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Essay Writing Basics: The Essay Body (Sections, Part I)

Updated on June 11, 2013
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A previous hub notes that the body of an essay, in which the thesis of the essay is supported, is composed of several sections. Those sections have to be laid out in an order that is both easy for the reader to follow and appropriate to the thesis for the body to effectively test and validate the idea in the thesis.

What is mentioned but not explained in the earlier hub is that each section has to have an internal structure that allows it to support the thesis effectively. It is not enough to simply have them in an order that makes sense; each section has to be a strong piece of writing on its own for the body of the essay to work well. Fortunately, there are patterns of organization within sections that prove helpful in developing body sections that do what they need to do, so it need not be difficult to demonstrate that the idea of the thesis has been tested and found sufficient.

Before discussion of those patterns begins, a few notes must be made. First is that the sections should probably be developed in the determined order; one part of each section relies on what precedes it, so having the preceding material in place is helpful. Second is that there are times when a section will take several paragraphs to make its point well--which is why I refer to "sections" of the body as opposed to "paragraphs." Sometimes they coincide, but not always. Third is that the body needs to be well developed before the introduction or conclusion of an essay is put together. Both plot courses involving the body, so having the body in place is necessary to do either well.

Also, there is much to say here, since most of the text of an essay will be its body. This hub is therefore a long one.

One Easy Pattern

There are a number of methods for putting together a section of an essay's body. The one discussed below is just that: one. It has been useful in teaching, and it has been useful in other work, but it is not the only one that has been either or both. Other methods also work, and getting an essay put together well is more important in most cases than that any one given method is followed. In addition, the model below is a *basic* model (which is why this hub is listed as "Essay Writing Basics"). After it is mastered, it should be played with, much as the fundamentals of a martial art should be developed before the art is deployed in a contest. While writing an essay badly is not likely to result in being punched in the face, it may result in the loss of funds or other benefits, and the blow to the face might well be preferable.

The pattern begins with five parts, of which the third and fourth may be repeated in sequence:

  1. Transition into the New Section
  2. Statement of the Main Idea
  3. Evidence Supporting the Main Idea
  4. Explanation of How the Evidence Supports the Main Idea
  5. Explanation of How the Main Idea Supports the Thesis

How each part works is discussed below, as is how the parts fit together.

Transition into the New Section

No part of the body is the first part of the essay; each comes after something else. It is necessary to get into each part smoothly, so as to ease the reader into the ways the idea of the thesis has been tested. Accordingly, each section needs to have a transition that leads the reader into it.

This is one of the places where there is substantial disagreement about the best way to proceed. The need for clear and effective transitions is not debated, but the placement of them is. Some people prefer to lead out of a section rather than into one, placing transitions at the ends of paragraphs. Their underlying idea is that putting the transition at the end of a paragraph indicates to the reader that more is coming. The reader is then prepared to move into the next section before it begins, and may even be *compelled* to read on, much like a cliff-hanger endings in serial television drives people to watch the next episode.

The problem with the idea is that it divides the focus of the section. One of the things that helps a section function as a section is that it is unified. Each section optimally works with a single main idea, stating it and supporting it through evidence well explained. The solidity of the unit also helps with readers who may not be able to read the whole essay at once or at all. By introducing a transition at the end of a section, an element of another main idea is introduced, which diminishes the unity of the section. Also, putting the transition at the end interferes with the recency effect as it applies to the material of the section--and the recency effect works as much within sections as among them (as discussed in the previous hub).

Putting the transition into a new section at the beginning of the section does no less to prepare the reader to move on than does putting it at the end of the previous section. It also has the advantage of keeping the section unified; everything in the section is about the section itself, rather than about another. Too, it takes advantage of the primacy effect (which also works within sections) in that a well done transition presents the writer as more fully in command of the materials being discussed. Opening each section with that impression makes all of the material in the section look stronger, serving to validate the test applied to the thesis in it.

