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Writing an Essay Ch. 4: Structure

A series based on the book The Lively Art of Writing by Lucille Vaughan Payne

Peter Flynn

on 23 January 2019

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Transcript of Writing an Essay Ch. 4: Structure

4. Structure
This is the structure of every essay.
An essay has a beginning, middle, and an end
-or- an introduction, body, and conclusion.

This probably seems remarkably obvious.
However, failure to understand how this structure
is meant to work is the single greatest cause of
the essay that "just doesn't work."
You've spent much time brainstorming,
make sure all your hard work pays off.

A poor essay's topic is not introduced, it is thrown at the reader. A poor essay is not concluded, it just simply ends.
The greatest information will not be convincing in the hands of a poor essay writer.
A writer's style, imagination, purpose, vocabulary, and wit
will allow that writer to build their own essay, one that could
only be created by that specific writer. The structure, however,
will ALWAYS be there.

The Introduction
The function of the introductory paragraph is simply to introduce the subject and
come to the point.
Now, it is clear that the decline of a language must ultimately have political and economic causes: it is not due simply to the bad influence of this or that individual writer. But an effect can become a cause, reinforcing the original cause and producing the same effect in an intensified form, and so on indefinitely. A man may take to drink because he feels himself to be a failure, and then fail all the more completely because he drinks. It is rather the same thing that is happening to the English language. It becomes ugly and inaccurate because our thoughts are foolish, but the slovenliness of our language makes it easier for us to have foolish thoughts. The point is that the process is reversible. Modern English, especially written English, is full of bad habits which spread by imitation and which can be avoided if one is willing to take the necessary trouble. If one gets rid of these habits one can think more clearly, and to think clearly is a necessary first step toward political regeneration: so that the fight against bad English is not frivolous and is not the exclusive concern of professional writers. I will come back to this presently, and I hope that by that time the meaning of what I have said here will have become clearer. Meanwhile, here are five specimens of the English language as it is now habitually written.
Most people who bother with the matter at all would admit that the English language is in a bad way, but it is generally assumed that we cannot by conscious action do anything about it. Our civilization is decadent and our language -- so the argument runs -- must inevitably share in the general collapse. It follows that any struggle against the abuse of language is a sentimental archaism, like preferring candles to electric light or hansom cabs to aeroplanes. Underneath this lies the half-conscious belief that language is a natural growth and not an instrument which we shape for our own purposes.
Let's look at the introduction of an essay by George Orwell - Politics and the English Language. Don't worry, it's much more about language than politics.
OK, so this introduction is two paragraphs. But the basic structure
is still here. The author explains his topic, starting with a broad view
and becoming more specific. Here's a visual guide to how your introduction should work...
Visual Guide to an Introduction
broad, general statement
a little more specific...
Now we're starting to see the point.
As you get closer to your thesis statement,
you get more and more specific.
Almost there...
Thesis statement.
Note: This is not to imply that your introduction should or will be six sentences. I just had six pictures...
This structure makes logical sense to most people. The problem, however, is where to begin. How do we make this general statement?
Remember, we don't simply want a general statement; it has to be one that LEADS LOGICALLY to our thesis statement.
Luckily, there is a strategy that will typically lead to a strong introduction. Firstly, think about how you had already planned to develop your thesis. Remember all that planning that you totally did and didn't blow off? Here, it helps you again. Hmmm... it's almost like there's a reason for all that work.
Secondly, look at your thesis statement. Find a major element and expand that to its most general principles. Let's look back at Orwell's thesis from the earlier example.
If one gets rid of these
one can
think more clearly
, and to think clearly is a necessary first step toward
political regeneration
: so that the
fight against bad English
is not frivolous and is not the exclusive concern of
professional writers
(All of the red terms are potential starting points.)
Orwell chose "the fight against bad English"
"Most people who bother with the matter at all would admit that the English language is in a bad way, but it is generally assumed that we cannot by conscious action do anything about it."
Your general statement will relate to your thesis, but will not take a position on it.
Many times, your introduction will be re-written in the revision process. You will likely expand on your initial ideas in the process of writing your body paragraphs.
The important thing is to have a good, solid foundation from which to start. If a journey of 1000 miles begins with a single step, if you step out in the wrong direction you will end up 1000 miles off track. With sore feet.
Let's take a look at this in practice.
Let's start with the following thesis: The chief purpose of higher education is to teach students to think for themselves.
The chief purpose of higher education is to teach students to think for themselves.
Regardless of one's political beliefs, a common refrain from all who care about the future of higher education is "the system is broken."
Some reformers rage against inflation of scores, allowing non-deserving students to achieve the "As" previously reserved for truly outstanding performance. Other education crusaders point to high tuition cost, closing the doors of education, and therefore a path forward in a world in which a college degree is a pre-requisite for success, to those who cannot pay or alternatively creating a generation of student loan debt slaves.
These advocates, though guided by good intentions, are missing the point.
A generation of children are being taught to a test, subjected to classes in which a teacher dictates information to them, which must then be regurgiated back to them verbatim. In order for a society to thrive in today's marketplace of ideas, the importance of moving away from this type of education cannot be overstated.
So, while the previously mentioned advocates are addressing worthwhile points, their proposed reforms will be meaningless unless we address the underlying problem with today's education: students are motivated and incentivized to earn a grade, regardless of how they achieve that goal. In order to address this issue, we must reconnect with the idea that goes all the way back to the ancient Greek philosophers:
Whether your middle section is short or long, this is where
the real power of your essay resides. This is your argument.
how long should your body be?
Write as much as you need to present your argument clearly, completely, and persuasively.
You have three general rules for the body.
1. Make the necessary concessions to the opposition as soon as possible.
2. Devote at least one paragraph to every major argument in your full thesis statement.
3. Save your best argument for last.
If you have put together your full thesis from the earlier sections, you are in good shape. You have your con arguments ready to overcome and your pro arguments ready.
You want to deal with the opponent's points quickly. In a short essay, this can be done in a few sentences. In a longer essay, you may take longer. You do not want, however, to develop your opponent's arguments in the same depth that you develop your own.
If you concede a point to your opponent, transition quickly to your side of the argument. Discuss the opposition, respond to their point, and transition to your points.
In a longer essay, you might devote an entire paragraph to discussing
an opposing point. If so, that paragraph must be immediately followed
by at least a full paragraph defending your position.
Never allow an
opposing point to appear stronger than your own.
Above all else. NEVER make concessions in the "PRO" paragraphs
of your essay. Remember how you are building a series of points
designed to get the reader on your side? Introducing doubt at this
point is disasterous and should never be done. EVER.
Remember that your strongest argument goes last.
IMPORTANT: This is not necessarily what YOU feel is
the strongest argument, but rather the argument
that your reader would find most convincing.
You can change your mind as to the importance of
each argument as you write your essay. Doing so means
you will now have a different order of paragraphs. Don't
be tied immovably to your original plan, but don't change
without a good reason.
The ending to a poor essay is analogous to a guest who
would like to leave a party, but does not want to appear
rude. He stands around, hoping for a graceful exit, but
unable to find it. He yawns, hoping that someone else will
comment on how late it is, giving him the excuse he feels
he needs to make his exit. Finally, he quickly and awkwardly
makes a mad dash for the door.
- Yeah, I know that feeling, but where do
I get an idea for my conclusion?"

