Effective writing is the key to success in any University environment; the expository essay is my default paper style for any class in the humanities (Philosophy, English, etc.). This handout will demonstrate the proper technique for composing a knock-out essay.

Important Note: This page is heavily based on a series of handouts I received from Professor Jeremy Fantl at the University of Calgary; almost all the content is sourced from 10 handouts, I meerly merged them together and edited them for clarity.

1) Thesis (or Conclusion)

What you are arguing for/what you want to encourage your reader to believe

In an expository essay – and all essays for that matter – a thesis is much more than the topic or subject matter that the paper is about; a thesis must take a defensible and deniable position on some thing (argument) within the primary focus of the paper’s topic or subject matter.

Topic Thesis
Knowledge Knowledge is possible.
The banning of handguns Handguns should be banned.
Topic-Statement Thesis Statement
“In this paper, I am going to discuss whether knowledge is possible.” “In this paper, I am going to show that knowledge is possible.”
“Should we ban handguns?” “We should ban handguns.”

A bad thesis is like a cancer.  It will spread to all other aspects of your paper: style, transitions, argument, clarity, objections, replies.  It can even damage the most important element of the expository essay: the title.

A satisfactory thesis needs to satisfy three conditions.  It needs to be:

1. Provable: you must be able to rationally argue for your thesis with the evidence at hand.  This does not mean it needs to be successfully proven beyond any doubt.  You need to be able to come up with an argument that makes it seem true to the intended audience of your paper.  Furthermore, you must be able to argue for your thesis with only the evidence at hand.  In other words, if every argument for your thesis requires tons of statistics, studies on human psychology, data from evolutionary theory, then (assuming you haven’t done the required research) it’s not a great thesis.  The solution to this problem is not to come up with a different (and bad) argument that doesn’t involve statistics or outside evidence.  The solution is to get a new thesis.

Bad Thesis for a 4-6 page paper:

Man is inherently evil.

Reason: What sort of evidence could possibly be brought in to a 4-6 page paper to show that this is true?  How many sociological and psychological studies must be done to show that all of every man’s actions are motivated by malevolence?

2. Deniable: your thesis must be able to be sincerely argued against in a rational way.  It must be controversial.  Merely provable theses are a dime a dozen.  “Humans generally have two arms” is a provable thesis.  But it is not deniable.  No one rational would sincerely argue against it.  Merely deniable theses are also a dime a dozen.  “I could survive the hottest flames of the Earth’s sun” is a deniable thesis.  But it is not provable.  There is no way to rationally argue for it.  It is a rare thesis that there is both a good argument against but a better and more decisive argument for.  It is rarer still to actually be in possession of that better and more decisive argument.  These are the theses you need to look for.  You need to look for a thesis that has a good argument against it, but for which you have an even better argument.  If the thesis you want to use in your paper does not fit this bill, you need a new thesis.

Another Bad Thesis:

Belief in God is an important part of many people’s lives.

Reason: Who could reasonably disagree with this?

3. Focused: Your thesis needs to be small enough that a single (possibly complex) argument can prove it.  You shouldn’t have to provide 3 separate reasons why your thesis is true.  You need your final paper to be unified and the way you do this is by narrowing your thesis so that your entire paper all fits together.

What you don’t want is: “There are three separate reasons why Descartes’ skeptical argument fails: 1) X, 2) Y, and 3) Z.”  Starting with a thesis like this leads to the dreaded laundry list style of paper writing.  You will end up with three discrete sections to your paper, tied together by nothing other than the fact that they are all arguments for a common claim.  This may be fine in a longer paper or a book, where you might try to marshal many arguments for a single point.  But the more unified your thesis is, the more focused on a specific line of thought, the better your paper will be.

You also don’t want: “In this paper I will be disagreeing with Descartes” or, “In this paper, I will be arguing for knowledge” These are examples of the “Yay-Boo Thesis”.  They are the equivalent of, “Yay knowledge!” and “Boo Descartes!”  These are too broad to count as nicely focused theses.  Your thesis should hint at some reason that you believe it.  (See accompanying handout.)

