Essay Writing Program for Students by Dr. D. Brent, University of Calgary The following unit is part of an instructional program focusing on argumentative essay writing. It would be appropriate for use in introductory writing courses, in a writing centre environment, or by students working individually with a tutor. It was developed in the Effective Writing Service at the University of Calgary and may be used freely with credit to the source. The program is divided into six units: Unit 1: Overview of essay writing Unit 2: Structure I – Three basic structures Unit 3: Structure II – Paragraph divisions & More on introductions and conclusions Unit 4: More on the reader & pro-con essays Unit 5: Definition Unit 6: Comparison-Contrast structure Unit 3: Structure II – Paragraph Divisions & More on Introductions and Conclusions What is a Paragraph? It is often assumed that a paragraph is a sort of composition in miniature, with a thesis statement called a topic sentence followed by a series of supporting or illustrating sentences. Many para- graphs are of this type, but if you look through passages of prose, you will find many that aren’t. The paragraph you are reading now, for instance, states its organizing idea in the second sentence and illustrates it in the third, but begins with the proposition to be refuted rather than with a topic sentence. Other perfectly good paragraphs make no sense by themselves, but contribute to a paragraph sequence with one main organizing idea. If the “composition in miniature” theory doesn’t work very well, then what advice can writers be given about paragraphs? First, paragraphs are simply stages of an argument that the writer has chosen to mark off as blocks of text (with the first line indented or with a blank line between para- graphs). However, an essay is not just a series of topics of equal rank; it is a series of topics, sub- topics and sub-subtopics. Therefore, you cannot simply paragraph at every logical division. Some- times you will want to deal with several subtopics in one paragraph, and at other times to divide them into separate paragraphs. As often as not, you will worry about your argument as a whole while you are drafting and redrafting your essay, and paragraph divisions will occur almost automatically as your argument falls into logical stages. However, when you are revising a draft, there are some things that you should keep in mind. A new paragraph often marks a new aspect of the topic, such as a new supporting idea or a shift from pro to con, from background to main argument, or from one proposed solution to another. Transitional words such as however and in addition can sometimes signal such a break in structure, although they are often found within a paragraph as well. Shifts in tone or shifts from argument to description are also appropriate places to begin new paragraphs. 2 Paragraph Length Paragraph length is partly dictated by desired effect. Short paragraphs tend to move quickly and present information in short, quick bursts. They are often found in business letters and reports, and in newspaper articles. Argumentative essays demand a more thorough development of ideas in longer paragraphs. However, extremely long paragraphs can be tiring to read. Three to six sentences per paragraph is a good rough guideline for most academic writing. Single-Sentence Paragraphs Single-sentence paragraphs can sometimes be used for stylistic effect—they convey important points with a great deal of force—but more often they signal a flaw in essay structure. If you spot a one-sentence paragraph in a draft, ask yourself Does the idea really belong in the preceding or following paragraph? Does the idea really belong somewhere else entirely? Does the idea need to be developed into a full-length paragraph? Does the idea need to be dropped because it is really irrelevant to the essay as a whole? (This is one of the most common reasons for one-sentence paragraphs: a writer has an idea that he doesn’t want to drop but which doesn’t really belong anywhere in the essay, so it gets marooned in a one-sentence paragraph like a castaway on an island.) Pointer Sentences A common problem in paragraphing is what to do with a pointer sentence. A pointer sentence is one that suggests the design of the next paragraph or sequence of paragraphs. Here’s an example: “There are three main causes for this problem.” If the ideas pointed to are to be developed in a series of separate paragraphs, it is tempting to set the pointer sentence as a one-sentence para- graph since it belongs equally to all the following paragraphs. However, it is often better to attach the pointer sentence to the first paragraph in the sequence, as shown in example (h): Example (h) There are three common reasons for vandalism. First, young people simply don’t have enough to do after school. Many of the things that they would like to do, such as going to movies or video arcades, are so expensive that they simply can’t afford them. Sources of free amusement such as parks and playgrounds are overcrowded, unattractive and scarce. As a result, young people amuse themselves by destroying property. Second, you people are not taught respect for property. . . . Alternatively, you many find that the first paragraph