The Whole Paper

A competent paper on any subject states, defines, and fulfills its purpose.  It achieves unity.  The writer announces the purpose in an explicit statement, variously called the thesis or the hypothesis or the proposition, placing it in the first paragraph of a short paper or in one of the first paragraphs of a a long paper.  The thesis often follows a few introductory sentences that provide necessary background and "hook" for the reader.  Carefully constructed, the thesis statement can also signal the organization of the entire essay.  It is the essay's cornerstone.

The writer's purpose in most exposition is either to persuade or to inform a particular audience.  The writer attempts to persuade the audience to accept a point of view:

     While slavery was certainly one cause of the Civil War, the major cause was economic rivalry between North and South.

or presents information to the audience:

     I will show the effect of the size, flow, temperature and turbidity of the stream on the distribution of mayflower nymphs (ephemeroptera).

Both purposes are best fulfilled in writing that moves logically from point to point so that each paragraph extends, refines, qualifies, or builds upon the previous one.

     Note also that both thesis statements suggest the essay's organization.  The paper on the causes of the Civil War will deal first with slavery, eliminating it as the primary cause, then move to economic rivalry as the real explanation.  In telling us about the effect of the stream on the distribution of ephemeroptera, the budding biologist will deal first with he stream's size, then its flow, temperature and turbidity.

Below is an example of an essay judged "competent" (and placed at Level 4) by members of the Hartwick College English Department.  The writer, an incoming first-year student taking the placement examination, composed the essay in 50 minutes in response to this assignment, which was adapted from a writing assignment in A.M. Tibbets and Charles Tibbets, Strategies of Rhetoric with Handbook, 3rd ed. (Glenview, Ill.:Scott, Foresman, 1979), p.88:

     Below are pairs of related words.  Select one pair and write an essay defining the likenesses and/or differences between the meanings of the two.  Be sure that you come to a conclusion about the chief difference between the two terms.

From a list of nine pairs, the writer chose "civil disobedience/dissent" and wrote as follows:

     In the English language there are many words which, at first glance, may be thought to have the same meaning but on closer inspection turn out to be quite different.  Such a pair of words is "civil disobedience" and "dissent".  Civil disobedience can be though of as breaking the law or defying any part of a law for any reason at all.  A person driving through a red light is as guilty of civil disobedience as an individual robbing a bank.  Dissent, on the other hand, is not thought of as breaking the law; rather, it is the action of disagreeing with the law or any part of the law, or, simply, disagreeing with any aspect of anything.

     Throughout history many individuals have become famous for their dissenting views on established ideas.  Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes was known as "the Great Dissenter" for his opposing views delivered in the Supreme Court  during his years as a member of that judicial body.  Such dissent if expressed through legal channels, can result in changes in the social system of a nation.  By the 1950's, for instance, there were enough dissenting opinions among Supreme Court justices to reverse the once-upheld "separate but equal" clause in the civil rights laws of the time, and to bring about the end of segregation of races in public schools.

     In the late 50's and early 1960's, the Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr., together with many others, began to speak out against the existing laws allowing for the separation of races in public facilities.  This was an example of dissent.  To achieve his desired end, that is to bring about desegregation in public facilities (such as lunch counters, theatres, and the like), Dr. King advocated civil disobedience: the actual breaking of the law.  His peaceful civil disobedience included sit-ins by blacks at all-white lunch counters, which although morally just, were illegal at the time.  Civil disobedience can be used by dissenters to change something they consider wrong, but people guilty of civil disobedience cannot claim to be nothing more than dissenters, at least not most of the time.

     In conclusion, it can be said that although both dissent and civil disobedience can be used to achieve a desired end, only dissent is the truly legal way of disagreeing with an established law, whereas civil disobedience, even if the ends justifies the means, can only be looked upon as actual law  breaking, whether or not a dissenting mind was behind the act.

A close examination of the essay will reveal its strengths.  The first two sentences introduce the subject in rather general terms, setting the stage for the statement of purpose contained in the next three sentences.  We expect from the first paragraph an essay illustrating this difference between civil disobedience and dissent: "Civil disobedience can be thought of as breaking the the action of disagreeing with the law or any part of the law..."  And this is what we get.

 In the second paragraph, the writer illustrates his view of dissent with historical examples.  He points to the "Great Dissenter" Oliver Wendell Holmes and to the dissenting opinions of Supreme Court justices in the 1950's, showing that such dissent can lead, legally, to constructive change.  In the third paragraph, the writer turns to civil disobedience, illustrating it with historical examples and contrasting it with dissent.  He cites Martin Luther King and the blacks who broke laws during the 1950's and early 1960's in order to bring about change.  The concluding paragraph restates the main point in slightly different terms: the writer speaks more abstractly and with greater confidence.  His examples have given him that right.

The essay contains no spelling or punctuation errors, its diction for the most part is precise, its sentences varied.  But it is not perfect.  Most English teachers could suggest a number of improvements, and most readers realize that it does not present the last word on the difficult distinction between civil disobedience and dissent.  But the paper is competently written, indeed remarkably well done given the conditions under which it was composed.


     The following questions can serve as a guide for determining whether the paper as a whole is a competent piece of writing.

1. Is the paper's purpose made clear in the first paragraph, either by an explicit statement or by implication?

2.  Is the thesis or purpose evident throughout the paper?  (Every paragraph, every sentence should further the paper's purpose.  Most poor essays do not have a definite purpose at all or do not sustain the purpose from beginning to end.)

3.  Does the paper have a discernible organizational pattern?  Are the reasons for the arrangement and the order of the paragraphs implicitly clear?  Does the paper move logically from point to point?

4.  Does the paper contain sufficient convincing evidence for the thesis?  Is the paper reasonably convincing, given the writer's purpose, experience, and the amount of time available to work on it?

5.  Is the paper addressed to a specific audience?  Does the evidence or explanation seem appropriate to the audience?  Does the paper bridge the potential gap between the writer's understanding of the topic and the reader's, and does it lead the reader carefully, conscientiously, yet authoritatively through the argument or explanation?

6.  Is there a satisfactory concluding statement or paragraph?  Does the paper end with a sense of completeness, authority, perhaps even of climax?