Your introduction.

But, I'm done with that!.

You can probably make it better now that
you've written your body. Go do that first.
- OK, I did that.

Good. Now do what you did for the introduction,
but backwards. Let's use the thesis we used in
our introduction above.
Thesis: The chief purpose of higher education
is to teach students to think for themselves.

Restated for the beginning of our conclusion:
- If our schools of higher education are not teaching
students how to think critically, they are failing at their
most basic purpose.
From this first sentence of your conclusion, you will broaden out towards a general statement. Where many students fail is that they simply repeat their points from the body. If I want a repeat of your introduction, I'll just go back and read that again. I want something new.
The reader wants something new, some nugget of truth to take away from the essay.

You can remind the reader of your points, but only on the
way to something new. So, restate those words like you did
with your thesis. Then build outward to a final statement
that relates your thesis to a broader background.
Let's check back in with Orwell and see how he ended his essay:

I have not here been considering the literary use of language, but merely language as an instrument for expressing and not for concealing or preventing thought. Stuart Chase and others have come near to claiming that all abstract words are meaningless, and have used this as a pretext for advocating a kind of political quietism. Since you don't know what Fascism is, how can you struggle against Fascism? One need not swallow such absurdities as this, but one ought to recognize that the present political chaos is connected with the decay of language, and that one can probably bring about some improvement by starting at the verbal end. If you simplify your English, you are freed from the worst follies of orthodoxy. You cannot speak any of the necessary dialects, and when you make a stupid remark its stupidity will be obvious, even to yourself. Political language -- and with variations this is true of all political parties, from Conservatives to Anarchists -- is designed to make lies sound truthful and murder respectable, and to give an appearance of solidity to pure wind. One cannot change this all in a moment, but one can at least change one's own habits, and from time to time one can even, if one jeers loudly enough, send some worn-out and useless phrase -- some jackboot, Achilles' heel, hotbed, melting pot, acid test, veritable inferno, or other lump of verbal refuse -- into the dustbin, where it belongs.
How might the essay we began in the introduction end?

Here is one way:

If our schools of higher education are not teaching
students how to think critically, they are failing at their
most basic purpose. Education reform often focuses on the failing grades
of students, but are we surprised when education itself is failing students
on the most basic level? Many students will never need the Pythagorean theorem
or be called upon to recite a Shakespearean sonnet, but the skills necessary to
do both are vital to a student's future success in his chosen field. Education professionals should design their curriculum to teach students the skills they will use to succeed in their chosen profession, whatever that is. By succeeding in teaching students critical thinking skills, educators will create a generation of young men and women who can adapt to a world that is changing at an exponential rate.
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