Writing about Literature
The Writing Process
Moving from Claims to Evidence
If you want to focus first on structure, start by looking closely at your thesis. As in many other aspects of writing, it helps to temporarily fill your readers’ shoes, trying to see your thesis and the promises it makes from the readers’ point of view. What will they need to be shown, and in what order?
If a good thesis shapes readers’ expectations, it can also guide you, as a writer. A good thesis often implies what the essay’s claims should be and how they should be ordered. For instance, a thesis that focuses on the development of a character implies both that the first body paragraphs will explain what the character is initially like and that later paragraphs will explore how and why that character changes over the course of the story, poem, or play. Similarly, the Bartleby thesis developed in the previous example—Through Bartleby, Melville explores both how rare and important, and how dangerous, nonconformity can be.—implies that the writer’s essay will address four major issues and will thus have four major parts. The first part must show that Bartleby is a nonconformist. The second part should establish that this nonconformity is rare, a quality that isn’t shared by the other characters in the story. Finally, the third and fourth parts should explore, respectively, the positive and negative aspects or consequences of Bartleby’s nonconformist behavior. Some or all of these parts may need to include multiple paragraphs, each devoted to a more specific claim.
At this stage, it’s very helpful to create an outline. Write down or type out your thesis, and then list each claim (to create a sentence outline) or each of the topics to be covered (to create a topic outline). Now you can return to the text, rereading it in order to gather evidence for each claim. In the process, you might discover facts that seem relevant to the thesis but that don’t relate directly to any of the claims you’ve articulated. In that case, you may need to insert a new claim into the outline. Additionally, you may find (and should actively look for) facts that challenge your argument. Test and reassess your claims against those facts.