A SCHEMATIC DESCRIPTION OF AN
Particular attention paid to the powers and the perils of the so-called Three-part Thesis
A useful Appendix on the subtle art of Quotation
If you are the type of person who likes things laid out for you in formulaic schematics (and who doesn’t welcome that now and then?), here is a rough schematic for a classic English-class analytical (or persuasive) essay -- not to be confused with the more traditional mode of literary criticism, the expository essay. (See The Essay elsewhere on the site.)
You begin with a title. Ideally this should be sort of a beckoning finger, a come-hither-like blurb that in a few words intrigues your potential readers and gives them some idea of what your subject is and possibly what interesting approach you are going to take to it.
THE FIRST PARAGRAPH
Then you have the all-important first paragraph, which ordinarily (but not necessarily) contains the point of your essay in a nutshell. This is known as your thesis or claim or (my choice) your argument. Typically, the name of the author and the title of the text or texts you’re dealing with appear somewhere near the top of this paragraph. Many essayists and academicians like to play around a bit in the first several sentences by offering some engaging, whimsical, or provocative, but always relevant, backgrounding before getting down to the business of naming the text they are concerned with. This gambit is definitely optional, but it's a nice alternative to opening with the formulaic monotony of sentences like “In William Shakespeare’s play As Y0u Like It, Rosalind, the play’s protagonist . . . .” Still, that’s okay and certainly not incorrect.
At some point in the first paragraph, you will want to deliver your essay’s argument in a nutshell. This ought to happen in the form of a very clear declarative sentence typically nested somewhere near the end of the paragraph. Now, there is the possibility of presenting your argument in the form of what’s called a “three-part thesis.” This is a handy rhetorical gadget because in its purest form it promises to pack a lot of relevant information into a single sentence. But it is also a dangerous critter because packing so much information into a single sentence can easily create an unwieldy, unreadable monster. Each part of the three-part thesis is important, and should be addressed somewhere in your essay, but you are under no obligation to deploy all three parts in a single sentence (unless a sadistic English teacher tells you to). So, feel free to visit each of the elements involved in a three-part thesis in whatever way or at whatever point you as the author find most useful to your purpose. What, then, are these three parts? Things get messy here.
TABLE ONE: The Three-part Thesis (laid bare)
In this table, the various ways of describing the elements of a three-part thesis statement are arranged in columns. The relation between the three elements in each row is only loosely determined. Elements can be mixed and matched in any way that may be useful. The last row in the table presents an often favored "grammatical" picture of the way the parts of a three-parts may be distributed as syntactic components in a single complex sentence.
The middle part, you can see in a flash, we already know: it’s your argument usually stated in the form of a clean, clear independent clause. But what’s that to its left? If you look at the table above you will see eight versions of a three-part thesis laid out for your consideration. Essentially these are eight ways of accomplishing roughly the same thing. Down the center column (part 2) you see ways of describing the point of your essay: its argument, claim, etc. The left-most column (part 1) offers ways of introducing part 2: background, vantage point, concession, etc. And the right-hand column (part 3) offers a glimpse into the future by suggesting an implication, result, upshot, etc., of part 2.
So, while the middle column is pretty clear -- it’s your argument in a nutshell, actually an independent clause -- the two wing-riders are kind of cloudy and can change shapes depending upon your needs. (You may have noticed that the material in column 1 (background, context, concession, etc.) may have already been presented in your essay’s opening lines even before you have named your text. No problem. That’s just another way of getting the job done. In fact, it’s probably the favored way among serious academics. But, if you like, you can tuck a little nod to a previously stated context, etc., into a part-1 element of a three-part thesis statement. (No one, except that sadistic English teacher, will care if you don’t.)
There is a cute grammatical formula for the one-sentence three-part thesis, if you are interested. It goes like this: Put part 1 in the form of an adverbial subordinate clause. These are clauses that usually begin with subordinating conjunctions such as because, while, if, although, etc. (“While there is good reason to believe . . . .”). Next comes an independent clause that contains your argument (“I believe . . . .”). And finally, you lay on a participial phrase pointing into the future that explores the implications of your argument (“ . . . showing that,” “implying that,” “resulting in,” “proving,” “suggesting,” “empowering” “concluding,” etc.)
Okay, here we go, a three-part thesis about a three-part thesis: While the three-part thesis statement is a useful way of putting in one sentence some of the important elements of formal argumentation and is broadly taught in high schools and in some college freshman writing programs [part 1], you may choose among many other ways of handling the same business the three-part thesis does [part 2] thus empowering your own authorial control over your work and possibly avoiding the long, saggy, reader-unfriendly sentences [such as this one] that come from hanging out too much rhetorical laundry on the same syntactical clothesline [part 3].
Kind of a mouthful, no? But here’s a better example: Although the three-part thesis is a tool not generally used by scholars [part 1], it is a useful exercise for high school students [part 2], reaffirming the old adage that there is more than one way to skin a cat [part 3].
THE BODY PARAGRAPHS
Following your first paragraph comes a series of “body paragraphs” that will support and defend the argument you have posed in your thesis statement. There can be as many of these as you deem necessary. Because this stretch, probably the longest in the essay, ideally takes the shape of a step-by-step process, you want to organize your paragraphs as if they were incremental, interrelated steps leading to a final landing which will be your conclusion. And just like steps on a staircase you will want them to be easily ascended, neither being too big nor too shallow.
