (or however many) of your sub-topics. What do they have in common? What makes them different?
The thesis is like a preview of your essay. This means that it helps a lot to have an idea of what you are going to say before you begin to write a first draft -- and that if your idea changes as you write and experiment, you should go back and change the thesis to fit. Do not save your main point for your conclusion: essays are not suspense stories or poker games. Lay your cards on the table in the introduction. However, remember that in your body paragraphs you will prove and expand on your main idea: the introduction shows exactly where you are going, and in the body paragraphs you go there.
You can have as many body paragraphs as you wish. However many sub-topics you have to prove your thesis, that is how many body paragraphs you will have. You can place them in any order, so long as it makes sense. For instance, you can:
*place the strongest argument last
*move in chronological order
*move from causes to effects
*alternate: if you are writing about more than one thing, move back and forth between them
*"chunk": if you are writing about more than one thing, write all about one then all about the other.
Every body paragraph must have a topic sentence which is like a mini-thesis, and which is usually placed at or near the beginning of the paragraph (indicating what you are going to prove), but can also come at the end (indicating what you have just proven). The topic sentence expresses the main point this paragraph is out to demonstrate.
Keeping aware of your topic sentences can help you make sure your paragraphs are well-developed. Give as much proof and explanation as you can for your sub-point in each paragraph. Go into detail.
Make sure in every paragraph you:
*offer some kind of evidence. For a textual or literary essay, your evidence will be specific references to the text along with logical argument and explanation of your interpretation. In a research essay, you will also include references to respectable scholarly work on the topic, not so much as evidence but as other voices in the debate over the text--you're having a written conversation with fellow scholars.
*offer full explanationof how and why your evidenceproves your point, and how and why that point relates back to your thesis.
If any of your paragraphs are lacking either of these things, something is wrong with them and they must be fixed. E.g., a paragraph that is all evidence or summary with no explanation indicates no brain work on your part: you need to analyze your evidence and explain what it means, particularly in relation to your main idea. Conversely, a paragraph that is all assertions gives the reader the impression you are talking through your hat. Essay readers will not take your word for it. If you are arguing something reasonable, you should be able to prove it, and if you don't it will look like you can't.
For every assertion you make, give proof and explanation.
Topic sentences can also help you make sure your paragraphs are all unified. Each paragraph should be about only one thing. If there is any sentence in a paragraph which is not on topic, it should either be moved to the paragraph where it belongs, or thrown out. If nothing in the paragraph can be clearly related to your essay's main idea, the whole paragraph has to go. Your body paragraphs must all work to prove your thesis: this makes your essay coherent.
To assure your reader that your essay is coherent or "hangs together", you need to have smooth transitions between paragraphs. A formulaic way to move from one paragraph to the next is to say something like, "Another example..." or "The third point is...", but this is very mechanical and so doesn't have the finesse of an A paper! Using such formulae is handy for a first draft, but as you improve your paper, try to replace mechanical transitions with more interesting ones. Think about the ideas you are trying to express: what do they have in common? What is the difference between the last idea and this one? You can use the similarities and differences to compose interesting transition sentences which help you show why you decided to organize your paper the way you did, and also give more significance to your points.
Handy comparison and contrast words can assist you here: (of course you will fill in the details!) Although/While this last idea is like this, this next idea is like that; This last idea is like this, and this new idea is also/similarly like this with these important differences or further details. You can also use time sequence (e.g. Next/Meanwhile), or cause and effect (e.g. Consequently/If...then).
The conclusion of an essay wraps things up. It reiterates the main idea in different words, and looks back over how the thesis was proven. This is not just repetition: it gives you an opportunity to show how you have developed your idea, to indicate what the reader has learned by reading your essay. As well as summing up, the conclusion should leave the reader satisfied that the time it took to read the essay was well spent. So, remember Miles Davis and answer the question, "So What?" Why is all this important? What are the implications of what you have argued? What does it mean in the big world? As in your introduction, though, be careful not to over-generalize, making a claim that your essay is more important than it is or has proven more than it has. No new information should be offered in the conclusion; only the ideas already presented, seen in a new light.
