Twelve Elements of the Scholarly Essay*

1. Thesis:  your main insight or idea about a text or topic, and the main proposition that your essay demonstrates.  It should be true but arguable (not obviously or patently true, but one alternative among several), limited enough in scope to be argued in a short composition and with available evidence, and central to the topic you are discussing(not peripheral).  The entire essay should be relevant to it.  Note: some explanatory or descriptive essays or papers may not require a thesis as described here.  In some kinds of writing, the thesis always comes at the beginning of the essay.  In some, it can appear elsewhere.  If the thesis does not appear at the beginning of the essay, or if the essay is not argumentative, agenda (see next element) becomes especially important as a way of rendering the essay coherent.  Make sure you know what kind of essay you are expected to write, and how much leeway you have, before you begin work. 

2.  Agendawhat you are accomplishing for your readers with your analysis, description, or argument—not so much what you are saying as what you are doing, in your essay, by saying it. From the start of the essay, and throughout, a clear demonstration of agenda provides a compelling motive for a particular kind of reader (you must determine what kind of reader this is) to read. Your agenda thus won't necessarily emphasize your own interest in a topic--your own idiosyncratic motivation or desire, which could just be completing an assignment.   Your articulation of agenda is what you say to show that your essay accomplishes something worthwhile for others interested in your topic.

In the case of an argumentative essay (an essay with a thesis), agenda often involves the word "but" or equivalent, since, in articulating an agenda for such an essay, you will probably be showing why your argument isn't obvious but requires demonstration or elaboration; how it is useful insofar as it reveals something different from what others might know, expect, or say; how it speaks to a puzzle or conflict that others might experience; or how it has a larger implication that others might not immediately see. Especially in the case of an argumentative essay, these "others"—imagined or actual—shouldn't be dummies; you need to make clear that their misapprehension or rival claim can be argued for. In other words, there is a plausible counter-argument to your argument, which you must answer, and not just a flimsy counter-claim. Or there is the likelihood of puzzlement or uncertainty on the part of your intelligent readers, who might overlook what you have discovered.  

In the case of an essay in which you are not advancing a particular thesis, your agenda may simply involve providing your readers with a clear sense of what you are doing--a sense of direction--from the beginning of the essay to the end.  Perhaps what you are explaining is especially difficult to understand, and your work is designed to make it accessible. Perhaps you are describing how something works or providing a description of an event or process from a certain point of view that will be of interest to your readers.

3. Evidence:  the data—facts, examples, or details—that cite, discuss, quote, or summarize to support your thesis. There needs to be enough evidence to be persuasive; it needs to be the right kind of evidence to support the thesis (with no pertinent, important evidence overlooked, especially if such evidence tends to counter your argument); it needs to be sufficiently concrete for the reader to trust it (e.g. in textual analysis, it often helps to find one or two key or representative passages to quote and focus on); and if summarized, it needs to be summarized  accurately and fairly.  

4. Analysis:  the work of breaking down, interpreting, and commenting upon the data, of saying what can be inferred from the data such that it supports a thesis (is evidence for something).   Analysis is what you do with data when you go beyond observing or summarizing it:  you show how its parts contribute to a whole or how causes contribute to an effect; you draw out the significance or implication not apparent to a superficial view.  Analysis is what makes the writer feel present, as a reasoning individual; so your essay should do more analyzing than summarizing or quoting.  

5.  Key termsthe recurring terms or basic conceptual oppositions upon which your argument rests, usually literal but sometimes metaphorical. An essay’s key terms should be clear in meaning (defined if necessary) and appear throughout (not be abandoned half-way); they should be appropriate for the subject at hand (not unfair or too simple, e.g. implying a false or constraining opposition); and they should not be inert clichés or abstractions (e.g. “the evils of society”).

