In each essay that you write for this course, I expect to see a clear thesis statement in your introduction and a clear topic sentence in almost every body paragraph. A thesis statement is the controlling idea for the entire paper, and a topic sentence is the controlling idea for an individual paragraph. Your handbook discusses thesis statements and topic sentences.
One useful tool in both planning and analyzing the structure of an essay is an outline, but the outline form I want you to use is probably different from most others with which you may be familiar, and you won’t find it discussed in most writing textbooks. It is simple but demanding. It requires that you write the thesis, then change the thesis to a question, and then answer the question in three to five (or more) complete sentences. Here’s how you can use the outline in planning a narrative essay.
To determine your thesis, decide on a subject and then decide what you want to say about your subject. Many students’ initial response to a narrative assignment is to choose a subject that is far too broad—my childhood, going to high school. Avoid that by choosing a subject that can be limited to a few minutes or a few days at the most. Let’s say that you choose to write about an automobile accident you experienced. Name that event as the subject of your thesis sentence, and then complete the sentence by stating your overall impression of the accident. Your sentence will look something like this: My first car wreck was one of the scariest incidents of my life.
Next comes the question, and this step demands some care. Reporters speak of five Ws and an H: Who, What, When, Where, Why and How. Start your question with one of those words or with a slight variant of How: In what way(s). If you can, leave your thesis intact except for the placement of the verb: In what ways was my first car wreck one of the scariest incidents of my life?
Finally, answer the question. Use complete sentences, and demand of yourself that the sentences do, indeed, answer the question. The purpose of your outline is not to tell the story of the accident, though your paper will do that. The purpose of your outline is to focus your attention on the central idea of your paper. A sentence like, My friend Gary and I were driving to my grandmother’s cabin on Priest Lake does not answer the question. Realizing I was no longer in control of two tons of steel and glass, I was paralyzed with feardoes answer the question.
Your completed outline might look like this:
My first car wreck was one of the scariest incidents of my life.
In what ways was my first car wreck one of the scariest incidents of my life?
Realizing I was no longer in control of two tons of steel and glass, I was paralyzed with fear.
As we started over the bank, I was convinced we were both about to die.
I couldn’t open the door, and I was sure the dust that filled the car was smoke.
Once Gary and I were back on the road looking down at the mangled wreck, I was filled with terror about how I was going to tell my dad about his new Mercedes.
The introduction, of course, will set the scene and state the thesis. The question won’t appear in the paper—it’s there only to keep us focussed. The conclusion will speak to us of the eventual outcome. The outline simply provides the framework for the body, the part of the essay that supports and explains the thesis. If the essay doesn’t automatically fall into some pattern of organization, try numbering the answers in varying orders to see which pattern makes the most sense.
To use the outline as an analytic tool, copy the thesis, turn it into the question (in writing), and then copy the topic sentence of each body paragraph. It’s important that you do this in writing, for when you don’t have words on paper or a screen in front of you, it’s easy to overlook even glaring errors. If you’re dealing with an electronic document, the copy and paste functions of your word processor make the writing task easy.
Now do the analysis. Is the thesis clear, direct and interesting? If it’s not and if it’s your paper, fix the thesis. If it’s a paper you’re peer editing, ask questions or make suggestions that might help the writer to fix it. If the thesis changes, the question will probably have to change; you need to be sure that the answers do, indeed, answer the thesis question. If the answers aren’t stated as complete sentences, you’ll probably have trouble determining whether they answer the question, so be sure they’re complete sentences. If they don’t answer the question (and if the question is formed directly from the thesis), either the thesis or the answer needs to change. If it’s your paper, do what you need to do to fix it. If it’s someone else’s paper, ask questions or make suggestions to help guide the writer.
Getting good at using this tool will take a bit of effort on your part, and you’ll probably encounter situations where it doesn’t work well. For most of the papers you do for this class, however, this approach to outlining will be a fine start.
Before you begin to outline your narrative, you might find it helpful to read Chapter 7 of Subjects/Strategies and then consider the following:
In Subjects/Strategies, Eschholz and Rosa tell you that you need to determine your point and purpose (195). Your purpose is at least partly dictated by the assignment. Your point will be your thesis. Following my prescribed outline format (which you can access from the instructions for peer editing) will help you plan and organize your narrative essay. The first three essays from Chapter 7 of Subjects/Strategies are good examples of the kind of narrative essay I’m asking you to write.
Malcom X’s thesis is stated in paragraph 7. Paraphrased for the sake of this example it would read, My experience writing letters led me to stumble upon starting to acquire some kind of a homemade education.
Changed to a question, the thesis would be, How did my experience writing letters lead me to stumble upon starting to acquire some kind of a homemade education?
The answers to the question are copied or paraphrased from the text with paragraph numbers in parentheses.
I became increasingly frustrated at not being able to express what I wanted to convey. (8)
I decided I should study words in a dictionary and try to improve my penmanship. (11)
Not sure what to do, I copied the first dictionary page exactly, then repeatedly read aloud what I had written. (12-14)
I found I could remember much of what I had written. (15)
Fascinated, I kept copying, all the while learning what the dictionary had to offer. (16)
As my word base broadened, I found that I could read and communicate much better. (17)
Doesn’t sound particularly exciting, does it? But it’s a plan. It’s a way of being sure that the essay focuses on its thesis. Obviously, one can include information that’s not in the outline, but the outline identifies the information that can’t be left out if the thesis is to be developed.
The thesis of Annie Dillard’s essay is the last sentence of her second paragraph. The essay focuses first on her awareness that she’s in trouble, then on her growing awareness of (and consequent pleasure in) the fact that there is at least one adult in the world who knows what she has recently learned—that if you devote yourself fully to a challenging task, you will be rewarded.
The thesis of Barry Winston’s essay is the last sentence of the essay. His plan (clearly) is to recreate for his readers the experience of learning that what you are certain is true is not true after all. To do that, he must tell the story in such a way that his readers assume the guilt of the young man, and indeed ask themselves why an attorney would bother to defend someone so obviously guilty. His use of the present tense rather than the past helps to convey the immediacy of the experience detailed in paragraph 15.