Essays and Arguments, Section Six

[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]


6.0 Organizing the Main Body of An Argument (I)

6.1 General Remarks

Once an argument has been defined in the opening paragraph(s), so that the reader fully understands what is at issue, then the argument can proceed with what is called here the Main Body. This section consists of a series of points the arguer makes in support of the position advanced in the thesis. An important quality of this part of the argument is that it must be clear. The reader must always understand precisely where she is in the context of the total argument.

While there are a number of ways you can organize the presentation of the argument (and we will be reviewing some of these) in order to make it as clear as possible, here are a few basic principles which apply to all arguments. We will start with some simple principles and, in later sections, move to more sophisticated structures for written arguments.

1. The Main Body of an argument must proceed one point at a time. The writer introduces the point, discusses it so as to bring out its relationship to the thesis, and then moves onto the next point. Normally this will take at least one paragraph, sometimes more. The important things to remember here are that you should never try to deal with more than one point at a time and that you should say what you have to say about a single point and then move on. Do not jump back and forth to and from the same point.

2. In most arguments you can never include everything that you might want to include. You have to select the best points you can muster in support of your thesis and present those thoroughly, leaving the others out of the essay. A few points thoroughly discussed are almost always more persuasive than a great many more points dealt with casually (see further details below on this point).

3. Once the Main Body of the argument starts, you should not digress off the line established in the thesis. Everything in the argument from this point on must be directly relevant to what you have set up as the argument.

We will be looking at these points in more detail below.

6.2 The Length of the Argument: Approximate Paragraph Count

The first step in organizing how you are going to set out the Main Body of the argument is to decide how long the argument is going to be. In most college essays this length will be established by some guidelines with the assignment, normally a recommended number of words or pages.

The most important structural feature of a written argument, however, is not the page or the word, but the paragraph, which is the building block of the essay (for reasons which we will be going into later). And you cannot organize the essay until you have sorted out how many of these building blocks you have at your disposal (since that will determine just how many points you can establish in the argument).

You should never think of a written argument primarily as having to be a certain number of pages or words. The key idea is that it has to be within a certain number of paragraphs. A typical short essay, for example, calls for an argument of about 750 to 1000 words; a research paper tends to be longer, up to 2000 or 3000 words. These figures are not very useful until you can sort out just how many paragraphs this amounts to.

How do you do that? Well, again for reasons we will be going into later, paragraphs should be substantial sections of prose, in most cases about 200 to 300 words long. Hence, to get a rough sense of how many paragraphs the written argument should contain, divide the recommended word length by (at the least) 150 or 200. Thus, a 750-word assignment is calling for an argument of about 4 or 5 paragraphs; a 2000 word assignment is calling for an argument of about 10 to 12 paragraphs. Obviously these figures are approximate, but they will provide an initial idea of how you should organize the Main Body of the argument.

Why does this matter? Well, if you follow the principle which we will be stressing later that one paragraph can deal with only one main point in the argument, then a calculation of the approximate number of paragraphs tells you how many points you will be bringing to bear in support of the thesis. In a short essay, for example, where you have, say, five paragraphs to deal with, the first will present the introduction, the last will offer a conclusion; that will leave three paragraphs for the main body of the argument. In organizing the paper you can use as a guide the idea that you have to present three main ideas in support of your thesis (you may want to adjust this later, but as an initial guideline you need to have this sense of how the argument is going to be structured).

In a longer research paper, where you have, say, ten paragraphs to organize, you may be using the opening three for defining the argument, the final two for establishing conclusions and recommendations; that leaves you five paragraphs to make your case (i.e., five separate points).

You cannot proceed to organize the argument without knowing how many paragraphs you have at your disposal. If you try simply to write the argument without any organization, there is a great danger that you will end up confusing the reader and probably yourself as well.

6.3 Selecting the Topics for the Argument

Once you have estimated how many paragraphs you have at your disposal for the main body of the argument, you then have to select the points you are going to include and exclude. Remember the key point: you cannot include everything you might want or be able to say on the thesis; you have to reduce the argument to the few best points and argue each of them thoroughly.

Let's take a particular example. You wish to write a short review of a film (up to 1000 words). This means you will be constructing a five paragraph essay, with an introduction (Paragraph 1) and a conclusion (Paragraph 5). The main body of the argument will thus be three paragraphs long. You need to select the three most important and persuasive things that shaped your opinion of the film. Do not be too quick to determine those three points; pause to reflect on what you might include.

