Structure, Style, Argument
– an Undergrad Guide to Essay Planning
Bolster your essay with a compelling argument
Again, as with structure, the fundamentals of a sound and robust argument begin long before you start writing.
How to: Write a Proper Thesis Statement
If you're not familiar with the concept of a thesis statement, it can be a very powerful tool to drive your own writing, and then to signpost your argument to the reader.
In essence, a thesis statement is a single-sentence declaration of your essay’s central argument. It is always located at or towards the end of your introduction.
Most importantly, a thesis statement is not a mere observation or description. It is an analytical statement, an assertion that shows you've understood something about the object of your studies which might not be immediately obvious to all, and which therefore requires proof.
That's what makes it a thesis. It's an articulated argument, not a synopsis. Theorems are boring because someone has already tested and proved them; it’s theories we’re interested in here.
To use a real-world analogy, the thesis statement is your one-sentence 'elevator pitch'.
The fact is, just like reading a CV or even buying a house, the chances are the person looking at your work will have made a judgement on its probable final grade by the end of the first two pages. So your thesis statement is, in effect, your business case: the reasoning and justification for your reader carrying on and giving your argument a chance. Keep it brief, but make it count.
There are several pitfalls to dodge when writing your thesis statement. Take a look at the following examples to see why they fall short.
Question 1: Discuss human intellect in the poetry of William Blake.
Thesis Statement: Human intellect is a frequent concern of William Blake's poetry.
Flaw: This thesis is already implied in the question, and hasn't been refined any further. A thesis statement like this only sets you up to chart a list of examples, not to construct a genuine argument.
Try this instead: In Blake's poetry, the intellect is generally the seat of self-deception, obscuring rather than illuminating the spiritual life.
Question 2: What is the significance of time in Strindberg’s The Ghost Sonata?
Thesis Statement: August Strindberg's treatment of time offers insight into his play's major themes.
Flaw: This thesis is merely gesturing at significance, rather than actively engaging in its revelation. In other words, a thesis statement that asserts that something 'offers insight' or is 'significant' or 'provocative' isn’t fully doing its job, which is to suggest why this particular aspect of the work warrants your exploration, and your reader's attention.
Try this instead: The supernaturally-stopped time in The Ghost Sonata suggests spiritual emergency; Strindberg’s erratic time-treatment reveals his doubt in humankind’s ability to redress past wrongs in the natural course of events.
Question: Discuss the role of the body in the 1998 film Elizabeth.
Thesis Statement: This essay will look at ways in which the body of Queen Elizabeth I is treated in the film Elizabeth, with particular attention to the interest the court takes in the Queen’s procreative life. Furthermore, the essay will address personal privacy and national security by examining the public presentation of Elizabeth as virgin.
Flaw: Looks good, no? This may be an effective survey of the essay’s interests, but it is not a thesis statement. There is no claim or pointed assertion here. You should, of course, have already expressed the full range of your essay's concerns earlier in your introduction, but this shouldn't stand in place of a thesis statement. Rather than cataloguing various areas of intrigue around Elizabeth I, how about trying to coax out links between them, and the underlying message they may carry?
Try this instead: In its depiction of how Elizabeth I’s iconic virginity comes to emblematise the impenetrability of the state, Elizabeth depicts the body as an evolving metaphor for the body politic.
How to: Start your Essay Right and Stay on Track
Once you have a clear and concise thesis statement in mind, the core of your resulting argument must never lose sight of it as your essay progresses. This is true whether you’re writing 800 words or 80,000.
And, of course, your argument needs enough gas to get you there.
Try the Bottle Rocket model to get your argument off the ground and flying straight and true.
Picture your bottle rocket, standing by and ready to fly. It's an upturned bottle, a curved base opening out to wide sides, then narrowing down to the bottle-top where the escaping gas/liquid will propel it skyward.
First up, make sure the bottle rocket is standing as upright as possible.
Don’t start writing until you have a clear vision of your argument in mind. The best rockets don’t just go up; they also land where they're supposed to. So you should know (and feel confident about) where your essay is going to end before you even begin.
Next, fill your bottle rocket with the right fuel.
The best rockets have the best fuel, so you want nothing impure in the tank. With your thesis statement in mind, limit your focus and avoid the temptation to try to cover too much in just one essay.
Resist the temptation to bring in any extra material, however genius it may look or sound in your notes. This rocket isn’t trying to reach the Moon, only touch the sky.
Then it's time to shake that bottle up.
You’ve got the thesis statement. You’ve got your supporting material. Now give it all a good cerebral shake-up and see what ideas, themes and critical perspectives come to the fore. These are the kind of critical reactions academic writing was designed for.
Just be sure to do the shaking before you start writing and not vice-versa, otherwise you’re bound to veer off-course.
Don’t shake too much, either: if the bottle bursts then your rocket’s going nowhere.
Once your rocket’s airborne, you’ll want to keep it there.
The further it goes, the more ideas will need bringing in. So make sure there’s enough fuel in the tank to keep your argument incisive, insightful and on-point. Make sure your referencing is tight, too.
This rocket ain’t no doodlebug.
As you zero in on your destination, you don’t want your rocket fuel to just run out and your essay to just fall out of the sky.
So give your rocket a parachute, and control its descent through your closing paragraphs and into a considered, targeted conclusion.
Houston, no problems here