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Different cultures have different ideas about what constitutes good writing. In some cultures, where it is politically dangerous to write arguments, students are often taught to piece together their papers from approved materials. In other cultures, students are taught to report the facts or the informed opinions of experts in their papers, rather than to offer perspectives of their own. These students sometimes find themselves confused when they arrive at an American college or university and are asked to craft an academic argument.
If you are a multilingual student, you may have written an essay that you felt was very good, only to be told that it wasn't appropriate or clear. When writing an academic essay in an American college or university, you should be aware of the rhetorical practices that most American readers and writers take for granted. You should further understand that these practices are not rules that you have to follow at all costs; rather, they reflect a particular set of practices and expectations. If you don't familiarize yourself with these practices and expectations, your reader may be confused, and your essay may not hit its mark.
But you should also remember as a multilingual student that you can bring your own rhetorical practices into play. Global communication is changing the way we write as well as the way that we understand one another. The practices that you bring with you to the academy are changing the way that people communicate here. It is therefore interesting for you as a multilingual student to consider: what are the practices of my home community? what are the practices of the community I now find myself in? how can each inform the other? and what new sort of community is being created through this mutual informing?
As you work through these questions, you may want to think about the following building blocks of argument.
When we say that academic papers must make an argument, we don't mean to suggest that the claims made therein are in any way contentious. Rather, we are trying to distinguish between a report, which summarizes information; an opinion piece, which may lack sufficient evidential support; and an argument, which presents an informed perspective. When you are writing an academic paper, you are writing argument. Accordingly, you will want to consider what your position is on a particular topic. For example, if you are asked to read several articles that discuss corporate donations to the environmental movement, you will want to do more than report on which corporation has donated what to whom. You also will want to do more than declare which environmental movement, in your opinion, is most worthy of donations. Rather, you will want to consider your position on these donations. Do you think that these donations do more harm than good to the movement by undermining its integrity? Or do you think that these donations are necessary to the movement's success, and that the ends justify the means? In order to determine and then to support your position, you will of course have to do some reading, thinking, and research. You've begun the process necessary to creating an appropriate academic argument.
Most academic essays are driven by a thesis sentence or claim - i.e., a sentence that declares what it is that the essay intends to argue. While the thesis sentence might appear anywhere in the academic paper, most American readers generally expect to find a thesis at the end of the introduction. Accordingly, that's where most (but not all) writers place them.
Some students who have been acclimated rhetorically in different cultures find the practice of writing a thesis sentence awkward, simplistic, or even offensive. After all, why would a writer want to tell a reader the point of his argument right up front, and then spend eight pages (or twelve or twenty) repeating and elaborating on this argument? Won't a reader be insulted - as if you think she's not capable of "getting" your point unless you spell it out for her? Isn't it better to think of an essay as an intellectual walk through an idea, with the "point" of the essay expressed in the conclusion?
This notion of the essay is certainly valid. Indeed, several essays in English can indeed be described as intellectual "walks" through an idea. Nevertheless, most academic essays--especially the ones you'll be doing in your first-year writing classes--do organize themselves around a thesis sentence or claim. The thesis helps the reader to focus on your argument. The reader knows what you intend to argue; the suspense lies in whether you will be able to convince him of your position, and how.
It's useful to be aware of a few of the fundamentals of the paragraph. First, paragraphs are generally developing a single idea (or a very closely related collection of ideas). Second, this idea is often expressed in a sentence, called a topic sentence. Third, while the topic sentence can appear anywhere in a paragraph, American readers often look for it near the beginning or near the end of the paragraph. Indeed, the placement of a topic sentence depends on what you're trying to accomplish. You may want to make a claim and then offer support, or you may want to work more inductively, offering evidence and ending with a claim. In either situation, you'll want to think carefully about the best placement for your topic sentence and the discussion that supports it.
Multilingual students also often have questions about a paragraph's length. You shouldn't measure a paragraph by how long it is; rather, you should consider whether or not you have provided adequate evidence, whether you have crafted each paragraph around a single idea, whether you have presented your ideas coherently, whether you have made good transitions between your points, and so on
Many multilingual students are interested in improving their sentences. We strongly encourage that you read our page on Style and that you consult Joseph Williams Style: The Basics of Clarity and Grace. The principles outlined in this book are easy to understand. Once you've internalized these principles, you'll find that your sentences will be clearer, more effective, and more emphatic.
Last Updated: 1/13/13