26 Planning a Discursive Essay
Discursive Essay – Description
A discursive essay is a form of critical essay that attempts to provide the reader with a balanced argument on a topic, supported by evidence. It requires critical thinking, as well as sound and valid arguments (see Chapter 25) that acknowledge and analyse arguments both for and against any given topic, plus discursive essay writing appeals to reason, not emotions or opinions. While it may draw some tentative conclusions, based on evidence, the main aim of a discursive essay is to inform the reader of the key arguments and allow them to arrive at their own conclusion.
The writer needs to research the topic thoroughly to present more than one perspective and should check their own biases and assumptions through critical reflection (see Chapter 30).
Unlike persuasive writing, the writer does not need to have knowledge of the audience, though should write using academic tone and language (see Chapter 20).
Choose Your Topic Carefully
A basic guide to choosing an assignment topic is available in Chapter 23, however choosing a topic for a discursive essay means considering more than one perspective. Not only do you need to find information about the topic via academic sources, you need to be able to construct a worthwhile discussion, moving from idea to idea. Therefore, more forward planning is required. The following are decisions that need to be considered when choosing a discursive essay topic:
- What will be the three main things I choose to discuss in relation to my topic? (Recommended for a 1000 word essay.)
- These will become the controlling ideas for your three body paragraphs (some essays may require more). Each controlling idea will need arguments both for and against.
- For example, if my topic is “renewable energy” and my three main (controlling) ideas are “cost”, “storage”, “environmental impact”, then I will need to consider arguments both for and against each of these three concepts. I will also need to have good with examples or evidence to support my and for each controlling idea (More about this in Chapter 27).
- Am I able to write a thesis statement about this topic based on the available research? In other words, do my own ideas align with the available research, or am I going to be struggling to support my own ideas due to a lack of academic sources or research? You need to be smart about your topic choice. Do not make it harder than it has to be. Writing a discursive essay is challenging enough without struggling to find appropriate sources.
- Claims and counter claims MUST align with one another. It is not enough to think of one pro and one con, they must be about the same idea.
- For example, perhaps I find a great academic journal article about the uptake of solar panel installation in suburban Australia and how this household decision is cost-effective long-term, locally stored, and has minimal, even beneficial environmental impact due to the lowering of carbon emissions. Seems too good to be true, yet it is perfect for my assignment. I would have to then find arguments AGAINST everything in the article that supports transitioning suburbs to solar power. I would have to challenge the cost-effectiveness, the storage, and the environmental impact study. Now, all of a sudden my task just became much more challenging.
- How accessible is information on this topic, in relation to my thesis?
- There may be vast numbers of journal articles written about your topic, but consider how relevant they may be to your tentative thesis statement. It takes a great deal of time to search for appropriate academic sources. Do you have a good internet connection at home or will you need to spend some quality time at the library? Setting time aside to complete your essay research is crucial for success.
It is only through complete forward planning about the shape and content of your essay that you may be able to choose the topic that best suits your interests, academic ability and time management. Consider how you will approach the overall project, not only the next step.
Research Your Topic
When completing a library search for online peer reviewed journal articles, do not forget to use Boolean Operators to refine or narrow your search field. Standard Boolean Operators are (capitalized) AND, OR and NOT. While using OR will expand your search, AND and NOT will reduce the scope of your search. For example, if I want information on ageism and care giving, but I only want it to relate to the elderly, I might use the following to search a database: ageism AND care NOT children. Remember to keep track of your search strings (like the one just used) and then you’ll know what worked and what didn’t as you come and go from your academic research.
The UQ Library provides an excellent step-by-step guide to searching databases:
Searching in databases – Library – University of Queensland (uq.edu.au)
Did you know that you can also link the UQ Library to Google Scholar? This link tells you how:
Google Scholar – Library – University of Queensland (uq.edu.au)
Write the Thesis Statement
The concept of a thesis statement was introduced in Chapter 21. The information below relates specifically to a discursive essay thesis statement.
As noted in the introduction to this chapter, the discursive essay should not take a stance and therefore the thesis statement must also impartially indicate more than one perspective. The goal is to present both sides of an argument equally and allow the reader to make an informed and well-reasoned choice after providing supporting evidence for each side of the argument.
Sample thesis statements:
Solar energy is a cost-effective solution to burning fossil fuels for electricity, however lower income families cannot afford the installation costs.
Some studies indicate that teacher comments written in red may have no effect on students’ emotions, however other studies suggest that seeing red ink on papers could cause some students unnecessary stress.
According to social justice principles, education should be available to all, yet historically, the intellectually and physically impaired may have been exempt from participation due to their supposed inability to learn.
This is where your pros and cons list comes into play. For each pro, or positive statement you make, about your topic, create an equivalent con, or negative statement and this will enable you to arrive at two opposing assertions – the claim and counter claim.
