HOW TO STRUCTURE AN ESSAY: AVOIDING SIX MAJOR WEAKNESSES IN PAPERS
Writing a paper is a lot like painting your house: the bulk of the work is in the preparation–scraping, sanding, cleaning, applying primer. If you fail in the prep work, the finished product will be less than excellent. Similarly, it is the quality of prep work-the brainstorming, prewriting, drafting, revising-that makes some papers stand out as excellent.
It is a common mistake for students to want to start editing their papers before they have substantially revised them. Before you start to stress over individual words and punctuation marks, give your paper a critical read. Does your claim hang together in such a way that an educated reader can follow it? Elegant phrasing and multi-syllable words will not make up for weakness in the development of your argument.
Identifying six major weaknesses
Six major weaknesses can doom your paper to mediocrity or worse:
- A too-broad thesis statement
- A poorly formulated thesis
- Inadequate or unfocused topic sentences
- Writing off-subject
- Failing to anticipate objections
- An inadequate conclusion
The checklist below can help you discover whether your paper suffers from any of these errors. Ask yourself whether all of the following statements are true of your paper.
- My subject is limited enough for adequate treatment for this length of paper.
- My thesis statement is a discussable point and is in the form of a declarative sentence.
- I have used specific, focused topic sentences to support my thesis statement.
- All my sentences directly or indirectly support my thesis statement-I have not digressed or written "off the subject." I have not contradicted my thesis statement.
- I have anticipated the major objections to my thesis and have tried to address and overcome them.
- My closing paragraph restates the thesis (if necessary) and draws conclusions based on the points I have already discussed in my paper.
If any of these statements are not true, read ahead to find explanations and suggestions that may help.
1. The too-broad thesis statement
Many papers fail largely because the writer attempts to write on a subject so broad that he simply cannot adequately address it. Narrow down the topic to one that interests you, and for which source information is available, and that you can discuss adequately in the length assigned. The following sentence might have a legitimate place in a paper (as part of an introduction, perhaps), but it would fail as a thesis statement because it is too broad for a typical three- to four-page paper:
In American schools, there are many kinds of acceptable dress codes and classroom behaviors.
The phrase "American schools" includes pre-, elementary, intermediate, and high schools; public and private colleges; technical schools; adult schools; schools with and without uniform requirements; schools in conservative Midwestern towns and those in diverse urban areas; religious schools; progressive schools–too many schools, too many populations of students to discuss all at once.
Many urban-area public schools are weighing the advantages and disadvantages of requiring students to wear uniforms, and quite a few are deciding that uniforms are the way to go for several reasons.
2. The poorly formulated thesis
A thesis should treat a discussable point-that is, a topic that merits discussion because more than one point of view is sane and plausible. While it is possible, for example, to support the following statements, the resulting paper would likely not be very interesting because the points are not discussable:
A dog is a four-legged domestic mammal.
A friend is someone who is always there for you.
Humans need oxygen to live.
Reformulated, these statements can become more discussable and interesting:
Dogs are smelly, dumb, destructive eating machines, and I couldn't live without mine.
My friend Brad uses humor to encourage me to set high standards for myself.
In the absence of free oxygen, very different life forms might have emerged on earth.
Even a discussable thesis can fail to make its point clear. This is frustrating to the reader, who at the very least is entitled to a clear statement of your claim (unless it is obviously implied–a technique not recommended for beginners!). Compare the following vague theses with the stronger examples given above:
What do most people think about dogs? Are they man's best friend or worst enemy?
In my estimation, a sense of humor is a valuable thing.
Oxygen is especially vital for animal life forms.
Try the following to help sharpen a vague thesis statement:
- Avoid questions, which are useful as attention-getting devices, but are difficult to use as a thesis statement. For example, avoid "Why should students be given more freedom to choose elective subjects?" Instead use "Students should be given more freedom to choose elective subjects," or even "Students should not be given more freedom to choose elective subjects."
- Avoid "I think," "I believe," "In my opinion," or "To me." Such expressions are overly subjective and unnecessary; remember that you are presenting evidence to support your thesis statement, even if you are writing a narrative or descriptive paper. Besides, a simple declarative statement is a much stronger way to say what you think.
- Contrary to what you might think, absolute statements do not strengthen a thesis. Avoid them unless you are certain you can support them. Few statements (other than known facts–like the nondiscussable points above) can be proven completely to everyone's satisfaction. If you overstate your case with an absolute statement, and then fail to support it, you lose credibility. Use words like "seems," "seldom," "maybe," "probably," "possibly," and "almost." Avoid "certainly," "absolutely," "always," or "never."
3. Inadequate or unfocused topic sentences
Do not, out of enthusiasm, haste, or laziness, abandon the basics of paragraph structure for paragraphs subsequent to your thesis statement. From start to finish the paper should follow a consistent progression leading coherently to a reasonable, well thought out conclusion. Therefore, make sure every single paragraph in your paper contains its own clearly stated topic sentence as well as the specific details to support each, though not necessarily in that order–the following example, for instance, starts with an illustration and concludes with a topic sentence:
At George Washington Junior High School, after students had been wearing uniforms only five months, groups of students who formerly occupied separate areas of the lunch yard began sitting closer to each other and talking to each other more. School administrators concluded that the wearing of school uniforms had obscured the socioeconomic differences between students and resulted in more social mixing between the groups.
