In Search of Structure: The Intro, Body, and Conclusion
Critically thinking about what goes where in writing and how.
Posted Jul 05, 2019
In my last post here on Thoughts on Thinking, I discussed 7 Tips for Integrating Critical Thinking into your Writing and one of those tips was to develop an organized structure. In writing, not a single word should be written before you have an organized structure for the piece outlined (e.g. through argument mapping). Organization is an important disposition towards critical thinking and being inclined this way will allow you to adapt and cope with the potential ‘surprises’ that may be encountered during the writing process. Introduction, Body and Conclusion – the old stalwarts of any well organized manuscript, are obvious fixtures; but, what goes into the Introduction, the Body and Conclusion?
I once received a piece of writing advice: “If you don’t start with a quote, start with something quotable.” It wound up being one of the best and, at the same time, worst pieces of advice I’d ever received about writing. It’s a bad piece of advice because: As I’ve seen, people who do start with a quote have a tendency to quote Gandhi, Mandela or someone famous – which is nice, I guess, but is utterly useless given that (1) a vast majority of these people didn't conduct research in the field pertinent to the topic of the writing; and (2) if you’re writing a piece wherein a word count is applied, quotes are generally a waste of valuable words. Long story short, don’t use a quote.
But, what makes this a good piece of advice is that, given the caveat of not using a quote, extra impetus is added to providing an opening line that is, in itself, quotable. The opening line needs to grab the attention of the reader and tell them something important about what you’re going to discuss.
The introduction should contain a central claim (i.e. what the full piece is going to argue). You need to state why it’s important and present at least 3 to 5 core reasons for why you want the reader to believe you. In an essay, one paragraph is all that is necessary. In a thesis, you might devote an entire chapter to the Introduction.
In the Body, the 3 to 5 core reasons presented in the introduction get fleshed out in detail with information from credible sources. Each reason is important and deserves its own paragraph. A good rule of thumb is that each paragraph should contain no less than three sentences (e.g. based on the principles of syllogistic reasoning). Present at least 3 to 5 more credible reasons to support each of your 3 to 5 core reasons. If and ONLY if related, these 3 to 5 reasons should follow one another in the same paragraph in an effort to support one of your core reasons. If they are not directly related, then they should be placed in separate paragraphs.
Then ask yourself, Are there reasons why I shouldn’t believe this? This will help you to both avoid confirmation bias and develop and consider objections to your central claim, core reasons, and reasons to support your core reasons. If there are objections, then present them where relevant (i.e. next to the idea you’re refuting) and not in a new section (as this will interrupt the flow of your logic and writing). Try to refute objections as well. It is important to note that providing objections to reasons and other objections shows that you have considered both (or multiple) sides of the argument – another great opportunity to show off the fact that you did your research and critically evaluated existing research in the area!
Notably, the support and refutation of claims is a good means of Playing Devil's Advocate, which is one of my most common tips for critical thinking. Simply, consider the alternatives. If you don't, someone else will – and you don't want that person to be your reader. You don't want your reader to doubt you. I often exemplify this point to my students by discussing 8 Mile, wherein at the end of the film, Eminem takes part in a rap battle. Instead of the orthodox method of insulting one's opponent through rhymes, Eminem decides instead to insult himself for the duration of his turn. When his opponent takes the mic, he is left speechless, as Eminem has pretty much already said everything his opponent was going to say. That is, Eminem's opponent has no comeback. That's what critically thought-out writing should be like. You should cover all sides of the argument, so that your reader has nothing (or very little) with which to come back.
I often hear from students that the Conclusion, or Discussion, is the most difficult section of any piece to write. “I just don’t know what to say” and “It just comes across so redundant” are common complaints. That’s because people often make the mistake of presenting an extended summary as their conclusion, rather than a Conclusion or Discussion, proper. That’s not to say that a summary shouldn’t be presented; but, the summary shouldn’t be the only thing presented!
First, reiterate the central claim and explain why you believe your central claim with a little more specificity than in the introduction, but less detailed than in the body. Second, reiterate aims of the paper and any results or findings. That should be the summary finished.
Next, address the implications of your research findings (i.e. what they mean in a broader sense, in the real world). Note, however, this should be done cautiously. Your reading and/or research is not going to be the pinnacle of knowledge in this area. You will not have proven anything. Your research and/or what you have read will have flaws. Treat it as such – cautiously. Again, remember Eminem in 8 Mile. Thus, the third section in the Conclusion/Discussion should address possible limitations to the research and, in light of both possible implications and limitations, what future research should investigate. Finally, addressing the importance of such research might provide a strong conclusion, depending on the context.