A few useful terms

You'll notice that we mention "key words" in several places in this guide. When you read, it's important to understand an author's key words; and when you write, it' s important to explain your own key words to your readers. In this section, we'll define some key words about writing.

1. Thesis statement, argument, main idea, focus. All essays should have a main idea: a sentence or two that tells your reader what the essay is about. This sentence usually appears in your first paragraph or introduction. If you have trouble formulating a main idea, you may not understand the question you are being asked to write about, you may not have done enough reading or research, or you simply may not have done enough thinking.

We'll use the term "main idea' interchangeably with "argument," "focus," or "thesis statement."

A strong thesis statement

  • reflects your own critical thinking about the topic
  • conveys your own argument or point of view
  • is not self-evident or obvious (if you can add the word "obviously" to your thesis statement, you should think of ways to strengthen your idea)
  • can be supported by evidence from readings, course material, observations, data
  • allows for development of ideas, not just repetition of one idea.
2. Assertions. These are the ideas that you will present throughout your essay in support of your main idea. Usually, writers develop paragraphs by offering evidence for the assertion that serves as the topic sentence. 3. Evidence. Evidence consists of details from your sources that support your assertions. An assignment often indicates what kind of evidence (from readings, research, field trips, laboratory work) is appropriate for the paper. Your assignment may also indicate whether or not your professor expects you to do outside research to find evidence. 4. Paragraph coherence. Paragraphs are an important unit in an essay. Think of them as building blocks for the architectural structure that is your essay. Each paragraph should develop a new assertion, not merely repeat that assertion in different words. When you revise a draft, read your paragraphs to make sure they are coherent: that is, that they contain only ideas and evidence relating to the topic sentence. In some essays, you may need more than one paragraph to develop an assertion fully. This group of related paragraphs is called a paragraph cluster.

5. Transitions. These terms help the reader understand the logic of your writing by connecting one sentence to another and one paragraph to another. Common transitional terms include

  • however, nevertheless
  • on the contrary, on the other hand, although
  • similarly, likewise
  • for example, for instance
  • furthermore, consequently, moreover, therefore
  • besides, also, in addition.
Transitions are easy to establish if you pick up a key term in one sentence and reword it in the next sentence. This reference helps the reader to follow your thinking. Furthermore, by using transitions, you will avoid choppy style. (We've shown two strategies for making transitions - repeating a key term and using a transitional word - in the preceding three sentences.)