The first stage in the selection is usually a brainstorming session in which you jot down all the things you might say. Such a list would cover a wide range of different topics: the acting of the principal characters, the acting of the supporting actors, the cinematography, the special effects, the music, the dialogue, the story, the direction, in short, all the elements of the work which had an effect on you and which are within the limits you have set for the essay.

Then, by a process of elimination, you select the most important of those elements, the ones which were, in your view, the most important in determining your view of the film. The best way by far to go through this process is a discussion with other people who also saw the film. They may not share your view, but the conversation will clarify for you more quickly than anything else what you most need to say in order to support your point of view (and the other people will also be the source of some interesting arguments you might wish to incorporate).

The result of this process must be a list of the three items which will form the core of your argument, the key elements that made you like or dislike or have a mixed view of the film you are reviewing. By offering a detailed discussion of each of these in turn, you will be trying to persuade the reader that your opinion of this work is worth attending to.

The process is the same for a research paper, except that you have more paragraphs to deal with. This enables you not only to include more points in the argument but, as we shall see, to offer a more complex structure to the argument.

6.4 Rethinking the Focus and Thesis of the Argument

Organizing the main body of the argument in this manner works only if you have a very specific idea of what you are setting up as the main argument and if that is manageable within the space available. It is almost impossible to develop a sense of the structure of the argument if you do not have a very specific focus and a clear thesis or if these are too unwieldy for the space available.. Thus, if you find you simply cannot decide what to leave out and that there is just too much you might say on the topic, then you should go back to the definition of the argument and restrict the focus further.

For instance, suppose you decide you want to write an essay on, say, the importance of nature in Huckleberry Finn or the abuses of the present system of welfare in BC. In the planning stages you get hopelessly bogged down because there seems to be far too much material for you to cover and you simply cannot decide. In such a case, you should rethink the definition of the essay. Instead of writing something on the importance of nature in Huckleberry Finn, restrict that to an argument about the importance of the river (i.e., narrow the meaning of nature); similarly, instead of writing about welfare abuse in general, restrict the meaning of that wide topic to something much more specific: welfare abuse in rents.

Since students very commonly select subjects far larger than they can possibly deal with adequately in a short paper, this problem is particularly common. It is perhaps a result of the fear many students have that if they restrict the focus too much they will not have enough to say. But this is often a serious mistake which creates insoluble problems for the writer and the reader. As a previous section stressed, organizing the argument is very difficult and often impossible if you set yourself a focus that is much too wide for the space available. I cannot emphasize this point enough.

6.5 Developing an Outline: Topic Sentences

Once you have a sense of the three or four main points you would like to make (assuming we are still dealing with a relatively short argument), you need to frame those points in the form of Topic Sentences. A topic sentence, as the name suggests, announces to the reader a particular topic (or stage) in the argument, a new point which you are now going to present. As such, they are key signals to the reader, indicating the direction of the argument.

The Topic Sentences you draw up will introduce each paragraph in the main body of the argument. They will announce to the reader the argumentative point you are now starting to make in support of your thesis. The clarity of the argument in the main body of the essay is going to depend, more than anything else, on the clarity and energy of these topic sentences.

In framing a good topic sentence, you should strive to answer the questions: What exactly am I arguing in this paragraph? What argumentative point do I want the reader to accept? A sentence in answer to those questions will usually provide a helpful and energetic opening to a new stage of the argument. Here are some examples:

Example A
(In an essay exploring the deficiencies in the present system of welfare in BC)

The present system by which welfare deals with rental payments to landlords invites dishonesty on the part of the welfare recipient and has created widespread abuse of the system. In fact, the present system encourages such fraud.

Example B
(From an essay arguing that the ghost in Hamlet is a major cause of what is rotten in the state of Denmark)

In this conversation between Hamlet and the ghost of his father we get a clear impression of the harsh, egotistical, sexist, and brutal sensibilities of the old warrior king. He comes across as a very unpleasant character.

Example C
(From an essay evaluating a particular poem)

The images in the poem are very unsatisfactory. They constantly rely on vague, imprecise language appealing to a warm sentimentality rather than to clear vision, rather like a commercial for some product for intimate hygiene.

Example D
(From a film review)

Another feature of the film which contributes to its quality is the excellent special effects. Again and again these provide unexpected excitement and, at times, real humour to the film.

Example E
(From an essay arguing that the use of Ritalin is a dangerous trend that should be stopped)

The widespread use of Ritalin in the schools also indicates a massive failure on the part of our education system to deal properly with the basic situation in the typical classroom. It illustrates yet again the way in which we would much sooner reach for the chemical answer to a problem, rather than use our intelligence to reorganize a conventional way of doing business.

