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Essay Writing Basics: The Essay Body (Setup)

Updated on June 11, 2013
One Section among Many
One Section among Many | Source

An earlier hub addresses the thesis statement, the overwhelmingly important central point of the essay. Since it guides the rest of the essay, the thesis must be strong, and it should probably be the first thing that is soundly developed. But it is not the only thing that should be developed well, for the thesis cannot stand on its own. Unaided and unattended, it is simply one more assertion among many, and however well it is worded, it will not be taken up and believed. Without the evidence of the idea having been tested, the thesis which encapsulates it will drift away from the reader unheeded and the essay be a failure.

Once the thesis is established, then, there is more to do to write a sound essay. The idea in the thesis has to be tested, and the body of the essay is where that ought to be done. The body will be the bulk of the essay, and since there is more of it than the rest of the essay put together, there is more that has to be said about it to make it make sense. That does not mean it is difficult to write an essay with a good body, however. As with a human body, attention to what goes into it will do much to make an essay body sound. And as with a human body, the regimen the essay is put through will also help make fr a strong body.

Opening Moves

Work on the body can usefully begin soon after the thesis is established. It is on the work done on the body that comments from an earlier hub come to bear; it is not necessary to produce a well ordered and well developed body on the first try (save in timed writing, which will be addressed in another hub). Instead, writers should expect that the sections of the body will expand and contract and that they will move around. Some may disappear entirely, and that is entirely alright. Not until an essay is accepted is it even close to being done, and even then, revisions have been known to happen.

In beginning to develop the body, thinking of what kinds of tests should be applied to the idea in the thesis is useful--as is making some note of them, so that they are not forgotten as other potential tests come along. Each test so noted is a potential section of the body of the essay, and the more of them that are available, the better positioned the writer is to write a good essay. Some, as noted, will not be good, and so they will be discarded. Others may be good, but not as good, and so they may not be kept if the essay has to be trimmed. Having many potential tests, many available body sections, means that some can be discarded at need without denying the thesis the support it needs to be believed. It is a good position in which to be.

After listing the potential sections of the body, with each test being a point that might be argued in favor of the thesis, it is often helpful to list the evidence which may possibly be brought to bear in the test. If the essay is to argue that X is a better example of a Y than Z is, then the tests would be how Z does all of what it needs to do to be a Y, how X does all of what it needs to do to be a Y, and how X does better. Evidence for each would be the list of what a thing needs to do to be a Y, a list of how Z does all of those things, a list of how X does those things, and a definition of what "better" means. If the essay is to argue that A and B result in C, then the tests would be how each quality of C proceeds from A, B, or a combination of A and B. The evidence would the a list of qualities of C, a list of qualities of A, a list of qualities of B, and a list of how A and B interact. While the abstract examples make the task sound complicated, it really is not; all it takes is attention to detail.

Ordering of Sections

When the lists of potential sections and the evidence available to support them are ready it is time to consider the order in which the sections will appear in the essay. The order of presentation among the sections (as distinct from within them) is an important consideration. The order can help to make the argument work better; passing one test can make passing the next one easier if the tests are aligned well. Having a clear and consistent order also demonstrates that the writer has command of the materials being presented and the means of presentation, making the writer more believable and what is written more likely to be believed. In addition, having a clear and consistent order makes the tests easier to perceive by the reader, which means that the reader is more likely to be able to take them in and therefore to believe the thesis.

There are several orders available. Each does something a bit different from the others, and each is useful in some circumstances. Two of them function well in almost every circumstance, although not perhaps as well in all circumstances as others.

The most basic order of presentation is that of simple chronology. An essay in simple chronological order begins with what happened first, moves thence into what happened second, on to third, and concludes with what happens last. Simple chronological order has the great advantage of being easily understood. Readers are habituated to starting at the beginning of a thing and moving through it sequentially to the end (although it must be admitted that the increasing prevalence of digital media is changing this somewhat, as commentators about the digital humanities note). It may not always be the best choice, but it is rarely if ever entirely wrong.

Less frequent, although related to simple chronology, is reverse chronological order. It is exactly what it sounds like: the essay using it begins with the most recent occurrence, moves into what preceded it, and on back through time. As a simple inversion of a common order, it is also easily understood. Resumes tend to use it, and essays that argue in favor of primary causes (not effects, but causes) often deploy it, as well.

Still less frequent, although still sensible, is spatial order. Moving through a space or across an object from top to bottom, left to right, front to back, or inside to outside is useful in describing that space or object. Essays do sometimes focus on description, and those that do are well served to take this approach. Otherwise, spatial order usually functions better within a section than as a way to organize among the sections.

More common by far, and familiar from long habits of formal education, is traditional rhetorical order. The body of an essay that works in traditional rhetorical order begins with its weakest section, then moves on to the next strongest, then the next, ending with the strongest section (one useful guideline, although not an absolute rule, is that the more evidence a section has in support of it, the stronger it is). In addition to its familiarity, traditional rhetorical order has the benefit of fostering forward momentum in the essay. Each section is stronger than the one before it, so the reader is drawn along and is more likely to be convinced therefore. In addition, traditional rhetorical order takes advantage of the recency effect, the idea that what happens last is remembered longest (in part, this is because less time has elapsed since what happens last, so there is less time for it to be forgotten). By putting the strongest section last, the essay ensures that it will be remembered at its best for as long as possible, which makes readers more likely to stay convinced that the thesis is valid.

Increasingly common is inverse traditional rhetorical order. As with reverse chronological order, it is exactly what it sounds like. The body of an essay working in inverse traditional rhetorical order opens with its strongest section, moves on to the second strongest, then the third, and ends with the weakest section. It takes advantage of the primacy effect, the idea that what happens first colors all of what follows; it makes a solid first impression, so everything that happens afterward looks stronger. It is like landing a solid blow early in a fight; every succeeding blow seems more forceful because it follows the initial shock and prevents the person struck from regaining balance. Is is also particularly useful when writing to those who may not spend much time reading the essay; in such cases, positioning the strongest section earliest ensures that it will be seen, making the hasty reader more likely to be convinced of the validity of the thesis.

Related to both traditional rhetorical order and inverse tradiitonal rhetorical order is what can be called mixed rhetorical order. It tries to take advantage of both primacy and recency effects by positioning the second-strongest section first, then moving to the weakest section and increasing in strength with each succeeding section. The strongest section is placed at the end. Thus, the hasty reader sees a strong section, and readers who continue on do so with a favorable impression of the other points. They also get the forward momentum of traditional rhetorical order and its invocation of the recency effect, so that the needs of quick readers and of thorough readers are met.

Once an order has been established, it will be time to develop each section. It does not have to be difficult to do, just as laying out the order of sections does not. Like section layout also, section development deserves its own discussion, which begins here.

© 2013 Folgha

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      selliott 4 years ago

      I think I may start referring my composition students to this sight for additional help on what we discuss in class

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