Most Essays Are Backwards!
Posted by Michael Dickens on April 16, 2011
I suppose this essay is ironic, since it explains why a certain type of essay is overused while using that very type of essay. Perhaps this irony reinforces the point that this essay style is not useless—in fact, it is quite useful—but simply overused.
But I’m getting ahead of myself. Most essays written for a class are written as editorials: they are designed to argue for a particular point. Even supposedly ‘analytical’ essays are supposed to take a position on their subject and then explain the evidence for that position. The problem with this lies in the thesis statement.
The thesis statement of an essay gives the main argument of the essay. In these sorts of essays it is always found close to the beginning, usually in the first paragraph. This is useful when you already know what your main point is going to be, as is the case in this essay. But often you do not know what you are going to say before you say it. Often, the point of an essay is not to express ideas you’ve already had but to actually come up with new ideas. When I wrote Morality in the Real World, I didn’t know how I was going to explain the difference between strict and practical morality until I wrote the essay and figured it out. What you might call the “thesis” doesn’t appear until halfway through. Even The Ethics of Crime and Punishment, which follows a fairly “normal” essay structure, certainly does not put the thesis in the first paragraph. (The thesis is really easy to find because it’s in bold.)
So why shouldn’t we put our thesis statements in the opening paragraph? What’s wrong with that?
Well, often there is nothing wrong with it. But there’s nothing wrong with putting it somewhere else, either, depending on what you’re trying to do with your essay. If it’s only five paragraphs and you’re writing your essay as an editorial, there’s not really anywhere to put it except at the end of the opening paragraphs. But the best essays are rarely only five paragraphs long.
Persuasive essays are common, and it usually makes sense to tell the reader early on what you’re trying to persuade him to believe. But if your essay is exploratory rather than persuasive then it makes no sense to put the thesis statement near the beginning because you don’t know what you’re going to discover until you write the essay.
Recently I was writing an exploratory essay about a poem in which I was required to include a thesis statement. I had read the poem and had a general idea of what my essay was going to be about, so I crafted a thesis based on what I knew. Then I proceeded to write the essay, and the process of writing caused me to look at the poem in a completely different light. When I looked back at my thesis statement, I realized that half of it was naive and the other half explicitly disagreed with the conclusions I reached in the last paragraph of my essay. The thesis, which was supposed to be the first thing I would write, ended up being the last thing. It made more sense that way, since only after I had written the essay did I really know what it was about.
So why do we continue to require that essays be structured with the thesis at the beginning? Why do all essays even need to have a thesis? I’m all for persuasive essays, but other types deserve some love too.