Transitioning effectively requires that the relationship of the new section to its predecessor be clearly signaled. This tends to mean that transitions work in systems that correspond to the order of presentation of sections. Chronological order works somewhat differently than traditional rhetorical order, and movement through it should show up differently. At the same time, it is important to not be stuck entirely in a single pattern. Even in sober prose, monotony is not desirable, and sticking entirely to one system of transition fosters monotony. Varying the transitions used to get from one section to another, then, is helpful.

Some transitional devices work well in all patterns of organization. One of them is the use of ordinal numbers, usually the number followed by a comma: "First," "Second," "Third," and so forth. It is a simple device, one that can apply to chronological order or that can simply indicate the order in which the writer proceeds. It is almost always functional, but like many other obvious tactics, it is not always the *best* that can be deployed; it is clear and easy to follow, but it is also somewhat flat.

Another common transitional pattern, similar to ordinal numbers, is non-numerical ordination. The first point still often gets called "First," which makes sense, but the second and subsequent points get called "Next" and "Then." The final point typically gets the obvious "Finally" or "Last." As with ordinal numbers, the device is typically followed by a comma, with the statement of main idea following. Also as with ordinal numbers, non-numerical ordination is simple and easily understood, but frequently uninteresting. It is more likely, too, to fall into monotony; many novice writers end up bouncing back and forth between "Next" and "Then."

Still another common transitional pattern can be called the additive. The first point to be brought up is usually indicated by "One," followed by patterns working from "Another" ("Still another," "Yet another"), "Further" ("Still further," "Yet further"), or "In addition" ("Also in addition). "One" and "Another" will typically take a copular (connecting, usually a form of the verb "to be" like "is" or "are"), while "Further" and "In addition" will typically take a comma and move on into the statement of main idea. Because their scope is more limited (usually no more than three in sequence), they are less likely to devolve into monotony than other general transitional devices. They are, however, more restricted in usage; they are not entirely appropriate to use to discuss orders in time, and certain specific types of writing (contrastive, for example) do not take well to them.

Chronological order can benefit from numerical and non-numerical ordination, as noted above. It also benefits from explicit indications of time; "At noon," "At half past noon," "At one," and the like, followed by a comma, are useful. Since it is movement in time, specific indications of movement in time make sense as transitional devices for it. As they are more specific than simple ordination, they tend to function better, as well, since specificity is usually desirable in essay writing.

Reverse chronological order also benefits from specific indications of time, although they will necessarily proceed in reverse order. In addition, reverse chronological order will benefit from a reversal of non-numerical ordination; "Prior to X," "Before X," "Earlier," and the like, followed by a comma, suggest themselves. Because it is less common, it is less likely to be perceived as monotonous than regular non-numerical ordination. Also, because it is more specific, it is more likely to be helpful.

Spatial order can benefit from the general patterns (the "Further" additive pattern is particularly useful). "Entering," "Proceeding," "Continuing," and the like, followed by an indication of direction and a comma, present themselves as possibilities to use. Explicit performative directions--"Turning right," "Walking on," and the like--are generally helpful to indicate movement through space. So are simple locational markers: "Above that," "Atop it," Behind him," "Deeper within," and the like. Monotony is a particular danger in spatial order, however, so attention to variety is important.

Traditional rhetorical order relies on increasingly strong points, and the transitions it uses ought to reflect that motion. The first section might open with "First" or "One point is," as in the ordinal or additive patterns. The second and subsequent sections can effectively use a pattern like that of the additive model, as well ("More important is," "Yet more important is," and "Still more important is"), with the last point being clearly signaled as such ("Most important is"). Mixing in simple additive transitions ("Another point is," "Yet another point is," and "Still another point is") is also often helpful. Traditional rhetorical order also rewards the full-sentence transition; "There is a more important point to consider" and similar statements function well as openings of body sections.

