Writing an academic essay means fashioning a coherent set of ideas into an argument. Because essays are essentially linear—they offer one idea at a time—they must present their ideas in the order that makes most sense to a reader. Successfully structuring an essay means attending to a reader's logic.
The focus of such an essay predicts its structure. It dictates the information readers need to know and the order in which they need to receive it. Thus your essay's structure is necessarily unique to the main claim you're making. Although there are guidelines for constructing certain classic essay types (e.g., comparative analysis), there are no set formula.
Answering Questions: The Parts of an Essay
A typical essay contains many different kinds of information, often located in specialized parts or sections. Even short essays perform several different operations: introducing the argument, analyzing data, raising counterarguments, concluding. Introductions and conclusions have fixed places, but other parts don't. Counterargument, for example, may appear within a paragraph, as a free-standing section, as part of the beginning, or before the ending. Background material (historical context or biographical information, a summary of relevant theory or criticism, the definition of a key term) often appears at the beginning of the essay, between the introduction and the first analytical section, but might also appear near the beginning of the specific section to which it's relevant.
It's helpful to think of the different essay sections as answering a series of questions your reader might ask when encountering your thesis. (Readers should have questions. If they don't, your thesis is most likely simply an observation of fact, not an arguable claim.)
"What?" The first question to anticipate from a reader is "what": What evidence shows that the phenomenon described by your thesis is true? To answer the question you must examine your evidence, thus demonstrating the truth of your claim. This "what" or "demonstration" section comes early in the essay, often directly after the introduction. Since you're essentially reporting what you've observed, this is the part you might have most to say about when you first start writing. But be forewarned: it shouldn't take up much more than a third (often much less) of your finished essay. If it does, the essay will lack balance and may read as mere summary or description.
"How?" A reader will also want to know whether the claims of the thesis are true in all cases. The corresponding question is "how": How does the thesis stand up to the challenge of a counterargument? How does the introduction of new material—a new way of looking at the evidence, another set of sources—affect the claims you're making? Typically, an essay will include at least one "how" section. (Call it "complication" since you're responding to a reader's complicating questions.) This section usually comes after the "what," but keep in mind that an essay may complicate its argument several times depending on its length, and that counterargument alone may appear just about anywhere in an essay.
"Why?" Your reader will also want to know what's at stake in your claim: Why does your interpretation of a phenomenon matter to anyone beside you? This question addresses the larger implications of your thesis. It allows your readers to understand your essay within a larger context. In answering "why", your essay explains its own significance. Although you might gesture at this question in your introduction, the fullest answer to it properly belongs at your essay's end. If you leave it out, your readers will experience your essay as unfinished—or, worse, as pointless or insular.
Mapping an Essay
Structuring your essay according to a reader's logic means examining your thesis and anticipating what a reader needs to know, and in what sequence, in order to grasp and be convinced by your argument as it unfolds. The easiest way to do this is to map the essay's ideas via a written narrative. Such an account will give you a preliminary record of your ideas, and will allow you to remind yourself at every turn of the reader's needs in understanding your idea.
Essay maps ask you to predict where your reader will expect background information, counterargument, close analysis of a primary source, or a turn to secondary source material. Essay maps are not concerned with paragraphs so much as with sections of an essay. They anticipate the major argumentative moves you expect your essay to make. Try making your map like this:
- State your thesis in a sentence or two, then write another sentence saying why it's important to make that claim. Indicate, in other words, what a reader might learn by exploring the claim with you. Here you're anticipating your answer to the "why" question that you'll eventually flesh out in your conclusion.
- Begin your next sentence like this: "To be convinced by my claim, the first thing a reader needs to know is . . ." Then say why that's the first thing a reader needs to know, and name one or two items of evidence you think will make the case. This will start you off on answering the "what" question. (Alternately, you may find that the first thing your reader needs to know is some background information.)
- Begin each of the following sentences like this: "The next thing my reader needs to know is . . ." Once again, say why, and name some evidence. Continue until you've mapped out your essay.
Your map should naturally take you through some preliminary answers to the basic questions of what, how, and why. It is not a contract, though—the order in which the ideas appear is not a rigid one. Essay maps are flexible; they evolve with your ideas.
Signs of Trouble
A common structural flaw in college essays is the "walk-through" (also labeled "summary" or "description"). Walk-through essays follow the structure of their sources rather than establishing their own. Such essays generally have a descriptive thesis rather than an argumentative one. Be wary of paragraph openers that lead off with "time" words ("first," "next," "after," "then") or "listing" words ("also," "another," "in addition"). Although they don't always signal trouble, these paragraph openers often indicate that an essay's thesis and structure need work: they suggest that the essay simply reproduces the chronology of the source text (in the case of time words: first this happens, then that, and afterwards another thing . . . ) or simply lists example after example ("In addition, the use of color indicates another way that the painting differentiates between good and evil").
Copyright 2000, Elizabeth Abrams, for the Writing Center at Harvard University
Let us consider persons. Human beings will suit our definition of persons for now, but we will come back to this later. All persons are equal. This seems obvious to me. Now, I am aware of the overused objection to this, that is, that we are not equal in many ways. We are not all equally strong, or equally tall, or capable of doing an equal amount of work, or equally beautiful, etc. And we certainly all differ greatly in our personalities. Yes, indeed we do.
