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Five Key Elements for Coherent and Convincing Essays

June 4, 2012

In working with college students on their writing (at various levels), I’ve found that many who struggle do so in similar ways. To help, in addition to the professor’s noted expectations, I wrote up a (hopefully at least partly entertaining) list of five key elements to keep in mind when writing an essay: 1) position/argument, 2) overall organization, 3) organized evidence, 4) sources as resources, and 5) counterarguments. Note that while this was initially written for public policy students, it likely applies well for most essay writing.

1. Position/Argument: You have to take and clearly state a position. This needs to be an argument/thesis that you will spend the body of the paper supporting with evidence from various sources. This should ideally be in your first paragraph.

Example: “The university administration should end the ‘Free Sundaes on Tuesdays’ policy because it marginalizes lactose-challenged individuals, incites student-on-student violence, and increases the number of disruptive sugar-high related outbursts across campus.”

2. Overall Organization: For paper organization overall, formalize what you’d do for a live audience if you were presenting – tell them what you’re going to tell them (briefly), tell them whatever it is (in organized detail), and then tell them what you told them (briefly, again), maybe with some policy implementation or research ideas for someone else to pursue further. For examples of basic structures, see the “Additional Resources” list at the bottom of this page or look up five-paragraph essays and policy memo formats.

3. Organized Evidence: For organizing your supporting paragraphs/evidence, please use ‘topic sentences’ or something similar. When you start a paragraph, I want to know what it’s about and why it matters – like a mini-thesis, just for that grouping of data. You can also think about this as “bookending” your data in each paragraph (though the first bookend is more important than the last). Each paragraph should contain a coherent/related collection of evidence in support of a specific point (as outlined in your topic sentence), which should as a whole support your paper’s position.

Example: “The final problem with this policy is the spike in raucous, inappropriate behavior that occurs after sundae consumption.” OR “Further, by encouraging the consumption of sugary foods, the Free Sundaes policy contributes to boisterous socializing in public areas, a giggle-fit contagion in various classrooms, and unpredictable eruptions of song on numerous bus routes.” Then insert several sentences with quotes, stats, examples, and commentary about volume control issues and inappropriate laughter and song. “This policy is a menace to the very contemplative, intellectual atmosphere that students, staff, and faculty most appreciate about UChicago’s campus.”

4. Sources as Resources: With respect to references, yes, you may only (technically) have to use a few, but don’t cite them just to cite something. Think critically about what sources are actually useful for your argument – how and why? What support does your argument need that these sources aren’t providing? Can you find another source that gives you what you need? Then use the resources (likely more than just a few) that are most helpful. Additionally, note which sources are most widely cited or prominent in class or in your paper’s field. Even if these do not assist your work, if they are convincing to others, it is likely important to address them in one way or another. Be careful to balance the use of direct quotes with your own take on different authors’ views, however, or it can start to look more like “copypasta” than like a thoughtful synthesis and critical analysis of the topic.

5. Counterarguments: Just like with debates, the strongest arguments are the ones that not only present the support for their position but also effectively address possible counterarguments. You may not have a lot of time or space to spend on this, but if you don’t at least note and attempt to preemptively offer a rebuttal, the audience can imagine that you have either not considered the counterarguments or do not know how to address them. Policy memos are often strongest on this point (since they often have an explicit section for counterarguments and complications), but it’s not difficult to incorporate replies to counterarguments either in a distinct paragraph or piecemeal as things naturally come up in a more traditional essay.

In my experience, students who kept these five elements in mind (position/argument, overall organization, organized evidence, sources as resources, and counterarguments) consistently produced well-structured, well-supported, and nuanced essays. These concerns are not only relevant to essays, though. Most writing – be it the briefest, most bullet point-focused memo or the lengthiest, multi-layered research paper – requires a clear point, reliable data/evidence, and a logical flow from one sentence or section to the next. Fundamentally, that’s all you need!

Hope that helps!
~ALJ

Additional Resources:
Argument Papers @ Purdue’s Online Writing Lab
Guide to Writing a Basic Essay by Kathy Livingston
Persuasive or argumentative essays @ Study Guides and Strategies

What writing tips and guides have been useful for you or your students?

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