of a sequence is an introductory background paragraph to which the pointer sentence can be attached, as in example (i): Example (i) The Calgary School Board has decided to remove all junk food vending machines from Calgary high schools. Their reasoning is that junk foods, such as pop, potato chips and chocolate bars, are so dangerous to human health that students should not be allowed to buy them. It is impossible to dispute the fact that junk foods are indeed harmful. There are, however, two reasons why the school board should not try to ban junk food vending machines. [pointer sentence] First, such a ban simply wouldn’t prevent students from eating unhealthy foods. There are so many stores close to every school that students would just buy their junk food at these 3 stores. They would not only eat as much junk food as they do now, but would probably also leave a trail of litter between the store and the school. Junk food machines in schools at least help confine the litter to one area where it can be easily cleaned up. More important, an attempt to prevent students from eating the food they like would infringe on their freedom of choice. Although most high school students are not yet legally adults, they are learning to be adults. To do so, they must learn to make intelligent decisions for themselves, including decisions about what they will eat. Therefore, junk food machines must stay so that students can use them or avoid them as they choose. In this case, the divisions of the essay seem very natural: the first paragraph supplies background and states the organizing idea; the next two paragraphs each give a supporting reason for the organizing idea. Paragraph Sequences Paragraphs often combine to form paragraph sequences. The sequence develops a major point, and each paragraph develops a sub-point. In a long problem-solution essay, for instance, several para- graphs may be devoted to introducing the problem. The development need not be symmetrical: some parts of the argument may be developed in a single paragraph and others may require a fairly long sequence. In most essays, these sequences are not marked. In other forms of writing, such as formal reports, they are often marked by subheadings. This unit, for instance, consists of a number of paragraph sequences marked by subheadings. More on Introductions and Conclusions Example “i” illustrates the point made in Unit 2: an essay should start somewhere, but it need not have an introductory paragraph that summarizes everything the writer wishes to say. The first paragraph of Example “i” quickly outlines the problem and then informs the reader that the writer is not going to attack the medical facts that prompted the School Board’s decision. It then tells the reader simply and clearly 1. what the writer will prove (“… the school board should not try to ban junk food vending machines”), and 2. how the writer will prove his organizing idea (“There are, however, two reasons . . .”). Notice that the how gives the reader only the general information that the rest of the essay will contain two main pieces of evidence to support the organizing idea. Thus, it forecasts the general direction of the essay without trying to summarize it. The introductory material could be made even more sketchy. If the writer had felt that his reader would need no background, he could have started by stating his organizing idea immediately. This statement would not need its own one-sentence paragraph; it could be tied directly to the first supporting paragraph: The Calgary School Board should not try to ban junk food machines from Calgary high schools. First, such a ban simply wouldn’t work. There are so many stores. . . . The word “First” tells the reader that a series of supporting ideas will follow. 4 The conclusion, like the introduction, avoids summarizing everything the writer has said. If a writer wishes to bring together several threads of argument and weave them into some new insight at the end of his essay, a formal conclusion can be useful; it is particularly useful if the essay is long and complicated. A simple summary, however, is often simply repetitious. All that is needed to conclude essay “i” is the simple statement, “Therefore junk food machines must stay so that students can use them or avoid them as they choose.” This essay deals with the same subject but works a little differently: Example (j) It is well known that many high school students have poor eating habits. Instead of eating breakfast, they buy a chocolate bar from a vending machine when they arrive at school. For lunch, they have a bottle of pop and a bag of potato chips. Because such junk food does not stave off hunger for very long, these students can usually be found back at the vending machines after school and even between classes, consuming still more junk food. There is no need to discuss how harmful junk food can be; dozens of scientific reports have established that excessive amounts of fat and sugar can have serious effects on people’s health. The problem is, how can we encourage students to eat better food? The Calgary School Board suggests simply removing the vending machines from the schools. This solution, however, might not work. Every school is within easy walking distance