So, two kinds of theses to avoid:

  1. The Yay-Boo Thesis.
  2. The Laundry List.

Steps to the Thesis Statement

Step Example #1 Example #2 Example #3
1) Decide on a large overarching issue.  This can be big. What is knowledge? What is the relationship between religion and morality? Which is more important: individual rights or the health of society as a whole?
2) Decide on a smaller question that illustrates, exemplifies, handles, or puts this larger issue into stark relief. What must a belief be supported by in order to be genuine knowledge? Could we legitimately judge Hitler to be morally wrong unless there was a God that declared his actions to be wrong? Can we ban private ownership of handguns if it would reduce crime?
3) Take a stand on that smaller question. In order to be genuine knowledge, a belief must be supported by first hand experience. Hitler can be legitimately judged morally wrong even if there is no God to declare his actions wrong. It is wrong to ban private ownership of handguns, even if it would reduce crime.
4) Think of an initial and compelling reason in support of your stand. Unless one has a first hand experience, one can too easily fall into error. There are pre-existing moral laws – laws that exist independently of God, but also independently of humans. It is wrong to punish law-abiding citizens for crimes that others commit.
5) When you state your thesis, your statement of it should include BOTH 3 and 4.  It is this combined statement that you will be arguing for in the paper (even though 4, strictly speaking, is also part of the argument itself). “In order to be genuine knowledge, a belief must be supported by first hand experience because, unless one has a first hand experience, one can too easily fall into error.” “We can judge Hitler to be morally wrong, even without a God, because we can use pre-existing moral laws, laws that are independent both of God and Man.” “We cannot ban private ownership of handguns, because this would be to punish law-abiding citizens for crimes that others commit.”

You don’t have to go through these steps in this order.  And be careful about step number 1. It’s probably less important than the others (see the accompanying Introduction Rule). But you should, when you’re finished coming up with your thesis, be able to set it up with a main question (level 2), have a clear picture of your answer to that question (level 3), have a good statement of your primary reason for that answer (level 4), and a well-formed statement of and argument for the combined answer and reason (level 5).

2) Argument

How you support your thesis/the reasons or evidence you use to show that your main claim is true

Arguments are more than mere illustrations.  Illustrations are further clarifications of your thesis.  Arguments give the reader reasons to believe your thesis.

Thesis Illustration Argument
People only act to achieve their own self-interest. Whenever you think you’re acting unselfishly, you’re really self-deceived.  Really you’re just trying to feel good about yourself. People only act on their own desires (not anyone else’s).  But to act on one’s own desires just is to act in one’s own self interest.  Therefore, people only act to achieve their own self-interest.

The Only Two Ways That Arguments Can Fail

  1. The conclusion can fail to follow from the premises. For example:

Oswald’s gun requires 2 seconds between shots.

Therefore, it takes 6 seconds to shoot 3 times with Oswald’s gun.

  1. The premises can be false. For Example:

All dogs are fish.

All fish are mammals

Therefore, all dogs are mammals.

The Game of “Why”

As is often pointed out, argument can go on forever.  You claim X.  I ask you, “Why believe X?”  You say, “Believe X because of Y.”  I ask you, “Why believe Y?”  You say, “Believe Y because of Z?”  I ask you, “Why believe Z?”  You say, “Believe Z because of A.”  This is a very fun game for a very short period of time.  When can you stop this chain of argument?

ANSWER: when you get to a claim that your target audience (those reasonable people who disagree with your thesis) agrees with.  If you are trying to convince me of X, then presumably I don’t yet believe X.  That’s WHY you are trying to convince me that X is true.  If you can show me that Y is a good reason to believe X, and if I believe Y, then you will have convinced me to believe X.  So, you need to keep arguing until you get to some foundation, some basic premises that your target audience believes.

4) Motive

Why your reader should care about your thesis/why it’s CONTROVERSIAL

You provide a motive for your thesis by showing the reader why the opposing view is very plausible.  You provide a motive by giving reasons to believe the opposite.  You do not provide a motive merely by showing how important it is that your thesis is true, or by showing what psychological trait would make people believe it, or simply by saying that there is controversy, or simply by saying, “The opposite view seems very plausible.”