There are some important things to notice about these topic sentences, as follows:

1. First, and most important, they all express argumentative opinions. They put on the table some specific points related to the thesis and thus advance the argumentative stance of the essay. They are not stating matters of fact (more about this later). This, as we shall see, is crucial.

2. Second, the writer takes time to establish the topic firmly, if necessary taking two (or perhaps three) sentences to get the argumentative point on the table.

3. Thirdly, they all announce single, specific points. There is no doubt about the one point that this paragraph is now going to deal with.

4. Finally, they are not putting particular evidence into the argument (that is about to come). They are setting up a new point, indicating to the reader what this paragraph is now going to deal with.

6.6 The Commonest Error in Topic Sentences

It is particularly important to notice what the topics sentences listed in the previous section are not doing: they are not stating matters of fact. That is, they are not simply stating something obvious about which there is no disagreement, but they are advancing an argumentative case.

This is a crucial point, because the most frequent way in which student arguments in essay form weaken themselves and become confusing occurs when the topic sentence is not an argumentative opinion but a statement of the obvious. Notice the difference between the above sentences and the following:

(From an essay on the abuses in the welfare system in BC): Under the present scheme of welfare, the monthly cheque pays for rental expenses.

(From an essay arguing that ghost of Hamlet's father is a major source of what is rotten in the state of Denmark): In the next scene of the play, Hamlet and his father meet on the battlements of the castle. They have a long conversation about Gertrude and Claudius. And Hamlet Senior reveals some things about his present residence in Purgatory.

(From an essay evaluating a particular poem): This poem contains a lot of images. Some of these are images of natural scenes, and others are dream images.

(From a film review): The film contains many special effects. These include a train blowing up, aliens destroying Malaspina University-College with a sticky goo, and massive explosions which knock the earth off its axis.

(From an essay arguing that the use of Ritalin is a dangerous trend that should be stopped): Ritalin is prescribed by doctors for many young school children. The parents agree with the prescription. This has been going on for many years.

These sentences do not express argumentative opinions. They express facts. There is nothing to argue about here. Hence, as topic sentences they are inherently unsatisfactory, because they do not indicate to the reader where the argument is going. And, what is particularly important, they invite the writer to abandon the argument and to devote the paragraph to a lot of obvious facts, something which is a major flaw in many arguments.

This is particularly the case with essays on literary subjects. A topic sentence like the second one above (about Hamlet) which simply points to a particular scene and mentions what goes on there (without offering an argumentative opinion about it) will almost certainly lead to a paragraph which simply summarizes what goes on in that scene (i.e., which offers a rehash of the obvious events of that scene). This feature obviously contributes nothing to the argument; it tells the reader only what he already knows if he has read or seen the play (the obvious details of the story). Summarizing the plot in this way is one of the commonest mistakes in essays on literary subjects, and it stems from the writer's refusal to take an argumentative stance in the topic sentence.

At any point in the main body of an argument, if you find yourself simply providing a catalogue of obvious facts (like the details of the plot in a literary fiction, the events in a historical narrative, or statistical details of a social problem), then you are not advancing the argument. You may be using up a lot of words, but you will not be doing what the essay requires.

6.7 Exercise in Topic Sentences

In the light of the remarks given in Sections 6.5 and 6.6 above, indicate which of the following series of statements would make a good topic sentence or sentences and which would not. Remember the key point: the topic sentence should announce an argumentative point and not a statement of fact about which there is no dispute.

1. Robert de Niro has appeared in many different films. He has been a leading actor for many years. He has received a number of prestigious awards for acting.

2. Later in the novel Huck meets up with two confidence men. Together they plan a number of tricks on the citizens of small towns along the river.

3. Some of the salaries paid to average professional athletes are very high. It is not uncommon to read about a regular player receiving a salary of over a million dollars a year.

4. The descriptive language in this poem is particularly effective at bringing out a feeling of extreme anger tinged with regret. Again and again, the writer focuses our attention on this mood with evocative language.

5. What sort of person is Ophelia anyway? She seems throughout most of the play to be passive and confused, as if she is always having to guess what is going on around her.

6. The political actions of the Mulroney government during the Meech Lake debate created a series of problems from which we are still trying to recover. The failure of that process and its poisonous legacy were the direct results of the cynical political tactics of the government.

7. Walt Disney's film The Lion King was very popular a few years ago. Recently it has been transformed into a Broadway show which has been nominated for some major awards.

8. AIDS affects a number of people in Canada, and the number is increasing. Most of the victims first develop HIV infection. The main sources of infection are dirty hypodermic needles among drug users and unprotected sex.

