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Structure: Four Warning Signs

by James Fuller

A good structure is often a clear sign of a good argument.  On the flip-side, a weak structure is often one of the most obvious signs of a weak argument.  If one or more of the following is true of your structure, you may want to reconsider the thesis, examples, or logical progression of your paper.

These aren’t hard and fast rules.  You may find that one of the following is true of your structure, but your discipline or some special feature of your argument makes it OK.  However, if your paper bears one of these signs, you have a good reason to take a long, critical look at it.

This semester, I took English 192 with Elaine Scarry.  Before setting us loose to write our final paper, Professor Scarry gave us two pieces of advice.  The first two warning signs are an expansion on that advice.  The second two warning signs I draw from my own experience as a writing tutor.

WARNING SIGNS

1. The structure of your paper exactly follows the structure of the text you are writing about.  For example, if you are writing about Moby-Dick, you might notice that each paragraph addresses a subsequent chapter.  This is a worrisome sign.  It may mean that you are allowing Moby-Dick’s narrative to determine the structure of your paper.
 
This may seem like a reasonable way to structure your paper, but your structure should be determined by the logical progression of your argument, not the order of the text you are writing on.  When you start a new paragraph, you should ask yourself, “What would develop develop my argument and prove my point?” not “What comes next in the plot?”
 
If you are worried that readers won’t be able to follow your argument if they don’t know the entire plot of Moby-Dick, then your argument may be too broad.  In most text based essays, you should focus on local, specific observations that can be situated with a small amount of narrative context.

2. You address multiple texts, and each text has its own discrete section of the essay.  For example, the first half of your paper addresses Mill’s On Liberty, and the second half of your paper addresses Hobbes’ Leviathan.
 
Again, this may seem like a reasonable structure.  However, in most essays that ask you to address multiple texts, you will want to bring these texts into dialog rather than treating each separately. Instead of having one section on one thinker and one on another, try organizing your paper around the points you want to make about both texts.

In the end of the day, you may find that your thesis is best served by giving each text its own section.  However, you must be certain that you have a single argument that brings the texts into relation with one another.  The “first A then B” structure should be a deliberate argumentative choice, not the default.

3. Your paper has unexplained transitions.  Common examples include “Before addressing W, I must address X,” “This leads me to Y,” and “I will now address Z.”  The problem with these transitions is that they proclaim a logical order without explaining it.  Why do you need to address X before W?  How does the previous paragraph lead you to Y?  Why are you addressing Z at this point in your essay?  The answers to these questions may be clear to you, but they may not be clear to your audience.

You should aim for substantive transitions that explain the relationship between what you have been discussing and what you are going to discuss.  Substantive transitions will help you make a cohesive argument because they will force you to reflect on why you are addressing certain points in a certain order.  If your essay has many unexplained transitions, you may need to reconsider the overall structure of your argument.

4. Your body paragraphs could occur in any order.  In other words, there is no good reason that you address one thing before another.  If this is true of your essay, you may be listing examples rather than making a sustained argument.

Even if your paper involves multiple examples of the same phenomenon, each example should bring out new aspects of the phenomenon or nuance your position.  If an example does neither of these things, you may want to delete it.

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