On improving essays – the line of argument

Over the last few years, I have been trying to encourage my students to improve their essay writing by sharpening their initial thinking about any essay topic. Time and time again I read essays which, while offering reasonable text knowledge and written expression, suffer from a weak line of argument. All too often, the introduction is a simple restatement of the essay topic, the body paragraphs list three or four separate ideas covering key terms in the topic, while the conclusion repeats back the introduction. Enough for a C or lower B grade, perhaps, but insufficient to really demonstrate sophistication in thinking. To compound this further, much of the guidance published in official VCE English study guides struggles to make absolutely explicit more effective approaches to essay planning. Take, for example, the current edition of the Insight guide to VCE English:

‘Paragraphs should flow well and be linked through a logical progression of ideas that develop the argument.’

Robert Beardwood, English Year 12, Insight Publications (2016), p.67

There is very little to object to in this advice. It is logical and straightforward. Elsewhere in the same book, there is good advice on how to interrogate a topic and generate ideas. Yet it is not enough by itself to prevent students from following mechanical approaches to topics which run the risk of listing disconnected ideas. Additionally, students are still left with the challenge of working out what ‘flow well’ actually means in practice.

So, how do we make the implicit explicit in this case? The first stage is to take the proposition in an essay topic and convert it into a problem by applying the question stem, ‘Is it true that… ?’

(Is it true that…) ‘In Stasiland, Funder exposes a world both cruel and absurd’ (?)

Essay topic adapted from the 2015 VCE English examination.

By converting the proposition into a problem, students are now led to create an initial ‘Yes, because… but…’ argument. This instantly forms an effective overall contention and suggests the overall thrust of the essay. Now all that is left is to work though two procedures:

  1. brainstorm definitions of key words to generate relevant text examples
  2. form the line of argument by expanding upon the contention

The line of argument is my main area of interest. To create greater complexity in their line of argument, I have begun to encourage my students to adapt the Aristotelian process of narration – affirmation – refutation in their planning. If we return to the students’ initial contention we can then expand it into the following thinking sequence:

  1. (Narration): Initial problem established by the writer (Yes, because…)
  2. (Affirmation): Consequences of this problem for people / places (Consequently…)
  3. (Refutation): How this problem is resolved / unresolved (However…)

While this obeys the classic five-paragraph essay structure, it can form as many body paragraphs as is required to satisfactorily address the essay topic. Crucially, it takes the standard method of brainstorming separate ideas and arranges them into a linear argument. This is one way to improve ‘flow’. Below is an example of one of my current Year 12 student’s writing on Measure for Measure. For her practice coursework task (closed book, written under exam conditions) this was the introduction and opening body paragraph:

Neve Measure essay page 1

Neve Measure essay page 2

While this is by no means perfect, there is a real sense of the student trying to illuminate the essential problem proposed by the essay topic. Please note also that this is not one of my strongest students; she would ordinarily be regarded as a grade B candidate. Given how hard she is working, and how readily she is willing to apply more sophisticated thinking routines, I have high hopes for her eventual exam performance.

It has been an enjoyable process over the last couple of years trying to continually pare down the planning process to this point. My students can now (generally) draw up a clear line of argument in an essay plan, with clearly identified examples, in around 5-6 minutes, which is pretty good.

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