“Poorly structured” and “unstructured” are very common criticisms in feedback on essays. But what does that mean, and how should you respond?
There are two kinds of structure involved in your papers:
- The structure of the paper.
- The structure of your argument.
The structure of the paper is the flow – what comes first, what second, etc. The structure of your argument is how well everything you say fits together to form a coherent whole, and how well that backs up your central claim: your thesis.
Various argumentative structures are used by students. But not all structures are equal. Let’s review a few and the pros and cons of each.
“Here are my arguments”
This structure lays out a bunch of arguments in favour of your thesis, in some order. Suppose I’m arguing that: “Euthanasia is not morally permissible”. I know of three main arguments for this view – (1) that voluntary euthanasia creates a slippery slope to involuntary euthanasia, (2) that euthanasia will change the nature of the doctor/patient relationship for the worse, and (3) that legalising euthanasia will put pressure on older patients to end their lives rather than becoming a “burden”. Lots of ink is spilled over the right way to ‘order’ these arguments: do you go from the most convincing to the least, vice versa, something else? But really, this doesn’t matter a whole lot.
In this structure, I simply present each argument in turn, and then wrap up by claiming that the net weight of these arguments should be enough to convince my reader that euthanasia is wrong.
- Focus. This structure is clearly focused on the thesis, so is preferable to a ramble around the topic.
- Range. Using this structure allows you to demonstrate that you’ve done a wide range of reading and understand various positions – albeit all in favour of your view.
- Lack of space. To discuss three arguments in any real detail, I’ll need a lot of room. But if my paper has a tight word-count, this is hardly going to be possible. For instance, in a 1500 word paper, with a 200 word introduction and a short 100 word conclusion, that leaves only 400 words per argument. Hardly enough to state the argument in sufficient detail to be convincing, let alone defend each argument from likely criticisms. Which brings us to…
- Missing analysis. It’s all well and good to know a bunch of reasons to believe in your thesis. But if your reader has a bunch of objections to your arguments, then they’re unlikely to be persuaded. A crucial component of persuasive writing is dealing with your reader’s doubts. Unless you can do that, you won’t be successful in philosophical writing. So you need room in your structure for that. This structure has none.
- Incoherence. What is the relationship between the three arguments, other than the fact that they all head towards the same conclusion? Why have they been assembled together, in that order? Linking the three sub-sections of the essay together will be difficult. If you find yourself beginning paragraphs with “Another reason to think that…” or “Also, …”, then that coherence is lost and the “Poorly structured” feedback is on its way.
- Overkill. Why do you need three arguments? An astute reader will ask: If argument (1) is really so convincing, why do you need arguments 2 and 3 at all? Were you not confident in your argument?
A very common but ultimately very weak structure. This will most likely hold back a strong student from the marks they’re capable of attaining. Essays structured in this way will often receive “poorly structured” as feedback. It lacks critical analysis and coherence. It betrays a lack of confidence in your arguments. A lot of the time, use of this structure stems from either a lack of appreciation of the opposing arguments, or from having read widely but not deeply, and attempting to cram everything you’ve read in. Step back from your paper and make some tough choices. Which argument is really the most compelling? Don’t hold that argument back by cutting down on its space to fit in a weaker one.
You may already be worrying about how you are going to show that you’ve read all the required reading, or covered all of the relevant viewpoints, if you focus in on just one argument. Sometimes, you don’t actually need to discuss a broader range of papers than the ones directly relevant to your argument. You might check in with the person who is marking or reviewing your work to understand their expectations. Otherwise, you can use the caveat format to deal with this problem.
A caveat allows you to get out of spending too much time discussing an important contribution to the literature which isn’t directly relevant to your essay, whilst also showing your awareness of it. It is a warning to the reader, which shows that you know your argument isn’t the only one out there. You can say something like:
Although there are a range of arguments for the claim that euthanasia is morally permissible, I will focus on an argument from autonomy.
Even better, show your awareness of the breadth of the literature by including references to those authors and other arguments, in a caveat or a footnote, e.g.:
Much philosophical attention has been paid to Rachels’ (1975) argument for the permissability of active euthanasia. However, a strong case can be made for active euthanasia independently of his controversial argument. My argument goes beyond that of Rachels by focusing on autonomy as the justification for accepting active euthanasia.
This lengthier discussion both situates your work in respect to the rest of the literature, demonstrating your knowledge of the context, and justifies your decision to discuss a different line of argument and omit Rachels’. This is a great technique for avoiding that really annoying feedback which says: “Your arguments were good, but you didn’t discuss X!”
Make good use of caveats to show that you are aware of what you are leaving out, and ensure that your conclusion is precisely stated – more on that, below.
