Controlling Idea: Claims
The controlling idea (thesis) of an essay is the one main idea which the writer wishes the reader to remember. A controlling idea may be expository (informative, explanatory, or personal), or persuasive; we call a persuasive controlling idea a “claim”; persuasive claims may be claims of value (is something good or bad, beautiful or ugly, right or wrong) or of policy (the best course of action).
There are other kinds of claims:
* claim of fact: That is a maple tree, not an elm.
* claim of preference: Chocolate ice cream is better than vanilla.
These kinds of claims do not lend themselves to the creation of interesting essays, for obvious reasons; there’s simply not enough to say about them. Claims of fact, of course, may be used to support persuasive claims. Preference claims are not arguable and we will not be concerned with them in this course.
Examples of Expository Controlling Ideas
* The U.S. entered World War II only after being provoked by the attack on Pearl Harbor.
* Diesel and gasoline engines have several significant differences that affect their fuel efficiency.
* My mother’s tenacity in adversity has shown me how to live through difficult times.
Examples of Persuasive Controlling Ideas: Claims
* “UP” is the best animated film of 2009.
* Watching R-rated movies is morally wrong.
* We need to limit medical liability to safeguard doctors and control insurance costs.
* We should change the college’s curfew policy so students aren’t tempted to speed on Hwy27 to get back to Dayton after the late movie showing.
This section will help you to understand what a controlling idea is and how to develop it, whether you are developing an expository or a persuasive essay.
“Controlling idea” (CI) is the term I prefer to use for “thesis statement.” Many students have been taught that a thesis statement is a sentence ending the first paragraph of an essay and containing three ideas that will be conveyed in the body of the essay and summarized in its conclusion – the formulaic 5-paragraph essay. This formula is a good model for such things as some essay exams and standardized tests, but it is a formula and real-world writers don’t write by formulas. Rather than filling in some preconceived structure, they begin with an idea which they believe is important, and let that idea dictate the structure of an essay about it. To promote this process and keep us from reverting to the 5-paragraph formula, I will therefore be referring to an essay’s main point as its “controlling idea.” At the end of this discussion you will find an example of the difference between these two ways of thinking about an essay’s design. First, let’s clarify what exactly a controlling idea is – and isn’t.
The controlling idea is the one main idea you want your reader to remember after finishing your essay. A reader can’t keep in mind three things very well; but he can remember one main thing easily, if you make a good case for it and even if he doesn’t remember all the supporting points you used. The supporting points of an essay (if you are used to 5-paragraph essay, the three “prongs” of the thesis) ought to be subsumed under one main idea which controls the content of the essay: everything in the essay supports it in some way which is clearly evident to the reader. Experienced writers often imply a controlling idea rather than stating it outright, but students of writing do well to formulate a controlling idea and state it explicitly in the essay to help both themselves and their readers stay on track.
You will often be asked to state the controlling idea of an essay you have read, and to state the controlling idea of your own essays. Let’s start with the kinds of answers that are NOT appropriate.
a subject: The controlling idea is “music.”
“Music” is a huge subject, on which thousands of volumes have been written. The word gives you no idea whatsoever of the actual topic of the essay – “what about music?” the frustrated reader would ask.
a topic: The controlling idea is “the hymns we sing.”
“The hymns we sing” is a little better than “music.” At least it narrows that subject to a smaller topic, what kind of music. But it is still inadequate: many books and articles have been written about hymns, and the phrase gives not the least hint as to what the essay says about hymns.
a question: “How important are the hymns we sing in worship services?”
This question implies a little narrower topic – the importance of the hymns we sing – but it doesn’t function as a controlling idea because it still doesn’t tell us what the essay says about the importance of hymns. It is still only suggesting a topic, yet again.
NOTICE: The problem in each case above is that the word or phrase or question doesn’t tell us anything about the topic of the essay. A controlling idea, to control the piece of writing, has to tell us about the essay’s topic. Therefore:
The controlling idea IS:
an assertion about a topic: “The hymns we sing influence our theology more than the sermons we hear, because we listen to them less carefully.”
This statement finally tells the reader what the essay says about the importance of the hymns we sing. It also suggests the sub-topics that need to be addressed: why do we listen to hymns less carefully than sermons? In what ways do hymns influence our theology? How do they influence us if we are paying less attention to them? The reader of this essay will be looking for the answers to these questions; the writer will realize that he needs to answer them.
Keep in mind that the more specific your controlling idea is, the more effectively it will guide you as you write. If, in the example, the writer merely said “The hymns we sing influence our theology more than the sermons we hear,” it would be a reasonable controlling idea, but would leave the reader still somewhat dissatisfied. By adding the reason why, the writer gives a clearer, fuller idea of what to expect, of what the essay is about.
When you are asked to tell the instructor what the controlling idea of an essay is (yours or one you have read), be careful not to give a mere subject or topic, or pose a question; rather, give the main idea – an assertion about the essay’s topic – in a complete sentence. It will help you if you do not start with the phrase “The controlling idea of this essay is . . .” – this tends to lead to statements of subject or topic. Rather, state the controlling idea in a complete sentence, using this format:
CI: The hymns we sing influence our theology more than the sermons we hear, because we listen to them less carefully.
(Use quotation marks if you quote from a published essay, but not if it is your own CI or if you have put the CI of a published essay into your own words – if you have paraphrased it.)
