Rethinking the Structure of the Essay
Updated: Apr 9, 2020
Over the years, I’ve discovered that there’s a fine line in the teaching of writing between convention and creativity. We start with convention and try to end with creativity.
In the end, I tell my students, it’s not about the order or the structure, it’s about the quality of ideas. Did you say something new? It doesn’t matter when or how I get goosebumps when I read, it’s that I get goosebumps. An essay, a piece of writing on a topic, may or may not involve extensive research or a bunch of sources. It may be philosophical but should always aim to answer a question. The question might come first in the essay, and the answer last. How we write the answer will always depend on the question.
Any formal response to a question should start with a statement of truth or an observation about the human condition that can excite anyone, regardless of their age, gender, culture, or status. The introduction might ground the answer to the question with historical or biographical context.
Students practice the thesis statement over and over and over again, and at some point, it turns into a box or a cage. They can’t get out of it or get away from their original idea. At some point in their education, we try to turn the box into a cannon or a rocket; the thesis is the moment the essay starts, not the moment it ends. The topic or supporting sentences should extend the thesis and they’re important, because like the thesis, they make sense of what’s about to come. Arguments are a map, but like a map, contain no real places. And that brings us to the soul of the essay, the body paragraphs.
The Body Paragraph
I like that term - the body paragraph. It means the introduction is the head, and the conclusion is the feet. The heart is in the middle. When I first teach the essay, I ask my students to consider how they would respond to a question in a real conversation. They would answer the question, and then explain their answer. Maybe someone asks you “Should I brush my teeth?” You respond by saying yes, it cleans your teeth. But after that, you need to do more. You need to talk about cavities and tooth decay. You need to present and interpret the evidence. If someone wants to know “Why should I vote for you?” You need to explain the main reason, but then elaborate with specifics about your policies. Think about love. What if you wanted to write not an essay, but a love letter. What if you had to explain what you want to do for a living to your parents. Turn on the news. Now, more than ever, we need to support our answers to questions with quality interpretations of facts. Those interpretations should also progress logically from one idea to the next.
I’m not a big fan of restating the thesis. I’m not sure if I know what that means, or why anyone would ever do it. I tell my students to revisit the simple first sentence of their essay and think about what new complex idea or truth has now emerged from the essay. The conclusion should be a conclusion. Not in the academic sense of wrapping things up. It should be the place where true meaning-making happens. This is the end, it’s where the reader walks away and should be transformed in some way by the essay. The conclusion should state how the writer has gained a new perspective as a result of looking into this particular topic. The writer might link their personal experiences to the topic or make a connection to something relevant - sitcoms, video games, movies, music, plays, comedy, websites, radio, talk shows, game shows, reality television, politics, education, culture, healthcare, the justice system, sports, celebrities, social groups, literature, journalism, science, war, etc. The end should reveal why this topic is still, today, important. What will we do with this information moving forward? How will we use it? Writers attempt to take a microscope to their little slice of reality in the hope that it will spread a little more sense and wisdom.
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