Usually, you put the motive at the beginning of the paper.  Some authors will spend the first few pages of their paper doing nothing but showing why the opposite view is something worth believing.  However, you always need to Return to the Motive at the end of paper, to show how you’ve resolved it (see other side of this sheet).

Poorly Motivated Thesis Well Motivated Thesis
Thesis: Abortion is morally impermissible from the moment of conception.

Motive: In our society, opinion is split pretty evenly on the subject of abortion.  Many intelligent people think abortion is morally permissible.  So how can I be arguing that abortion is morally impermissible?

Thesis: Abortion is morally impermissible from the moment of conception.

Motive: It seems abortion is morally permissible in the early stages of pregnancy.  After all, surely a woman has the right to control what happens in and to her body.  At least at first, a fetus doesn’t seem to feel pain or have significant mental capacity of any kind.  So it looks like the right of the woman to control what happens in and to her body should be of utmost importance.

Thesis: There is no objective moral truth.

Motive: Since the dawn of time, mankind has been fascinated by the notion of morality.

Thesis: There is no objective moral truth.

Motive: Unless there were objective moral truth, it doesn’t seem like we could ever legitimately judge other cultures or societies or individuals.  We couldn’t even legitimately judge ourselves.  We could never say that Nazi Germany or slavery was morally wrong.  There would be no reason to ever act to change anything.

Thesis: People always and only act selfishly.

Motive: It makes sense to think that people sometimes act purely altruistically.  After all, people have a need to believe in the inherent goodness of individuals.  Without this belief, people would lose hope.  It makes us feel bad to believe that people always and only act selfishly.

Thesis: People always and only act selfishly.

Motive: It makes sense to think that people sometimes act purely altruistically.  After all, to claim otherwise is to make an incredibly general claim about human psychology.  The evidence for this would be extremely hard to come by.  All sorts of scientific studies would have to be done, the likes of which we cannot really even imagine.  How can we tell what the real motives behind any given act are?  Given the mind-boggling lack of evidence we have, it seems to make sense to say that we sometimes act selfishly, sometimes not, more often a mixture of the two.

Return to the Motive:

It is not enough to give a good argument for your thesis.  Your argument can be as good as can be, but if you leave the motive standing, the reader will think, “Yes, I know you have a good argument.  But what about that reason I had to believe the opposite?”  So, you need, at the end of the paper, to come back to the motive and explain why it no longer has the force it initially seemed to.  Ideally, this explanation should fall right out of your argument.  It should be because your argument is what it is that the motive no longer looks so good.  Here are the above three examples, with some sample Returns.  (I’m not saying the sample Returns successfully defeat the sample Motives – they just are of the form that you will want to emulate.)

Thesis Motive Return
Abortion is morally impermissible from the moment of conception.

 

It seems abortion is morally permissible in the early stages of pregnancy.  After all, surely a woman has the right to control what happens in and to her body.  At least at first, a fetus doesn’t seem to feel pain or have significant mental capacity of any kind.  So it looks like the right of the woman to control what happens in and to her body should be of utmost importance. So now we can see why it doesn’t matter that, as pointed out earlier, an early fetus doesn’t seem to have any mental capacities.  It’s because the impermissibility of abortion stems from the fact that a fetus is a potential person, not from the fact that a fetus feels pain.
There is no objective moral truth.

 

Unless there were objective moral truth, it doesn’t seem like we could ever legitimately judge other cultures or societies or individuals.  We couldn’t even legitimately judge ourselves.  We could never say that Nazi Germany or slavery was morally wrong.  There would be no reason to ever act to change anything. So, once we take the view that there is no objective moral truth seriously, we realize that it makes no sense to say “it is not legitimate to judge others.”  Legitimacy is itself a moral notion.  So, judging others is perfectly “legitimate” but, of course, only in the relativist’s sense.  Since we personally feel that genocide is immoral, it is personally “legitimate” to judge it to be wrong.
People always and only act selfishly.

