Say it on Purpose: An overview of Arts One Writing

As you have already detected, I regard the formulaic approach to writing with deep suspicion and would invite you to break free of most of the constraining “dos and don’ts” you may have heard in the past. It’s simply not true that a thesis must appear at the end of the first paragraph, that a thesis is a single sentence, that an essay should have five paragraphs, that you can never use the first person pronoun, etc. University writing has some rules too of course, and I discuss these in due course. At this point, however, I will focus on observations designed to give you general parameters for effective, purposeful writing across the disciplines and not specific and inviolable codes.

There are many sorts of papers, and your life at UBC may require you to adjust to the demands of different subjects, courses, assignments, academic fields, and so forth. But for Arts One — and most writing across the faculty of Arts — you will need to hone the craft of the “argumentative” essay. This sort of paper advances a claim, or claims, about a given topic and employs evidence in the process. Whether you are offering a cause-and-effect statement, informed opinion, interpretation or critical evaluation, you are trying to convince the reader that your claim is persuasive. This can only be achieved with evidence, in the form of logic and textual support. The latter consists of making the reader believe that you are well acquainted with the textual material, and are able to identify and cite passages that support your statements (more on this below).

Every paper should quickly and clearly establish a sense of direction and purpose. Direction refers less to a specific argument than the overall coherence and structure of a paper. A paper does not typically announce its purpose in the opening sentence, so you need to catch the reader’s interest but also offer a clear pathway toward what you will argue. You may feel a need to “hook” the reader, but try to avoid dramatic or gratuitous statements. If you want to start with a reference to a song, movie or text other than what you have been asked to read, make sure that there is a genuine connection to your actual topic, and that your allusion points toward your ultimate purpose. The last thing you want to do is lose or confound the reader in the opening paragraph.

How to start?

Everybody has encountered and/or used the grand sweeping generalization. At its broadest, it looks like this: “from the dawn of time, humankind has struggled with the problem of war….” Maybe you are writing about war, and want to set the tone for the paper. But sentences of this sort are so all encompassing as to say nothing, and cannot function as an introduction to anything. Nor can the truthfulness of sentences of this sort be established. In this particular sentence, for instance, there is no way to know whether war is an innate, pre-societal feature of human life, or a product of historically peculiar and transient circumstances (as Marx believes). It is also not true that all societies view war a problem to be overcome. For example the Homeric warriors, as we just discovered, are by definition wholly and happily immersed in an ethos of war.

So how should I start that upcoming Plato essay on the problem of justice? Not like this:

“Since time immemorial the problem of justice has been an issue”

or this:

“The ancient Greeks were preoccupied with issues of justice, and the Republic of Plato reflected these concerns to a greater extent than any of his contemporaries.”

What’s wrong with this as an opening? It sounds fine, but reflects a very common tendency that promises to weaken the essay substantially. The focus of the paper is meant to be Plato, and more specifically my engagement with his ideas and, in this hypothetical topic, justice in particular. But notice how instead I have made the ancient Greeks my opening focus. Two questions arise here: 1. have I been asked to discuss Plato’s Republic or ancient Greeks? 2. what could I possibly say about ancient Greeks on the basis of Plato’s Republic? Simply put, avoid letting your perceived ignorance about what Plato is saying lead you to fall back on the illusory safety of generalizations about the world in which he lived. Arts One, and writing of the sort it demands, cries out for a focus on the text. If you found yourself talking about Mycenean civilization rather than what was going on in the Odyssey, on what basis were you doing so? We haven’t read about the Mycenean civilization, and thus an exposition of this sort would need to be based on something outside the text — and we aren’t asking for expository, noncritical essays in any case. This sort of writing can be very informative, and has its place, but that place is not Arts One. Put differently, in Arts One writing at least, there is nothing outside the text. The lectures and, to some extent, seminars are, of course, outside the text but are designed to open up the work in order for you to better understand and engage its possible meanings. While it is legitimate and useful to make occasional references to these resources in your essays, what can be gained by simply and extensively repeating what I or others have said? It’s ultimately what you think that matters, whether or not you use the first person pronoun.

What about purpose?

