Topic Paragraph


Topic Paragraph

Puritan sermons consisted of a fairly rigid three-part outline: text, explication, uses - a good model to follow. The "text" can be anything from a line of Scripture to a natural object or event like an earthquake. Presenting this can take some detail. "Explication" is the full interpretation of the text, its history, its context, the definitions of the terms, even the different interpretations possible. But in "uses" (sometimes called the "application") of the text is where the real argument, foreshadowed in the topic paragraph, is to be found. This is where the question "So what?" is answered. This is where the preacher explains why he is bothering to tell us about this text at all, what relevance it has for our lives. Robert Frost's poems follow this pattern. First he describes his text, the tuft of flowers or the decaying woodpile, then he offers several stanzas of explication. At the end, the moral points out the message to be derived from it all. However else you organize your paper, be sure that text, explication, and uses are somewhere there.

Since I tend to think in pictures, I try to have a graphic image of what my argument is going to look like. If I am comparing two points of view or two texts or two personalities, I might imagine a zigzag line going back and forth between them: "On this first point, Marx says this..., but Adam Smith says something else. On the second issue, here's Karl again..., but along comes Adam with his rejoinder," and so on. This point-counterpoint approach makes for a basic and easy-to-follow outline.

Another picture of the argument might be that of two legions of lawyers in court, each with its evidence and arguments. After an explanatory introduction, we have two to three pages of Catherine MacKinnon's wonderfully strident rhetoric on the date-rape issue; then we have three to four pages of Camille Paglia's colorful prose. After these two blocks, each side gets a chance to refute the other. Then comes another block with our analysis of each or of both together, with appropriate quotations. Finally, we sum it all up for the jurors, treating them respectfully but making sure they understand the points.

If the lawyer metaphor offends you, think of your paper as an army marching to war. You need to have a basic organization, a single purpose, and a unified command. But keep it simple and under control.

Thank you.

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