Thursday, November 12, 2009

Structuring an argument

Illustration of a scribe writingImage via Wikipedia
Last time we looked at how to come up with a simple structure for an essay using words and pictures. This should have allowed you to get your ideas really clear in your head, in a structure that makes it very obvious where any gaps are and where you need to go back and do more reading and research. The second part of this process involves ordering your ideas into a proper essay plan, and making those crucial decisions about what should go in and what should be left out.

I'm going to ask you to do something rather counter-intuitive at this stage. I suggest that the first thing you do is look back at your word limit for the essay. Word limits are a necessary evil (we'll be talking some more about them in later posts). But they can also be a force for the positive, and here's how.

Let's say you've been given the following question for your assignment: Critically evaluate Theory X as an explanation for Phenomenon A.

You have 1500 words to write an essay on this topic. Question: how many paragraphs is that?

If that sounds like a dumb thing to ask, please bear with me. I'm hoping that the answer you will give me to the Paragraph Question is somewhere around the 8 to 10 mark. If you wrote many more paragraphs than that, they would be very short and your essay would risk looking rather bitty. If your paragraph count is much lower than that, then your paragraphs are going to be too long and your essay will not be an easy read. Either way, it will seem as though your assignment has not been carefully planned, and as though you are regurgitating all the facts you know without paying attention to structure and flow. Somewhere between eight and ten paragraphs will look good on the page, and (as we will see) will help you to structure your essay. Of course, if you have a bigger word limit then you will be able to use more paragraphs. Think of the right length for a paragraph as being around 150-200 words (for comparison, this paragraph is 177 words long). 

(If you don't know how to answer this question at all, because you never use paragraphs, then you've got a problem. Perhaps what follows will help.)

What is the point of a paragraph? Simply put, a paragraph is a home for an idea. Give each point or section of the argument its own paragraph, and then start a new paragraph for each new idea. Have a look at how the writers you are reading do this. You will find that they take paragraphs seriously (editors and publishers insist that they do). Make sure that you too are following this basic convention of connected prose. Your essay will be much the better for it.

Let's say you've plumped for eight paragraphs. You know your own writing; choose a number that works and feels comfortable for you. You've immediately got a ready-made template for your essay. To see how, list your paragraphs (1, 2, 3...) on a single sheet of paper, spreading out so that you use the whole page. Now, what's Paragraph 1 going to be? That's easy: the introduction. And Paragraph 8 is (just as easy) the conclusion. We'll be talking about both of these essential parts of an essay in later posts.

Two down, six to go. Here's where you really start making decisions about what will go in your essay. There are no right and wrong answers here: the structure depends on the question. But one general question you can ask is: Am I going to come down supporting one theory or another at the end of all this? Do I think that, on balance, the evidence supports one side of an argument over another? If so, deal with your favoured position towards the end. Spend your first couple of paragraphs setting up the 'weaker' argument, and then show why it is the weaker in the remainder of the essay. (This is a standard trick of rhetoric: set up the position you oppose and treat it fairly, and then demolish it by the force of your argument. Save the knock-out blows to the end.)

Let's go back to Theory X. Let's say I know that Theory X was proposed in the 1980s on the basis of some very strong evidential support. But things have changed since then. There have been new findings, methodologies and technologies which support another theory, Theory Y. Meanwhile, over on the West Coast, a small but vocal group are plugging Theory Z. The jury is still out, but from your reading Theory Y fits the evidence best.

So here's a suggestion. Dedicate Paragraph 2 to Theory X. You'll use this space to show why the theory was important and valuable (particularly in historical context, when nobody had yet come up with any decent explanation for Phenomenon A), and to explain its theoretical details. In Paragraph 3, you can show how well it accounts for the evidence, both then and now.

Start Paragraph 4 by showing how Theory X was eventually found lacking, and how Theory Y grew up to challenge it. Give us the theoretical details on Theory Y. Then use Paragraph 5 to show how Theory Y accounts for the evidence, both that which Theory X could and couldn't handle, and also the new findings that have emerged since then.

Paragraph 6 could have a flavour of 'compare and contrast'. Put the two theories side by side and show how they match up. Bring Theory Z in as well for a further comparison. If you have a strong view of your own, then make your case (on the basis of the evidence you have discussed, not on the basis of hunches or personal opinions). If you think that all the theories are as bad as each other, treat them fairly while making it clear what the problems are in each case.

You might want to leave Paragraph 7 aside for loose ends. There are no debates (in psychology, the social sciences, and many other disciplines) that are completely sewn up. There is always scope for more research, and your essay needs to look to the future like this. There is always dissent, and contradictory or equivocal evidence. This penultimate paragraph can be set aside for discussing those issues that are to be continued and resolved (hopefully) in the future. You must be able to show that you know what the limitations are to our current understanding of the phenomenon, and that you understand your science's future priorities for it.

You now have a pretty good plan for what your argument will look like. What you've come up with should look very much like the kind of essay plan you will write in an exam, and that's no coincidence: we're talking about the same thing. Do exactly the same in planning an exam answer, and you'll be on firm ground. 

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  1. Hello! I am actually in the process of writing my summative essay and I found this post very useful! I am having some trouble though. The question has a second part asking "what are the implications of these findings" and I find this confusing. I am not sure what I need to say or how much of my essay should I dedicate to this. Should it be just a small paragraph near the end, perhaps paragraph 7?
    I would really appreciate your help!

  2. Thanks for your comment. It's very hard to give any specific advice, because of course the assessment is partly based on how you yourself choose to marshal relevant evidence and arguments. Unless specific areas are mentioned, my guess is that it will be up to you to choose which implications to cover. But do of course bear in mind the other advice you've had (on this blog and elsewhere), in terms of keeping your eye on the word limit, backing up assertions with evidence, looking for a coherent structure, etc.

    One other comment to make is that the suggestion to number paragraphs is only a guideline, and in planning your structure you must bear in mind the word limit for your particular essay. The correct approach will depend on the topic, the exact wording of the question, the word limit, etc., but I would say that you do need to make sure that you address the 'implications' part of the question fully - that's just part of reading and answering the question properly.


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