Filling in a Formula vs. Following an Idea
Let’s say you want to write an essay about home education, to encourage Christian families to consider it as an option. If you think that you have to follow the 5-paragraph formula, here is what you might come up with:
I want to tell my readers that home education is important, so I’ll tell them about its benefits. Now, I have to come up with three benefits, so I’ll talk about academic, social, and spiritual ones.
An outline based on this structure would look like this:
I. Introduction: funnels down to the formula thesis: Home education benefits students academically, socially, and spiritually.
II. There are academic benefits of home education.
III. There are social benefits of home education.
IV. There are spiritual benefits of home education.
V. Conclusion: Thus, as we can see, there are many benefits to home education, academically, socially, and spiritually.
BUT: What’s the point? your reader asks. You’ve just given me a list, and I don’t see how its items (the three kinds of benefits) are related to one another except by the broad topic of home education – so why, exactly, are we discussing them? There’s no special reason to discuss the benefits in any particular order; in fact, they are like mini-essays standing alone within the larger structure. Of course, someone might be convinced by your list that home education is a good thing. But you can be more compelling by thinking more deeply about the topic before simply filling in a pre-made outline.
To be more interesting and helpful, the topic needs an overarching idea that subsumes all its supporting points, shows how they are connected, and lends significance to the essay. So instead of thinking “what are three benefits I can think of to fill in my formula,” suppose you begin to think about what you believe to be the one most important benefit of home education that would interest your audience of Christian parents and cause them to seriously consider this option. There are, of course, any number of possibilities; here’s one:
While homeschooling isn’t right for everyone, Christian parents should give it prayerful consideration, because it makes the family a refinery in which all members are purified for effective service.
This controlling idea will lead to a very different kind of outline, one that shows a logical progression of clearly related ideas as you answer the readers’ questions that will arise:
I. Introduction discussing home education which introduces the CI
II. Why isn’t home education for everyone? Can this refining come about in other ways?
III. How does home education create a refinery?
IV. In what ways does this refinery purify family members?
V. How does this purification help them become effective servants of the Lord?
VI. Conclusion: Why should parents give it prayerful consideration? (the importance of weighing these benefits against other options available – the “so what?” of the piece: the writer will of course note here that refining can occur in other venues)
The first body paragraph adds a note of humility and reality to the essay that’s easy to miss – or hard to place coherently – in the formula structure; it makes the essay persuasive without being overbearing, without suggesting that families who don’t home educate are deficient in some way. The conclusion then picks up on this reality by persuading parents to “prayerfully consider” the option, instead of implying, as the formula essay well might, that it’s the only good or right option available.
Every body paragraph, then, comes back, not to a vague idea of “benefits,” but to the specific idea of refinement: note how clearly the progress of ideas are interlinked. Coherence is increased, and the conclusion doesn’t merely repeat the introduction in different words, but brings out explicitly for the reader the significance of the topic which has been suggested throughout the essay by the connecting threads.
More about Claims
As noted above, claims are a particular kind of controlling idea. Claims of preference will not concern us in this course. Claims of fact can be used to support an argument, and we will discuss these a bit later in the course. Claims of value and policy are the controlling ideas of argumentative, or persuasive, essays, which are the primary focus of this course. (Note that the word “argument” in this context has nothing to do with quarrels, but with the logical development of a position intended to persuade an audience.) People constantly debate in three areas; below are some examples of questions that arise in these three areas, with controlling ideas a speaker or writer might use to form an argument:
Policies: Is this action expedient (appropriate and practical) or inexpedient?
Should the federal government fund research using embryonic stem cells?
* Because the federal government has a responsibility to do all in its power to promote the good of the people, including their health, it must fund embryonic stem cell research, which many scientists believe is the key to finding cures for many diseases.
* Embryonic stem cell research has failed to show any progress toward finding cures for disease, while adult stem cell research has already brought about at least a dozen; therefore, if the government is going to fund medical research, it should only fund that which has a proven record.
Aesthetics: Is this artifact beautiful or ugly?
Are James Fenimore Cooper’s frontier novels excellent literature?
* James Fenimore Cooper’s ability to capture the nuances and contradictions of frontier life in the early years of America’s history makes his novels excellent literature.
* James Fenimore Cooper’s many plot contradictions and inability to create realistic dialogue make his frontier novels less than excellent literature, although they remain important as historical artifacts.
Morals/Ethics: Is this idea or action right or wrong?
Should I tell my teacher that a classmate cheated on a test?
* Because I will lose my friend’s trust if I tell on him, I should keep quiet about his cheating.
* I should tell the teacher about the cheating because I don’t want my friend to become a person who can’t be trusted.
* I should confront my friend about his cheating first but I should tell the teacher if he doesn’t confess, because it isn’t real friendship to let him get away with doing something that is immoral.
You should have seen right away that each of these questions could be answered as other kinds of arguments: embryonic stem cell research is a matter of morality as well as public policy, and an essay about government funding would probably argue its point using not just practical but also moral arguments. We could make a policy argument about Cooper’s novels – should they be used in a school curriculum? – and that argument might include both aesthetic elements – are they worthy of our time as literature – and moral elements – are they morally sound? Even the last one might be a policy argument as much as a moral argument, if the school system used an honor code that required students to notify teachers of cheating. Most arguments will be predominantly one of these three types, but may use one or both of the others in building its case.