While there may be multiple arguments or perspectives related to your essay topic, it is important that you match each claim with a counter-claim. This applies to the thesis statement and each supporting argument within the body paragraphs of the essay.
It is not just a matter of agreeing or disagreeing. A neutral tone is crucial. Do not include positive or negative leading statements, such as “It is undeniable that…” or “One should not accept the view that…”. You are NOT attempting to persuade the reader to choose one viewpoint over another.
Leading statements / language will be discussed further, in class, within term three of the Academic English course.
- Note the two sides (indicated in green and orange)
- Note the use of tentative language: “Some studies”, “may have”, “could cause”, “some students”
- As the thesis is yet to be discussed in-depth, and you are not an expert in the field, do not use definitive language
- The statement is also one sentence, with a “pivot point” in the middle, with a comma and signposting to indicate a contradictory perspective (in black). Other examples include, nevertheless, though, although, regardless, yet, albeit. DO NOT use the word “but” as it lacks academic tone. Some signposts (e.g., although, though, while) may be placed at the start of the two clauses rather than in the middle – just remember the comma, for example, “While some studies suggest solar energy is cost-effective, other critical research questions its affordability.”
- Also note that it is based on preliminary research and not opinion: “some studies”, “other studies”, “according to social justice principles”, “critical research”.
Claims and Counter Claims
NOTE: Please do not confuse the words ‘claim’ and ‘counter-claim’ with moral or value judgements about right/wrong, good/bad, successful/unsuccessful, or the like. The term ‘claim’ simply refers to the first position or argument you put forward (whether for or against), and ‘counter-claim’ is the alternate position or argument.
In a discursive essay the goal is to present both sides equally and then draw some tentative conclusions based on the evidence presented.
- To formulate your claims and counter claims, write a list of pros and cons.
- For each pro there should be a corresponding con.
- Three sets of pros and cons will be required for your discursive essay. One set for each body paragraph. These become your claims and counter claims.
- For a longer essay, you would need further claims and counter claims.
- Some instructors prefer students to keep the pros and cons in the same order across the body paragraphs. Each paragraph would then have a pro followed by a con or else a con followed by a pro. The order should align with your thesis; if the thesis gives a pro view of the topic followed by a negative view (con) then the paragraphs should also start with the pro and follow with the con, or else vice versa. If not aligned and consistent, the reader may easily become confused as the argument proceeds. Ask your teacher if this is a requirement for your assessment.
Use previous chapters to explore your chosen topic through concept mapping (Chapter 18) and essay outlining (Chapter 19), with one variance; you must include your proposed claims and counter claims in your proposed paragraph structures. What follows is a generic model for a discursive essay. The following Chapter 27 will examine this in further details.
Sample Discursive Essay Outline
The paragraphs are continuous; the dot-points are only meant to indicate content.
- Thesis statement
- Essay outline (including 3 controlling ideas)
Body Paragraphs X 3 (Elaboration and evidence will be more than one sentence, though the topic, claim and counter claim should be succinct)
- Topic sentence, including 1/3 controlling ideas (the topic remains the same throughout the entire essay; it is the controlling idea that changes)
- A claim/assertion about the controlling idea
- Elaboration – more information about the claim
- Evidence -academic research (Don’t forget to tell the reader how / why the evidence supports the claim. Be explicit in your Evaluation rather than assuming the connection is obvious to the reader)
- A counter claim (remember it must be COUNTER to the claim you made, not about something different)
- Elaboration – more information about the counter claim
- Evidence – academic research (Don’t forget to tell the reader how / why the evidence supports the claim. Be explicit in your Evaluation rather than assuming the connection is obvious to the reader)
- Concluding sentence – Links back to the topic and/or the next controlling idea in the following paragraph
Mirror the introduction. The essay outline should have stated the plan for the essay – “This essay will discuss…”, therefore the conclusion should identify that this has been fulfilled, “This essay has discussed…”, plus summarise the controlling ideas and key arguments. ONLY draw tentative conclusions BOTH for and against, allowing the reader to make up their own mind about the topic. Also remember to re-state the thesis in the conclusion. If it is part of the marking criteria, you should also include a recommendation or prediction about the future use or cost/benefit of the chosen topic/concept.
A word of warning, many students fall into the generic realm of stating that there should be further research on their topic or in the field of study. This is a gross statement of the obvious as all academia is ongoing. Try to be more practical with your recommendations and also think about who would instigate them and where the funding might come from.
This chapter gives an overview of what a discursive essay is and a few things to consider when choosing your topic. It also provides a generic outline for a discursive essay structure. The following chapter examines the structure in further detail.
researched, reliable, written by academics and published by reputable publishers; often, but not always peer reviewed
assertion, maintain as fact
The term ‘claim’ simply refers to the first position or argument you put forward (whether for or against), and ‘counter-claim’ is the alternate position or argument.