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

Updated on September 22, 2013
Sources of Authority
Sources of Authority | Source

An earlier hub begins to discuss one easy pattern to use in writing body sections in an essay:

  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

Although it only lays out the pattern and addresses the first two components of the pattern, it is almost unwieldy in length. For ease of reading, the discussion has been spread out; this hub is the second part of the discussion.

Evidence Supporting the Main Idea

Just as a statement of thesis does not stand on its own, a statement of a main idea in support of a thesis does not stand on its own. Both need to be grounded in solid evidence. Determining what counts as evidence sometimes takes some doing, but as with much else involved in putting together an essay, it need not be difficult to do. This is a good thing, as it is absolutely vital that there be evidence to support the main idea; a thesis cannot be tested without the information such evidence provides.

Evidence derives from two ultimate sources: lived experience and the reports of others. The latter also divides into two types: primary sources and secondary sources. Ultimately, none is fully effective on its own. The best essay writing will use each: lived experience, primary outside source material, and secondary outside source material. The confluence of sources will exert a remarkable impact on the reader, simultaneously making the essay a human creation and grounding it in the already-existing understanding of the world that it seeks to refine.

An old adage holds that writers should write what they know, and the deployment of information gained from lived experience answers the call to do so. There are several reasons for writers to use the information acquired through having been people in the world. One of them is that the information is immediately available; all writers need to do to employ it is think back on their lives for events similar to what the essay seeks to prove valid. Related is the intimacy of the information; having seen or having lived through a thing allows access to exquisite detail related to that thing, detail which can be compelling in its recalled immediacy and its specificity. And it is that ability to be compelling that is the great strength of information gained through lived experience; using it serves not only as evidence, but as a way to connect to the reader on an emotional level. Understandings of argument dating back at least as far as Aristotle hold that generating emotional responses in those to whom an argument is made is necessary for the success of the argument (although it must be noted that relying too much on appeals to emotion--pathos--undermines the strength of an argument). Being able to simultaneously provide evidence while making an emotional appeal is an efficient means of supporting the main idea.

Lived experience cannot typically carry an argument on its own, however. Memory is faulty, unfortunately, and understandings of words are not consistent from person to person, as a number of scholars and critics address. Even if the writer's recall is sound and the reader is understanding the words used to recount it as the writer understands them, there is the issue to consider that one person's lived experience is *one* person's. It may well be a unique occurrence in the world, something that happens to the writer and only the writer. While it may be relatable therefore, it may not be a reliable test of the idea in the thesis. Hence the need for the reports of others. Using such evidence in conjunction with that derived from lived experience serves to indicate that there is commonality between the writer's experience and those of others, making the writer more likely to be believed and the writing to be regarded as having adequately tested the idea of the thesis.

As noted above, the reports of others come in two forms, primary and secondary sources. At its simplest, the distinction between the two is that a primary source is what is being discussed, and a secondary source is a source that talks about the primary source. For example, if a writer is writing about Le Morte d'Arthur, then the text of the book is the primary source. Critics' comments about the text are secondary sources. For another example, if a writer is writing about how to smoke a brisket well, the brisket and related materials are the primary sources, and the comments of others about the quality of the brisket and about other briskets are secondary sources.

Primary sources are always reliable evidence; it is necessary to make specific reference to a thing to test ideas about it effectively. Secondary sources may or may not be reliable, however; not all commentaries are created equal, and there are no doubt many to be found on most topics. Sorting among them, then, becomes something of a task--but like much else, there are ways to ease the difficulty of that task, questions to ask of the sources and to answer by looking at what the sources and their contexts offer.

The first question to ask of a secondary source is who the author is. (This discussion focuses on written material, but other media may well be employed; the questions remain more or less the same across them.) The simple fact of having a name to put to a source makes it more likely to be reliable, as anonymity often promotes behaviors not conducive to reasoned discourse, and pseudonyms often do the same. There are, of course, reasons for authors to hide their names; perhaps the source says something that imperils its writer financially or bodily. But those sources which have their authors' names attached to them are more likely to represent the sincere best work of the author, as few people are willing to associate themselves with inferior performance if it can be avoided.

