IN EARLIER CHAPTERS we focused on words and sentences; in Chapter 7 we turned to paragraphs. Now we close with thoughts on the essay as a whole. A whole, Aristotle said in his Poetics, “is that which has a beginning, a middle, and an end.” Aristotle hit on something basic. As the stylist Sheridan Baker put it a few years ago, “Build your essay in three parts. There really is no other way” (1966, 27). An essay tries to make a reader care about, accept, and remember your argument. The beginning grabs the reader's attention, prepares a context, and states the argument. The middle (or body) works through the argument step by step: giving examples, connecting the general and the particular, unfolding causal relationships, and using good supporting materials. The ending (or conclusion) repeats key points and send the reader off feeling that she's learned something worthwhile.
The appropriate length for a beginning varies by discipline, assignment, and topic, but as a rule of thumb we can expect a good beginning to range from a single paragraph for a short essay, to perhaps a couple of pages for a long essay of twenty to twenty-five pages. (A book's introduction would be a whole chapter.) All good beginnings include a thesis statement, context, and a starting point.
A thesis statement is your argument in a nutshell. By contrast, a topic is what your essay is about: global warming, say, or the War of Jenkins' Ear, or Amazon.com. A common mistake is to state a topic and leave it at that: This essay will look at Amazon.com. Readers need more information. What are you going to say about your topic? What problem are you going to investigate? What is your argument? That's the point of a