“Pros and Cons”
This structure is commonly taught in schools. First, you lay out the reasons to believe in a specific view. Then you lay out the reasons against believing it. Finally, you state your own position, e.g. “I think that the benefits outweigh the drawbacks.”
- Both sides. This structure at least engages with the other side’s arguments, and shows that the writer has an appreciation of the drawbacks of their position.
- Unpersuasive. Unless you actually discuss and refute the other side’s arguments, you won’t convert anyone who doesn’t already agree with you in an essay like this. But success in philosophical writing is all about successful persuasion. So, this structure won’t do what you need.
- Subjective. Substantiating the “I think X outweighs Y” claim will be incredibly difficult. You’ll either end up floundering, trying to give your reasons, or simply stating this outright with no real evidence.
- Cherry-picking. Who’s to say that you’ve given the best arguments for the other side? If the reader doesn’t agree with you, but their reasons for disagreeing aren’t the ones you’ve laid out, they might feel cheated, and certainly won’t be convinced. You might be accused of creating a Straw Man.
This is a simple but underwhelming structure, best consigned to your school days. A good paper must be full of analysis of an argument, not simply a recap of the different arguments in the literature. Usually, a paper like this screams “I did a lot of reading, but not really any thinking”. Again, try to caveat off the arguments which are less relevant to what you want to say, and focus in on one argument which seems, to you, to be the most interesting or significant.
“The Argument Upgrade”
Another popular structure sees the writer provide one argument in favour of their position which they then criticise, and replace it with a second argument which doesn’t have that flaw. For instance, suppose my thesis is “Active Euthanasia should be permitted”. I know that one of the main arguments for this claim is an argument called the “Smith/Jones case” by James Rachels. So I discuss this case. But ultimately, I find his argument unconvincing, and demonstrate as much. So instead, I present a 2nd argument of my own: that Euthanasia is required by the principle of respect for patients’ autonomy. I state that this argument doesn’t suffer from the problems that Rachels’ argument did, so conclude that active euthanasia should be permitted.
- Critical analysis. There’s more room here for critical analysis. You’re doing good philosophical work in criticising the first argument.
- Nuance. It allows for a more nuanced, individual position – “I believe X, but not for the reasons other people do.”
- A fatal flaw. Your argument now stands or falls based on whether your reader is convinced by the 2nd argument. However, you spend the majority of your essay discussing the first argument! Ultimately, although that discussion might be interesting and show off your analytical skills, it’s not really relevant to whether you convince the reader. Given that the 2nd argument is all that you have to convince them with, surely you should spend the time defending that argument, not criticising a different one.
Again, this structure will get a lot of “Poorly structured” comments from markers. In this case, it’s because the majority of the essay might be considered of lesser relevance to the thesis. If you spend most of your time critiquing a bad reason to agree with you, don’t expect to create much agreement from your reader!
The good news is that you’re already doing a lot of what you need to do, and some quick structural tweaks can help you. You have two options available. You can either:
- Flip your thesis and cut the second argument, or:
- Refocus only on the second argument using a caveat.
In the first option, rather than claiming that active euthanasia is morally permissible, you change around your thesis to instead argue that Rachels’ argument for the permissibility of active euthanasia is unconvincing. You cut the second argument entirely (or use a caveat to show that you’re aware of it), and then focus the entire essay on that interesting criticism of Rachels. This doesn’t mean you have to abandon your views! You are not arguing against active euthanasia, but against Rachels’ argument in favour. You can even make it clear that you agree with active euthanasia for other reasons, as long as you also make clear that those reasons are beyond the scope of the essay. Use the extra space you previously dedicated to the second argument to embellish your discussion of the first (and now only) argument.
Alternatively, you can use a caveat to state that while you are aware of Rachels’ argument, it has been widely criticised (cite some critics too, to show off your reading – use a citation format like “(see …)” or “(e.g. …)” to avoid discussing them in detail), and you propose an alternative argument to the same ends. Then, focus on anticipating and responding to criticism of that argument (see ‘Down the rabbit hole’, below).
“Dispensing with Objections”
A classic structure when your view is the “status quo” is to run through a bunch of different objections made against your position, and refute them one by one. This feels powerful and offers a sense of catharsis.
- Powerful analysis. This structure is almost all analysis. You can quickly present the criticisms, and then spend a good deal of your space on high-quality philosophical work, refuting them.
- Persuasive. The structure is also attentive to the reader’s doubts. By systematically refuting their reasons to disagree with you, you’re more likely to make your position convincing.