 

It makes sense to think that people sometimes act purely altruistically.  After all, to claim otherwise is to make an incredibly general claim about human psychology.  The evidence for this would be extremely hard to come by.  All sorts of scientific studies would have to be done, the likes of which we cannot really even imagine.  How can we tell what the real motives behind any given act are?  Given the mind-boggling lack of evidence we have, it seems to make sense to say that we sometimes act selfishly, sometimes not, more often a mixture of the two. So, given my argument, we can now see why evidence that people only act selfishly is unnecessary.  This is because the view that people only act selfishly is a result simply of the nature of voluntary action.  Voluntary action, by definition, is action that an agent wants to do.  Since it is the agent’s desires, and no one else’s, that make the agent act, the agent is necessarily acting selfishly, regardless of whether the agent wants to help others or to help him or her self.

4) Objections and Replies

Why one might plausibly think that your specific argument doesn’t work.

Inclusion in your paper of compelling objections and replies has multiple purposes.  Most obviously, it gives you the opportunity to address complaints that your reader may have.  If your reader is left, at the end of your paper, with unanswered questions in mind, that is the one thing your reader will remember of your paper (if that).  Second, consideration of objections and replies allows you the opportunity to clarify what your thesis is and what your argument is.  You might say, in response to an objection, “This objection assumes that I am saying XXXXXX.  But, in fact, am saying YYYYYY.”  Third, you might consider objections that your reader hadn’t ever thought of.  It might seem strange to give your reader ideas – strange to help your reader see where your paper might go wrong – but in fact this maneuver can strengthen your paper and heighten its impact.  The reader will leave your paper thinking, “It answered everything, objections even I, the smartest in the land, had not thought of.”

Objections

An objection needs to be something more than an accusation that your argument fails.  Suppose your thesis is that Singer’s argument fails (for some specific reason).  Neither of the following are satisfactory objections:

“Someone might object to me that my argument fails.” Or, “Someone might object that Singer’s argument succeeds.”

You need to make each objection targeted at a very specific point in your argument.  The objection needs to show that you are wrong and why you are wrong.  You don’t have to consider every single possible objection to your view.  What you need to consider are the ones that the most intelligent critics will have in mind.  You shouldn’t pick objections just because they’re easy for you to answer.  For example:

“Someone might object that my argument seems too good to be true,” or “Someone might wonder how I developed such a brilliant argument without supernatural powers.”

Replies

A reply needs to be more than a restatement of your argument and more than a restatement of your thesis.  You need to supplement your argument with a new mini-argument against the objection.  The following is not a satisfactory reply:

“I respond that my argument actually succeeds.”

Where to Put Objections, and Replies

A thorough treatment of objections and replies often has a rather unpleasant side effect.  It can really drag the paper down into a list style, especially if you put all of the objections and replies at the end of the paper.  There are ways to avoid this:

1) Whatever you do, do NOT load all your objections and replies into the same paragraph and do NOT run through all of your objections and then run through all of the replies. 

2) Put the objections in surprising places.  Suppose your thesis is that Descartes’ argument is successful.  Suppose you want to consider the objection that, in fact, there is no evil demon consistently fooling us.  You could put this objection at the end, with all your other objections, thus expanding the already gigantic list.  Or, you could put the objection at the beginning, when you are spelling out Descartes’ argument.

You start out by saying:

“Descartes argues that, because the evil demon might be constantly fooling us, we cannot trust any of our beliefs.”

You then offer the following objection:

“Of course, we don’t actually believe there is such an evil demon.”

You then clarify Descartes’ argument by giving the following reply:

“But Descartes’ argument doesn’t depend on the evil demon actually existing.  As long as it is even possible for the evil demon to exist, we won’t be able to show that there is no evil demon who is constantly fooling us.  Any evidence we could bring up to show that there is no evil demon would also be there if there were an evil demon.”

By doing this you simultaneously clarify Descartes’ argument and dispose of a major objection.

3) Consider only a few objections, but make sure they are closely related to each other and to the motive.  That way, instead of a list of disparate objections, it will seem more like a variety of takes on one central objection.

