Essays and Arguments, Section Eleven

[This text, which has been prepared by Ian Johnston of Malaspina University-College, Nanaimo, BC,  is in the public domain and may be used, in whole or in part, without permission and without charge, released May 2000]


11.0 Sample Outlines for Essays and Research Papers

The following pages contain a number of sample outlines in the format we have stressed in this book. Many of these outlines appear in earlier sections. If you are an inexperienced essay writer, feel free to model your outlines closely on some of these models.

A. Short Book Review

Subject: Book review of Of Lice and Zen: The Slocan Valley Communes by Jane Doe

Focus: A short review for someone who has not read the book

Thesis: Of Lice and Zen presents an intriguing and useful look at the life of some pioneer British Columbia families. On the whole, the book is a very good read, although it does suffer from some flaws which limit its usefulness as an undergraduate text.

TS 1: In Of Lice and Zen Jane Doe sets out to tell the story of Anne and Hank and a group of their friends, who try late in the nineteenth century to establish a communal experiment in the Slocan Valley. (Paragraph defines the content of the book for those who have not read it; this is not part of the argument and would not be necessary if the review was being written for an audience which had read the text)

TS 2: Particularly interesting is Doe's scrupulous attention to the everyday details of life on the farm. This really makes the situation come alive for the modern reader. (Paragraph presents evidence and interpretation to back up this point).

TS 3: And the author's style is very readable, with plenty of good humour and clear descriptions. (Paragraph presents evidence and interpretation to back up this idea)

TS 4: However, the total lack of illustrations, like photographs and maps, and the poor quality of the printing and editing create irritating obstacles. (Paragraph presents evidence and interpretation to back up this claim).

Conclusion: These faults are a shame, because in many respects Of Lice and Zen is an excellent book. However, its limitations will prevent it from being the best choice for an undergraduate text. (Paragraph concludes the argument by summing up)

This essay presents a three-paragraph argument, with one definition paragraph after the opening. Each of the argumentative paragraphs looks at one particular aspect of the book and explains how that has affected the writer's opinion of it. Notice that the thesis of this essay is a mixed opinion (some good things and some problems).

B. Short Essay Reviewing a Live Drama Production

Subject: A review of a live performance of The Pure Product

Focus: A short review of a performance for those who have not seen the production.

Thesis: The production provides a stimulating evening of theatre in spite of some erratic writing and the very uneven directing.

TS 1: The Pure Product is the story of a rock 'n' roll has-been, now on the comeback trail. (Paragraph acquaints the readers who have not seen the production with a few details of the story; this is not starting the argument but defining the subject matter)

TS 2: The naturalistic style demands a high calibre of acting from the performers. And the two leading actors come through extremely well. (Paragraph provides evidence and interpretation to back up this claim)

TS 3: Unfortunately, the same level is not maintained in the lesser roles. In part this is due to some sloppy writing and directing.

TS 4: Technically the production is very impressive.

Conclusion: Thus, in spite of some irritating problems, the evening is, on the whole, a great success.

Notice that this review does not try to deal with all aspects of the production. The writer has selected the three key elements which shaped his response more than anything else.

C. Short Essay on a Prose Fiction (Short Story)

Subject: John Steinbeck's short story "The Chrysanthemums"

Focus 1: Elisa's character

Focus 2: Elisa's character: her insecure sense of her femininity

Thesis: Elisa thinks of herself as strong, but she is, in fact, a very vulnerable woman. She may be vital enough to have strong ambitions, but she is so insecure about her own femininity that she is finally unable to cope with the strain of transforming her life.

TS 1: When we first see Elisa we get an immediate sense that she is hiding her sexuality from the rest of the world. (Paragraph examines the opening descriptions of Elisa and interprets key phrases to point out how she appears to be concealing her real self)

TS 2: The speed and energy with which Elisa later seeks to transform herself really bring out the extent of her dissatisfaction with the role she has been playing. (Paragraph discusses what happens as Elisa starts to respond to the crisis, interpreting details of the text to show how she is changing)

TS 3: But Elisa's new sense of herself does not last, for she has insufficient inner strength to develop into the mature, independent woman she would like to be. (Paragraph looks at the final section of the story, in which Elisa fails to maintain her new self)

Conclusion: This story narrates an everyday series of events, but the emotional drama Elisa goes through is very significant. (Paragraph restates the argument in summary form, reaffirming the thesis)

This structure is a useful one to look at if you are writing on a character in a short story who is faced with a personal crisis. In many stories, one of the chief points is the way in which a character learns or fails to learn from (or to adapt to) a crisis in his or her personal life. If the essay is arguing about the significance of what has been learned or not learned, then this structure, which looks at Elisa at the beginning, during the key transforming process, and at the end, is often useful.

