Anatomy of an Essay: Outlining for Strength
by Philip Clark
- Grades: 6–8, 9–12
Freshman year of college, I convinced the notoriously stubborn Spanish department that I should skip ahead three classes and be allowed to take Spanish 234. At the top of my high school Spanish class, I was sure that my first paper was going to be a breeze. I submitted a brooding analysis of a short story by Gabriel Garcia Lorca, and I eagerly awaited my grade as Professor Cesareo returned our work. He walked toward my desk with my assignment in hand. My heart stopped as he held it in front of me; the crimson “F” on the front page glared at me like an accusation, demanding to know who had murdered it. I looked up at Mr. Cesareo’s impassive face, but in spite of how he left my work a mangled mess of red ink, I knew he was only a henchman. Pondering the facts momentarily, I decided the real cause was elsewhere. I took the inert form of my paper into my hands and returned to the scene of the crime: my dorm room. The real killer, I soon discovered, was my outline.
The outline is the skeleton upon which the writer layers the assorted tissues of persuasion: the brainy thesis, a heart of evidence, and muscular arguments. Properly developed outlines give papers dominion over logic, the foresight to thwart rebuttals, and the grace to do so without apparent effort. Teaching students successful approaches to tackling essays is a complex and difficult task, but one that many teachers will face. My outline had failed, a victim of poor planning, inflexibility, and superficial editing. After reaping my inevitable reward, I wondered: How could I prevent this situation from happening in the future? More importantly, how could I teach this to my students?
Before building a superb outline, you need an excellent topic. I use open-ended essay prompts that allow students to seek out their individual interests within that topic. Megan Baxter demonstrates how flexibility within an assignment goes a long way in producing an engaging product: she approaches ball lightning with a mix of personal narrative and well-researched science in “Spook Lights.”
Encouraging creative interpretations of the assignment empowers students and increases engagement with the writing process. If the current assignment doesn’t allow for that, it’s okay to change it--you will most likely get better writing. A probing, vibrant thesis will develop naturally from the lush, raw material of interest. A robust thesis states an opinion rather than a fact, expresses the main idea of your argument, and is specific. A thesis should be an opinion, not a fact, and students must be able to use evidence to prove it. Thus, “Superman would trounce Batman in a fight” is a much better thesis than “Superman wears a cape.” Everybody knows (or should know) the last son of Krypton wears a cape, but not everybody knows why Superman would beat Batman; the latter provides a solid foundation for an argument, while the former leaves no room for debate. Every good thesis is worth arguing over, and modeling this distinction repeatedly will help your students to grasp this fundamental component of persuasive writing. Alex Connelly’s “A New House for a New Moma” starts with: “This November, the newly revamped MoMA reopened its Manhattan headquarters, reaffirming its Midtown location as the most prominent center for modern art in the world.” This fits our checklist; some might argue that another museum is the center of modern art; we know he’s going to discuss the construction of the new museum, and he doesn’t bring in extra, distracting information. Good readers look for all of these qualities; the thesis helps to orient the reader, and sets up the points the paper will make. If the thesis is the essay’s brain, make sure your outline has a good head on its shoulders, and invest some serious thinking in its consideration. If you don’t, no matter how well you form the rest of the body, your essay will be doomed to a myopic, near-sighted argument. Teaching students to harness controversy and conflict pumps life-giving energy into the brains of their papers. With a topic or question firmly established, generate a list of interests within that topic. What sorts of controversy or conflict can we make from this list? Some people believe that Batman would be the victor in a confrontation with Superman. Not everyone thinks that Superman taking stances contrary to popular thinking is a fun way to reframe student’s thinking and, again, will likely yield better writing. Careful articulation of these topics will allow your students to write stronger essays.
Arguments need to be clear, concise, and related to the thesis. A muscle grows when you apply stress to it, and then allow it time to recover. Similarly, your argument will be much stronger if you give it a few “workouts”--revisions with chunks of time in between. To start, students should brainstorm a list of arguments to support their thesis, and then carefully select the best three or four. Once they have those, peer reviews, teacher conferences and drafting will help students massage their argument’s structure and flow until they develop a sleek, powerful tool. The key to constructing a good argument is to choose one facet of your thesis to focus on, and distill that idea into a series of logical sentences that lead your reader to the conclusion. For example, if your thesis is “Superman could beat up Batman” then a possible argument could be “Superman’s heat vision could immolate Batman from a mile away.” The trick is to make sure that students tackle one “muscle” at a time – looking at too many things all at once is a sure fire way for students to confuse the reader. Students should ask themselves:
- What is the one point I’m really trying to make in this paragraph?
- If I don’t have enough material for a whole paragraph, how can I add that idea to another section? If it doesn’t fit, I need to reconsider whether it belongs in the essay.
- Can I get the gist of my argument by reading each paragraph’s topic sentence?
- Am I effectively using each paragraph to prove a topic sentence?
Muscles need blood in order to function, and evidence pumps support to arguments. Carefully integrating evidence into paragraphs' bodies is a critical part of crafting arguments. Collecting evidence relies on both brainstorming and research. Students should create a list of supporting points for each argument and from those lists, select those that work best. If they are writing a research paper, students may wish to revise their evidence list after preliminary research; this is entirely appropriate and even encouraged. Facts and quotes should be used in order to provide further support of points. I always explained that using this information was like having someone on your side in an argument; the more people who support your case, the easier it is to win. Jacob Friedman sets up “A Talk to Psychiatrists” nicely by prefacing it with quotes, which lends credibility to his argument against wanton prescription of medication. Evidence collection is another crucial step. Regardless of how smart a paper is, or how sturdy a skeleton, if a paper lacks carefully considered evidence, it will collapse under its own weight, unable to support its arguments.
In retrospect, it’s no surprise my essay came back to me in such a broken state. I hadn’t taken the time or the mental effort to fortify its skeleton, work out the kinks, and make sure that it was ready to support the stresses I placed upon it. Your students will benefit from clear, consistent reiteration of the principles outlined above. Once they become skilled at organizing their thoughts, the rest of the essay becomes a much simpler, more enjoyable experience.
Philip Clark teaches 6th grade science at MS 584 in Brooklyn, NY, through Teach for America. He is a graduate of Vassar College and enjoys training for triathlons. He occasionally wishes he had a cat.