4) Oddly enough, you can sometimes make the “list” seem less troubling by numbering the objections.  Though this seems like it will make the paper more despicably list-like, it can have the opposite effect.  But be careful with this approach.  It’s kind of a last resort.  If you use it, you should put each reply right after its objection.  You should make sure you deal completely with each objection; don’t leave any questions hanging.  And you should anticipate the numbered list by saying something like “My argument seems subject to three major objections.  I will discuss each in turn.”

These methods aside, it is very difficult to do a completely thorough job with objections and still have a smooth, unified-seeming paper with perfect transitions.  There’s usually a tradeoff.  Always err on the side of answering a crucial objection.

5) Sources

Any outside material that you use in your essay either as evidence for a claim, the basis for an interpretation, an example of an opinion, for any other reason

A source is any material other than the fruit of your own intellect that you refer to or use in a paper. These vary widely in kind. All the following can be sources:

  1. A movie.
  2. an encyclopedia.
  3. another person.
  4. a work of fiction.
  5. a song.
  6. a work of art.
  7. a natural object.

and many others, including all the standard texts, reference books, essays, journal articles, television shows, magazine pieces, newspapers, and, ultimately, everything in the universe.

Sources can be used in a variety of ways, but we can fudge certain details and narrow down those ways to 2 basic categories.  Sources can be used:

  1. to get information or facts about the world and
  2. to reveal a claim, opinion, or interpretation that someone else has made.

For example, if, in a paper on population trends, you quote The Big Yellow Almanac of Truth as saying “The population of the earth is 6.2 billion.” then you are using the source in the first way; you are using it factively.  You are using it to get a fact about the world (how many people there are).

On the other hand, if you say, “Plato argues that knowledge is true belief plus personal experience,” then you are using the source in the second way; you are using it (for lack of a better word), non-factively.  (You are also using it incorrectly, because Plato never actually says that an account needs to involve personal experience.)  You are not using it to get information about the world in the same way as you used the almanac.  You are using it as an example of something Plato says.  You are using it as revealing a claim of his.

  • The very same passage in the very same source can be used in both ways at different times. For example, the almanac can be used factively, as above.  Or it can be used non-factively.  If you are writing a paper on whether The Big Yellow Almanac of Truth is reliable, you could use the very same passage above simply as evidence that the almanac has a certain thing to say about the population of the earth.  You would use the passage as revealing a claim that the almanac makes, not as necessarily revealing a fact about the world.
  • Depending on the situation, sources can sometimes be properly used in only one of the two ways. For example, in an essay on the nature of knowledge, it would be improper to use Plato’s text as a source of fact, as giving the truth about knowledge in the same way almanacs give the truth about population.
  • Sometimes it might be proper to use a source factively, but not proper at other times. In a newspaper article about why a plane crashed, it may be proper to use some physics textbook factively.  But in a scholarly article about whether that physics textbook is accurate, it no longer is proper to use that very textbook as a source of fact.
  • Generally, you can use a source factively only when there is no question as to whether the source is reliable. This happens only when both the author and the audience agree fully that the source is reliable.

How to Elegantly Weave Sources Into Your Paper (The Four “I”s)

Do not simply drop a quote into your paper as if it’s just another sentence.  The following paper excerpt is a misuse of a source.

Should we believe that we are awake?  “I see plainly that there are never any sure signs by means of which being awake can be distinguished from being asleep” (Descartes, 13).  So, we should not believe that we are awake.

The main problem with this excerpt is that the quote is dropped into the paper as if it’s the author’s own.  Simply giving the page number is not enough.  You have to….

Introduce the quote.  You must preface the quote with something like, “Descartes says…” or “Descartes makes the following argument:” Rephrasing the above excerpt:

Should we believe that we are awake?  Descartes says, “I see plainly that there are never any sure signs by means of which being awake can be distinguished from being asleep” (13).  So, we should not believe that we are awake.

