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Essays and Arguments, Section Seven

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

7.0 Organizing the Main Body of the Argument (II)

By now you should have a clear idea of how to set up an outline which defines the focus and thesis of the essay clearly and which offers a series of topic sentences, each of which will initiate a new step in the argument. The main purpose of such an outline is to provide you with a clear sense of where you are going in the argument, step by step. It is really important to have this in place before you start to write the first draft.

The purpose of this section is to offer some advice on different structures for the series of topic sentences, that is, for the overall logic of the main body once you have defined the argument. There are a number of options here, especially in a longer research paper where you have more paragraphs at your disposal.

7.1 Simple Additive Structure

Once you have defined the argument in the opening paragraph, the simplest way to organize the series of topic sentences is in what we can all an additive sequence, that is, a structure in which each paragraph introduces a new argumentative point in support of the thesis. This is a very common structure for short essays on literary subjects. Here is an example (of a fictional film):

General Subject: A Film Review
Focus 1: A review of Banana Loaf

Thesis: The recent film Banana Loaf is an excellent example of what is really good and really bad about modern adventure films. While it has some obvious merits, there are also some significant problems.

TS 1: The best thing about Banana Loaf, a quality which brings it constantly alive, is the superb cinematography, which constantly intrigues and delights the viewer.

TS 2: A second feature of the film which enthralls the viewer is the special effects, which are consistently inventive and absorbing.

TS 3: Unfortunately, the same quality is not manifested in the characterization or the acting. These really detract from one's appreciation for the film.

Notice that in this structure each topic sentence is a separate point, each dealing with a part of the opinion established in the thesis. In this case, that main opinion is mixed (some things were good, some things were bad). The writer has established a linear structure in which each separate part of the main body adds a point to the argument.

Such a structure (which amounts to a list of separate points) is simple and effective. It is additive in the sense that the argument proceeds in a direct linear way as a series of separate points. Each paragraph is going to argue in detail the point it announces, and each paragraph in the argument introduces a new point.

This structure is particularly appropriate for a short essay, in which you present a firm thesis and a series of reasons why you think that thesis is valid. It works well in short essay on literary subjects, for example.

7.2 Acknowledging the Opposition

An important alternative to the additive structure described above is a technique for incorporating into your argument a position which does not agree with the thesis you are presenting. Notice the following sample outline:

General Subject: Pollution
Focus 1: Air Pollution
Focus 2: Acid Rain
Focus 3: Acid rain and fresh water fish

Thesis: If we do not act immediately to deal effectively with acid rain, soon we will not have fresh water fishing available to tourists or commercial fisherman except as a camp-fire memory.

TS 1: Many people do not have the faintest idea just how serious the threat of acid rain really is.

TS 2: According to many spokespeople, the cost of doing anything effective about acid rain is prohibitive; we simply cannot afford the sorts of measures that will significantly affect the problem for the better.

TS 3: But these views about the prohibitive cost totally misrepresent the problem and the real costs involved.

TS 4: Besides, we cannot afford to quibble about the price; what we stand to lose is priceless.

Notice that in this essay, which is arguing that we must do something right away about acid rain, the organization makes room in the second paragraph of the main body (TS 2) for an opposing point of view. The argument is here going to call attention to something which people who oppose the thesis will bring up (i.e., the argument is acknowledging the opposition).

Notice, too, that in the paragraph immediately following this introduction of the opposition's viewpoint, the argument answers that point; in other words, it counters the opposition's point.

Here are some more examples of this technique. Notice how the second outline uses the technique twice in a row.

Essay 1
General Subject: Criminal Justice System
Focus 1: Capital punishment

Thesis: There is no acceptable reason why any state should punish a criminal with death. Capital punishment should be universally illegal.

TS 1: The first cogent argument against capital punishment is that it does not deter future crimes of violence.

TS 2: Supporters of capital punishment often point to the enormous expense of keeping murderers incarcerated for years, arguing that this is an unnecessary expense.

TS 3: However, this cost analysis is seriously misleading.

TS 4: Moreover, there is always the horrible possibility that an innocent party will be convicted of a capital offence and executed.