The next questions to ask of the source relate to the first. Once an author is noted, the author's expertise should be ascertained. This is not simply to say that the author ought to be a person whose prose reads well (although it helps, as good writing typically cannot proceed from a lack of expertise), and it is not simply to say that a highly educated person is automatically reliable. Scholars specialize, and while they may have considerable knowledge and understanding of their own fields, they may know no more than the next person about what lies outside of those fields. I offer myself as an example. I hold a doctorate in English and have taught writing for a number of years, so that I have significant expertise in the use of the English language. But while I (like to think I) am a smart person, and I can keep my bank records balanced, I have a lot of trouble handling polynomials in math. Similarly, I know precious little about what happens under the hood of a car, although I can change a tire if I need to. My expertise in English does little for me outside of it--and the same is true for specialists in other fields.

That expertise derives, as with any evidence, from lived experience and dedicated study. For academics, it can be attested by level and field of study and the research published and presented, as well as by experience teaching relevant courses. For those who work in other fields, the level of training and the field in which it was undertaken do much to assert expertise, as does work history; an air conditioning technician who has been repairing condensers and heat exchangers for twenty-five or more years is not to be ignored when discussing such equipment, for example. Examination of the other work that the author of the source being considered has done reveals much; if the other work is good, it is likely that the piece being considered is also good, and vice versa.

The author's biases should also be taken into account. All authors are biased, if only because of the limitations of human perception, human memory, and human language. The attitudes and beliefs of an author and the context in which the author writes cannot help but affect what the author writes, however. The author's personal background (such things as current and former socio-economic status, regions of origin and of residence, and age), professional background (current and former fields of work, training for that work), and affiliations (political, religious, societal, racial/ethnic, gender performance) all influence how an author perceives and understands the world, and therefore they influence what the author can and will write. Sometimes, the biases lead authors to neglect data which they ought to consider, or to spin data in a way that it does not truly sustain. When it happens, it makes the source far less reliable--whether that source happens to agree or disagree with the writer who seeks to use that source.

Another major question to ask of secondary source material is "What materials does the author employ?" If the author is using materials understood to be good, the author's work is more likely to be good itself. If the author uses materials understood to be bad, the secondary source is likely to be bad. This is, of course, unless it is inveighing against the validity of the material at its own time (keeping questions of timeliness, noted below, in mind). If the source condemns information understood to be good, it is suspect, while if it condemns the bad, it is likely worthwhile.

A related question is to look at who else is using the source and in what way. If other writers who are understood to be good are using a given secondary source, it is likely that the secondary source is of value. The reverse is also true; if other writers who are understood to be bad are using a given secondary source, it is a source whose utility must be questioned. Or it usually is, for if good writers condemn a source, it is likely to be of lesser value, and is bad writers condemn a source, it may well be worth including.

The author is not the only actor upon the source, however. At the very least, a publisher will be concerned with those sources which are available for access, and so questions must be asked about the publisher, as well. Some of these are markedly similar to those to ask about authors. For example, the expertise of the publisher in the field being discussed by the source is worth examining. If the publisher published much material in a given field, that publisher is likely invested in being reputable within it, and so will be more likely to publish better work. Similarly, the biases of the publisher, deriving from much the same sources as those of the author, need to be investigated and their bearing on the source considered.

This is particularly true as concerns the publisher's finances. Some publishers are underwritten by specific groups or institutions. They are therefore less likely to publish material that depicts their backers negatively. They are also less likely to consider authors whose views conflict with those of their backers, or who rely on sources that do so.

Another concern of publication bias is the medium in which it is offered. It is not the case that any medium is absolutely one way or another, as there are reliable and unreliable materials in all media. Each medium, however, does much to shape the messages delivered by it, as Marshall McLuhan famously notes and Jerome McGann discusses in The Textual Condition. It is necessarily the case that the expansive and detailed text will offer information differently than the video, which will offer it differently yet from hyper-linked online multimedia. Different information will be foregrounded or ignored, imposing biases on the delivery of the information--and, owing to acculturation to source types, the understandings of the audiences of such sources will also be affected. This is not to say that the information is necessarily rendered unreliable thereby, but it does mean that close attention must be paid to how the medium is influencing the information and the interpretation thereof.

