How should you best organize your thoughts when writing a scholarly essay?

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Answered by: Kevin, An Expert in the Writing Quality Essays Category
The academic essay is an attempt to convince a neutral reader of the soundness of your argument. In this context, "argument" simply means an opinion and/or point of view about something. The key is presenting that argument in a logical, consistent, and linear form; the points that you make in support of your argument should flow naturally from one to the next. You must organize your thoughts in a way that allows them to be presented to someone with little or no knowledge of your own reasoning processes. In order to accomplish that, the essay form should follow some fairly strict guidelines. The parts of the essay are generally accepted to be:

1. Introduction (containing the thesis statement; your core argument)

2. Points that bolster your argument (there can be as many as you wish, but each needs a paragraph of its own)

3. (Optional) Anticipated counter-arguments, and rebuttals

4. Conclusion/summary

Within this framework, there are rules you should follow. Probably the most important rule is that each new paragraph should have its own central idea, and that idea should be summarized in a "topic sentence." The job of the rest of the paragraph is to expand on the idea that was stated in that topic sentence; it follows, therefore, that the topic sentence belongs at the beginning of the paragraph. Another rule is that you organize your thoughts in strict, logical fashion. The reader, your audience, should be able to easily follow your reasoning. It is NOT necessary, particularly in an academic environment, that you persuade your reader to agree with you. This can't be emphasized enough: contrary to what you may think about the "goal" of an essay, its purpose is to present, not to persuade.

Particularly if the subject of your essay is a literary or scholarly work, you must learn APA style when quoting and referencing written and published work. It can be convoluted and conplicated, but there's no getting around it. There are several excellent books on the market that can teach you APA style.

Another major consideration--one that gets ignored all too often--is the question of VOICE. Many writers like to "hedge" by preceding their arguments with "in my opinion..." or "it would seem that...", etc. etc. This is, at the very least, wimping out. Qualifying your own opinions by saying, in effect, that they are JUST your opinions subverts the whole purpose of the essay. Of course, these are your opinions--that's what you're writing them for! You are relying on the strength of your argument(s) to carry your essay and capture the reader's attention--don't set yourself up for failure!

Many people struggle with the essay format because they are not used to using rigorous argumentative techniques in other areas of their lives. The essay can be an elegant vehicle for expressing opinions, so it is worthwhile to familiarize yourself with the format. It can be used in many other useful contexts, such as job applications, resumes, letters to the editor, sales copy, etc. etc. It is an extremely useful tool, not just for the academic, but for anyone who wants to express himself in writing.

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