You might try to forget anything you have heard about a thesis in the past. For one thing, it is seldom if ever a one sentence phenomenon in university writing — imagine a 25 page essay on Canadian foreign policy with a one line “thesis”! Use the word if you must, but think in terms of purpose. What am I trying to achieve in this paper? To go back to my hypothetical justice in Plato paper, let’s look at a couple of topics and possible responses. If we have done our job as Arts One instructors, you should never see a topic like this:

Plato’s conception of justice in Republic marks him as an enemy of liberty and equality. Discuss.

In this topic, you are seemingly invited to repeat and reaffirm the wisdom of the premise — to tell someone what they want to hear. To what purpose? Are you a student or a parrot? What if we make this change:


Does Plato’s conception of justice in Republic mark him as an enemy of liberty and equality?

If you think this is a better formulation of the topic (and I think it’s dramatically better) ask yourself why. Hint: you can now think in terms of a purpose of your own, other than proving you can squawk like that parrot. So this new formulation will be my pretend question. How do I proceed to a purpose?

  1. I need to read the book… carefully…. the whole book (this seems self-evident but why not say it)
  2. I need to wrap my head around what Plato thinks “liberty” and “equality” are NOT what I think, or worse, “know” they are. This is hugely important. Start by recognizing that the point is to understand and engage a text on its own terms, not ours. Obviously, if Plato were alive today he probably wouldn’t be described as a liberal. Again, stick to the text.
  3. Try to find some sort of angle on the question and be sure to use the text to support/reinforce/supplement points you are making, and not as a substitute for your own independent argument.

Back to my pretend paper. The following is NOT a thesis or statement of purpose:

“This essay looks at whether Plato’s conception of justice in Republic mark him as an enemy of liberty and equality.”

Learn to recognize that restating the topic in your own words is not a statement of purpose. Many so called thesis statements are in fact statements of focus, not purpose. Consider, for example, how I could possibly call this a thesis: “this paper will look at Canadian foreign policy in the 1980s.” This is a statement of focus, nothing more. So a thesis would look something like this:

“This essay looks at whether Plato’s conception of justice in Republic mark him as an enemy of liberty and equality. It first examines Plato’s use of liberty, paying particular attention to his understanding of freedom and autonomy not from some external source — governments or societies for example — but from our own internal, non rational urges. The paper will show that these “appetites,” as Plato terms them, while endemic to all people, cannot be controlled, or even recognized, by any but the most philosophical souls. This suggests the existence of an inherent relationship between liberty and equality, and that Plato understands neither concept in what have become their normal, modern usage. As such, Plato cannot be seen as a enemy of these concepts. On the contrary, they are integral features of his argument….”

Notice how this is much more than a sentence. How could a genuine thesis be confined to a sentence, especially when we are dealing with a text like this? Avoid trying to reduce your purpose to a single statement, and get out of the habit of looking for such statements in the work of your peers. Do not think of yourself as answering a question, regardless of how the topic may be posed. Think, at all times, in terms of purposefulness: what am I trying to say and to what end? What am I trying to argue? And be aware that your argument may evolve and change as you write, and you might need to rework your statement of purpose to mirror what you have discussed in the paper.

There may be times when it sounds like you are being asked to describe something, but even here that is seldom the only thing your instructor will be asking you to do, regardless of course or subject. If you have been asked to “Describe and assess the key features of the United Nations Security Council,” it’s easy to fall into the trap of simple narration. But even in this instance you would or should want to offer some kind of original analysis. Words like “discuss,” “assess,” “explore,” and “compare” should all be read to mean: “say something interesting, original, and persuasive about x.” There are times when you will need to add descriptive aspects to the writing but keep these to a minimum, assume a knowledgable reader, and avoid lapsing into extended summaries of a text or its plot elements.

It is also important to avoid the trap of assuming that you have been given questions to which there are ideal responses. Essay topics are not exam questions; they are not designed to illicit ultimate truths. While it is important to be knowledgable about the text, it is neither possible nor necessary to be an expert on the author and his/her world in order to explore your ideas. And a well posed essay question should allow for several possible responses. Your job is to create a reading that is coherent and persuasive, not an argument that is true in any ultimate sense. Nor is it necessary to assume that every essay topic is pointing toward, or could even allow for, a predetermined and ideal interpretation. Remember, the very best essays tend to surprise the reader and/or challenge conventional readings.



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