The Structure of an Argument
Hello, Dear Readers and welcome back to An Eddying Flight!
Today I wanted to share some thoughts about how to get started with academic writing and make it easier. These thoughts are based mainly on my wonderful experience as a Royal Literary Fund Fellow from 2017-2019, when I was lucky enough to work at York St. John University. This was hands-down, without a doubt, my favourite job I've ever had (being a full-time doctoral student is already rivalling it, though) and was a vital factor in my decision to return to education to pursue my MA and then my PhD.
The job of an RLF Fellow is primarily to help students - in every subject area and at every level, from BA to Doctoral - improve their academic writing skills. Because of my own background and the fact that at that point my highest academic qualification was GCSEs, I went into this job feeling really apprehensive. What if students came to me to ask esoteric academic questions that I simply didn't know the answers to? My RLF colleagues reassured me that the point of an RLF Fellow was not to be an academic expert, but to bring their own skills as a writer and researcher (because writers are almost all excellent reseachers; it comes with the territory) to the table. We were there to show students different ways of thinking about language and the written word, and help them to articulate and effectively communicate their ideas.
My colleagues, bless them, were right. Although I sometimes had to do a bit of hasty Googling to prepare for specific queries (the referencing rabbit-hole really did go all the way down) I found that knowledge I already had - whether that was how to correctly use a semi-colon, how to write both formally and readably at the same time, or different ways to efficiently plan out a long piece of written work - and my ability to convey it simply and practically was exactly what most of my students required.
Over the course of my years as a Fellow, though, a definite theme emerged. Students certainly came to me with all kinds of questions and concerns, but at some point, especially with return customers, I nearly always found myself asking them: "What are you trying to say here? What is your point? What is the message that you want your reader to take away from your work?"
A lot of students found this a very hard question to answer. They had been sent off to write a thousand or three thousand words on a particular topic and the way they conceptualised this was to read about said topic and then regurgitate all they had learned onto the page. The idea that it was important to have a point of their own, an argument or a response to what they had learned embedded in their writing - that the point of an essay wasn't simply to produce a block of words - was not only foreign, but pretty frightening. They would look at their pages of notes or their carefully composed paragraphs and realise that there was no 'point'. So now what?
(Usually panic, unfortunately).
As a result of seeing this issue so often - and as a way of quelling panic - I came up with what I called the IDEA Formula:
My aim with this diagram was to help students visualise the construction of an argument, to show them the way that a 'point' could be built within academic writing. This isn't to say that everyone has to think or write like this all the time - and indeed, I personally know some academic writing specialists who probably cringe at the very sight of things like this. But it helped my students. Really, really helped them: they loved it. And I think any device which can bring a panicking student back from the edge of tears to a positive headspace in one session must be worth something. Additionally, I was informed that this helped a fairly large proportion of those panicking students to improve their marks significantly in a short amount of time.
With my students I would pick out a few of their paragraphs and apply the theory to them. I'd teach them that every paragraph in their essay should have a structure and that the best structure would go something like this. I: At the beginning of each piece of writing you IDENTIFY your thesis, your theme, your central argument or idea. In a small unit of writing, like a paragraph, this means you should offer a topic sentence that states what you are about to discuss; set the reader's expectation of your next few sentences. D: Expand on this initial sentence, claifying and adding more DETAIL. E: Provide EVIDENCE which backs up and illustrates your argument or idea - this usually comes in the form of references. A: This final sentence or sentences offers ANALYSIS, your own unique interpretation of the evidence you have provided, and links that back to your thesis argument or central idea.
You start out broad and general - at the widest part of the triangle - and with each new line in the paragraph you get more and more specific until you reach your point - the literal point of the triangle. That's key. Everything must always be relevant to your point. Everything must always be driving down towards the ultimate idea of the piece of writing, proving your thesis, convincing your reader of that message. If it doesn't do this? It shouldn't be in the essay.
After providing this diagram to my students, we would highlight the different parts of the triangle - I, D, E and A - in different colours, then seek out each of the different parts in each paragraph of their essay. Once we started highlighting the work itself, it immediately became clear to the student themselves where something had gone wrong. Often, as I've said above, they didn't have a central message or thesis at all, and then we'd go away and brainstorm that. But where students did have an idea of what the point of their essay was, going through this process helped them to clarify it for themselves and understand how to articulate it on the page.
Sometimes, especially with female students, you'd see paragraphs with great writing that ran smoothly from identifying their topic, to adding detail, definition and background, to illustrating with evidence, references and quotes... and then completely failed because they'd been too self-effacing to actually state their opinion or offer any analysis at the end. Other students hid their A in the middle, or failed to offer any I, or didn't back up the I and A with enough D and E.
The reason I tend to think the IDEA formula worked so well was because it could be extended to encompass the structure of a whole essay (apologies for my artwork here, I never had time to make a digital version of these):
The only exception to the the upside-down-triangle structure would come in the final paragraph or conclusion to a piece of work - where we'd find what I always called The Fishtail (yes, I like naming things, as expected of a speculative fiction author) which inverted the triangle and structure of the IDEA formula. Instead of starting general and getting more specific, you would begin specifically, by summarising the point you'd made, then run over the evidence used, and finally briefly outline the wider implications of the argument and the point of the essay. You can see it The Fishtail at the end of the diagram above, and in the diagram below where I also make the point that introduction and conclusion must mirror each other:
Now again, I know there are many other ways to think about structure and the construction of arguments than this! And I completely acknowledge that the more confident anyone becomes in their writing, the less likely they are to have to stick to any kind of formula or structure at all. But I do still think this is a really useful way to kickstart yourself if you're struggling to get started with academic writing and are feeling intimidated by the idea of building arguments or even planning out a piece of writing that has a central thesis.
Do you agree? Would you use the IDEA formula or something similar, maybe at your outlining stages? Let me know what you think over on Twitter or Facebook!