D. Short Essay on a Long Fiction

General Subject: Shakespeare's Richard III

Focus 1: The importance of Anne in the play.

Focus 2: The first scene between Anne and Richard (1.3)

Thesis: Anne's role in 1.3 is particularly important to the opening of the play because it reveals clearly to us not only the devilish cleverness of Richard but also the way in which his success depends upon the weaknesses of others.

TS 1: Richard's treatment of Anne in 1.3 provides a very important look at the complex motivation and style of the play's hero. (Paragraph goes on to argue how the Richard-Anne confrontation reveals important things about Richard)

TS 2: More importantly, perhaps, the scene reveals just how Anne's understandable weaknesses enable Richard to succeed. (Paragraph looks at how Anne's response to Richard's advances reveal important things about her character)

TS 3: We can best appreciate these points by considering a key moment in the scene, the moment when Richard invites Anne to kill him. (In an illustrative paragraph, the writer takes a detailed look at five lines from the scene, to emphasize the points mentioned in the previous two paragraphs)

Conclusion: In the wider context of the play, this early scene provides Richard with a sense of his own power and thus confirms for him that he really can achieve what he most wants. (Paragraph sums up the argument in the context of the entire play)

Notice how this essay drastically narrows the focus to one very short scene from a long play. You have to go through such a narrowing of the focus to construct a persuasive argument, because you simply do not have the space to argue about the entire work.

Note the use of the illustrative paragraph (in TS 3). This is very common in essay interpreting literature. It will not introduce any new points but will go into great detail about a few lines of text in order to consolidate the points already made.

E. Short Essay Evaluating an Argument in Another Text

General Subject: John Stuart Mill's On Liberty

Focus 1: Mill's concept of open free discussion

Focus 2: Mill's concept of open free discussion: some problems

Thesis: While justly famous as an eloquent statement of liberal principles, Mill's key concept of free and open discussion raises some important questions which Mill does not deal with satisfactorily.

TS 1: The first and most obvious question is this: Where are such free discussions to take place? (Paragraph argues that Mill's society does not have enough open places for discussion).

TS 2: A related criticism calls attention to those who are excluded from such forums. Mill's argument does not seem to have much place for them. (Paragraph argues that many people will lack the qualifications to take part).

TS 3: In defense of Mill, one might argue that these two objections are not lethal: there are ways of dealing with them in the context of his presentation. (Paragraph acknowledges the opposition and tries to answer the objections using Mill's theory).

TS 4: This sounds all very well in theory, but in practice many people are going to be excluded. That is clear from the way Mill insists the debates should take place. (Paragraph argues that the defense of Mill in the previous paragraph is not adequate).

TS 5: It doesn't take much imagination to visualize a society which implements Mill's recommendations and yet excludes a majority of its citizens from public forums. (Paragraph uses a counterexample).

Conclusion: The strength of Mill's case is the appeal of a rational liberal democracy, but its weaknesses stem from the same source. (Paragraph goes on to sum up the argument)

Note that no paragraph in this essay summarizes Mill's argument. The assumption is that the reader of the essay is already familiar with it. Hence, the paragraphs make argumentative interpretative points about Mill's text. Notice the use of a counterexample in TS 5.

F. Longer Essay or Research Paper on a Social Issue

Subject: The Ministry of Health and Welfare

Focus 1: The Welfare System

Focus 2: The distribution of welfare

Focus 3: The distribution of welfare in BC: problems with the present system

Thesis: Our system of distributing welfare is gravely inadequate, because it is creating a great many serious problems and failing to address as it should those concerns it was originally meant to alleviate.