6. Assumptionsthe underlying beliefs about life, people, history, reasoning, etc. that are implied by the key terms or by the logic of an argument. As a writer, you will inevitably make assumptions.  Some of these you can take for granted and assume that your reader will too (e.g. the belief that valid evidence for a claim makes it more likely to be true), but wherever your assumptions are arguable or unclear (e.g. whether a certain piece of evidence validly counts as evidence in a particular case) they should be brought out and acknowledged.  Note that insofar as assumptions are are broadly held cultural beliefs, writers and readers may often fail to notice that they are making them, so writing well often requires attention to others' assumptions, as well as one's own.  Where such assumptions are debatable, exploring them can lead to effective analysis, as well as a thesis with a compelling agenda.

7.  Structure:  the sequence of main sections or sub-topics, and the turning points between them.  The sections should follow a logical order, and the links in that order should be apparent to the reader (see “stitching”).  But it should also be a progressive order—there should have a direction of development or complication, not be simply a list or a series of restatements of the thesis (“Macbeth is ambitious:  he’s ambitious here; and he’s ambitious here; and he’s ambitions here, too; thus, Macbeth is ambitious”) [or even, “Cancer clusters are misleading: they are misleading here; they are misleading here, and they are misleading here, too; thus, cancer clusters are misleading.”]  And the order should be supple enough to allow the writer to explore the topic, not just hammer home a thesis.  (If the essay is complex or long, its structure may be briefly announced or hinted at after the thesis, in a road-map or plan sentence.)

8. Transitions:  language that ties together the parts of an argument, most commonly (a) by using linking or turning words as signposts to indicate how a new section, paragraph, or sentence follows from the one immediately previous; but also (b) by recollection of an earlier idea or part of the essay, referring to it either by explicit statement or by echoing key terms or resonant phrases quoted or stated earlier.  The repeating of key or thesis concepts, or the clarification of or emphasis on agenda, is especially helpful at points of transition from one section to another, to show how the new section fits in.

9. Sources:  persons or documents, referred to, summarized, or quoted, that help a writer demonstrate the truth of his or her argument.  They are typically sources of (a) factual information or data, (b) opinions or interpretation on your topic, (c) comparable versions of the thing you are discussing, or (d) applicable general concepts.  Your sources need to be efficiently integrated and fairly acknowledged by citation.

10. Orienting:  bits of information, explanation, and summary that orient the reader who isn’t expert in the subject, enabling such a reader to follow the argument.  The orienting question is, what does my reader need here?  The answer can take many forms:  necessary information about the text, author, or event (e.g. given in your introduction); a summary of a text or passage about to be analyzed; pieces of information given along the way about passages, people, or events mentioned (including announcing or “set-up” phrases for quotations and sources).  The trick is to orient briefly and gracefully.

11. Stance:  the implied relationship of you, the writer, to your readers and subject:  how and where you implicitly position yourself as an analyst.  Stance is defined by such features as style and tone (e.g. familiar or formal); the presence or absence of specialized language and knowledge; the amount of time spent orienting a general, non-expert reader; the use of scholarly conventions of form and style. Your stance should be established within the first few paragraphs of your essay, and it should remain consistent.  

12. Style: the choices you make of words and sentence structure.  In scholarly writing designed to speak to a wide variety of educated readers (as opposed to specialize readers well-versed in the vocabulary of a particular discipline),  style should be exact and clear (should bring out main idea and action of each sentence, not bury it) and plain without being flat (should be graceful and perhaps, at moments, interesting, without being stuffy overdone).  Your style must depend on the kind of writing you are being asked to do, so, as with thesis, make sure you understand what kind of writing this is as you begin your project. 

*Adopted and modified, with the author's permission, by James Berg, with help from FYS instructors, from Gordon Harvey's "Elements of the Academic Essay."  Harvey's elements emphasize argumentation, though most of them apply to essays that purport to be purely descriptive or analytical as well, and they are modified here so as to realize that potential. As stated, these elements probably do not apply to fiction-writing or poetry.

NOTE: If you find any or all of these elements helpful, you should feel free to use them in your classes and modify them for your own purposes, but please be cognizant that they are copyrighted, and do not reproduce them, except on your class websites and syllabi.