In the previous post to this mini-series on an introduction to writing argumentative essays, I introduced the essay Writing Standards and discussed the first requirement, the thesis statement.
In this post, I will discuss the second requirement, which concerns the organization of your thesis into sub-theses, which are developed and defended in the body of your essay. The Standards state:
- The body of the paper defends the thesis via a progression of arguments.
- The opening of the paper provides an overall map of its direction.
- The body of the paper mirrors the introductory map, and each paragraph builds the case in logical progression.
- The paper makes an evidence-based case in support of the thesis. Accordingly, the paper also anticipates and addresses potential objections.
As in the previous post, let’s break these requirements down and I’ll explain what they mean and how to use them.
The body of the paper. These are all of the paragraphs between the introductory and concluding paragraphs.
…defends the thesis. But why should your thesis need a defense? It’s what you think. And why should you have to defend what you think or believe? Suppose the text you’re writing about is a poem. Isn’t it all just interpretation? And we’re all entitled to our own interpretations? Sure, someone might disagree with your interpretation and ideas. But so what? You disagree with theirs.
This is almost verbatim what the parent of an Honors student once said to me in a roomful of other parents of Honors students. It was a glorious moment.
What this person, and the students who have been taught likewise, may not realize is that there is a difference between disagreement and logical argumentation. The thesis paper is not a quarrel, it is an argument in this second, rational sense. You need to write an essay on your topic with the understanding that your reader (your Instructor) is not interested in quarreling with you, he or she is interested in examining, critiquing, and improving your powers of reasoning.
The main claim of your thesis should be such that, taken alone, it inspires a response like this: “Oh, really? What evidence do you have to support that position?” As I discussed in the previous post, your thesis should be non-obvious and non-trivial. “Though frequently appearing and interacting with human characters, the gods in the Iliad do not ultimately affect the course of events depicted in Homer’s epic.” If this is the main claim of my thesis, I need to marshal a defense of that claim, because any other close reader of the Iliad would not take it is as obviously true, and quite probably might think it false. That’s good! I will have to work to show that I have good reasons to support this claim.
…via a progression of arguments. How will you defend your thesis? With arguments. “But wait,” you say, “I thought my thesis statement was an argument!” Yes, Virginia, it is. But each supporting reason in defense of the main claim in your thesis requires its own argument for support. These sub-arguments, or sub-theses, are arranged in a progression such that the chain of your reasoning is made clear.
Monty Python to the rescue. In this sketch, Michael Palin’s character gives an excellent definition of an argument: “a connected series of statements to establish a definite proposition.” The “connected series of statements” are your reasons and evidence that support your main claim. In asserting these premises, you are establishing your defense of your main claim, and if your logic is sound, your main claim, or conclusion, follows from the evidence. This link between the premises, the “connected series of statements” and the conclusion, the “definite proposition,” is called an inference. You derive your conclusion from the evidence and reasons you marshal.
It is important that your argument have an inferential link. The reader should be led, if not compelled, to grasp that your conclusion logically follows from your evidence. Without an inferential link, you argument tends to merely tell the reader that X is the case rather than show the reader how and why you think that X is the case. Your Instructor may critique your drafts with a comment like, “Show, don’t tell.” It’s one of my favorite editorial marks.
This is often the most difficult part of the essay composition process. Anybody can string together a series of statements. But it takes careful reasoning to string together a logically connected series of statements. Okay, I’m really hammering the terminology here, and as helpful as it is to understand and be able to use these ideas, let me pull back a bit to reset some context for this requirement.
The logic that applies to your thesis statement is supposed to be the glue that holds your whole essay together. Note well that this standard concerns the body of your essay. Your entire essay is one long argument. Many students focus on the thesis statement as “the” argument of the paper, and neglect developing the supporting arguments connecting each of thesis’ points together. My colleagues have a great illustration of this structure: the Hamburger Paper. Behold!
In a future set of posts, I’m going to go into a lot more detail about writing argumentative essays, and I’ll unpack this illustration then. For now, I only want to point out three things about the hamburger-structured paper:
(1) If this looks like the ubiquitous 5-paragraph essay you learned in middle school, that’s because it is. As a structural model for argumentative essays, this form is an inevitable disaster. Consider: “Hamburgers are delicious” [thesis]. Your reader says, “Oh, really?” So you “support” your thesis by saying “Yes. There’s the buns, patty, some lettuce, the ketchup, the pickles, the tomatoes, the cheese and the bacon. See? 8 delicious ingredients all put together = delicious. QED.”