This is better, but not quite there.  For, though the author brings in Descartes to support the conclusion, the author just drops the quote in without explaining it.  You not only have to introduce the quote.  You have to say what it means.  That is, you must…

Interpret the quote.  You need to give some example illustrating what the quote says or some further clarification of the content of the quote.  If the quote is an argument, you need to elaborate on the argument.  If the quote is a snippet from a piece of literature, you may need to clarify terms, concepts, or how it relates to the larger text.  Either way, this may end up seeming redundant to you.  That’s o.k.  Be redundant.

Should we believe that we are awake?  Descartes says, “I see plainly that there are never any sure signs by means of which being awake can be distinguished from being asleep” (13).  What does he mean, here?  Well, every experience and feeling one is having right now, one could have in a dream.  One could be sure one sees a table, sure that one is hearing a voice, sure that one is walking around.  There is no feeling, belief, desire, or thought that one could have awake that one couldn’t have in a dream.  So, we should not believe that we are awake.

This is still better.  But it’s lacking in two ways.  First of all, though the author has explained what Descartes means, the author has not yet taken a stand on what Descartes says.  The author has provided another version of Mavrodes’ argument, but the author hasn’t yet stated whether and why the author thinks the argument works.  So, the author needs to…

Issue a verdict on the quote.  (O.k., this isn’t the most natural way of saying this.  But I needed this step to begin with an “I” so I could keep with my 4 “I”’s theme.)  This won’t be as crucial when discussing literary quotes.  But even there, a verdict can be made on how important the passage is in the overall scheme of the work.  Your verdict can be a matter of simply saying, “And this argument seems exactly right (or wrong).”  More often it will be a matter of explaining why it’s right or wrong.  So:

Should we believe that we are awake?  Descartes says, “I see plainly that there are never any sure signs by means of which being awake can be distinguished from being asleep” (13).  What does he mean, here?  Well, every experience and feeling one is having right now, one could have in a dream.  One could be sure one sees a table, sure that one is hearing a voice, sure that one is walking around.  There is no feeling, belief, desire, or thought that one could have awake that one couldn’t have in a dream.

This argument seems correct.  After all, we can tell ourselves that we are certain right now that we are not dreaming – that the vividness of our current experiences is too strong.  But we could tell this to ourselves just as easily in a dream; our experiences could be just as vivid.  So, we should not believe that we are awake.

Almost there.  The remaining problem is that it is not clear how the quote relates to the ultimate conclusion (that we should not believe that we are awake).  Just because a connection might seem obvious to you doesn’t mean it’s obvious to everyone.  So, you need to tie the source with the main argument in the paper.  That is, you need to…

Errrr…. Integrate the quote into the main argument.  Why does the fact that there are no “sure signs by which being awake can be distinguished from being asleep” mean that we should not believe that we are awake?  The author can’t simply insist that it does.  Another argument is needed, here.  Thus, the final version reads as follows:

Should we believe that we are awake?  Descartes says, “I see plainly that there are never any sure signs by means of which being awake can be distinguished from being asleep” (13).  What does he mean, here?  Well, every experience and feeling one is having right now, one could have in a dream.  One could be sure one sees a table, sure that one is hearing a voice, sure that one is walking around.  There is no feeling, belief, desire, or thought that one could have awake that one couldn’t have in a dream.

This argument seems correct.  After all, we can tell ourselves that we are certain right now that we are not dreaming – that the vividness of our current experiences is too strong.  But we could tell this to ourselves just as easily in a dream; our experiences could be just as vivid.  What this shows is that we have no more evidence to show that we are awake than that we are asleep.  That is, from our perspective it is just as likely that we are asleep as that we are awake.  But if a belief is just as likely as its opposite, we shouldn’t believe either one.  I shouldn’t believe that the coin will come up heads – it’s just as likely that it will come up tails.  Since it’s just as likely that we are asleep as awake, we should not believe that we are awake.

One small paragraph on a single quote has turned into two rather large paragraphs.  This is as it should be.  Quotes are sacred things.  You cannot simply drop them into your paper, assume them to be clear and true (or false), and move on.  You need to investigate (another “I”) them thoroughly.  This is what is involved in elegantly weaving quotes into your paper.

The 4 “I’s” are:

  1. Introduce the quote.
  2. Interpret the quote.
  3. Issue a verdict on the quote.
  4. Integrate the quote into the main argument.