Make sure you understand this point how about topic sentences must advance an argumentative opinion relevant to the thesis and not just offer a statement of fact. If you have trouble formulating a proper topic sentence, then try to set it up by completing the following sentence: In this paragraph I wish to argue in support of my thesis the single point that. . . If you complete the sentence with something we can argue about and then get rid of the above introductory clause, you should have a workable opening to an argumentative paragraph.

6.8 Drawing Up a Simple Outline (for a Short Essay)

The result of your preliminary organization for an argumentative essay should be a relatively detailed outline which does two things: first, it defines the argument (with a clear focus and thesis) and, second, it sets down the series of topic sentences which you intend to follow in developing the argument. These you may (perhaps) wish to adjust in the course of writing the essay, but you should not start on that project until you have an outline in place, so that you know where you are going in the total argument.

The following are two sample outlines for a short essay (about 1000 words). At this point there is no need to worry about the conclusion (we will be dealing with that later). The abbreviation TS indicates Topic Sentence (the opening of each paragraph).

Essay 1: On Hamlet

General Subject: Hamlet
Focus 1: Polonius
Focus 2: Polonius's treatment of his family

Thesis: Polonius is particularly important in the play because his attitude to his family reveals to us very clearly the emotional sterility of the court in Elsinore.

TS 1: Polonius, an important court official, is so addicted to lying, manipulation, and routine deception, even in his family life, that he has no understanding of emotional honesty.

TS 2: The relationship between Polonius and his son, Laertes, provides an important sense of Polonius's priorities, especially the way in which his values are dominated by practical worldly success rather than by genuine feelings of love.

TS 3: In his dealings with Ophelia, Polonius is a cruel bully.

Essay 2: On Narcotics

General Subject: Illegal Narcotics
Focus 1: Illegal Narcotics and the Law
Focus 2: The need to legalize narcotics

Thesis: The only appropriate solution to our present drug problem is to decriminalize all derivatives of marijuana, heroin, and cocaine immediately.

TS 1: The present situation, in which so many narcotics are illegal, is the major cause for a much bigger problem than narcotics, urban crime.

TS 2: The idea that the police and the courts, given lots of money, can somehow prevent or even reduce the supply and the consumption of illegal narcotics is totally misguided.

TS 3: Since we have many harmful narcotics legally available throughout the country, making less harmful substances illegal is foolish.

Notice how such an outline provides a very clear sense of what the essay is focusing upon, what the thesis is, and how each paragraph of the argument will start. Pay attention also how the key elements here are complete sentences (the thesis and the topic sentences) rather than just jotted points. These sentences will appear in your essay in the appropriate places.

The above outline may look simple enough. But it will usually take a good deal of thought and discussion. For some arguments you may have to do some research in order to determine just what main points you wish to include. So drawing up such an outline may be quite time consuming. But you should not start the first draft of the essay until you have something like this in place. Every five minutes you spend working on a useful outline will save you at least an hour in the writing of the paper.

6.9 Checking the Outline

Once you have an outline like one of the above samples in place, review it carefully with the following points in mind:

1. Is the thesis a clearly assertive argument, something we can dispute? Is it clear in your mind precisely what you are arguing and what you are not arguing? Can you make it any more specific and clear?

2. Is each topic sentence an opinionated assertion, something we can argue about? Are you certain that the topic sentence is not just making an obvious statement of fact?

3. Is each topic sentence stating very clearly just one important and specific opinion? Are there any ambiguities or contradictions in the topic sentence which you might clarify?

4. Are the topic sentences in the most persuasive order? If parts of your argument are much stronger than others, then normally, you should put the most persuasive point last, the second best point first, and the least persuasive point in the middle.

6.10 Some Sample Formats for Topic Sentences

Topic sentences form the major pieces of the logical framework of the argument, and thus you need to pay particular attention to framing them correctly. The following notes offer some advice on how you might like to formulate and vary the topic sentences in the essay.

A. Standard Format: Interpretative Assertion (Opinion)

A common form of topic sentence is a statement of the assertive opinion you are now going to deal with in the paragraph. The following examples illustrate the style:

1. The store itself obviously plays an important role in Sammy's decision to leave, for his walking out is a rejection of what it stands for.

2. The crucial factor in the economic crisis was the inability of the French monarchy to repay its debts.

3. Capital punishment does not, as many of its supporters claim, deter crimes of violence.

4. Odysseus's most obvious characteristic is an insatiable curiosity which overcomes all thoughts of potential danger to himself or his men.

