[ Home ] [ Up ] [ Suggestions ] [ Syllabus ] [ Schedule ] [ Links and E-Texts ]
When you have eliminated the impossible,
whatever remains, however improbable, must be the truth.
(Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes in The Sign of Four)
There are many purposes for
writing. Journal-keepers write to express themselves; humorists to entertain;
poets and novelists to explore the subtleties of human language, and so forth
(see note 1). However, the main thing you will be doing as a college writer is
to inform and explain, and the common form such writing takes is known as the
“deductive essay,” which I define briefly as follows: “A deductive essay presents an introduction and a thesis in
the first paragraph, explores the thesis in several paragraphs that cite and
analyze the assigned text, and concludes with a paragraph reflecting on the
go over the term “deductive.” Deduction is the process of stating a known
fact, principle, or assumption and then reasoning from it to particular
observations to arrive at a conclusion. The logic is subtractive, as we know
from Arthur Conan Doyle’s great detective, Sherlock Holmes: “When you have
eliminated the impossible, whatever remains, however improbable, must be the
truth” (The Sign of Four). Here’s an example of how a doctor might
diagnose a disease:
symptoms occur only in smallpox sufferers.
Particular Instance: These sick people show exactly those symptoms.
Conclusion: These sick people must have smallpox.
doctor has arrived at his diagnosis by way of a syllogism, which is the form
that deductive logic takes: if the first premise (the general principle) is true
and the second premise (the particular instance) is also true, we must accept
the conclusion. He begins with a generally acknowledged fact: smallpox entails a
number of unique symptoms. Then he notes that a particular group of individuals
show only those symptoms. On that basis, he is able to classify the group as
smallpox sufferers. Having eliminated all other possible causes for their
suffering, he deduces the cause of their illness—it must be true that
they have smallpox (see note 2).
college humanities essays are deductive in that they state a generally valid
claim or argument (a thesis) and then move from that claim to discuss particular
parts of the work that fit the thesis, thereby lessening the plausibility of
other, presumably weaker, arguments. Their structure is based on deductive
reasoning. Here’s an example of a typical first paragraph:
Luther King is perhaps best remembered for the “March on Washington” he led
in 1963 and capped with his “I Have a Dream” speech.
That march exemplified King’s belief in the individual’s power to
change things and his skills as an organizer of what he and Gandhi called
“nonviolent direct action.” The
speech itself is a dramatic instance of King’s philosophy and program—part
of the “action” of the March, it came after years of fact-gathering,
negotiation, and self-examination. It would be easy to focus on the positive,
visionary rhetoric of “I Have a Dream,” but I plan to concentrate instead on
how the speech confronts America with its repeated failures to live up to its
own ideals. King’s vision of
unity results only from his fulfillment of a difficult task—that of drawing
together and transforming the fragments of bitter experience—the dissonant
sounds and ugly scenes of racial strife—that have made dreaming
necessary. Much of “I Have a Dream’s” variety stems from its need to be
true to the element of confrontation central to King’s program.
notice that I begin my paragraph with an historical/biographical synopsis, offer
a few more sentences focused more narrowly on the “Dream” speech,
and then move quickly to the claim I propose as generally valid. I say that
King’s program of action involves a structured kind of confrontation, argue
that “I Have a Dream” exemplifies that element of confrontation, and
finally, promise to show that that is so about the speech by examining selected
examples of its style, structure, and content. In
sum, I’m claiming that the speech is a nearly perfect example of King’s core
belief in nonviolent confrontation as the primary means of transforming
the worst in people and countries into something better. My thesis is arguable
because it would be possible to disagree intelligently with it—someone else
might say, “wait a minute—certain parts of the speech don’t fit your
thesis; you have really overestimated all this stuff about confrontation, when
in fact the speech is remarkably upbeat,” etc. I’d like to offer a different
reading that emphasizes the more positive elements in King’s oration.”
If it isn’t possible to disagree with a writer’s claims, the
resulting paper will not engage its readers—what else could the writer be
doing except merely repeating the text or celebrating its author without much
don’t leap up to make thesis statements, of course, without first having done
some observing, and that’s where the term “inductive” comes into play.
Induction refers to the process of adding observations until you reach a
generally true statement. Here’s how that reasoning process might go while I
read King’s “I Have a Dream” speech in hopes of either generating a thesis
or—as is sometimes the case—firming up a hunch I had even before reading the
text carefully (see note 3):
Observation: Passage “a” confronts its audience with some
of its members’ hypocrisy.
Observation: Passage “b” explores the
Observation: Passage “c” exposes something unsavory about
parts of the present-day South.
Observation: Passage “d” focuses on the increasing anger
and frustration felt by many African Americans.
Conclusion: King’s speech as a whole underscores his core
belief in nonviolent confrontation.