3 Ways to Misuse a Source

Assumption: you use a source as a source of fact, when it actually should be taken to be a source of opinion.  That is, you assume what the source says is true, that an argument presented in a source works, that the author is automatically authoritative, etc.  Usually, if a source presents an argument or makes a claim, you need to give reasons why we should trust the source in general and the argument or claim in particular.  Here is an excerpt from a student’s paper in which this sort of error is made.

According to Henry L. Stimson, Secretary of State during World War II, “the face of war is the face of death; death is an inevitable part of every order that a wartime leader gives.  The decision to use the atomic bomb was a decision that brought death to over a hundred thousand Japanese.  But this deliberate premeditated destruction was our least abhorrent choice.”  Therefore the United States was justified in using the atomic bomb to end the war with Japan.

Even if Stimson is ultimately correct, what the student needs is some argument that we should trust Stimson on this issue – some argument that Stimson’s reasoning is sound.  It might even suffice just to say, “Because Stimson was in a position to know what the potential outcomes were, we should trust Stimson on this issue.”  This may not be a great argument, but it makes clear that you know that you need a reason to trust Stimson – that is, you are not simply taking his word as a source of fact.

Misrepresentation: you represent the source as saying something that, in fact, it does not.  This might be because you are simply misinterpreting the source.  This is a simple matter of misunderstanding.  Or it might be because you are focusing too much on one passage in the source and ignoring other, relevant passages.  Or you might be putting words in the author’s mouth.  Here is an example of misrepresentation:

Plato argues that knowledge requires direct eyewitness experience.  But we can know many things via the testimony of others.  So, Plato’s account of knowledge is incorrect.

Plato never actually says that knowledge requires direct eyewitness experience.  What he says is, “When a jury is rightly convinced of facts which can be known only by an eyewitness… they are judging without knowledge” [908, emphasis added]  It’s up to you to interpret this passage in as plausible a way as possible.

Plagiarism: you represent other people’s ideas, phrases, essay structure, novel vocabulary as your own.  This occurs when you:

  • paraphrase without citing.
  • too closely paraphrase; even if you do cite, a paraphrase that too closely mirrors the text (without directly quoting it) represents the phrasing of the author as your own.
  • fail to quote a verbatim passage.
  • fail to note that you are borrowing the structure of an author’s paper as your own.
  • use an evocative phrase or even a single characteristic word, Plato’s “account” or Hare’s “blik”.

6) Transitions

The sentences you use to move from paragraph to paragraph and topic to topic.

Though your essay should be on one unified topic, you can’t help but include a number of subtopics within that main heading.  You want to make sure that you smoothly switch from subtopic to subtopic.  Usually, you switch topics by switching paragraphs.  And to do this smoothly, you need to make sure that the final sentence of the one paragraph indicates why you’re going to switch to the next subtopic, while the first sentence of the next paragraph makes clear why you are elaborating on the preceding paragraph.

The point is, you need to say explicitly why it is that you are switching subtopics.  Often, this will take a paragraph of its own.

Obviously, an unfocused thesis will make for some awkward transitions.  If your thesis isn’t focused, that means that your thesis contains a number of ideas that aren’t really closely related to each other.  With an unfocused thesis, when you skip from one idea to the next, it will be quite difficult to do so smoothly.  It will be quite difficult to make clear how your ideas are related to each other.  So, the first step toward smooth transitions is focused, unified thesis.

Indicators

There are certain words and phrases that should signal to you that you may have written an awkward transition.  These words are:

“also”, “in addition”, “plus”, “another”

As in:

“Another problem with Bok’s argument is that she assumes that politicians aren’t qualified to know when it is dangerous to tell the truth.”

And:

“Keeley also mention another reason why conspiracy theories ought not be trusted.”

Though these words don’t always indicate a poor transition, they should cause you to look closely at the sentence to see if the paper reads well at that point.  In particular, if these sorts of words occur at the beginning of a paragraph, that should really ring warning bells that you may have a quite sudden transition.