Compare the above example with the following too-general claim:
Wearing school uniforms is socially good for junior high school students.
In short, fuzziness in topic sentences suggests fuzziness in thinking. If you settle for vagueness in your topic sentences, you will be more likely to write off-topic or jump around from topic to topic. Clarifying your topic sentence–clarifying your thinking–will go a long way toward producing an organized and convincing paper.
4. Writing off-subject
Your thesis statement is a promise to your reader about what you will cover in your paper. Don't write "off" this subject; don't include sentences that do not support or elaborate on this main idea. For instance, if your thesis statement for an expository "process" paper is "Making a set of bookshelves requires precise skills," don't include sentences describing your favorite author or the kinds of books you plan to place in the bookshelves. If your thesis statement for a descriptive paper is "My room is a place of refuge," don't include more than incidental references to the other parts of the house or to your neighborhood.
A narrative sometimes seems particularly difficult to contain within the confines of a thesis statement. Consider, for example, a narrative paper about the biggest fish you ever caught. "The biggest fish I ever caught at Bass Lake hit on my spare house key at the very end of a long day of fishing." A common mistake is to tell the story of the entire fishing trip: when you left home, where you stopped for gas and bait, a description of the scenery, and so on. Remember that what you have promised to tell your reader is about catching the biggest fish ever; every sentence and paragraph should relate to this.
5. Failing to anticipate objections
Especially for an argumentative or persuasive paper, you must acknowledge and attempt to overcome objections to your thesis. For example, consider the following thesis statement: "Courses in Western Civilization should not be required of American college students. If they prefer Asian, African, or Native American Studies, for example, these should be acceptable alternatives to Western Studies." Here are two plausible objections to the preceding statement:
Western civilization represents the core culture of American students; to be successful in this culture, they must understand it.
The study of Western culture should be required in addition to Asian, African, or other cultures, in order to foster understanding of the modern global community.
Objections like these can be merely acknowledged-"Although some people insist that all students in American should study Western culture..."–or broken down and discussed in detail, point by point. Decide whether your topic–or the objection itself–is strong enough to warrant detailed discussion of opposing viewpoints.
6. An inadequate conclusion
Usually, student writers should write a concluding paragraph that summarizes the topic sentence (in words different from those used earlier) and restates the thesis (again, in different words). The conclusion should include the most important idea from your paper, the one you most want readers to remember. (Some papers may differ; the conclusion to a narrative essay, for example, may not follow this pattern.)
My room is one of the quietest, most beautiful, and most spacious rooms I have seen. Within the confines of my room, I can work, I can think, I can rest. It is, indeed, a place of refuge in a noisy, crowded, and often ugly world.
An effective conclusion "returns" to the material in the introduction–the imagery, metaphor, or analogy found there, for instance. A satisfying conclusion may also contain one last anecdote to illustrate the thesis. Choose a technique that seems appropriate to your subject matter and the tone of your paper.
Although beginners should stick to the techniques outlined above, experienced writers often do one more thing-they draw a conclusion beyond the points already made.
I would not be where I am today if I had not been forced to view my life in an honest manner. Alcohol almost killed me many times, and I am still only one drink away from a life of hell. I have been sober for almost two years, and I have never felt happier or more serene. With God's grace, I will stay sober today. Tomorrow will take care of itself.
While not introducing new material, this kind of conclusion both summarizes and points out more far-reaching consequences, gives a warning, or offers an alternative suggested by or based on the ideas already put forth.
In addition to the major weaknesses above, minor errors can diminish the apparent strength of your argument and result in a paper that is merely adequate. After correcting major problems, check for some of the errors below:
- Weak, vague or poorly developed introduction
- Sentence errors including
- Unintentional fragmentary sentences
- Run-on sentences, especially the "comma splice"–using a comma to separate two sentences
- Short, choppy sentences or lack of sentence variety
- Poor or nonexistent transitions
- Awkward sentences due to lack of parallel structure or due to dangling or misplaced modifiers
- Word errors such as
- Use of the wrong word or phrase, for example, its or it's
- Nonstandard English–"they was," "he don't,"-use of double negatives, and so on
- Trite expressions such as "hit the hay," "gave me a turn," "acid test"
- Monotonous or ineffective repetition
- Wrong word choice for the style, tone, or content: formal language in an informal paper, for example, or informal language in a formal paper.
- Verb tense disagreement
- Wrong use of subjunctive verb forms, such as in conditional statements
- Subject/verb non-agreement
- Errors in pronoun reference
- "Padding"–using words simply to fill space
- Plagiarizing, that is, failing to cite source material
Finally, proofread adequately to correct punctuation, spelling, and typing errors
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