TS 1: How exactly is welfare distributed under present arrangements in BC? (Paragraph goes on to describe the present process; this is part of the introduction, an analysis of the present process, which all readers may not understand)

TS 2: This system obviously requires a complex bureaucracy for its administration. (Paragraph goes on to analyze the structure of the administration of welfare, making sure the reader will understand the key officials and offices which the essay will later refer to. Again, this is part of the introduction, providing necessary background information)

TS 3: The first major problem with this system is that it is excessively expensive to administer. (Paragraph starts the argument here with a cause-to-effect paragraph, in which the writer brings in evidence and interpretation to argue the excessive expense of the system)

TS 4: A second problem is the whole concept of confidentiality. (The paragraph goes on to argue the importance of this problem).

TS 5: Some people argue, however, that confidentiality is such an important principle that we simply have to put up with these difficulties in order to protect the rights of the welfare recipient. (Paragraph here acknowledges the opposition, presenting an argument against the thesis)

TS 6: However, there are ways to protect against discrimination and, at the same time, to deal with the problems created by the present treatment of confidentiality. (Paragraph goes on to answer the opposition's point in the previous paragraph)

TS 7: The present system also creates many difficulties for those who have to deal with welfare recipients, especially for landlords. (Paragraph goes on to discuss some of the problems landlords face because of the present system)

TS 8: Consider, for example, the situation of Jean Smith, who runs a rooming house for the unemployed and most of whose clients are on welfare. (This paragraph offers an illustration, not advancing the argument, but consolidating the previous point by a detailed look at a specific example).

TS 9: We could easily remedy the problems Ms Smith and others like her face every day if we were prepared to make some simple changes in the system of distribution. (The paragraph goes on to argue for two important changes to the present system).

TS 10: What would all this cost? Estimates vary, but informed studies suggest that we might actually save money and, at the same time, assist the welfare recipients to better housing. (Paragraph gives an economic analysis, showing the viability of the suggested reforms)

TS 11: In addition to these changes, we could also encourage a new attitude in the social assistance officials who deal directly with welfare recipients and with those who provide housing for them. (The paragraph suggests how this might be done and what advantages it would bring).

Conclusion: Clearly, it is time we did something to reform an inefficient welfare distribution system. If we continue to do nothing, the problems mentioned above will get worse. (A concluding paragraph makes some specific recommendations, repeating points made in the argument).

Notice how in this longer research paper the writer takes time to introduce the subject matter thoroughly before launching the argument. The second paragraph informs the reader about the present system (which the writer wants reformed), and the third paragraph gives the reader a basic understanding of the various departments and officials involved, so that the essay can refer to them later in the knowledge that the reader understands the present situation.

Unless you are writing for a very particular audience about whose knowledge of the subject you are well informed and can count on, you should normally not assume in the reader the specific background knowledge essential to understanding your paper. Therefore, you must devote some time in the introduction to providing the necessary information.

The fifth paragraph (TS 5) gives an example of the technique of acknowledging the opposition, and the paragraph immediately after than answers those points. The eighth paragraph (TS 8) considers a specific illustration in detail.

G. Longer Essay or Research Paper on the Historical Significance of an Idea, Book, Person, Event, or Discovery

Subject: Warfare and Technology

Focus 1: Modern weapons

Focus 2: The machine gun

Focus 3 The machine gun in World War I and World War II

Focus 4: The long-term significance of the machine gun: how it has transformed our thinking about warfare.

Thesis: No modern technological invention has had such a revolutionary impact on warfare as the machine gun, which has totally transformed our thinking about and conduct of human combat.

TS 1: What exactly is a machine gun? (Paragraph goes on to define clearly and at length exactly what this central term means).

TS 2: Curiously enough, this weapons of destruction was originally invented in order to minimize the destructiveness of war. (Paragraph provides historical background on the initial development of this weapon)

TS 3: Traditional military thinkers were not all enthusiastic about this formidable invention; in fact, many at first rejected the weapon. (Paragraph puts the invention into a historical context; this paragraph is still providing background)

TS 4: However, for all these objections, the military found it finally impossible to resist such an efficient killing machine. (Paragraph continues to provide historical background information on the adoption of the weapon)

TS 5: The first effect of this machine in World War I was enormously to multiply the casualties, to the point where people had to develop a new understanding of the cost of war. (Paragraph gives statistics from World War I and interprets the response to argue this point).