You can lay out you evidence in support of your argument in any way you think will be most effective, but here is a standard approach:
PARAGRAPH 1: Your first body paragraph can pluck the low hanging fruit. These are the
elements of proof that are the easiest, the most obvious, the least contestable. Here, and throughout your essay, you will employ quotations from the text as evidence in support of your claim. The art of delivering these pieces of evidence is subtle and refined (see the Appendix: On Quotation). Much of the success of your essay will depend on your skill at lacing quotations into your prose in a telling and non-intrusive way. The general rule of thumb is the shorter the better. Or to reverse it: Nonessential verbiage is a waste of your readers’ time and something you will pay for by encouraging their inattention.
PARAGRAPH 2: This is entirely up to you, but this may be a good place to address counter-arguments, entertain exceptions, and perhaps gently push back upon your own thesis as a way of testing its strength – sort of a stress test. Here you can admit and address complicating factors. Life is not simple, and neither are most arguments. One of the most common foibles broadly found in student essays is the understandably inclination to “win” by over-simplification, to win at all costs. A good essay is not an intellectual boxing match, nor is it a criminal trial or a political debate (although it does borrow moves from each of those arenas). Better not to urge your case too vehemently lest your reader suspect your stake in it is more blindly emotional than it is impartially judicial and, consequently, can’t be trusted. So, entertain any counter-evidence that may be out there, air valid objections to your claim, review related scholarship and move on.
PARAGRAPH 3 (4,5,6 . . .): Now comes the part where the rubber meets the road, or, to employ another metaphor from the world of transportation, ahead lies the bridge your essay will live or die on. Here is where you deliver the most telling, most surprising, most unexpected or easily overlooked evidence for your claim. This patch may -- in fact, should -- contain several elements of evidence: quotations, certainly; and unnoticed plot points, interesting word choices or linguistic grace notes, repeated motifs or allusions that may have flown under the radar, historical, biographical, or critical data that cast light on your subject. This is the evidence you have gathered from or as a result of your close reading of the text. A casual reader could easily miss these points. You don’t even have to say it, but the content in these paragraphs pretty much closes the case. The thesis you proposed in the first paragraph now seems uncontestable, almost obvious. Don’t rub it in. No endzone antics. Just stand back and let your reader enjoy the place you have led him or her to.
If you have done your work in the body paragraphs, a conclusion will be sweet and simple. You can use it in several ways. A brief summation is okay, but this tends to be redundant and boring unless it sums things up in a clever and memorable way that isn’t anticipated by the reader. It may be a chance to reduce the complexity of your argumentation to a useful take-away. Alternatively, you can fetch back to what was, or might have been, part 3 of the three-part thesis statement and explore the implication or consequences of your now-successful argument by looking into the future: Where might your thinking lead? Perhaps it may lead to a new understanding of your subject? Or to the laying aside of some invalid interpretations? Or maybe to a path forward towards further investigation?
Anyway, your work here is almost done here. Now put a dot after the last sentence and go back and start proofreading and pruning and editing and adding and reshaping things in ways you could have never done until you were able to see your essay as a whole. And you thought you were finished?
APPENDIX: On Quotation
The selection and incorporation of quotations is vital to the success of your essay. Both should be done with care.
Selecting your quotations: Just because you are required to include, say, three quotations from the text in your essay, doesn’t mean any three will pass muster. Quoting only for the sake of quoting is worse than not quoting at all. It comes off as a childish or cynical ploy, and probably is both. Select passages or phrases that really drive home you claim and make your reader feel the presence of a living literary text underneath your prose. Your quotations should crackle with energy and relevance, and not just reprise the plot.
Incorporating your quotations: There are a variety of ways to include quotations in your text. They involved different punctuation and capitalization treatment.
Direct quotations are words taken from another text and incorporated in the text of your essay. These come in three forms that are each handled differently:
Block quotations are large chunks of text that are set off from the flow of your prose in blocks by spacing and indentation. These are rarely appropriate for short academic papers unless the material in the block quotation is the subject of the entire essay.
Full sentence quotations are instances when you need to capture one or more full sentences to make your point. They require either a colon in the case of quoting written description or prose statements from another text (Jefferson wrote: “All men are created equal.”) or a comma if you are quoting something someone or some fictional character says (Alice said, “All men are created equal, but some are more equal, it seems.”
IMPORTANT: Single word or phrase quotations are the most powerful form of quotation and the most useful in relatively short essays. They require no surrounding punctuation and are generally stitched smoothly into your prose like brightly colored threads sewn into a background fabric. (Alice acknowledged that all men are created equal but observed that some men seem to be “more equal” than others.) The art here is to isolate the most telling and relevant portion of a quotable passage and zero in on it. Present the surrounding material in your own words, but save the quotation marks for the vital word or phrase you want to emphasize.
Indirect quotation is simply restating what might have been a direct quotation in your own words. No quotation marks or capitalizations are needed even if you use some of the same words from what might have been a direct quotation: (Alice heard that all men are created equal.)