December 11, 2020
During my first semester as a writing tutor at Trinity Western University, I was struck by how effectively essay structure and higher–order concerns apply to writing across the curriculum. I had the opportunity to tutor Masters of Psychology students and undergraduate students taking their core English courses. Focusing on higher-order concerns was often the best way to help students across the curriculum improve their papers’ flow and structure.
The highest order concerns for most papers across the curriculum include a specific, debatable thesis or argument and clear topic sentences that point back to the thesis. During many sessions, I repeated that a thesis must be a clear and concise argument and that topic sentences are mini-theses or mini summaries of your main idea(s). Everything in the paper works to prove or illuminate the thesis (for expository papers). A strong thesis is the highest order concern of any essay across the curriculum.
After the thesis, specific topic sentences that focus on one main idea or sub-point from the thesis, are the next–highest–order concern. I continually encouraged students across the curriculum to rework their topic sentences. I often asked students whether their first sentence summarizes the main point of everything they would discuss in the following section or body paragraph. In training, I took the idea to heart that if a reader reads the thesis and topic sentences, the essay should make sense and follow a clear argument.
Tutoring graduate students was a humbling experience. I was frequently challenged by graduate students who were much more knowledgeable on their respective topics than I was. I was completely unfamiliar with some of the language these graduate students used! However, regardless of a paper’s topic and technical language, I could determine whether the paper presented a clear, compelling argument that flowed through its topic sentences.
In conclusion, I came to realize that focusing on higher–order concerns and structuring your paper to support your arguments clearly and consistently is not an artistic skill such as voice or narrative language (neither is it a set of arbitrary grammar rules that must be memorized just because). Crafting a compelling essay structure is a logical technique that can be learned and applied. Across the curriculum, a compelling essay begins with clear, concise logic.