of a convenience store; if students cannot support their junk food habit by using vending machines, they will simply go elsewhere to buy what they like. Moreover, any attempt to force students to stop eating junk food by cutting off their supply would be a serious infringement of their right to freedom of choice. A better solution would be to keep the junk food machines, but add machines that sell healthy foods such as fruit, nuts, raisins and fruit juices. If students did not take to these snacks automatically, the school could start an education campaign to teach the importance of good eating habits. The school could even apply gentle pressure by forcing the vending machine owners to raise the prices of junk foods to subsidize the healthy foods so that they can be offered at an attractive price. Thus, students’ eating habits can be changed, not by force, but by encouragement and persuasion. These methods will not only be more effective than force, but may help students make a permanent rather than a temporary change in their heating habits. This essay follows a problem-solution pattern: Paragraph 1: Background of problem (General discussion of eating habits) Paragraph 2: Precise statement of problem (How do we encourage better eating habits?) Possible solution 1 (Remove machines) Arguments against solution 1 Paragraph 3: Possible solution 2 (Add vending machines with healthy foods) Elaboration of consequences Again, the paragraph divisions occur at logical divisions in the argument. The introduction grows naturally out of an elaboration of the problem, and the conclusion out of its solution. Coherence is achieved, not by outlining the entire argument from the beginning, but by making each part of the essay advance the argument another stage. Thus, the reader knows that the writer is honouring the implied contract to tell him something significant. 5 Assignment 4 A. There are several very good ways of paragraphing the following passage, several reasonably good ways, and a few very poor ways. Read it carefully and mark paragraph divisions. There is no answer key that shows how the author really divided the essay, because reproducing the original divisions is not the point of the exercise. I hope that the cynicism that pervades so much of modern life has not yet grown to exclude the demands of common morality. The black man was brought to these shores in chains, enslaved for 250 years, kept in peonage for most of the past hundred years, and now suffers dispropor- tionately in all areas of life. Common decency demands that this situation be changed. The grow- ing anger of the black masses, especially among the younger people who see through the hypo- crisy of this society, will not lessen unless such a national commitment is swiftly implemented. Countering such protest with increased repression can only fan the flames of anger and even- tually lead to the kind of police-state that will enslave all Americans. Those in this morally under- developed nation who do not readily respond to the demands of conscience may be more responsive to self-interest. The black minority, disproportionately disadvantaged as it is, consti- tutes a huge market that cannot be ignored. Negroes earn about $30-billion, form up to 50 percent of the total consumer market for certain goods, and will be in the majority in about a dozen major cities well before 1980. Economic equality would mean enlarging this market by about $25-billion, and it would also mean the creation of a stable urban middle class. Our econ- omy can ignore this huge market and the implications of equality only at its peril. The question really becomes: Does a society dominated by white-run institutions have any kind of future in a world that is three-fourths non-white? And can a business-oriented society survive when its ma- jor centers of power and commerce are populated by poverty-stricken, angry black majorities? -- Whitney M. Young, Jr., Saturday Review B. Answer one of the following questions in a brief essay. Again, you need not deal with all aspects of the question. Note: You may also go back and choose another question from an earlier unit if there is another one that interests you. 1. Young’s article deals with racial discrimination in the U.S. Is there racial discrimination in Canada? If not, why not? If so, in what ways does it differ from its American counterpart? Why? Can you illustrate with any personal experiences? Is the situation changing at all? 2. The supernatural has always interested humans. Has this interest increased or decreased recently? Why do you think so? What might be the reasons for this change? Is interest in the supernatural harmful in any way? Can you illustrate with any personal experiences? 3. If you are in your teens or early twenties, you may have had limited personal experience of recent changes in attitudes toward marriage and the family. However, from what you have heard and read as well as from whatever personal experience you do have, can you pin- point a major change in such attitudes over the last twenty years or so? Why do you think such a change might have occurred? What are the advantages and disadvantages to society of such a change? What might be done to rectify any problems that it may have created?