I’ve made my observations and convinced myself, I’ll need to arrange them
into an orderly succession of several paragraphs—however many it takes—that
are likely to convince my reader, too, and conclude with a brief paragraph
summing up and reflecting on what I’ve tried to show the reader. The middle
paragraphs of an essay should consist of several tightly linked paragraphs that
support the thesis. This should be done through analysis, the breaking down of a
text into component stylistic, structural, and substantive features with the aim
of studying how they fit together (or, sometimes, how they do not fit together)
to support your thesis. The point is to show in each paragraph how the work’s
style, claims, and organization advance your own argument. Structurally, each
paragraph should have a topic sentence, which is usually placed at the beginning
and which links the new paragraph’s subject with that of the preceding one by
means of proper connective phrases and clearly related ideas (see note 4). There
are many ways of analyzing a text, and I can’t set them all down here—but
don’t be discouraged; interpretation is not a priestly art that only English
majors and professors can know. There are some formal things to learn, but
analysis has as much to do with simply finding ways to spin a compelling story
about a poem or other work as it does with applying formal methods that your
instructor may help you learn in class.
let’s move on to discuss the conclusion. While a conclusion must not raise
wholly new or irrelevant issues, it should not merely restate the thesis. It
should reflect on what you want your reader to have understood by the end of
your essay. A good conclusion, while crafted so as to require no further writing
on your part, should not discourage further thinking. It should reflect upon the
thesis you have been supporting, bringing out its implications and perhaps
focusing on some important undercurrent that has emerged from the middle
paragraphs. While the conclusion brings the reader back to the essay’s first
claims, it does so to focus upon them more sharply with the help of the analysis
in the essay’s middle section. Perhaps my conclusion for the paper on King’s
speech could go something like the following:
I’ve tried to demonstrate that King’s “I Have a
Dream” speech challenges his audience to do something more than make speeches.
In refusing to elide the bitter experiences and frustrated desires of the
Marchers, King tactfully but firmly emphasizes the vital need for each person to
take responsibility for making good on America’s centuries-old offer of
freedom. What was abstract, he insists, must now, in 1963, be made real, and
that can only happen if Americans are able to look honestly at the situation
As King’s legacy ages and falls prey to commodifiers and political buccaneers,
it is easy—too
easy—to forget the vital part played by confrontation and directness in his
plans for a better now.
my thesis and conclusion seem a bit contrary; but then, good college-level
essays often take on the task of challenging a commonly accepted opinion about
some author, issue, or text. Sometimes, too, when dissent from the
majority opinion would merely brand one a fool, the writer may choose to follow “the road less taken” with regard to the
text’s style or content even
while accepting the usual interpretation of its overall meaning or value. My
goal in the above paragraphs is to explore what I’m claiming is the less “warm and fuzzy” side of King’s philosophy, not to oversimplify what
I take to be his motives or to reduce what he has written just so it suits my
claims. People love to reduce King to a milksop, and I think they’re dead
wrong--you might say that’s my bottom line, the thing that makes me want to
write the paper well. I used the word “explore” at the beginning of this
handout—the best papers always offer an argument sophisticated enough to be
worthy of exploration and variation. A good college essay isn’t crafted by
applying a rigid structure like the five-paragraph essay or an equally rigid
method that only allows for one-dimensional statements and rock-hard proof that
they are scientifically correct. Humanities subjects, much like cases at law,
seldom admit of such absolute certainty, so there’s little point in writing as
if they did.
Remember, though, that there’s no glory in making a thing appear complicated
when it isn’t—the
idea is to find elements of a text that are genuinely worth paying attention to.
here are some thoughts on the comparison and contrast essay form, which is a
common variant on the deductive essay. A comparison and contrast essay does not
merely list similarities and differences; it explains what is significant about
those similarities and differences. Comparison and contrast essays deal
with three things: Text A, Text B, and the connections between them. Each
work will need analysis in terms of its own language, context, and themes, and
you must place these elements in relation to comparable elements of the other
work. Your argument emerges from the relationships between the two
texts. Here are two ways to organize comparison and contrast papers:
(first paragraph introduces texts and claims that emerge from comparison)
A } block-style discussion of the first text
A . . .
B (with proper transition from text A)
B . . . } block-style discussion of the second text
(conclusion brings the two texts back together and reflects on your thesis)
(first paragraph introduces texts and claims that emerge from comparison)
. . . } several linked paragraphs each including one text mainly
(conclusion reflects on thesis)
the first style has always been my preference because I find that the second
style tends to make me leave a point just when I was getting started on it, some
writers do well with the second style. See which works for you, given the
assignment you’ve been handed.
The middle paragraphs in the point-by-point style especially allow several
kinds of organization. You might begin by dealing with similarities in the
first several paragraphs, and then take care of differences in the remaining
versa, if you want to place similarities in the all-important final
position. Another possibility would be to organize your analysis not
rigidly on the principle of similarity and difference but rather on the
principle that certain claims or parts of the texts should be discussed in a
particular order irrespective of whether they show similarities or
differences. I mean that you might say to yourself, “I think I should
write about three basic elements of King’s “Letter from Birmingham
Jail” in such-and-such an order because that’s the best way to explain King’s argument as a whole; therefore,
I’ll follow up by dealing with the same
basic elements in the other text to which I’m comparing King’s letter.
