Making it Through the Middle

Student typing on laptop computer

The opening of an essay forges a contract between the writer and the reader.  The middle fulfills it.  If you promise to review a movie in the first paragraph, the middle has details to illustrate the strong and weak points of the film.  If the opening proposes a renovation of the school’s library, the middle shows how the current layout is a problem and how that problem could be solved.  If the first chapter of your honors thesis promises to devise a problem-solving algorithm useful in artificial intelligence, then succeeding chapters describe the algorithm and how it can be used.  Naturally, all three middles would be very different.  And the unending challenge for every writer is to come up with the best middle for the writing project at hand. 

A middle requires three essential things: 

A Good Plan

A good plan provides a logical, strategic order of ideas for your essay.  The plan often begins with the thesis, even a tentative one.  Since the thesis is the “DNA” of the paper, it has within it the issues, points, and even the keys to the structure of your middle.  For example, your class has been debating which factors play the biggest role in the ever-rising costs of a college education.  You have staked out a claim, changed that claim based on further discussion with friends, and you are now committed to making this argument the center of your paper[1]

While choosing a college beyond a family’s financial capacity is partly to blame for high levels of student debt, the more significant factors are rising college costs and the practices of the student loan industry.

Unpacking this thesis statement, we find many themes that will drive a paragraph plan or outline for the paper.  Thinking of readers who are interested in this debate, you might realize that they need to be reminded of what these high levels of student debt look like.  You know you must concede some ground too—that family decision-making is part of the problem, and you may need to acknowledge that and find evidence that suggests it’s not the biggest driver of the student loan crisis.  Turning back to the thesis, you contend that two other factors are more critical:  the rising costs of attendance and the way student loans are packaged.  These become the focal points for the paragraphs of the middle of your essay.  Sometimes themes, of course, may take more than one paragraph to do it justice.  A paragraph plan might look something like this: 


Background:  Current levels of student debt, the rates of increase

Background:  The impact in financial future of these students

Factor 1:  How family decision-making may not take affordability into account

Factor 1:  How those decisions have minimal influence on rising costs

Factor 2:  Rising tuition

Factor 2:  Rising room and board

Factor 2:  Other cost drivers

Factor 3:  How the expected family contribution that colleges ask for does not consider the family’s true financial picture

Factor 3:  How different kinds of loans have different kinds of impacts on students


Of course, many of these points might be further divided into subtopics, and some might expand or drop as you gather evidence and write the paper.  But you’ll note that all these ideas come from thinking carefully about what the thesis is trying to say and using it to guide your exploration of the issue.

Well Focused, Unified Paragraphs     

When planning the middle, think in terms of paragraphs.  In the example above, a paragraph for each item on the list will likely do the trick.  However, when writing a longer essay, like that 20-page research paper for history or that senior thesis in biology, it’s best to think of sections made up of paragraphs, or chapters made up of sections that are made up of paragraphs.  But for most college writing assignments, working in terms of paragraphs will do. 

If you were to look at all writing—from newspapers to blogs, from vampire novels to scholarly tomes, you would find no standard or set of rules for paragraphing that applies to all.  In the world of academic writing, however, there is a standard that is generally agreed upon:

A paragraph advances a single point (focus), and every sentence in the paragraph relates to that point (unity). 

With that standard in view, where does the following paragraph drift away from its topic sentence? 

George Washington has contributed much in the making of American history.  A general in the army during the American Revolution, he brought about many victories that transformed the thirteen colonies into the independent United States.  Later he become our first president.  His picture is shown on the dollar bill and twenty-five cent piece.  Parks, streets, cities and other places are named after this great leader.  Mr. Washington was an outdoorsman in the very sense of the word.  He loved horseback riding and hunting.  It has been said he cut down a cherry tree, and he made his home in Virginia with his wife Martha. 

(Adapted from Mina Shaughnessey, Errors and Expectations)

Details to Support the Essay’s Thesis

Each paragraph has a main point that needs support.  Think about proposing the idea of fast food franchises to the college president, but only sending the list of points.  He’s not likely to view the list and say “Oh, now I understand.  I’ll call Burger King right now!” It’s the details that will really move a reader to accept your point of view. 

Strive for an excess of detail so you can write from a position of strength.  If you have a lot of facts and examples to choose from, you can pick the best material possible.  If you’re straining to come up with relevant facts, anecdotes, and other sources for each paragraph, your reader might sense that. 

Look at the following paragraph from Aristides’ essay “What is Vulgar.” 

What, to return to the question . . . is vulgar?  Illustrations, obviously, are wanted.  Consider a relative of mine, long deceased, my father’s Uncle Jake and hence my granduncle.  I don’t wish to brag about bloodlines, but my Uncle Jake was a bootlegger during Prohibition who afterward went into the scarp-iron—that is to say, the junk—business.  Think of the archetypal sensitve Jewish intellectual faces:  of Spinoza, of Freud, of Einstein, of Oppenheimer.  In my uncle’s face you would not have found the least trace of any of them.  He was completely bald, weighed in at around two hundred fifty pounds, and had a complexion of clear vermilion.  I loved him, yet even as a child I knew there was about him something a bit—how shall I put it?—outsized, and I refer not merely to his personal tonnage.  When he visited our home he generally greeted me by pressing a ten- or twenty-dollar bill into my hand—an amount of money quite impossible, of course, for a boy of nine or ten, when what was wanted was a quarter or fifty-cent piece.  A widower, he would usually bring a lady-friend along; here his tastes ran to Hungarian women in their fifties with operatic bosoms.  These women wore large diamond rings, possibly the same rings, which my uncle passed from woman to woman.  A big spender and a high roller, my uncle was an immigrant version of the sport, a kind of Diamond Chaim Brodsky. 

It’s clear that the writer did his homework, even when it included no more than his memories of his favorite uncle. 

A Final Thought About Middles

It must be said that you sometimes get into the middle of a piece of writing to find out that the thesis we thought we wanted to prove is not going to work, or that it no longer matches your evolving convictions.  Though it’s never fun, it’s a natural part of the process, and it will take time, courage, and a willingness to revise in order to complete your assignment successfully.  At any stage of this process, from developing an initial thesis to revising the middle, a Peer Writing Consultant in Writing Center is eager to help. 

[1] A thesis statement does not always spring forth from our brains completely formed.  It takes thought, discussion, and revision.  Look for our guidance for writing good thesis statements at our Writing Center.