- Inexhaustive. You can never be comprehensive. You can’t cover all of the possible criticisms. If your reader had a criticism outside of your chosen few, they might be unhappy or simply leave entirely unconvinced.
- Lack of space, once again. Now you’ve got to outline the position very quickly, and then outline a range of objections and defend the position against each of them, all in, say, 1500 words. That’s often too much to cram in. There is a real risk that you will fail to do justice to one of the criticisms, risking making a straw man of the objection.
- A motley crew. The elegance of structure is lost when your essay reads like a list. It is much harder to link together the different criticisms to which you are responding and form a coherent whole.
This one can work nicely. It’s only really good when your view already has widespread acceptance. If you have an unconventional view, then you need some kind of positive argument to get people to agree with you, not just to claim that criticisms are unfounded. Most importantly, though, if you take on a structure like this, be very very careful with your thesis. You can’t prove that your view is correct by showing that a bunch of criticisms fail! The fact that the arguments against X are bad doesn’t make X true (thinking otherwise is a fallacy known as the fallacy fallacy or argument from fallacy). So your thesis can’t be “I am right”, but “The most prominent reasons to disagree with me are not convincing.” Be attentive to that if you choose a primarily negative structure like this one.
“Defending the Argument”
In this structure, I have a single argument in favour of my view – the one I think is most convincing or important. I then anticipate the two most likely criticisms of, or responses to, that argument. (Note that these are objections to my argument not objections to the view more generally). I then refute those two objections. For instance, if my thesis is “James Rachels’ “Smith/Jones” case is unsound“, then my main argument might be that it’s unsound because there’s a counterexample to the Smith/Jones case. I’ll spend the whole paper discussing and defending that claim that a counterexample exists. I’ll maybe throw in a caveat or two along the way (“Although Rachels puts forward a number of arguments for the claim that euthanasia is morally acceptable, I will focus on his famous Smith/Jones case”; “Although there are many criticisms of Rachels’ case, the one I will explore here centres on a counterexample first formulated by Thompson”, etc.).
- Depth. A large proportion of this essay focuses on my analysis of the argument. I end up going into a lot of detail, not skimming over the surface of the issues.
- Breadth. I can show my awareness of a range of arguments, while not getting distracted, allowing me to cram as much analysis and argumentation into the space as possible.
- Coherence. The essay is a coherent whole because everything centres on that one core argument.
- Effort. It may be challenging to anticipate likely counterarguments in this way. This will take focused and specific reading, or independent thought to execute. But that’s why it tends to lead to high quality work and high marks.
- Limits of space. You will once again run up against space constraints, particularly if you find an interesting argumentative thread in one of the objections to which you want to give more detail. Your essay can end up feeling unbalanced if you find yourself spending more time on one objection than the other.
A powerful structure which facilitates detailed analytic work. But only really appropriate where there are two connected and equally-dangerous criticisms of your argument. Otherwise, it’s probably best to focus in on just one objection, using…
“Down the Rabbit Hole”
Finally, the “Down the Rabbit Hole” structure asks you to pick a single argument for your thesis, and then anticipate the strongest objection against it. You then refute that objection. But now you consider how your opponent would respond to that refutation – how would they reply? Outline that reply, and then go on to further refute that reply too. Repeat that process, getting further and further into depth and detail as you go. Like Alice tumbling down the rabbit hole, you’ll have to see how far it goes. Wherever you finally are unable to see any further criticism, or any further response (or maybe when you run out of space…), that’s where you’ll conclude and what your ultimate thesis will be!
- Analytic sophistication. This structure is all analysis and detail. It can allow you get into some very deep philosophical issues very quickly, and to get yourself to the front-lines of ongoing academic debates. That usually plays very well with markers, and should be more interesting and exciting to research and write.
- Originality. By the time you get a few layers deep into the argument, you are likely to be pushing beyond the realms of the existing literature, and have an opportunity to say something more-or-less novel.
- Coherent focus. The entire essay is again a coherent whole, getting more detailed and refined as it goes, but always relating to that original claim. Link back your discussion to the thesis at each stage so that we don’t get lost as we tumble further down the rabbit hole.
- Risk. You might end up convincing yourself that you were wrong all along, and have to go back and invert your thesis. But that’s a risk with good philosophy.
- There’s never enough space! You also might end up getting into an issue that is very philosophical complex and can’t ever be fitted into your word count, and feel disappointed when you have to cut it off when you reach your word limit. That’s when you end up doing a PhD!
The holy grail for philosophical structures. This is what good philosophy often looks like.
Featured image: “Natural structure” by Soumyabrata Roy, licensed under Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 4.0.
Latest edit: 28/02/2021 by CJ Blunt