Formulating your central idea

In trying to put together your argument it is important to work towards getting the central idea you wish to present. What do you want your reader to know or think by the end of your assignment? What position are you presenting or arguing in this assignment? Or, in the terms we have been considering above, what is your 'story' or storyline? Here are some examples:

There are disadvantages and advantages to the 'care in the community'

policy; overall the disadvantages outweigh the benefits.

This advertisement uses signs related to class to try to sell its product.

There are three different theoretical perspectives used to explain domestic violence; they all reveal different attitudes about society.

It is often not easy to formulate this central idea. However, it may be easier if you bear in mind that it needs to form an answer to the assignment title if you have one. If not, the central idea you wish to get over to your reader will help you to think of your own focused title. You may need to do quite a lot of thinking, and even writing, as we have explained, to get to this central idea. You can start to work towards this by analysing the title in the way we suggest in Chapter 4. Once you have been able to sort out your central idea, you will find it easier to shape your assignment because you will be making sure that the information you include is relevant to this central idea. You will know where the writing should be going and have a sense of purpose for it. We must emphasize again that different writers reach the stage of knowing exactly what their assignment is about at different points in their writing. However, it is certainly worth working towards formulating your central idea right from the beginning of your work on any assignment.

A biology student was having difficulty in organizing her short assignment: 'Discuss the membrane as a link and a barrier'. She had many notes and ideas but she couldn't get them into shape. As she put it, 'I can't get my plot'. She meant that she could not yet say, 'The central idea of this assignment is . . .'. Without needing to know anything about the subject, you might think an appropriate shape for this piece of writing could be:

Introduction: what structural features does the membrane consist of?

1. How the membrane functions as a link.

2. How it functions as a barrier.

Conclusion that briefly brings these two aspects together.

But the student couldn't get this to work. As she was talking she suddenly realized that the whole point of what she wanted to say was that the structural features of the membrane worked both as a link and as a barrier at one and the same time. This meant that she had to change her organization as follows:

Introduction: what structural features does the membrane consist of?

1. First structural feature (a) as a link, (b) as a barrier.

2. Second structural feature (a) as a link, (b) as a barrier.

Conclusion that brings these together: that the same things that make the membrane work as a barrier also make it work as a link.

Now she had her 'plot', her central idea, and could get on with the assignment. She felt that there was a much clearer connection between her introduction and the main part of the assignment, and that it made sense. She was able to construct her story-argument.

The idea of an argument as a 'story' may be expressed as follows. The assignment you are writing has a central idea, which expresses what it is about. This central idea is supported by a number of themes, which are organized and linked together into particular structures. The themes may be bits of information, reasons or evidence that make the reader understand and appreciate the central idea. Together these make up the story-argument that you have constructed to answer the assignment most effectively for your purposes.

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