A Writing Lexicon

These terms help break down and identify key component parts, functions, or qualities, of academic writing.

Motive: The compelling question, problem, or puzzle to which the essay’s thesis responds. It is the writer’s responsibility to ground their motive in a fair assessment of the evidence, and to demonstrate why a persuasive answer matters. A strong motive specifies why the reader should care about the thesis, identifies where there is room for fresh insight in an ongoing scholarly conversation, and lays the groundwork for a valuable contribution. The major structural goal of an essay’s introduction is to set up the motive (and thesis), though motive should reemerge, in layered and complex ways, throughout an essay, especially in its conclusion. These layers of motive are distinct from a writer’s personal motivation for choosing a topic or making an argument, but personal motivation can be a powerful source of energy for an essay. Different fields have different conventions for whether and to what extent traces of personal motivation appear in a scholarly work.

Thesis: The central argument that drives an essay. A successful thesis clearly and persuasively advances a position or offers an interpretation that fills the niche opened by the essay’s motive. The thesis should not be obviously or self-evidently true, but rather builds its case through rigorous analysis of appropriate evidence. The needs of the thesis determine the essay’s structure; each paragraph should be logically connected to the thesis, and sequenced so that readers can best understand and evaluate the overall argument. Along with motive, articulating the thesis is the primary objective of an essay’s introduction.

Analysis: The work of interpreting evidence to develop an essay’s thesis. Just as a strong thesis goes beyond pointing out the obvious or self-evidently true, so strong analysis goes beyond surface observation or summary. The particular method(s) chosen for analysis varies by discipline and by the nature of the motivating question being asked, but typically entails breaking evidence down into component parts, combining it in new ways, evaluating it according to a given metric, placing it in fresh context, and/or drawing insight through comparison.

Evidence: All material curated from sources for analysis in an essay to advance its thesis. Evidence–whether text, data, image, or anything else–should be chosen carefully and never cherry-picked, providing a fair representation of the object of study. A writer’s motive emerges from the evidence, which in turn suggests further source material that should be consulted for an essay project. Evidence is never self-evident; writers must analyze it to develop their arguments.

Sources: Any material from which evidence is derived. While often texts, sources can also consist of data sets, artistic representations, physical artifacts, or nearly anything else. Sources provide the primary object of analysis, and they also play other roles, e.g., giving orienting contextual information or defining a key term. Sources are the foundation from which multiple layers of motive emerge: they may generate your central question and provide scholarly interlocutors whose work your essay responds to. Sources may be quoted, paraphrased, summarized, or referenced, but regardless of how they appear, they must always be cited in academic writing. Careful source use and citation practices establish trust with your readers. You show the receipts for your evidence, making explicit how you know what you know, allowing your readers to track down your sources, analyze them independently, and make sense of the various scholarly voices you have brought together. The citation style employed (e.g., MLA, APA, CMS, CSE) depends on the discipline.

Key Terms: The most important concepts for an essay’s analysis. A key term can be any particular idea that a writer applies to gain leverage on the topic or evidence. They might be everyday concepts like fairness, melancholy, or resistance. But they also might derive from scholarship: a philosophical idea (i.e., the marketplace of ideas), a statistical tendency (reversion to the mean), a social science principle (Goodhart’s law), a scientific theory (punctuated equilibrium), or a physical law (centrifugal force). Key terms must be defined and used consistently to avoid confusion. They usually appear together in an essay’s thesis with their relationship clearly articulated. Key terms are most often borrowed, with citation, from other sources, though authors may usefully invent their own key terms, and sometimes the invention and defense of a key term itself becomes a thesis (as with Darwin and natural selection).

Method: The procedure for performing analysis on evidence to arrive at the thesis. Writers must select the method appropriate for their motivating question. Methods usually derive from, and often define, disciplinary practice; historians are known for their archival research, literary scholars for close reading, and anthropologists for ethnography. Most scholarly fields employ multiple methods, and fields tend to share methods among them (both sociologists and political scientists, for example, analyze survey research). The term method can refer to multiple layers of practice: an overall philosophy of problem solving (e.g., the scientific method), intermediate steps in the process (e.g., forming a hypothesis, making observations in the field or lab, testing measurements for accuracy and precision, analyzing data), or a particular technique used in a given subfield (e.g., isochron dating for a geochronologist). Progressing through a field means cultivating methodological expertise, and the difference between experts and novices in a field can often be measured by their ability to employ its methods rigorously and creatively. The inability to apply an appropriate method, perhaps because the writer hasn’t yet learned it, or lacks the time or resources to use it, sometimes constrains an otherwise promising writing project.

Structure: The organization and sequence of an argument. Thesis should determine structure, not the other way around (as in the five-paragraph essay formula, where any thesis is forcibly squeezed into: introduction, three analytical paragraphs, and conclusion). A good structure, therefore, is any sequence that conveys the relevant analysis and evidence clearly and persuasively. However, field-specific conventions and reader expectations condition structural choices in important ways.

Conventions: The structural and stylistic practices and etiquette of professional writing in a given genre or discipline. For example, the structure of many science and empirical social science papers is standardized: Abstract, Introduction, Methods, Results, and Discussion. In the humanities, by contrast, the structural conventions are less transparent, which provides writers with greater freedom but also makes the expectations more difficult to learn. Stylistically, the prose in a lab report reads differently from a historical narrative of the Partition of India, which reads differently from a philosophical interpretation of Confucius’s Analects. Failing to observe conventions doesn’t make one a bad writer, but such writing may be perceived as unprofessional or unsophisticated by experts. Majoring in a field tends to expose students to its conventions, but they aren’t always explicitly taught.

Orienting: Information that a reader needs to know in order to follow and evaluate the argument. Early in an essay, orienting must establish the context for motive and thesis without distracting from them. Orienting tends to emerge on a smaller scale throughout a paper, e.g., to introduce new sources. Writers must consider the expertise of their audience when deciding what type of orienting information, and how much of it, to include. Too little produces confusion; too much risks shortchanging one’s argument in favor of unnecessary description.

Mechanics: The nuts-and-bolts rules that make communication fundamentally possible between a writer and reader sharing a language, e.g., grammar, punctuation, and spelling. Solid sentence- level mechanics are less an end in themselves than an essential tool for executing all the other components of the Lexicon.

Style: The distinctive voice writers craft through their sentence-level prose; the aggregate set of choices they make about syntax, vocabulary, and tone. A poor command of mechanics detracts from style, and writers are typically expected to attend to stylistic conventions of their field.

Ethos: The credibility and character of the writer as reflected throughout an essay. For example, ethos will appear in motive (in particular its good-faith stance toward its topic and central question), style, faithful engagement with sources, readiness to acknowledge counterargument, fidelity to convention, and conscientious attention to the needs of the reader. Writers should normally attempt to establish the ethos of a trustworthy, even-handed, transparent, and rigorous guide through their argument. Ethos varies across genres: op-ed writers may present as intentionally provocative fire starters, whereas book reviewers may become sympathetic critics, praising another writer’s high-level aims while poking logical and empirical holes where the source material warrants. College-level writers are engaged in the long game of cultivating writerly ethos, even if it manifests itself in different ways with different writing tasks and evolves, sometimes in unexpected ways, with time and experience.