organized pencils in a desk drawer

An Essay within an Essay

The light-bulb clicked on while I was revising a paper for an English Literature class.  I was making a case for why computer programming is not a good medium for creating Medieval poetry even though the type-scenes, stock characters, and rhetorical descriptions are prime candidates for automation. While consulting with a peer on how to organize my ideas, I realized that a long paper is a series of small papers threaded together with a thesis statement.  In other words, it’s a five-paragraph essay on steroids.

Let me explain.  The overall structure of a typical paper is

  • Introduction (with thesis)
  • Supporting point 1
  • Supporting point 2
  • Supporting point 3
  • Conclusion

Pretty standard, right?  Here is my “ah-ha” moment: if I think about each of the supporting points as a mini-essay, I can talk about complex ideas in an organized format. The structure becomes

  • Introduction (with main thesis integrating mini-theses #1, #2, and #3)
    • Supporting point 1 (mini-essay 1)
      •   Mini-introduction (with mini-thesis #1 supporting the main thesis)
      •   Supporting point A for supporting point 1
      •   Supporting point B for supporting point 1
      •   Supporting point C for supporting point 1
      •   Mini-conclusion for mini-thesis #1
    • Supporting point 2 (mini-essay 2) …
    • Supporting point 3 (mini-essay 3) …
  • Conclusion (threading everything back together with the main thesis)

Does that make sense?  All the mini-theses have their own support while they are supporting a bigger idea.  An even bigger paper, like a thesis or dissertation, could incorporate several of these types of papers.  Ad infinitum!  And because recursion is awesome, I also think about each paragraph as a teeny-tiny essay with the topic sentence serving as the thesis statement.

Since learning this organization technique, I have improved my writing process.  Using this template as an outline allows me to connect ideas before I flesh out the details.  By organizing ideas first, I reduce the time spent on the revision process.  And for the record, I received a 4.0 on my Medieval Literature term paper.

Teresa Hoffman
Virtual Writing Center Peer Consultant
Antioch University New England