(2) Only, it is not QED. In point of fact, you can put these ingredients in any order, and even add or subtract ingredients, and it makes no difference. All you have by slapping yummy ingredients together is a list, not an argument. So the structure of the body of a hamburger essay is not a logical structure.
(3) The other problem with this model is the independence of the ingredients from each other and from the final product. The paragraphs do little more than wave to the reader–“Hi, see, I’m here.” They typically have weak topic sentences, not robust, non-trivial claims that have to be defended in the body of the paragraph. The paragraphs also tend to be of the same type. The conjunctions “Also” or “And” in transitional or topic sentences often announce that the paragraph is listing yet another item in the hamburger. Finally, hamburger paragraphs don’t develop internally. They don’t go anywhere, meaning they don’t exhibit reasoning in support of a sub-thesis or the overall argument.
Organizing an argument is one of the key skills you will need to learn to succeed in an academic paper, Honors or otherwise. Learn how to block an argument. You must abandon the 5-paragraph model forever; adding two or three more paragraphs (ingredients) to the hamburger isn’t going to cut the mustard.
map. The “opening of the paper,” i.e., the introduction, should announce to the reader the starting point (the topic question or problem), the destination (the thesis), and the route you’re going to take to get from the starting point to the destination. Sometimes we call this “forecasting” the argument of your paper. What it amounts to is that in the introductory paragraph you should state the connected series of premises and the definite proposition, i.e., the conclusion, i.e., the main claim, that they establish, i.e., that follows by inference from the premises. Don’t leave a claim unstated or assumed that is necessary to establish the argument. Be explicit so that the route you’re going to take in the body of the essay is understood before you get underway. No surprises please.
…body of the paper mirrors the introductory map. If you say you’re going to go from Montreal to Albuquerque by way of Eau Claire, Pierre, Denver, and Santa Fe, then when our journey from Montreal (the beginning of the introductory paragraph) is underway, we should pass those waypoints in the order you gave them.
…each paragraph builds the case in logical progression. In my map illustration, the geographical metaphor represents the logical. Our trip from Montreal to Denver builds as we pass each waypoint. Moreover, as we pass each waypoint, we progress geographically closer to our destination. There may be hundreds of other routes (arguments) from Montreal to Denver (question/problem to answer), but this route, for some reason, makes sense and can be completed as planned. No unnecessary sidetrips, no change of destination, no going in circles, no space-time warps. If we make a stop in Key West, then the body of the essay is off-track from the thesis, and you’re using a different map. You’re going to have a hard time convincing me that we needed to go through Key West (even though I wouldn’t mind the visit, and would probably just wave goodbye as you continue your journey to Albuquerque by yourself.
evidence-based case. The thesis must be supported by evidence, specifically, textual evidence. I will go into more details in the next post.
…anticipates and addresses potential objections. In a future tutorial dedicated strictly to essay writing, I’ll spend at least one whole post and give examples of this requirement. For this tutorial, here’s what you need to know. Remember that your aim in the argumentative paper is to show the reader that your reasoning is correct, that if your supporting points are granted, the thesis logically follows from them. This, by the way, is a far more achievable goal than that your argument is persuasive, for it will only be persuasive insofar as each of your premises is true and your reasoning is sound. A 5- to 7-page paper is not of sufficient scope to establish a convincing case for all of your supporting point. Many, if not all, of your premises might be reasonably challenged. The logical connection between them or between the premises and the conclusion might be challenged. Any of these points might be probed by someone who subjects your argument to analytical scrutiny. You should do this yourself. Identify claims or logical connections that are dubious or open to additional or alternative theses, or for which there are ready counterexamples. And then raise an objection to this point or points in your argument. Or at least compose the defense of your points in such a way that shows the reader you are aware of the vulnerabilities in your argument and the potential objections. Then address the objection, i.e., show why the objection should not stand and why your argument prevails. Sometimes a paper can begin with an objection as an obvious answer to the topic, and then the remainder of the paper is your argument as to why that answer is wrong or isn’t adequate, and why your answer is better. If you can’t figure out an objection to your arguments, then you probably are simply asserting one point after another and not actually reasoning.
In the third post in this mini-series, we’ll look at the third and fourth requirements in the Writing Standards. Stay tuned…the tutorial is nearly over!