Inverse traditional rhetorical order should be allowed to be more subtle than the other orders; smoothness in getting between sections is more important with it than clearly signaling the specific relationships between them. It will benefit from having its first body section open with the explicit statement that it is the most important; something like "The most important point to consider is," "Most important," or a synonym will work well. The second can usefully begin with something like "Another important point is." The third and subsequent sections before the last are well placed to follow the simple additive model noted above, with the last opening with something like "A final point" or "One last point to make."

Mixed rhetorical order, however, needs to be fairly explicit in its expression of relationships among its sections. The first section, which should be the second strongest, should be announced as being of significant value; "An important point" or something similar will function well. The second, which ought to be the least strong section in the body of the essay, need not be called such. Subtlety works, and moving to a more general transition (either the non-numeral ordinate or additive model works well) to go into the second section will be a subtle marker. After that, the guidelines for the traditional rhetorical model come into play; the comments above apply here, as well.

Two final notes on the matter need to be made. One is that transitional devices (and there are more than are discussed above) can stand on their own or be integrated into statements of main idea. The latter is actually more common, being easier, and most of the examples above are of the integrated type. Whether they are independent or integrated, however, transitional devices do much to ease the reader's passage through the essay, making it more likely that the idea of the thesis will be accepted as valid.

The other is that the examples given above are necessarily general. Individual uses will necessarily vary; calling each point a "point" can contribute to the monotony that is to be avoided, and simply changing "point" to another, similar word ("idea," perhaps, or "concept," or even "item") can help inject some variety without becoming distracting. Doing so will make it far easier for the reader to follow along and continue to pay attention to the work of the essay, making it much more likely that the idea in the thesis will be seen as having been adequately tested.

Statement of the Main Idea

Each section of the body serves to demonstrate one test applied to the thesis. That means that the focus of each section is that test, and if it is to be the focus, it has to be clearly laid out to the reader. The laying-out of that is the statement of the main idea, and the rest of the section will focus on working with that statement.

In some ways, this is the easiest part of each section to handle. Much of the work in figuring out what the main idea will have already been done, as each main idea is one of the tests mentioned in the previous hub. But "much of the work" is not "all of the work," as the way things are phrased in lists is not always or even often the best way they can be phrased in prose. To be its most effective, each part of the essay should be made the best it can be, and the main idea of a body section is not an exception.

The statement of a main idea for a body section should follow immediately after the transition into the section, and it should be an independent clause. That is to say it should be able to stand as a sentence on its own (whether or not the transition into it is made part of the sentence, as discussed above). Accordingly, it must have at least a primary verb (some clear indication of action or state of being) and a noun or pronoun in position to perform the action or endure the state of being. Working from one abstract example in the previous hub, if the thesis is "X is a better example of a Y than Z is," and the tests listed are "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," then the statements of main ideas for each section of the body should be something like "Z does all of what it needs to do to be a Y," "X does all of what it needs to do to be a Y," and "X does better." Similarly, in the other example, if the thesis is "A and B result in C," and the listed tests are "how each quality of C proceeds from A, B, or a combination of A and B," then the main ideas for each section will be that *one* quality of C comes from *specific* qualities of A, B, or a combination of the two. Again, it is not a difficult thing to do; it simply takes a bit of time and attention.

There is little need to dress up the main idea in the statement of it. While it is the case that specific wording is often helpful, the statement of main idea is not usually the place to display the full breadth of vocabulary. A solid, simple statement is likely to have a better effect than ornamented language. This is not to say that accuracy should be sacrificed for brevity, but clarity is remarkably important in the main idea for the simple reason that if the main idea is not understood, the section for which it s the main idea will not be understood as offering a test for the idea of the thesis to pass.

The statement of the main idea does not suffice, however. It must be supported with adequate evidence that is sufficiently explained, and its relevance to the central idea of the thesis must be made clear. Doing so, completing the pattern, is discussed in another hub, here.

© 2013 Folgha

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