TS 6: These sorts of statistics revolutionized the realities of hand-to-hand combat, doing much to destroy traditional views of chivalry and knightly warriors. (Paragraph argues this point)

TS 7: Once the machine gun became an integral part of the armament of helicopters and warplanes, this transforming influence increased exponentially. (Paragraph argues how this point really changed our attitudes to war)

TS 8: This accelerating mechanization of the killing power of war, which the development of the machine gun initiated, may be leading to a world in which traditional battle is psychologically difficult, if not impossible.

Conclusion: Nowadays we have become accustomed, perhaps even numbed, by the destructiveness of warfare. It seems ironic that the machine which has done the most to promote this development was originally intended to reduce the destructiveness of war.

The above structure provides some guidance for a writer trying to organize a long essay on the historical significance of something. Notice the clear divisions into which such a report falls. First (after the introductory paragraph, the writer defines clearly the thing, person, idea, event the essay is discussing. Normally this should be done as quickly and succinctly as possible (it should not take over the essay). Then the writer provides some historical context, so that the reader can understand the invention in terms of the immediate situation at the time of its invention.

H. Research Paper on a Cultural Movement

General Subject: Modern poetry

Focus 1: Imagism

Focus 2: The significance of the stylistic innovations of Imagism

Thesis: Imagism is the most significant development in modern poetry; in fact, this movement marked the start of what has come to be called the modernist movement in English literature, which marked a decisive break with traditional ways of writing poetry.

TS 1: How did this new movement begin? Well, like many artistic movements it started as a small experiment in the hands of a few young artists. (Narrative paragraph, giving background historical details to the origin of the term)

TS 2: The most remarkable contributor to these new ideas was a young expatriate American, Ezra Pound. (Narrative paragraph, giving background details of Ezra Pound)

TS 3: Pound and his friends were reacting very strongly against the prevailing styles of popular poetry in England, particularly the Georgian poets. (A paragraph of analysis and definition, providing specific details of the sort of poetry which these young poets found objectionable)

TS 4: In contrast to this style, the new school demanded adherence to a vital new principle, the overriding importance of clear evocative imagery. This was a particularly significant point. (Argument starts here with the first point about Imagism)

TS 5: One can get a sense of what this principle meant in practice by looking closely at the poem "Oread" by HD, a work much admired by the Imagists. (This is an illustration, providing a detailed look at just one short poem in order to consolidate the previous point and make it more interesting)

TS 6: Another, and more immediately startling change was Imagism's rejection of traditional verse forms. (This paragraph continues the argument about the nature of Imagism)

TS 7: Not surprisingly, many readers found the new style difficult, and Imagism drew many hostile and often sarcastic responses from English critics. (This paragraph is acknowledging the opposition-letting those who disliked the new style have a chance to enter the argument)

TS 8: While these objections have some obvious force in the case of many poems, they were answered decisively by the one great poet Imagism produced, T. S. Eliot. Before considering Eliot's contribution, however, it is interesting to examine briefly his origins. (Paragraph breaks the argument to provide some background details of T. S. Eliot)

TS 9: Eliot's early poetic style demonstrated the full power of Imagism in the hands of a great artist. (Paragraph continues the argument by arguing for the quality of Eliot's style)

TS 10 A second vital contribution Eliot made was that he overcame the inherent difficulty of writing a long Imagist poem. (Paragraph continues the argument about the quality of Eliot's poetic style)

TS 11 These qualities in Eliot's early poems culminated in the greatest poem of the century, The Waste Land. (Paragraph offers an analysis of one poem to consolidate the previous points: this analysis might be extended into several more paragraphs, if there is sufficient space)

TS 12 Eliot's influence was decisive on a series of young poets. (Paragraph provides evidence for this assertion)

TS 13 Even today, long after the death of Eliot and Pound and the other original Imagist poets, the evidence of their revolutionary redefinition of poetic style can be seen in any anthology of modern poetry. (Concluding paragraph, summing up the argument. This might be extended with examples)

Notice, once again, the use of various paragraphs, some advancing the argument, some providing background information, some providing detailed illustration. This structure might provide some useful advice for those planning a research paper on a particular artistic movement in poetry, drama, or fine arts.


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