Some ways to put a sting in the tail of your essay:
Quotation. Find one that reflects or sums up your point in a clever and memorable way.
Figurative language. Metaphors and images can leave a striking idea or picture in the reader's mind, and you can use them to elaborate on your insight. Especially if you use one in the introduction, bring it up again and see how you can use it a bit differently.
Example or anecdote. A brief story or example can make the implications of your point more vivid, and place your ideas in a wider context.
Predictions or speculations. What follows from what you have argued? Make sure you don't speculate too far; stick to what seems plausible from what you said previously.
And a finishing touch: a great title
A good title is not too vague, yet not too long either. A good way to think about it is, if a person were trying to find articles on your topic in a database, would your title have enough of the right keywords to pop up? Be sure to mention the text and/or author you're writing about, and include words which reveal something about the main drift of your argument. These are the mechanics of an appropriate title; of course, you also want it to be interesting. A unique or clever turn of phrase can do this for you. You can also take a short phrase from the text which you think particularly relates to what you have to say, and place it before your main title, with a colon to connect them. Here's an example.
"Wild Ecstasies" and "Sober Pleasure": The Relationship between William and Dorothy Wordsworth in "Lines Written a Few Miles above Tintern Abbey"
- Understand how and why organizational techniques help writers and readers stay focused.
- Assess how and when to use chronological order to organize an essay.
- Recognize how and when to use order of importance to organize an essay.
- Determine how and when to use spatial order to organize an essay.
The method of organization you choose for your essay is just as important as its content. Without a clear organizational pattern, your reader could become confused and lose interest. The way you structure your essay helps your readers draw connections between the body and the thesis, and the structure also keeps you focused as you plan and write the essay. Choosing your organizational pattern before you outline ensures that each body paragraph works to support and develop your thesis.
This section covers three ways to organize body paragraphs:
- Chronological order
- Order of importance
- Spatial order
When you begin to draft your essay, your ideas may seem to flow from your mind in a seemingly random manner. Your readers, who bring to the table different backgrounds, viewpoints, and ideas, need you to clearly organize these ideas in order to help process and accept them.
A solid organizational pattern gives your ideas a path that you can follow as you develop your draft. Knowing how you will organize your paragraphs allows you to better express and analyze your thoughts. Planning the structure of your essay before you choose supporting evidence helps you conduct more effective and targeted research.
In Chapter 8 “The Writing Process: How Do I Begin?”, you learned that chronological arrangement has the following purposes:
- To explain the history of an event or a topic
- To tell a story or relate an experience
- To explain how to do or to make something
- To explain the steps in a process
Chronological order is mostly used in expository writing, which is a form of writing that narrates, describes, informs, or explains a process. When using chronological order, arrange the events in the order that they actually happened, or will happen if you are giving instructions. This method requires you to use words such as first, second, then, after that, later, and finally. These transition words guide you and your reader through the paper as you expand your thesis.
For example, if you are writing an essay about the history of the airline industry, you would begin with its conception and detail the essential timeline events up until present day. You would follow the chain of events using words such as first, then, next, and so on.
Writing at Work
At some point in your career you may have to file a complaint with your human resources department. Using chronological order is a useful tool in describing the events that led up to your filing the grievance. You would logically lay out the events in the order that they occurred using the key transition words. The more logical your complaint, the more likely you will be well received and helped.
Choose an accomplishment you have achieved in your life. The important moment could be in sports, schooling, or extracurricular activities. On your own sheet of paper, list the steps you took to reach your goal. Try to be as specific as possible with the steps you took. Pay attention to using transition words to focus your writing.
Keep in mind that chronological order is most appropriate for the following purposes:
- Writing essays containing heavy research
- Writing essays with the aim of listing, explaining, or narrating
- Writing essays that analyze literary works such as poems, plays, or books
When using chronological order, your introduction should indicate the information you will cover and in what order, and the introduction should also establish the relevance of the information. Your body paragraphs should then provide clear divisions or steps in chronology. You can divide your paragraphs by time (such as decades, wars, or other historical events) or by the same structure of the work you are examining (such as a line-by-line explication of a poem).