Perhaps the most important issue of publication for determining whether a source is reliable or not is peer review. Peer review is a process through which items that are to be published are submitted to readers who are experts in the fields those items discuss. Typically, items are reviewed by multiple experts, with close attention paid to their methodology, background materials, and lines of reasoning. If the experts do not agree that the piece merits publication, then it will be rejected. Publishers who employ peer review, then, are far more likely to be disseminating reliable secondary source information.

Worth considering also is the timeliness of the source. It is not as simple as saying that more recent information is better than older information. If nothing else, new information has what might usefully be called a probationary period, during which its validity is tested. An idea might be advanced only to be proven wrong shortly thereafter. The OPERA neutrino issue, beginning in 2011, offers one example. More broadly, though, what counts as "timely" depends on what is being discussed. If, for instance, the idea being tested in the essay is that the Regency caused the people of early 19th century Britain to look for models of worthwhile governance, then commentaries and reports from the early 19th century would be well worth examining. Typically, information in the sciences ages rapidly, while that in the humanities lingers--but, again, the idea being tested will help determine what is timely, and it is the timeliness of information, rather than its recency, that matters.

It is true that evidence from secondary sources, however rigorously vetted, may end up being in error. But it will be much less likely to be so if it is thoroughly examined before it is deployed, and the best answers to the largest number of questions posed above found regarding the source. Investigating it before including it allows it to do more to support primary source evidence and that of lived experience, offering a better test for the idea of the essay.

Explanation of How the Evidence Supports the Main Idea

However much evidence may be arrayed, it does nothing on its own. Evidence must be acted upon if it is to prove anything. When it appears in an essay, it has to be explained, its relevance to the main idea made clear and explicit. Otherwise, the evidence is simply filling up space; it will function as dead weight, and readers required to carry dead weight soon tire of reading. This does not help convince them of the validity of the thesis being argued.

An earlier hub notes that each writer approaches the available information from a specific perspective--influences on which are discussed above as constituting writerly biases. The circumstances of an author's life--where the author comes from, when, and from whom, as well as where and when the author is while writing--position the writer such that the mere examination of some evidence will cause an unconscious recognition of a particular understanding of that evidence. As Asimov notes in "The Eureka Phenomenon," the occurrence is commonplace. But he also notes that what happens after the occurrence, the development of a reasoned line of explanation supporting that revelation, is a bad thing--and there, he is wrong.

What the line of reasoning does is explain to readers, who do not have direct access to the essayist's own circumstances, how the evidence that is provided leads to the main idea being used to test the thesis. What is obvious to one essayist is not necessarily obvious to another, and it needs to be made obvious before it can be understood as successfully supporting a main idea. Frankly, readers typically do not have the background to reach the same conclusions as the essayist before the means by which the essayist does so are explicated. Consequently, each piece of evidence that is deployed in support of a main idea needs to be explained in terms of how it supports the main idea. It needs to be explicitly and specifically demonstrated to work in favor of the main idea, or its presence will not be understood and it will be regarded as ancillary at best and distracting at worst. Neither helps the essayist be believed, and so neither is desirable.

Explanation of How the Main Idea Supports the Thesis

As noted above, no section of the body exists in a vacuum. Each is part of a larger entity. Each exists in service to the idea contained in the thesis. Each offers in its statement of main idea something that functions as support for the thesis. Each proceeds from solid evidence, and just as the evidence has to be explained to support the main idea, the main idea has to be explained as supporting the thesis. Without such an explanation, the body section functions as much as dead weight as unexplained evidence does within the section, and it is as bad among sections as within them.

This, fortunately, does not typically take much work, usually only a sentence or two with which to end the section. For example, if my thesis is that "The similarities between X and Y show that Y uses X as a source," and my main idea for the section is that "One of the major similarities between X and Y is their treatment of A," then my section will lay out how X and Y treat A. The section will then end with one or two sentences relating the similarities in treatment of A back to the main idea, probably looking something like "That X and Y are so similar in their treatment of A, even down to the wording in some cases, makes the similarity more than coincidental. Such a close correspondence is almost certainly a result of Y's author having borrowed from X, making X a source for Y."

Although it may only take one or two sentences to do so, explicitly relating the section back to the thesis reminds the reader of the idea being tested, which unifies the work and is beneficial thereby. It also allows for an easier transition into the next section, whether that section be another piece of the essay body or the essay's conclusion, discussed here.

© 2013 Folgha

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