Chapter Two: The Five-Step Dialectical Essay Format

A Preview of the Steps

  • Step One: An overview of Your Essay: The Introductory Paragraph
  • Step Two: Getting off the Ground: Interpretation of the Target Claim
  • Step Three: The First Strike: The Possible Criticism
  • Step Four: Hitting Back: A Response to the Criticism
  • Step Five: Wrapping Things Up: Your Conclusion

Step One: An Overview of Your Essay: The Introductory Paragraph

            A good academic writer can make limited assumptions about a reader, such as the assumption that the reader can understand clear prose and can follow clearly presented lines of reasoning, but that the reader just lacks information. An introductory paragraph should present pertinent background information needed for the reader to follow the argument of the essay.

            The purpose of the introductory paragraph is to establish the topic of your discussion and your thesis. The topic sentence should indicate the title of the text and the author of any essay you are discussing. (Essay titles are placed in quotes, while book titles are placed in italics). Even if you are not discussing an essay, but rather a policy, action, or case, you should still indicate the case and the source. For the thesis, a stand must be taken on an issue. An issue is something controversial where there are at least two sides to an argument. If everyone agrees, it is not an issue. In the introduction, you need to clearly present a thesis, but also clarify the issue you will discuss - and intend to resolve. In the following paragraphs, each feature of the introduction is described in more detail.

Topic Sentence: The best introductory paragraphs in the academic realm begin with a clear and concise topic sentence that identifies the text and author under discussion (if there is one). An example of a strong topic sentence is, “In his dialogue, The Republic, Plato successfully defends the superiority of the just life with his doctrine of ideal forms.” A weaker version of the same topic is, “In Plato’s Republic, he deals with the doctrine of forms.” Not only is “deals with” rather vague, but the subject, Plato, does not have the subject place in the sentence.

The Issue: An introductory paragraph must also indicate an issue or controversy that will be discussed in the essay. If you are writing about the justification of religious beliefs, both sides of the issue must be indicated. One side, for example, might be that only scientific beliefs are justified. The other side might be that we all have a wide range of beliefs we consider justified.

The Thesis: An introductory paragraph of a well-written essay also needs to indicate your stand on the issue you mention. In a longer essay, your plan for argument must also be included. Good thesis statements present substantial controversial claims. Although a few dialectical essays will seek to investigate an interpretive claim, like the meaning of a controversial passage in Shakespeare, most will not. Two examples of clear, controversial statements are: “abortion is morally wrong in every case, and” NATO’s action, no matter how well-intentioned, is not justified.” The statement, “NATO is attacking Yugoslavia” is not a substantial thesis. There is nothing to be argued and little to discuss. Another important fact to note is that an introductory paragraph will often have a thesis indicator such as “I will argue that” to direct the reader to what your intentions are. We suggest you use this indicator in your essays, as it is clear and concise.

Here is an example of an introductory paragraph that contains an issue, topic sentence, and thesis:

            In January of 1999, NATO forces began a sustained bombing attack on Yugoslavia. The justification of the attack was the breakdown of negotiations over how to resolve the conflicts between Serbia and the ethnic Albanians of Kosovo and the fear that Serbia was about to send armed forces in Kosovo with intentions of genocide. Although NATO’s action has received widespread support by the international community, because it sets a clear standard of opposition to ethnic cleansing and genocide, critics have argued that the action is arbitrary and therefore not founded on any clear principle of international justice. I will argue that NATO’s action, no matter how well-intentioned, is not justified.

            The topic in this paragraph is the justice of the NATO attack of Yugoslavia. The issue is whether an act of aggression, against a nation that merely threatens aggression, is just. The thesis is that NATO’s action, no matter how well-intentioned, is not justified.

            It is often best to write your introductory paragraph last, since it is often unclear what your thesis is until you have worked through steps 2-5. If this is not your preference, remember to review your introductory paragraph after completing your essay to make sure that your conclusion conforms to your thesis.

Summary of Step One

- In your first sentence, identify the topic of your paper. Where appropriate, indicate author, text title, and basic subject.

- Define the issue and both sides of the argument.

- Indicate the way in which you plan to defend your view.

- State your thesis clearly, using a thesis indicator such as “I will argue…” If you are discussing the claim of a thinker, make sure you give an accurate representation of the claim. The easiest way to do this is to quote it directly.

- The structure for your thesis of your Five-Step Web-checked practice essays.

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Chapter #1 - A Defence of the Dialectical Tradition