On a separate sheet of paper, write a paragraph that describes a process you are familiar with and can do well. Assume that your reader is unfamiliar with the procedure. Remember to use the chronological key words, such as first, second, then, and finally.
Order of Importance
Recall from Chapter 8 “The Writing Process: How Do I Begin?” that order of importance is best used for the following purposes:
- Persuading and convincing
- Ranking items by their importance, benefit, or significance
- Illustrating a situation, problem, or solution
Most essays move from the least to the most important point, and the paragraphs are arranged in an effort to build the essay’s strength. Sometimes, however, it is necessary to begin with your most important supporting point, such as in an essay that contains a thesis that is highly debatable. When writing a persuasive essay, it is best to begin with the most important point because it immediately captivates your readers and compels them to continue reading.
For example, if you were supporting your thesis that homework is detrimental to the education of high school students, you would want to present your most convincing argument first, and then move on to the less important points for your case.
Some key transitional words you should use with this method of organization are most importantly, almost as importantly, just as importantly, and finally.
Writing at Work
During your career, you may be required to work on a team that devises a strategy for a specific goal of your company, such as increasing profits. When planning your strategy you should organize your steps in order of importance. This demonstrates the ability to prioritize and plan. Using the order of importance technique also shows that you can create a resolution with logical steps for accomplishing a common goal.
On a separate sheet of paper, write a paragraph that discusses a passion of yours. Your passion could be music, a particular sport, filmmaking, and so on. Your paragraph should be built upon the reasons why you feel so strongly. Briefly discuss your reasons in the order of least to greatest importance.
As stated in Chapter 8 “The Writing Process: How Do I Begin?”, spatial order is best used for the following purposes:
- Helping readers visualize something as you want them to see it
- Evoking a scene using the senses (sight, touch, taste, smell, and sound)
- Writing a descriptive essay
Spatial order means that you explain or describe objects as they are arranged around you in your space, for example in a bedroom. As the writer, you create a picture for your reader, and their perspective is the viewpoint from which you describe what is around you.
The view must move in an orderly, logical progression, giving the reader clear directional signals to follow from place to place. The key to using this method is to choose a specific starting point and then guide the reader to follow your eye as it moves in an orderly trajectory from your starting point.
Pay attention to the following student’s description of her bedroom and how she guides the reader through the viewing process, foot by foot.
Attached to my bedroom wall is a small wooden rack dangling with red and turquoise necklaces that shimmer as you enter. Just to the right of the rack is my window, framed by billowy white curtains. The peace of such an image is a stark contrast to my desk, which sits to the right of the window, layered in textbooks, crumpled papers, coffee cups, and an overflowing ashtray. Turning my head to the right, I see a set of two bare windows that frame the trees outside the glass like a 3D painting. Below the windows is an oak chest from which blankets and scarves are protruding. Against the wall opposite the billowy curtains is an antique dresser, on top of which sits a jewelry box and a few picture frames. A tall mirror attached to the dresser takes up most of the wall, which is the color of lavender.
The paragraph incorporates two objectives you have learned in this chapter: using an implied topic sentence and applying spatial order. Often in a descriptive essay, the two work together.
The following are possible transition words to include when using spatial order:
- Just to the left or just to the right
- On the left or on the right
- Across from
- A little further down
- To the south, to the east, and so on
- A few yards away
- Turning left or turning right
On a separate sheet of paper, write a paragraph using spatial order that describes your commute to work, school, or another location you visit often.
Please share with a classmate and compare your answers.
- The way you organize your body paragraphs ensures you and your readers stay focused on and draw connections to, your thesis statement.
- A strong organizational pattern allows you to articulate, analyze, and clarify your thoughts.
- Planning the organizational structure for your essay before you begin to search for supporting evidence helps you conduct more effective and directed research.
- Chronological order is most commonly used in expository writing. It is useful for explaining the history of your subject, for telling a story, or for explaining a process.
- Order of importance is most appropriate in a persuasion paper as well as for essays in which you rank things, people, or events by their significance.
- Spatial order describes things as they are arranged in space and is best for helping readers visualize something as you want them to see it; it creates a dominant impression.
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