Twelve Elements of the Scholarly Essay

Twelve Elements of the Scholarly Essay*

1. Thesis: your main insight about a text or topic and the main proposition (though it may have several parts) that your essay argues, your argumentbeing your thesis plus the reasoning that supports it. Your thesis should be true yet arguable. In other words, it should not be obvious, but should be one alternative among several plausible assertions. It should be limited enough in scope to be argued in a short composition, with available evidence. It should get to the heart of the text or topic being analyzed (not be peripheral). Most frequently, but not always, it is stated early. But even when it is stated early, its fullest and sharpest statement may sometimes come later. The thesis or its implications should govern the whole essay (not disappear in places).

2. Agenda: not usually a narrowly political axe-to-grind or vested interest, but what you are accomplishing for your readers with your argument—not so much what you are saying as what you are doing, in your essay, by saying it. From the start of the essay, and throughout, a well-articulated agenda provides a compelling motive for a particular kind of reader (you must determine what kind of reader this is) to read. So in articulating your agenda, you should be explaining why your thesis isn’t just obvious but requires demonstration or elaboration. Or you should be showing how your argument reveals something different from what others might expect or have actually said; how it speaks to a puzzle or conflict that others might have; or how it has a larger implication that others might not immediately see. These “others”—imagined or actual—shouldn’t be dummies; you need to make clear that their misapprehension or rival claim can be argued for. In other words, there is a plausible counter-argument to your argument, and not just a flimsy counter-claim, which you must answer. Or there is the likelihood of puzzlement or uncertainty on the part of intelligent readers, who might overlook what you have discovered. Your agenda thus won’t necessarily be indulging your own interest in the topic; that may be your private and idiosyncratic motivation for writing the essay (e.g. “the teacher made me do it” or “Because of certain traumatic events in my childhood, etc., etc., I have a burning desire to write about the character of Demetrius”), but it might not be the reader’s motive for reading it. Your articulation of agenda is what you say to show that your argument isn’t idiosyncratic, is of interest to any serious student of your topic.

3. Evidence: the facts, examples, and details to which refer or that you quote or summarize to support your thesis. There should be enough evidence to be persuasive; it needs to be the right kind of evidence to support the thesis (with no obvious pieces of evidence overlooked); it needs to be sufficiently concrete for the reader to trust it (e.g. in analyzing a text, finding key or representative passages to quote and focus on); and if summarized, it needs to be summarized accurately and fairly (don’t suppress evidence that doesn’t fit your thesis and might be counter-evidence).

4. Analysis: the work of breaking down, interpreting, and commenting upon particular data, claims, or concepts, showing how details or parts contribute to a whole or how causes contribute to a general effect or quality. Analysis may involve making inferences about what in your data supports or doesn’t support a thesis (what is or isn’t evidence for a claim). It may also involve unpacking what is entailed by a certain claim or concept that may not be apparent to a superficial view. Analysis is what makes the writer feel present, as a distinct and active mind; so your essay contain more of it than it does summarizing or quoting.

5. Key terms: the recurring terms or basic conceptual oppositions upon which your argument rests, usually literal but sometimes metaphorical. An essay’s key terms should be clear in meaning (defined if necessary) and appear throughout (not be abandoned half-way); they should be appropriate for the subject at hand (not unfair or too simple, e.g. implying a false or constraining opposition); and they should not be inert clichés or abstractions (e.g. “the evils of society”). 

6. Assumptions: the underlying beliefs about life, people, history, reasoning, etc. that are implied by your key terms or by the logic of your argument. Some of these beliefs you can take for granted and assume that your reader will too (e.g. the belief that valid evidence for a claim makes it more likely to be true), but wherever your assumptions are arguable or unclear (e.g. whether a certain piece of evidence validly counts as evidence in a particular case) they should be brought out and acknowledged. 

7. Structure: the sequence of your essay’s main sections, and the turning points between them. Your sections should have a clearly apprehensible order: both the shifts between your main topics (see “stitching”) and your logic in putting one topic or point after another should be apparent. But that order should also be flexible: it should allow both brief pauses to reflect on what you’re doing and major turns in your analysis. You might pause in your analysis for different reasons: to define your terms or acknowledge assumptions (e.g. what do I mean by this word? or, what am I assuming here?); to consider a counter-argument-a possible alternative position, objection, or problem that a skeptical or resistant reader might raise; or to offer a qualification or limitation to the case you have made (e.g. what you’re not saying). You might turn in your analysis to address an emergent topic; to incorporate a complication that has arisen; to consider a possible explanation for the phenomenon you have demonstrated (why might it be so? what might cause or have caused it?); to draw out an implication (so what? what might it mean if I’m right? what does my argument about an aspect suggest about the whole, or about some larger phenomenon involved?). 

8. Transitions: Language and syntax that tie together the parts of your argument, most commonly by (a) signaling a move to a new idea or topic and acting as a signpost of how such an idea or topic, as contained in a separate section, paragraph, or sentence-follows from the one previous; also by (b) recollecting or repeating an idea, word, or phrase used or quoted earlier. Repeating key terms helps especially at points of transition from one section to another, to show how the new section fits in (but the repetition should not be mechanical or heavy-handed). 

9. Sources: persons or documents-referred to, summarized, or quoted-that help you demonstrate the truth of your argument. They are typically sources of factual information or data, opinions or interpretations of your topic, comparable versions of the thing you are discussing, or applicable general concepts. Whether you’re affirming, challenging, or qualifying your sources, they need to be accurately presented, efficiently integrated, and fairly acknowledged by citation.

10. Orienting: bits of information, explanation, and summary that you give to orient the reader who isn’t expert in your subject, enabling such a reader to follow your argument easily. The orienting question is, what does my reader need, and when? The answer can take many forms: necessary factual information about the text, author, or event given in your introduction; a summary of a text or passage about to be analyzed; pieces of information given along the way about passages, people, or events mentioned (including announcing or set-up phrases for quotations and sources). The challenge is to orient briefly and gracefully.

11. Stance: the implied relationship that you, as a writer, have with your readers and your subject matter; it’s how you implicitly position yourself as an analyst and how you characterize your readers. Stance is defined by such features as style and tone (e.g. familiar or formal); presence or absence of specialized language and knowledge; willingness or unwillingness to orient a general, non-expert reader; use or avoidance of scholarly conventions of form and style. You should establish your stance within the first few paragraphs of your essay and keep it consistent. Stance is inseparable, of course, from the articulation of your agenda. Correct and precise grammar, and graceful style, can only help you with stance. 

12. Style: the choices you make about which words and sentence structures to use. Your style should be exact (find the right word; don’t settle for approximations) and clear (emphasize the main idea or action of each sentence;don’t bury it), and generally plain without being flat (graceful, animated by your own presence, not stuffy). Style also includes grammar and mechanics. If these suggest you are taking care with your prose, then style (as well as stance) is improved. If not, then style suffers in clarity, precision, and grace.

*Based on “The Elements of the Academic Essay” formulated by Gordon C. Harvey, Harvard University.

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