Essay 2
General Subject: Shakespeare's Hamlet
Focus 1: The character of Prince Hamlet
Focus 2: The character of Prince Hamlet: Why does he delay carrying out the revenge?

Thesis: Why Prince Hamlet does not immediately kill Claudius is something of a puzzle. But a careful study of the text reveals that this delay stems from some fundamental inner emotional problem in Hamlet, something which transcends the immediate context of the murder and has something to do with his inability to escape the corrupting influence of his father.

TS 1: Hamlet is clearly suffering from some profound emotional dissatisfaction with the world. We learn of this repeatedly in the play. It is the most significant aspect of the hero's character.

TS 2: What is the origin of this dissatisfaction? Well, the scene with the ghost of his father strongly suggests that its roots lie in the overbearing nature of the old warrior king.

TS 3: Some interpreters have suggested, of course, that the delay has nothing to do with Hamlet's inner condition, but is simply a matter of a lack of opportunity.

TS 4: This apparently plausible idea, however, simply does not match the facts of the play, which show that Hamlet has frequent and easy access to Claudius.

TS 5: Other interpreters agree that Hamlet's problem is inner, but suggest that the issue is a lack of courage or a chronic inability to do anything decisive.

TS 6: This approach, too, is clearly contradicted by specific actions in the play.

TS 7: Given, therefore, that some evidence points to the relationship with his father as the source of Hamlet's problem, what additional parts of the play can we point to as supporting this claim?

This technique of admitting into the argument opposing or alternative views so that you can counter them is very useful in a number of ways. It shows the reader that you are aware of views different from your own and are prepared to meet them head on. It thus brings into the argument some variety, breadth, and sophistication.

Acknowledging the opposition in this way is not always necessary or possible, but it is almost always strongly advisable when you are dealing with a topic which is well known as disputatious and for which there are recognizable differences of opinion (e.g., welfare reform, capital punishment, abortion, the character of Hamlet, and so on) or alternative competing options.

When you are organizing an essay, and especially when you are dealing with a long argument in a research paper, ask yourself the following question: What is the single most important point someone who does not agree with my thesis is likely to bring up against my position? If there is such a single, clear opposing argument, you might think about incorporating it in the essay in the above manner.

However, if you are going to apply this structural technique in an argument, make sure you observe the following principles. Otherwise you may end up weakening your argument.

1. Make sure you represent the opponent's position fairly and use his best argument. Do not create the logical fallacy of a straw-man argument; that is, do not set up a simplistic, trivial, fictional, or obviously erroneous point just so that you can knock it down. The opposing view has to be serious and substantial, and you must not distort it or simplify it.

2. Do not introduce the opposing point of view unless you are prepared to answer it in the paragraph immediately following. Obviously you cannot end the essay with a view opposing your view, so you have to make room in the essay for a proper reply to your opponent. Since a short essay has only a very few argumentative paragraphs, the technique is not nearly so common there as in a research paper, where you have room to use it repeatedly.

3. Do not introduce the opposing viewpoint unless you really can answer it convincingly. If you end up making your opponent's case sound much more logical and persuasive than your own, then the purpose of the technique is defeated.

4. Do not use the technique of acknowledging the opposition just for the sake of it. It is appropriate when there is a clear and substantial point in opposition to your own, a point which someone arguing against your position is likely to raise.

If you keep this technique in mind when you are conducting research into a topic on which you are going to be writing an essay, then you should be on the look out for opposing points of view which you might like to incorporate. Do not immediately dismiss them because they do not support the thesis you are advancing.

7.3 The Structure of a Comparative Argument

Many essay topics call for a comparison between two elements (e.g., two characters in a story, two different economic theories, two different philosophical theories or scientific explanations, two different historical actions or characters or policies, and so on). Such essays introduce special factors which you need to take into account in designing the structure of the argument.

