academic writing:  main ideas

Have you ever been told to write an "analysis" but weren't sure how? If so, you're not alone! You probably know that college essays need an Introduction, Thesis Statement, Well-Developed Main Ideas, and a Conclusion. (Click here for more on the basics of essay writing.) However, if you are new to analytical writing, you might not know how to develop and support your main ideas effectively.

There are several rhetorical strategies that writers commonly use to develop and support ideas when they write analytically. In fact, you have probably heard of most of them:

 rhetorical strategies for developing and supporting ideas

rhetorical strategies for developing and supporting ideas

Think of these rhetorical strategies as tools in a kit. Whenever you write, you need to determine which ones to use to construct your ideas most effectively. Sometimes you'll focus your whole essay on one strategy, as in this example: Summarize the main ideas in Smith’s and Doe’s articles, then compare the similarities and contrast the differences between them . . . . (As you might guess, this would be a comparison and contrast essay.)

Other times, you’ll need to use a range of strategies in a paper. For instance, you might get an assignment like this: Summarize the main ideas in Green’s article on “passing.” Reflect on a time when you “passed” for something you were not. How did your experience match up with what Green describes? How did your experience differ?

In that case, you would employ narrative to tell about your experience and also comparison and contrast to show how your experience was similar to and different from what Green discusses.

Let’s look at each strategy of these common rhetorical strategies more closely.

NARRATION (STORY)

Nothing engages a reader better than a well-told story. Let’s say that you’re writing an essay about the fact that more of today's college students are adults than teens. You'll share insightful data to prove your point, but if you profile one or two students, you will probably hold your audience's attention longer. (Be honest -- what do you usually find more engaging? A lecture? Or a discussion in which your classmates share their relevant, real-life experiences?)

A note of caution: telling stories is so enjoyable and comes so naturally to most of us that it’s easy to get carried away and let the story overtake, rather than support, the essay. In the end, stories must connect to the thesis, and illustrate--not replace--data, facts, and reflection.

COMPARISON & CONTRAST

Comparison shows how things are alike and contrast shows how they are different. Let’s return to that essay on adult learners. You might compare leading programs, to help readers understand the characteristics of successful programs for adults, then contrast the best from the rest, to show what makes it stand out.

When you use comparison and contrast, try to go beyond just showing similarities and differences; try to figure out the significance behind them. For instance, rather than list the characteristics of successful programs for adult learners, to try explain why adults respond well to them.

CAUSE & EFFECT

When you examine cause and effect, you are looking at the relationship between events and phenomena. Let’s return to that paper on adult education. You could discuss the primary causes--the reasons--why many adult students didn't go to college when they were 18 years old. Does reserach reveal that some have learning disabilities and therefore believed they were not "college material"? Did many come from financially challenging circumstances that put even community college out of reach? Did some of them have young children to raise and support? You could also discuss the causes behind these students' return to college. Career advancement? Personal growth and development?

If you can determine what caused these students to delay pursuing higher education when they were younger, you will likely be able to come up with strategies to help effect their success now that they’re in college--such as academic support services, scholarships above and beyond government-sponsored grants and loans, and perhaps assistance with childcare.

You’ll want to examine the effects, too. For instance, how do adult learners' lives change as a result of earning a degree? Do they earn more money? Do they report higher levels of job and personal satisfaction? Are their children more likely to graduate from high school, and maybe to attend college, too?

DEFINITION

As adult learners, you possess expertise about your field that many general readers do not. Almost every field has jargon unique to it and specialized terms associated with it that people outside of it might not know. You can help your readers by defining and explaining the jargon and specialized terms that you use.

For instance, many adult learners are attracted to colleges that offer them credit for demonstrated experiential learning. If you were writing an advice column for adults looking to complete their degrees, you might need to define that term for readers who are not familiar it. If you were writing a brochure for patients newly diagnosed with diabetes, you might need to define and explain the differences between "Type 1" and "Type 2."

DESCRIPTION

If you describe the situation, problem, or condition you're writing about in detail, your readers will likely be able to visualize it, imagine themselves in it, and thus understand it better. For example, if I were writing about the degree completion program where I teach, I might start off like this:

It's 9:27 and class starts in three minutes. The hallway is filled with students--most clutching a large, styrofoam cup of coffee--scurrying to classes. Soon every one of the green padded chairs in Room 101 is occupied and the room is abuzz with chatter. But today is Saturday; the students in Room 101 will occupy these chairs until 5:30 p.m.; and their average age is 42. Welcome to college ing the twenty-first century, where more working adults are earning degrees than freshly-minted high school graduates. This description quickly gives readers a "snapshot" of our program and our students.

TIP: Description can also be useful when discussing medical conditions, like shingles or poison ivy.

CHRONOLOGY and PROCESS NARRATION

A chronology is a time-line, or a history. (How's that for defining?) Chronologies are very useful for setting information into a context. For instance, a number of years ago, a Puerto Rican student I taught wrote an outstanding essay about protests on the island of Vieques against the U.S. Navy's use of the island for training. To help readers understand how the Navy had come to be on Vieques, and why the majority of residents wanted the Navy to leave, the student summarized the history of U.S. presence on the island. Her chronology helped readers better understand her later discussion of why many island residents had lost faith in the Navy yet were deeply concerned about Vieques's economic viability once the Navy left.

Related to chronology is process narration, in which a writer lists--and often explains--a sequence of steps or stages. Process narration can be useful for giving instructions or for explaining how a condition or situation came to be.

TIP: Transition words are particularly important when you're writing chronology and process narration. Click here for many examples; those under "Transitional Chains" and "Time" are particularly relevant to Chronology and Process Narration.

STATISTICS, FACTS, and EXAMPLES

These of course are the "bread and butter" of academic and professional writing. In many instances, statistics, facts, and examples prove your points or convince your audience more effectively than anything else.

You will probably have to do research to find useful and credible data about your topic, but you’ll likely find it fun and rewarding to learn more about issues that are important to you.

TIP: Credibility is key whenever you're writing, but especially when you're using statistics, facts, and examples. Learn about the "CRAP Test" (for real!) for assessing the validity of your sources.

FINAL NOTE: You now have an "analytical writing toolkit" to use the next time you want to construct an effective paper. Give these strategies a try! Experiment with them all, even those that don't seem like "obvious" fits. You might surprised at what you create.

TIP: For more information about these, and more, rhetorical strategies or modes, click here.