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Elements of the Academic Essay

Elements of the Academic Essay

(Gordon Harvey, Harvard University)

1. Thesis: your main insight or idea about a text or topic, and the main proposition (though it may have several parts) that your essay demonstrates. It should be true but arguable (not obviously or patently true, but one alternative among several), be limited enough in scope to be argued in a short composition and with available evidence, and get to the heart of the text or topic being analyzed (not be peripheral). It should be given early (not just be implied--though its fullest and sharpest statement may come later), and it should govern the whole essay (not disappear in places).

2. Motive: the reason, which you give at the start of your essay, why someone might want to read an essay on this topic--why it isn’t just obvious, why there is some doubt about the matter, why it requires attention and explanation. In practice this often means showing that other people have or might have other views or expectations (which you think need correcting), or why they might be puzzled or curious about the topic. The motive you set up won’t necessarily be the reason you first got interested in the topic, or the personal motivation behind your engagement with it: this could be private and idiosyncratic, whereas your motive is what you say to show that your argument isn’t idiosyncratic but is rather of interest any serious student of your topic. Nor should the others you posit who hold a different view, or might have missed something, or be puzzled, be straw dummies. You should make clear that their view can be reasonably argued for (see counter-argument) , that their puzzlement is plausible, that your point is one that an intelligent reader might really overlook. Defining motive should be the main business of your introductory paragraphs, where it is usually introduced by a form of the complicating word “But.”

3. Evidence: the data--facts, examples, or details--that you refer to, quote, or summarize to support your thesis. There needs to be enough evidence to be persuasive; it needs to be the right kind of evidence to support the thesis (with no obvious pieces of evidence overlooked); it needs to be sufficiently concrete for the reader to trust it (e.g. in textual analysis, it often helps to find one or two key or representative passages to quote and focus on); and if summarized, it needs to be summarized accurately and fairly.

4. Analysis: the work of breaking down, interpreting, and commenting upon your data, of saying what can be inferred from the data such that it supports a thesis (is evidence for something). Analysis is what you do with data when you go beyond observing or summarizing it: you show how its parts contribute to a whole or how causes contribute to an effect; you draw out the significance or implication not apparent to a superficial view, making clear the logic you are using. Analysis is what makes the writer feel present, as a distinct and active mind; so your essay should do more analyzing than it does summarizing or quoting.

5. Key terms: the recurring terms or basic conceptual oppositions that your argument and analysis rest upon, usually literal but sometimes metaphors. An essay’s key terms should be clear in meaning (defined if necessary) and appear throughout (not be abandoned half-way); they should be appropriate for the subject at hand (not unfair or too simple - e.g. implying a false or constraining opposition); and they should not be inert clichés or abstractions (e.g. “the evils of society”).

6. Assumptions: beliefs about life, people, history, reasoning, etc. that you don’t state but are implied in your key terms or in the logic of your argument, that you simply take for granted and assume that your reader will too. These should bear logical inspection, and if arguable they should be brought out into the open and acknowledged.

7. Structure: the sequence of your main sections or sub-topics, and the turning points between them. Your sections should follow an apprehensible order, and the links in that order should be apparent to the reader (see “stitching”). But it should also be a progressive order—it should have a direction of development or complication, not be simply a list or a series of restatements of the thesis (“Macbeth is ambitious: he’s ambitious here; and he’s ambitious here; and he’s ambitious here, too; thus, Macbeth is ambitious”). And the order should be supple enough to allow you to explore the topic, not just hammer home a thesis. (If the essay is complex or long, its structure may be briefly announced or hinted at after the thesis, in a road-map or plan sentence.)

8. Stitching/Stitches: words that tie together the parts of your argument, most commonly by (a) signalling transitions, acting as signposts to indicate how a new section, paragraph, or sentence follows from the one previous; but also by (b) recollecting an idea or word or phrase used or quoted earlier. Repeating key terms is especially helpful at points of transition from one section to another, to show how the new section fits in.

9. Sources: persons or documents--referred to, summarized, or quoted--that help you demonstrate the truth of your argument. They are typically sources of (a) factual information or data, (b) opinions or interpretation on your topic, (c) comparable versions of the thing you are discussing, or (d) applicable general concepts. Whether you are affirming or challenging your sources, they need to be accurately presented, efficiently integrated, and fairly acknowledged by citation--see Writing with Sources.

10. Reflecting/Reflection: moments at which you pause to look back on your argument or consider something about it, to raise or answer a question about it--as when you (1) consider a counter-argument--a possible alternative argument, or objection or problem, that a skeptical or resistant reader might raise; (2) define your terms or assumptions (what do I mean by this word? or, what am I assuming here?); (3) draw out an implication (so what? what might be the wider significance of the argument I have made? what might it lead to if I’m right? or, what does my argument about a single aspect of this suggest about the whole? or about the way people live and think?); (4) consider a possible explanation for the phenomenon that has been demonstrated (why might this be so? what might cause or have caused it?); and (5) offer a qualification or limitation to the case you have made (what you’re not saying). The first of these kinds of reflection can come anywhere in an essay; the second usually comes early, the last three often late, in concluding.

11. Orienting: bits of information, explanation, and summary that you give to orient the reader who isn’t expert in your subject, enabling such a reader to follow the argument easily. The orienting question is, what does my reader need here? And the answer can take many forms: necessary factual information about the text, author, or event (e. g. given in your introduction); a summary of a text or passage about to be analyzed; pieces of information given along the way about passages, people, or events mentioned (including announcing or set-up phrases for quotations and sources--see Writing with Sources). The challenge is to orient briefly and gracefully.

12. Stance: the implied relationship of you, the writer, to your readers and subject: where you implicitly position yourself as analyst and how you implicitly characterize your readers. Stance is defined by such features as style and tone (e.g., familiar or formal); presence or absence of specialized language and knowledge; amount of time spent orienting a general, non-expert reader; and use of scholarly conventions of form and style. Your stance should be established within the first few paragraphs of your essay, and it should remain consistent.