Structure Isn’t Helping the Argument: Revising Structure with Argument in Mind

This entry will help you revise the structure of your piece by taking into consideration the hierarchy of your argument and the ways in which the right structure can do more to support it. In the introduction to the Hierarchy section, we discuss the distinction between hierarchy and structure. To restate the distinction briefly here: hierarchy is a question of emphasis, whereas structure is a question of sequence. That is, hierarchy concerns the relative importance of claims to the argument and their relationships to one another, whereas structure concerns the order in which the reader encounters these claims.

When deciding on a particular structure for your piece, the main goal is to get your reader to understand (and be convinced by) your overall argument by the time they read your final paragraph. Achieving this goal will mean that your structure will be related to your argument’s hierarchy, but not necessarily in a one-to-one correspondence. This is because it will never work best to arrange all the claims in your paper in declining order of importance. There are ready-to-mind occasions, in fact, when you might do the opposite. A philosophy paper built around a central syllogism, for instance, might start from relatively modest, secondary claims, using them to build the plausibility of a more ambitious claim on which the author really wants to sell their reader.

The first step toward (re)structuring your paper in a compelling way is to understand plainly the structure of the current draft. One strategy that can be helpful to this end is mapping: the process of laying out plainly the claims you make within the draft and, most importantly, the hierarchical relationships between those claims. The entry on mapping for hierarchy discusses how to do this, with an eye toward distinguishing between primary claims, or those essential for the reader to understand your argument, and secondary claims, which support them. There are four primary types of secondary claims:

  • Subordinate claims logically follow, or otherwise derive from, the primary claim. These are secondary claims that your primary claim entails as a matter of course. These may be introduced as component parts or notable consequences of your core argument.
  • Complementary claims support the primary claim without necessarily following from it. Their secondary emphasis comes not from their logical subordination to the primary claim, but from your authorial decision about the scope of the project. In other words, these are claims that support your primary claim, but are not the focus of your argument.
  • Contravening claims complicate the primary claim. They may appear superficially opposed to your argument, but when interrogated add nuance or supportive detail. These may be introduced as anticipated reader objections.
  • Summative claims restate the preceding claims of a section in a condensed way. These are not entirely new claims, but rather restatements of already established claims in a new, synthesized way. These may be introduced in the closing paragraphs of a section, or in the conclusion to an article or chapter.

A hierarchy map, which lays out claims by importance and relationship to one another, is helpful for clarifying these relationships to yourself, but of course, the reader will not have the benefit of consulting it. They will rely heavily on signposting, phrases which signal claims’ relationships to one another, and sequence.

By emphasizing sequence, mapping the draft’s structure helps simulate the reader’s experience of the paper. The reader will encounter your argument in a linear fashion, as a series of points along a line. It is a landscape they only encounter from a single highway, along which they travel in one direction. As such, their understanding depends heavily on the sequence in which claims are introduced. With this in mind, try the following approach to mapping the structure of your draft:

  1. Open a new document, or lay out a separate sheet of paper. Keep it side-by-side with your current draft.
  2. List the claims you make without differentiating between them on the basis of importance. Mark where new paragraphs and sections begin with a line break or symbol.
  3. Now, go back over the claims you’ve identified and add some notes that capture your understanding of where each claim fits into the hierarchy of your argument. What is your overarching claim or argument? What are the main sub-claims? Are there other, even more subordinate claims, that go “under” specific sub-claims? Keep in mind that there is no perfect, scientific taxonomy of claims. The goal here is for you to spell out for yourself your own understanding of the hierarchical relationship between your claims.
  4. Now that you have a map of your structure that also identifies the hierarchical relationships between your claims, you can use it to guide your revision work. Is the current structure revealing aspects of your argument in a sequence that enables your reader to understand your argument as it unfolds? Ideally, the structure you follow in your final draft should allow your reader to grasp the broad strokes of your argument early on, with later steps in the sequence adding nuance and detail to their understanding. By contrast, a problematic structure would be one in which later paragraphs call your readers’ early big-picture understanding of your argument into question. You might might also think about the sequence you’ve followed in fleshing out the nuance and details conveyed in your sub-claims and whether a different sequence would be more effective for your reader.