Aristotle and other classical rhetoricians divided the kinds of
rhetoric—whether in writing or in speech—into three simple branches:
Deliberative, which deals with questions
of the worthy (dignitas) or the
good (bonum); and with
questions of action, the expedient,
and the useful (utilitas).
Judicial (or “forensic,” i.e.
legal), which deals with questions of right
and wrong; legal evidence; and guilt
Ceremonial (or “epideictic”),
which is concerned to praise what is
already deemed praiseworthy rather than to persuade the audience to the right
course of action.
ancients also specified three fundamental kinds of audience appeal to be used
singly or in combination as the speaker’s or writer’s goal required:
Logical (logos), which
appeals to people’s sense of what is true and what would be the most
reasonable thing to do given the circumstances.
Ethical (ethos), which is an appeal to people’s sense of what
makes a man or woman worthy of being labeled “of good character.”
Emotional (pathos), which
plays, for better or for worse as the case may be, to the audience’s hopes,
sentiments, fears, needs, and desires.
the possible combinations of even a few of these divisions, and you can see how
supple classical rhetoric could be in its power to persuade, advocate, inform,
explain, celebrate, and judge, among other things. It’s easy to see how a
skillful speaker might combine these divisions: a clever appeal to logic might
simultaneously set forth the facts and persuade an audience to a course of
action as much by playing to their need or desire to be considered wise
as by laying out the facts themselves.
a final note on classical rhetoric, the ancients generally divided the standard
speech into five sections:
Exordium: a leading into,
“beginning a web”—examine, for instance, the opening of Philip Sidney’s Defense
Narratio: a statement of
fact, especially in forensic oratory; this is where the speaker sets forth
the facts of the case to be decided.
Confirmatio or Probatio: the body
of the argument, where the author really gets down to business.
with possible objections.
Peroratio: closes the argument—leaves
the audience with a good opinion of
the speaker; amplifies the force of
points made previously; rouses the
appropriate emotions in the audience; restates/summarizes
the main points of the speech.
Not everyone agrees that the traditional syllogism is adequate to the writer’s
needs. In his book The Uses of Argument (Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 1958),
British philosopher Stephen Toulmin offers a model based upon the triad of
claim, support, and warrant, with the last-mentioned term corresponding roughly
to the general principle or first premise of the traditional syllogism. Toulmin
apparently believes that standard syllogistic procedure encourages people to
avoid investigating hidden assumptions or values behind one’s general
principles. For him, the warrant is
much in need of attention.
Readers might find it useful to examine the induction debate between
nineteenth-century scientist William Whewell and fellow Victorian John Stuart
Mill. Whewell insists that the hallowed Baconian scientific method of patiently
adding up one’s particular observations to arrive at statements of greater
general import doesn’t quite capture what scientific observers really do. In
his anthology Nineteenth-century Philosophy (New York: Macmillan, 1969),
Patrick Gardner summarizes Whewell’s argument from the 1840/47 Philosophy
of the Inductive Sciences as follows:
For Whewell, induction took the form of “a leap which is
out of the reach of method,” and he insisted upon invention and imagination,
involving fresh modes of looking at and connecting empirical facts, as being
integral to all genuine scientific discovery. Thus new conceptions are
introduced which are never mere summaries of, or abstractions from,
painstakingly accumulated observations; instead they should be seen for what
they are—products of insight and genius.
further explains that Whewell’s “hypothetico-deductive” scientific method
aims to get around what some philosophers argue is “‘the problem of
induction’—the alleged difficulty of justifying extrapolation from observed
to unobserved cases” (Gardner 158-59).
Although the organic model I set forth in this essay isn’t the only or perhaps
even ultimately the best way to write (fiction certainly doesn’t always follow
such a model!), it is an excellent place to begin if you’re new to writing.
One problem in writing with such concern for the logical or supposedly natural
connection between one idea, sentence, or paragraph and another (i.e. an organic
method of composition) is that doing so implies belief in a similar unity in the
text you are exploring. But of course that unity may be just the thing you want
to argue doesn’t really exist! Still, the model is a fine starting point, and
once you’re comfortable with it, you’re set to move on to other kinds of
Charles and Edward A. Dornan. One to One: Resources for Conference-Centered
Writing. Boston: Little, Brown, 1981.
Toby and Alan R. Hayakawa. The Blair Handbook. Second edition. Saddle
River: Prentice Hall, 1997.
Richard. Study guides on classical rhetoric and its divisions.
Annette T. Elements of Argument. Third edition. Boston: Bedford Books,
Lynn Quitman. Simon & Schuster Handbook for Writers. Third edition.
Englewood Cliffs: Prentice Hall, 1993.
Ralph F. and Michael L. Keene. The Heath Guide to College Writing.
Lexington: D.C. Heath, 1992.
to Guides Index