B. Standard Format Emphasised: Interpretative Assertion (opinion) Followed by Clarification, Extension, or Emphasis.

Here the topic sentence is basically the same in form as the first, except that the writer expands on the opening sentence, making it more emphatic and clear. This is a particularly useful and common style for a topic sentence.

1. The story itself obviously plays an important role in Sammy's decision to leave, for his walking out is a rejection of what it stands for. In fact, if we attend carefully to Sammy's descriptions of where he works, we come to understand his feelings about the life he faces if he remains doing what he is doing.

2. The crucial factor in the economic crisis was the inability of the French monarchy to repay its debts. For years the King had insisted on borrowing money to conduct expensive foreign wars and glorify the court; now the money urgently needed for social problems was not available.

3. Capital punishment does not, as its supporters claim, deter crimes of violence. There is, in fact, repeated evidence that imposing capital sentences for murder has no effect whatsoever on the frequency of such crimes.

4. Odysseus's most obvious characteristic is an insatiable curiosity which overcomes all thoughts of potential danger to himself or his men. In spite of the fact that the world is full of great dangers, like the Kyklops or the Sirens, Odysseus must experience first hand all that there is to experience.

C. Question: Simple Direct Question for Emphasis

A good way to add emphasis and variety to your style is to set up the topic sentence as a question. The paragraph will then become an answer to the question.

1. What exactly is the importance in the story of the main setting of the store?

2. Why was the economy in such difficulty at this stage?

3. Does capital punishment effectively deter crimes of violence?

4. Why is Odysseus so curious about the world?

D. Double Question: Two Questions, the Second Expanding on the First, for Greater Emphasis

A really emphatic way to open a paragraph is to set up a double question, the second emphasising the point raised in the first.

1. What exactly is the importance in the story of the main setting, the store? What role does that play in Sammy's decision to leave?

2. Why was the economy is such difficulty at this stage? Why was a country as rich and powerful as France unable to meet the financial demands of the new situation?

3. What about the argument that capital punishment deters crime? Is it not the case that the threat of a lethal punishment makes potential criminals more reluctant to commit murder?

4. Why is Odysseus so curious about the world? Why, that is, does he never temper his thirst for new experience with some common-sense prudence which might lead him to avoid dangers rather than embrace the risk of them?

E. Statement of Fact and Question: Directing the Reader to a Fact in the Argument and Raising an Issue About It

Earlier in this section, we stressed that a paragraph should never open with a matter of fact, and that principle is still an important one. However, it is permissible, but only if you immediately direct the reader's attention to an argumentative point about that fact.

1. Sammy works in a standard supermarket in a small town. What is significant about this fact in the story?

2. By the mid-1780's the poverty of the agricultural classes and the poorest groups in the major cities had reached critical proportions. Why had this come about, especially in a country apparently so economically well off?

3. Supporters of capital punishment often claim that it is an effective deterrent for some people who might commit murder. But is this true?

4. Odysseus has no particular reason for visiting the Kyklops. So why then does he incur the risk, especially against the wishes and entreaties of his men?

F. Statement of Fact and a Double Question

Again, one can make the previous style of topic sentence more emphatic:

1. Sammy works in a standard supermarket in a small town. What is significant about this fact in the story? What role, if any, does the store play in Sammy decision to leave?

2. By the mid-1780's the poverty of the agricultural classes and the poorest groups in the major cities had reached critical proportions. Why had this come about, especially in a country apparently so economically well off? What was there about this particular moment that turned a widespread social problem into the fuse that lit a revolution?

3. Supporters of capital punishment often claim that it is an effective deterrent for some people who might commit murder. But is this true? Do the statistics of murder rates bear out this common contention?

4. Odysseus has no particular reason for visiting the Kyklops. So why then does he incur the risk, especially against the wishes and entreaties of his men? What is there in his character that almost requires him to undertake whatever adventures this island will bring?

6.11 Topic Sentences to Avoid

The following are some common forms of ineffective topic sentences. They are not immediately useful in an argumentative structure because they do not alert the reader to anything directly relevant to a new development in the argument. You should check to make sure that you are not offering up as topic sentences statements which fall into one of the following categories:

1. Statements of Fact which stand by themselves (i.e., which are not immediately followed by something of interpretative interest or a question, as in the examples above).

2. Major generalizations about life, liberty, morality, the nature of the world, or anything not directly related to the details of the text you are considering (e.g., "People have always wanted to believe in a God who is merciful, kind, and rational"; "Curiosity is a trait we always admire, especially in children"; "Working in a small store is always a depressing experience"; and so on).

3. Any topic sentence which introduces a point not directly relevant to the thesis you have established.


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