Elements of an Essay
The three elements of an essay--speaker, language and structure--form the basis for our analysis of the reading assignments. You need to be familiar with these three elements and to understand how they can contribute to reinforcing and supporting a writer's argument or position. Speaker, language and structure are three general headings for a wide variety of tools that writers use to promote their ideas and manipulate their readers' reactions. It is important to look carefully at a text to see what choices a writer has made and how these choices further the writer's argument. The three elements (speaker, language and structure) are the starting points for your analysis of the various essays we will read and, ultimately, the focus of the analytical essays that you will write for this section of the course. Always keep in mind that writers use these strategies to reinforce meaning. Essentially, the question an analytical reader keeps asking is -Why??(Why is it done this particular way?).
The speaker is the voice that we -hear? when reading the text. This voice is the pose and personality the writer adopts--the way he or she chooses to present him or herself to the reader (keep in mind that the choices are very deliberate and strategic ones-very little is accidental or left to chance). While, the speaker may be close to the author's actual personality (more factual), it may also be wildly different (and almost entirely fictional). Always keep in mind that writers often assume fictionalized poses or personalities to help support their ideas. The job of a critical reader is to identify important aspects about the personality of the writer in the text (and how that personality is being used).
Here are some questions you can ask about speaker:
- How would you describe the voice in the essay? ( Is it an objective or neutral voice? Is it a personal or impersonal? Is it passionate or detached? etc.)
- What sort of self portrait does the speaker create for himself or herself? (What details are most striking? What characteristics are stressed? What values are being stressed in the details that are provided?)
- Does the speaker characterize himself or herself in a specific way? (For example, do they provide a label for themselves? What reaction might readers have to that label?).
- Does the speaker adopt a persona (an actor's mask)? Even if the writer uses the first person, -I,? he or she might still be offering us a specific kind of persona. What are its characteristics? How might it relate to the argument offered?
- Is the speaker a participant? An observer? An authority? Does the speaker appear in more than one role (i.e. different ages)? Which does the writer stress the most? Does the writer use these different roles to highlight ideas or points?
- How does the speaker present others? (Writers often employ other characters to act as foils characters-that is, the characters embody values that both reflect and reinforce the speaker's own values, or the foil characters represent opposing values. Are there any other characters in the essay? What values do they embody? How do they reflect or subvert the values of the speaker?
Very little published writing is entirely spontaneous or purely a product of inspiration. Most writers consider themselves craftsmen/women, and they work hard on to place and organize information in order to have a specific impact on the audience. The structure of an essay can often seem completely natural-a given, something we don't need think about. Often, the structure or organization of an essay is hidden or overshadowed by the ideas or the descriptive components. Structure, though, can reveal a lot about a writer's approach to his or her audience (and the assumptions the writer is making about his or her audience). Structure is all about placement of material and the patterns created (and the effect that lacement and patterns have on the reader).
Structure: Placement of Thesis
When it is possible to clearly identify a thesis statement in an essay, the position of the statement within the essay can provide some helpful hints as to the writer's attitude to his or her audience.
In some essays-particularly in descriptive or narrative pieces-the thesis can be implied rather than stated. These kind of hidden statements of intention necessitate that the reader translate the writer's argument into an overt statement (particularly when setting out to analyze the writer's rhetorical strategies). If, however, you find a clear statement of the writer's intentions, it is useful to consider where the thesis lies in the essay as a whole.
Language, of course, is the heart of any essay-it's the vehicle with which a writer creates sensations, posits ideas, works through reasoning, etc. Nevertheless, readers can often skip over significant aspects of a writer's use of language (we're often in a hurry to get the ideas rather than see how the writer's language choices are affecting us).