Descriptive Outlining and Arrangement

The New York Times recently published three interesting pieces on politicians and military service.  Each piece has a different organizational strategy.  The first looks similar to the Roman six-part speech I described in a previous post. The second is closer to the five-paragraph essay structure, though it has seven paragraphs.  The third has yet another pattern.

The first two paragraphs of the Brian Adam Stone piece are narrative background about H.W. Bush and Donald Trump. The first sentence introduces the topic of risking everything to serve in the military. The thesis comes in the third paragraph as an answer to the question, “Does it matter if a person who aspires to be president avoided service in Vietnam?” His answer is “yes.” Then there is one paragraph in support. The following paragraph notes that many men avoided the draft and that they have to “live with their decision.” It ends with a quote from Dick Cheney, who like Trump had five deferments and never served, who said he “had other priorities.” I would say that this essay roughly follows the Roman six-part pattern.

The Brandon Willitts piece is closer to the five-paragraph essay. It has the thesis in the first paragraph: “We should stop pretending as though military service matters so much for our elected officials.”” Note however that the thesis statement does not have the claim-and-three-reasons form that many student thesis statements have. This is followed by five paragraphs in support, the first three of which are personal examples, the latter two about politics and history. Then there is a conclusion. This ends up being a seven-paragraph essay, but these are journalistic paragraphs and the third and fourth paragraphs and the fifth and sixth paragraphs could easily be combined. I would say that this is pretty much a five-paragraph essay, a very good one.

I would argue that the Andrew J. Bacevich piece is not really an essay, but more like an answer to an academic test question. The first sentence is an answer and a thesis: “Those who avoid wartime service out of conviction–persuaded that a specific war is illegal, immoral, or wrongheaded–deserve our respect and even admiration.” Note, however, that this implies a counter-thesis: Those who avoid service for other reasons do not deserve our respect. And indeed, this counter-thesis appears in the third paragraph. The pattern is thesis, support, counter-thesis, support, conclusion. The overall implied thesis is that our respect depends on motivation. The title, “Motives Matter,” reflects this, but the title was probably added by a headline writer, not the author. This sort of writing depends a lot on the context the article is placed within, and indeed, the New York Times feature “Room for Debate” sets up the necessary context. In that sense, this is the most rhetorically savvy of these pieces. It is well-adapted to the rhetorical situation and the exigency.

When students read essays and op-ed pieces such as these, they are exposed to a wide variety of organizational patterns. However, when they write, they are often limited to one—: the five-paragraph essay.  I think that we create cognitive dissonance and disengagement when we teach them very strict formulas for writing essays. Why can’t they do what they see published authors doing?  One argument might be that they are not ready to make the rhetorical decisions necessary to adapt the form to their audience and purpose.  OK, how do they learn to make rhetorical decisions about arrangement?

One activity that will help is “descriptive outlining,” an exercise I first encountered in Reading Rhetorically by John Bean, Virginia Chappell and Alice M. Gillam, but which originally came from Ken Bruffee’’s A Short Course in Writing. In this activity, students learn about form by dividing a piece up into sections by topics and stating what the section does for the reader and what it says about the topic.  What follows is my own version of the activity.

Dividing the Essay

This activity works best with a relatively short essay-like piece. Have your students read the piece and divide it into sections based on topics. The first time you do this, it might be useful to start by simply asking them to draw a line where the introduction ends. Then ask individual students to report where they drew the line and why. Students may have drawn lines in different places, but that is ok. The important thing is the kind of thinking they do in making the decision. Once the line is drawn, they will want to defend their decision, and this leads to more thinking and discussion.

One discovery they will make after doing several of these is that the thesis statement is often not in the first paragraph.  This is mind-blowing for students who have been brought up on a strict regime of five-paragraph essays.

After the introduction has been discussed, ask the students to move on to the task of dividing the piece into sections based on topics. Again, students may divide it differently.

Do/Say Analysis

After the sections have been divided, ask the students to write brief statements describing the rhetorical function and content of each paragraph or section.

  • What is the section about? (The topic)
  • What does the section do for the reader? (Rhetorical function)
  • What does it say about the topic? (Content)

This is often called a “Do/Say” analysis, but I think that it is useful to identify the topic as well because topics function at a higher level than paragraphs (some languages, such as Japanese, have special words that serve as topic markers). I have extracted a sample descriptive outline of “”A Change of Heart about Animals“” from my ERWC module, “”A Rhetoric of the Op-Ed Page.””

Descriptive outlining helps students explore different organizational patterns and their effects on readers.  The resulting analysis is useful in creating a summary, abstract, or rhetorical précis of the article, and certainly helps in comprehension.

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