Your thesis gives the reader a road-map to your essay, and your body paragraphs should closely follow that map. The body paragraphs present the ideas that support your thesis, using the various rhetorical strategies that you find most effectively address your subject, audience, and purpose.
Select Main Points for Your Thesis
The primary supporting ideas for your thesis are often called the main points. They can be reasons, or evidence, or examples, or any other type of idea that further clarifies, conveys, or strengthens your claims. Each main point you choose should be incorporated into the topic sentence for each body paragraph you write. Your main points are further supported by supporting sentences within the paragraphs.
Main points are strong only when they relate directly to the thesis. They should show, explain, or prove your claims without delving into irrelevant details. When faced with lots of information that could be used to prove your thesis, you may think you need to include it all in your body paragraphs. But effective writers resist the temptation to lose focus. Remind yourself of your main claim or position on your subject, and delete any ideas that do not directly relate to it. This is often difficult, especially for beginning writers who want to include every possible idea they have on a given subject. Remember that an essay is a narrow space meant to contain only one focused argument; it will not do to treat it as an exhaustive book on the matter. Omitting unrelated ideas ensures that you will use only the most convincing information in your body paragraphs. Choose at least three of only the most compelling main points. These will serve as the topic sentences for your body paragraphs.
But with that said, keep in mind the writing process, which encourages you to revise after you have written your draft. Some writers choose to leave possibly irrelevant or off-topic information in their essays until the revision stage, and only then remove them. As long as you keep these principles in mind, find the writing process that works best for you.
Primary Strategies for Support
As outlined in the section Rhetoric and Argumentation (and as detailed in future sections), there are numerous strategies available to you when trying to support your thesis. These are often called rhetorical strategies or rhetorical modes. They can be used to support your main point you have selected (above), such as the primary reasons for your thesis, or they can even form the main points themselves.
You will notice many overlaps between these and the strategies for supporting sentences within a paragraph, and that is because a good paragraph is a mini-essay with its own mini-argument, so the two are the same kind of composition at different levels of magnitude.
Definition is the strategy of using key words or phrases in a persuasive way. It is helpful to think of this strategy as re-defining words in the author’s own way. This is also the strategy of placing ideas into categories. If you say the death penalty is murder, or that it is justice, you are attempting to define the death penalty and are therefore using the rhetorical strategy of definition.
Consequence is the strategy of explaining causes or effects in a persuasive way. Writers often try to explain why things have happened (causes) or what will be the outcome of something (effect), or even how events are related. An example of the use of consequence: “Video games do not make children violent. Instead, children who are already violent tend to play violent video games.”
Comparison is the strategy of showing how things are similar or how they are different in a persuasive way. A common form of comparison is an analogy. As an example, you could say that using multiple-choice tests in English class is as silly as testing by playing “pin the tail on the donkey”: students can succeed at both by blindly guessing. This would be an argument that uses the rhetorical strategy of comparison.
Illustration is the strategy of describing a specific instance so that readers can have a particular circumstance or image to relate to the claim. A realistic instance is often called an example, and an instance that the writer makes up just for clarity is often called an illustration, but the two terms are interchangeable enough. For this strategy, specificity is key. For more information see the section Specificity.
Narration is a type of illustration in which you tell a story to show what you mean in a way that is easier for readers to imagine or relate to, at least easier than mere abstract explanation. This also includes the strategy of telling about your own relevant personal experiences to further humanize the matter, or to make it more specific.
Testimony is the strategy of referencing or quoting others in a persuasive way. Any time a writer brings in outside material, such as statistics, cases or precedents, news stories, laws, or similar material, that writer is using the rhetorical strategy of testimony. It is often persuasive to bring in quotations and ideas from experts, historical figures, or highly respected persons, such as Martin Luther King, Jr., because such uses of testimony have instant credibility. Remember that MLA format requires citation for all instances of such references and quotations.
Choose Supporting Topic Sentences
Each body paragraph contains a topic sentence that states one aspect of your thesis and then expands upon it.
Each body paragraph should comprise a topic sentence and support.
As discussed earlier in the chapter Paragraphs, topic sentences indicate the main points of the basic arguments of your essay. These sentences are vital to writing your body paragraphs because they always refer back to and support your thesis statement. Topic sentences are linked to the ideas you have introduced in your thesis, thus reminding readers what your essay is about. A paragraph without a clearly identified topic sentence may be unclear and scattered, just like an essay without a thesis statement. Consider the following as the thesis for an entire essay:
The following topic sentence is a primary support point for the thesis. The topic sentence states exactly what the controlling idea of the paragraph is. Later, you will see the writer immediately provide support for the sentence.
See the section Topic Sentences in the chapter Paragraphs for more information.
Supporting Sentences for Each Topic Sentence
After deciding which main points you will use as your topic sentences, you must add to them by using the various strategies of support. See the section Supporting Sentences in the chapter Paragraphs for more information.
The following paragraph contains supporting sentences for the main point (the topic sentence), which is underlined.
Salinger, a World War II veteran, suffered from post-traumatic stress disorder, a disorder that influenced the themes in many of his works. He did not hide his mental anguish over the horrors of war and once told his daughter, “You never really get the smell of burning flesh out of your nose, no matter how long you live.” His short story “A Perfect Day for a Bananafish” details a day in the life of a WWII veteran who was recently released from an army hospital for psychiatric problems. The man acts questionably with a little girl he meets on the beach before he returns to his hotel room and commits suicide. Another short story, “For Esmé – with Love and Squalor,” is narrated by a traumatized soldier who sparks an unusual relationship with a young girl he meets before he departs to partake in D-Day. Finally, in Salinger’s only novel, The Catcher in the Rye, he continues with the theme of post-traumatic stress, though not directly related to war. From a rest home for the mentally ill, sixteen-year-old Holden Caulfield narrates the story of his nervous breakdown following the death of his younger brother.