General Observations on Comparative Arguments

The key principles to remember in a comparative essay featuring two items are that you must, first, clarify for the reader precisely what you are comparing and, second, that you must keep the comparison alive throughout the essay. One of the commonest faults of a poor comparative essay is that the comparison becomes unbalanced, that is, the essay turns into an extensive discussion of one of the two items and gives a distinctly less important place to the other.

To clarify for the reader the precise nature of the comparison which the essay is exploring, you must in the introduction to a comparative essay specify exactly a very particular focus, so that the reader understands the limits of your comparative treatment of the subjects. For example, you cannot in a short essay or even in a longer research paper compare Marx's view of human nature with Freud's. That comparison is far too large. You must, therefore, narrow down the focus of the comparison considerably to compare one aspect common to both thinkers (e.g., by comparing Marx's view of the origins of evil with Freud's views of the same subject and by omitting everything else). The reader must understand what you are looking at and what you are not looking at in the comparison.

The thesis of a comparative essay will normally be a statement of a preference for one of the two things being compared or an interpretative assertion about the differences or similarities between the two. Thus, the argument will be an attempt to establish the validity of your interpretations of the two items.

Sample Openings to a Comparative Essay

The following illustrations show how one can introduce an argument based upon a comparative evaluation. Notice that the introduction follows the customary format (subject, focus, thesis).

Essay 1: A Comparison of the Theories of Karl Marx and Sigmund Freud

Karl Marx and Sigmund Freud are obviously two of the most influential thinkers of modern times. Both developed enormously important and comprehensive views of human nature and society, theories which have exerted a major and continuing influence on the way we think about ourselves and our fellow citizens. Of particular importance for us are the views of these two thinkers about the nature of evil in society. For their theories on the origin of human evil have shaped in large part the way we understand and therefore the methods we attempt to deal with the eternal problems of evil. And the differences between these two men's ideas have created continuing debates about how we should organize ourselves to mitigate human suffering. What does seem increasingly clear, however, is that, of the two great thinkers, Freud developed a much more subtle and enduring understanding of the origin of human evil; Marx's writings on the subject, though complex and still fascinating, now appear by comparison in many respects inadequate.

Essay 2: A Comparison of Two Literary Characters

In many ways Nora in Henrik Ibsen's A Doll's House and Elisa in John Steinbeck's short story "The Chrysanthemums" face similar circumstances. Each woman lives with a husband who does not understand her intelligently, in confined circumstances with little prospect for significant change. And in the course of both stories, each woman comes to discover just how much she is being brutalized by men. However, the two women react very differently to the crisis which that recognition brings: Elisa collapses and retreats, and Nora abandons her family for a life on her own. By examining the characters of these two women and their reactions to the most important emotional crises in their lives, we can better understand the very human tensions created by married life and the enormous difficulties of finding a proper response to that situation.

Notice how in the first sample, the writer introduces the general comparison first (Marx and Freud), pointing out the basis for the similarity (two great thinkers with theories of human nature), then moves onto a very specific aspect of that general subject (the different views on the origin of evil), and finally establishes a thesis by declaring a preference.

In the second sample above, the writer again starts with a general point which establishes the similarity between the two fictional heroines. Then the introduction moves to the specific focus of the essay (their response to an emotional crisis in their lives), and then finally establishes a thesis in an interpretative assertion. This is not the statement of a preference but an argument about the significance of the two stories.

The Structure of a Comparative Argument

Once the comparison and the basis of the argument have been defined, then you need to organize, as before, the sequence of paragraphs in the main body of the argument. In setting up the sequence of the paragraphs, you have some options, as follows:

1. You can keep the comparison alive in every paragraph, so that the argument discusses each half of the comparison in each paragraph. For example, in comparing Elisa and Nora, you could begin with a paragraph comparing their two situations, follow that with one comparing how they each react to the realization of how men have treated them, and finish with a comparison of how each woman ends up as a result of the conflict. The advantage of this structure is that it keeps the comparison between the two subjects constantly before the reader, and forces you to pay equal attention to each side of the comparison.