I fail to see what this argument, if it is deserving of such a title, is attempting to establish. Because people are different does not mean they are not equal. I do not recall saying all people were identical with one another. No, people are not even identical with themselves over time. Equality is measured in terms of worth, of value. And all people have equal worth and equal value. There is no person who is inferior to any other person, ever. As Hobbes said in Leviathan, despite our physical differences, the smallest, weakest person could kill the strongest, so the physical differences argument is no basis for justifying inequality. Let us consider an example: on one hand, we have the Queen of England. On the other we have a thug, a criminal, who has been convicted (and has openly admitted to) dozens of cases of murder, assault, rape, robbery, etc. Simply because we are not terribly fond of the actions of the second person does not mean they are of lesser intrinsic value. Anyone who disagrees would probably be an unpleasant sort of person who puts less value on people they do not like, thinking their disliking of this person depletes the worth of that person’s life. This is obviously untrue. If you do not see this is untrue, there is probably no need for you to continue reading. You may leave.
I would like to think that if I was in a situation wherein I was able to save only the Queen or only the criminal (let us call him Clemington) I would not allow their positions in society affect my decision. Or, if I were to allow it to affect my decision of who I should save, it would be in the opposite way from that which you may expect. Clemington perhaps is more deserving of life because he has had a bad life, and should be allowed more time to try to achieve happiness. Of course, the committing of crimes does not make him unhappy, but living in jail for many years might do. This matters not. What I am saying is: The Queen is a celebrity, and lives a very comfortable life. As such, she has little left to want, whereas the criminal probably has a lot left to want. I would probably be quicker to save the life of an ordinary person than a rich celebrity any day. However, this is irrelevant to our present inquiry. The point I wish to make is that all people are equal, regardless of who I would save first!
Before I continue: it should be obvious that the equality of persons has implications for things like politics, distribution of wealth, etc. This is indeed so, but will be discussed in a different essay. Suffice it to say for now that it seems clear that if each person is equal to every other person, no one should be allowed to rule over others, or tell them what to do, and it is also clear that no one should possess vast fortunes while others starve. My proposed solutions for these problems will be discussed in another essay, but, having just considered equality, it is of obvious importance that we at least must realize that if everyone is equal, the society we live in must be changed drastically.
Where are we now? I think perhaps we may leave equality as an issue in and of itself, and consider how far this equality stretches. What are persons? There are a number of criteria for defining persons. Exactly what is on the list matters little. Some of the obvious factors include: having a concept of language; having an idea of the self, and understanding what that is; understanding past, present, and future insofar as you are capable of appreciating and the order of events and may notice patterns; being able to think rationally; possessing the ability to put others before yourself; etc. You may agree, or you may disagree. This is unimportant. The point I wish to make from this is that, as discussed by Peter Singer in Practical Ethics, being a member of the species Homo Sapiens is not what makes you a person.
However, I will not be following a utilitarian method as he does. Animals: are they persons? Most people think not. This is what Singer calls speciesism. That is, if your reasons for thinking not are simply because they are not human beings. Obviously, this is irrelevant. This is akin to racism. Equality means no discrimination of any kind ever, so far as is obvious to me.
Singer is not in favor of animal rights, merely animal status. He thinks an animal, if it has an interest, should have its interests taken as equal to those of humans. This seems fair enough. Some animals, such as higher mammals, are capable of doing some of the things we would consider factors of personness. There are examples of this, including some given by Singer. I will not mention them in this essay. What matters to me is that some animals are persons, animals that are capable of wanting to live, for example. But surely all animals want to live? If I swing an ax at a chicken, I suspect it might try to avoid being hit. Maybe it would not though, I have not attempted this. It matters not.
What is entirely obvious is that humans are animals. We are nothing more than animals. So, why should we have a higher value than other animals? We should not. I cannot think of any reason why we are more important than other animals. In fact, it is completely laughable and ridiculous that we think we are special, that we distance ourselves from animals, that we build cities, that we use electricity, and that we fly to the moon. This is absurd. I am not undermining our achievements as a species. But it is stupid that we live in this artificial world apart from animals, that we keep them in zoos and such, and that we use them for our own ends. I wish to clarify that last one. I have no problem with the eating of meat. In an ideal world, perhaps we would not, but I am not certain this is true. We are animals, animals eat each other, therefore, we eat other animals. Now, I know you may have cringed at my use of the argument from nature. Just because something is natural does not mean it is good or right. Well, whether or not it is morally right is irrelevant—moral subjectivism becomes a problem here of course, but aside from that, I do not think it is a moral issue. The eating of meat is something many animals, including humans, have always done to survive. Now, it is not essential for our survival any more. But this does not mean it is bad. I am uncertain of my conclusion on this question. I am not sure there is anything wrong with eating animals, but I see that it would probably be better if we did not. What I meant by using them for our own ends is that we should not own them. This is slavery, plain and simple. And if all persons are equal, then slavery is wrong.