Words like “but”, “however”, “so”, and “therefore” have just the opposite implication.  If you begin paragraphs with these kinds of words, then you are likely transitioning well from idea to idea, because it is clear how each paragraph is CONTRASTED with what came before (“but”, “however”) or FOLLOWS from what came before (“so”, “therefore”).

7) Structure

How your paper is organized, the order the ideas and arguments are presented, the movement of thought from topic to topic

Your essay’s structure is the order in which you present other central elements of the essay: thesis, argument, motive, objections, and replies.  There are many compelling ways to do this.  But there are also sure-fire ways to do it wrong.

Do Not Use the Following Methods!!!

The Walk-Through Approach: In the walk-through approach, you basically follow the order of some source that you are using, running through an author’s arguments and responding to them in basically the same fashion the author does.  When you do this, you are letting the texts use you, instead of using the texts for your own purposes.

Signs you are using the walk-through approach:

  • You say things like, “Then Smith argues that…”
  • You begin the paper with an introduction of the author instead of your own ideas. It’s fine to begin with a powerful quote from a source.  But it’s often dangerous to begin by saying something like, “Sociologist Maisie Jones argues that U.S. society has become less religious in the last 50 years.  Her argument is…”
  • There is nothing original from you.

The List Approach: We have already discussed this approach earlier in the year.  But, as a reminder, in the list approach, you arrange your essay by presenting seemingly unconnected ideas one after another without providing explicit connection between them.  As we have noted, this approach is usually indicative of a disunified or unfocused thesis.

Usually, if you avoid both of these methods, your structure will be o.k.  There are, however, a couple of strategies for making sure your structure is as effective as possible.

  1. Do not order your paper arbitrarily. That is, do not throw ideas into the paper in the order you think of them.  Objections, for example, might proceed from the less compelling and plausible to the most compelling.  Your replies can proceed in the same way, as might your arguments.  That way, your paper builds toward a climactic end in which you are considering the most important point in the issue you are writing about.
  2. Try this: physically cut your paper into pieces at the paragraph breaks. If someone who has not read the paper can put them back together in the right order, that will ensure that you have a paper which moves sensibly (not arbitrarily) from idea to idea as the paper progresses.  (Sometimes, if your paper is quite arbitrarily assembled, not even you will be able to reassemble it in the correct order, especially if you wait a while before trying it.)

Some Possible Structural Approaches

Title Description Pros Cons
The Default Model

 

1) Thesis

2) Motive

3) Argument

4) Objections and Replies

6) Return to the Motive

1) Lets the reader know exactly where the essay is going.

2) Ensures that all elements of the essay are included.

 

1) Can be quite dry and boring.  But any paper can be dry and boring.
The Slowly-Opening Delicate Flower

 

Like the amaryllis which, over the space of a few days, gradually emerges from dry brown bulb, to end in glorious bloom, so too will your thesis and argument, from the barest reflections on a topic, emerge by the conclusion into the glorious concept that it is. 1) Can be much more interesting than the Default Model. (but see Con #2)

2) Can be more compelling than the Default Model model, since the reader gets swept along with the essay.

1) Sometimes, crucial elements of the essay get left out (e.g. thesis, argument, motive, objections, replies, or all of them together).

2) Can be deadly boring, as the reader wonders when on earth you’re going to get to a point.

3) Can be quite confusing, as the reader wonders what on earth is going on in the essay.

Benefit-of-the-Doubt

 

 

Start with just a gigantic motive.  Spend the majority of the paper arguing for that motive before finally, at the end, springing your own argument and thesis. 1) If successful, is completely convincing, since you’ve spent so much time convincing the reader that you’re aware of even the strongest arguments against you (and you’ve handled them.). 1) If unsuccessful, leaves the reader wondering how you’ve proven what you set out to prove.

2) Can be a bit confusing, at first, unless you foreshadow the conclusion you will eventually reach.

PDF – expository-essay.pdf

Note for those who made it to the bottom – all the theses in this document are terrible, they contain grammatical errors intentionally; I didn’t want to “encourage” someone to take their thesis directly from this document. They are meant as illustration, not actual, feasable theses.