2. A second method for organizing the sequence of paragraphs in the main body of a comparative essay is to alternate between the two subjects. In the first paragraph of the argument, for example, you can focus on Elisa's relationship with her husband, pointing out how that defines certain things about her and her life. Then in the second paragraph of the main body, you discuss Nora's relationship with her husband, pointing out how that defines certain things about her and her life. Then in the third and fourth paragraphs you repeat the process, looking at another point in the comparison. The method gives you the chance to discuss each point in greater detail, and it also keeps the comparison alive for the reader, provided you keep alternating and making sure that you continue to discuss the same aspect of each character's life.

3. The third way of dealing with comparative essays is to say in a series of paragraphs all you want to argue about one side of the comparison and then, when you have said all you want to about that subject, switch to consider the other side of the comparison. Thus, the main body of the essay would tend to fall into two parts: in the first you consider the first element in the comparison, and in the second half you consider the second element in the comparison. The danger with this method (and it is a considerable and common problem) is that the comparison will become lop sided, that is, you will end up writing a great deal more about one of the two items than the other. The other real danger is that you will discuss both elements, but switch the criteria of the comparison in the second half, so that you discuss different features of the second item in the comparison from those you considered in the first. If this happens, then the comparison will fall apart, because you are not comparing the same features of the two things (like comparing, say, the body styling, the fuel economy, and the interior size of one car model with the engine capacity, the transmission, and the trunk space of another car model; such a comparison is difficult to follow because the writer does not compare the two models under a common feature).

Generally, in a short essay comparing two items it is better to follow the first or the second structural design for the comparison, rather than the third. If you are comparing three items, then you need to use the second or third principle, since dealing with three or four separate items in a single paragraph will make that paragraph too bulky.

7.4 Additional Samples of Outlines for Comparative Essays

Here are two more samples of detailed outlines for essays whose central argument involves a comparison. Notice the different structural principles in the two: the first follows the first structural principle mentioned in Section 7.3 above; the second essay follows the second structural principle.

Comparative Essay A

Subject: Homer's Poems
Focus 1: Achilles and Odysseus from the Iliad and the Odyssey
Focus 2: A comparison between the two heroes' attitudes to war

Thesis: Odysseus in the Odyssey and Achilles in the Iliad are both frequently tested by hostile forces and combat. However, they differ in their characteristic range of responses to critical situations. A study of these two men in this regard reveals some really significant differences about the visions of life in the two poems.

TS 1: At first glance, Achilles and Odysseus share many things in common. (Paragraph goes on to discuss the similarities between the two men)

TS 2: However, they differ completely in their attitude to the war and the warrior code.

TS 3: From these differences in attitude arise the different ways Odysseus and Achilles respond to physical danger, one of the most remarkable differences in this comparison.

TS 4: Given the above, it is not surprising that Achilles and Odysseus differ considerably in the way they treat other people who face dangers with them.

Comparative Essay B

General Subject: Conflicts over Land Use
Focus 1: Foresters and Ranchers on Crown Land
Focus 2: Foresters and Ranchers on Crown Land in the BC Interior

Thesis: Both foresters and ranchers have legitimate, though different, demands on crown land. These we must recognize and accept in order to devise an equitable method of sharing a public resource.

TS 1: It is not widely recognized just how much ranchers and foresters operate together on certain public lands in the BC Interior. (Paragraph goes on to describe the similarities between the two things being compared)

TS 2: Foresters claim, with justice, that the timber on crown land is economically essential to their industry.

TS 3: However, the ranchers have a persuasive case that the same land is vital to the well being of their industry.

TS 4: The foresters accept the ranchers' statistics but argue that grazing cattle are constantly destroying newly planted seedlings.

TS 5: The ranchers, by contrast, argue that grazing cattle do not damage seedlings and are, if anything, beneficial to the newly planted areas.

TS 6: How is one to sort out these competing claims?

Notice that in both these sample outlines, the argument starts by insisting that the two things being compared are sufficiently similar to bear the comparison. That is often an important point. You should not launch a comparison without indicating why you think these two items belong together in a comparison. For instance, if you set up a comparison in which you compared, say, roller skates and automobiles, the reader might genuinely wonder about what these things have in common that enables the comparison between them to make any argumentative sense.


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