But are all animals persons? As I have suggested, some are. But is this sufficient to say all are? No. But, I think the fact we are but animals ourselves changes things. If we are only animals, we are of no more value than any other animal. Therefore, I think we can consider all animals as being equal to us. This seems obvious to me. Some, such as Jeremy Bentham, have suggested that keeping animals as slaves is no different to keeping black people as slaves, and I am inclined to agree. Bentham’s reason was that they can suffer. This seems like a good reason, but I do not think it is even necessary—the equal intrinsic value of all animals is enough. But alas, I am a hypocrite, for I would rather a spider be killed than be in the same room as me. But, this is also a natural instinct I suppose. If an animal feels threatened by another animal, and if it possesses the ability to destroy the scary animal, it would do so. Does that make it okay? I am unsure. But my fear of spiders prevents me from changing my mind on this issue. Perhaps it takes a more open-minded person than me to grant full equality to all animals.
“What about plants?” I hear you ask. Well, this is a difficult question to answer. Surely all living things are of equal value. They are. Bentham would be able to say that plants do not suffer, so we may kill them, but I have not allowed myself this option. It seems impractical to avoid walking on grass because it is equal to you. Maybe I could say that equality does not mean we cannot kill. But then you could also say that equality does not mean we cannot keep slaves, for example. According to my moral system, I think it is wrong to cause suffering to anything, including animals. Maybe Bentham was right in using suffering as a criterion. But what is suffering? Surely all animals writhe in pain when you chop bits off. Plants do not though, but then, plants work differently than animals. That we do not see them writhe in pain is not enough to warrant killing them. I do not know what to conclude here. Perhaps it must be left down to the individual’s moral code, but then I already suggested that this was not even a moral issue at all. Eating does not seem to be, but perhaps killing is. Certainly, killing for no reason seems obviously bad. To be honest, I think plants do their own thing. They do not care if we own them. Maybe this is what matters. But then some animals also do not care. Maybe lower animals must not be included then. I do not know, and I will not continue rambling on this point.
My next point is this: humans are silly to keep animals in zoos and such, as I have already said. It seems obvious to me that animals should be free. They must be allowed to roam the streets of our towns and cities at will. Most would probably wish to stay in the wild anyway though. But the deliberate human action of separating ourselves from animals should end. You may complain when a wild animal destroys your child, say. Well, your child probably eats meat, so it is fair game to me. It is no different than when a murderer kills someone. I do not like killing, but it seems strange to say that we must keep animals away from us in case they kill us when we obviously should not do this with people. You may say: well, we put people in jail. This is true, but we do not do this before they have killed someone. Furthermore, I am against punishing others for their actions anyway. Moral subjectivism makes it so.
Finally, I will very briefly consider the important issue of abortion. This is because, using the criteria for personness, it is clear that fetuses are not persons. In fact, Singer suggests that even live babies are not persons. A fetus before birth, and a baby after, are not significantly different. Here is an example: say, a baby is born very prematurely, and a fetus is much later than expected. The fetus is more developed than the baby, so why should the baby have more rights, just because it happens to have been born. This seems like a fair assessment, but I would still say we should not kill them, simply because there is no reason to do so. Generally, it seems a good idea to simply not kill anything when possible.
Without going into any religious or scientific factors, I will say that abortion must be allowed for two reasons: the first is that the mother owns her body, and has the right to do with it as she wishes. So far as I can see, this ends the discussion. The second reason is that the fetus is not a person. This should give some consolation to mothers worried about the abortion, but it alone is not a sufficient reason. Babies are also not persons, but I would be against killing live born babies because they are not in your body, and so you have no right to kill them. A fetus is within you, it is a part of you, and no one can force you to do something with your body. This is an issue of freedom probably: no one can tell you what to do. If you are a mother, the decision is yours entirely (though perhaps the father should be consulted?). Making abortion illegal is infringing on your rights to do what you wish to do, but freedoms and rights are not the issue in this essay, with the exception of saying that if everyone is equal no one can tell you what to do. Suffice it to say for now that fetuses are not persons.
I considered equality, and I considered persons. I said that all persons were equal, and I extended this to animals. But I ran into some problems with lower animals, and with plants. I was unable to make a conclusion on that topic. I also suggested that we should not separate ourselves from other animals, because doing so seems odd. Looking at things from a neutral perspective, humans must seem strange to have set themselves apart from other animals, and to live in cities and such. I am not saying we are wrong to live in cities and walk on two legs and use mobile phones and drive cars, etc. But I am suggesting we are wrong to prevent animals from roaming freely. Here is an example: a cat is using my garden as a toilet. Should I be upset? Probably not. Now, I could chase the cat away anyway since it can always use somewhere else as a toilet, but I should at least be aware of the fact that it is only my garden in the human world. In the world of other living things, this would make no sense. It is simply some grass. Finally, I considered the issue of abortion, and concluded that it is perfectly acceptable, because an unborn baby is not a person, and, strictly speaking, nor is a live baby. Of course, the justification that the fetus is within you is lost when a live baby is considered.
This essay has some minor changes from its original. It can be found in its original form at: https://archive.og/details/TheThedeanShow-Essay7
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