- Make a list of 2 or 3 key themes in the essay, and pick one to focus on.
Go back over the essay and make a list of the essays main sections. Where are there breaks or pauses where the essay switches focus, topic, perspective, tone, or some other key feature?
- A theme is a topic or idea that runs throughout a story or essay (e.g., death or beauty). Unlike a thesis, it is not a point to be proved but an idea that the author considers from various angles, or represents in various forms. Also unlike a thesis, a theme can be expressed in a single word or phrase or a question (a thesis can only be expressed as a complete, declarative sentence). In complex essays there are usually several themes. A theme is an idea that keeps coming up throughout the essay, whether directly or indirectly (through images, references, hints and suggestions, etc.).
Write a brief phrase to explain how each section reveals or expresses something different about the theme from what the other sections reveal or express.
- In most essays, even quite long ones, the list of sections will be relatively shortthree or four; usually not more than five or six. The difference between a short essay and a long one is not the number of main sections, but the number of levels in the hierarchy. A short essay will have main sections and possibly one level of sub-sections. A longer essay will have main sections, sub-sections, sub-sub-sections and so on.
- For more on how to tell where the topic shifts, read Looking for Section Breaks.
Tip: Use content-independent termswords that describe the essay, not the topic. These include verbs such as introduce, develop, expand, explore, explain, illustrate; and nouns such as theme, example, image, perspective. Notice that none of these refers to the topic of the essay. For example:
- This section introduces the theme with two key images.
- This section develops the theme from several different perspectives.
The goal here is to see how the structure of the essay conveys meaning, by going through stages that each contribute something unique. You can also think of this as like a piece of music that develops a theme in different ways. Stepping away from the content to focus on the essay itself makes it easier to see how these parts work together.
A finished analysis will combine content-independent terms with content-specific terms (words that refer to the topic of the essay). This analysis helps make it possible to do that.
Go back over the article, this time focusing on each paragraph. Write a word, phrase or short sentence identifying the main idea of each paragraph in your own words. (If it helps, underline the topic sentence to find the main idea.) Make a list of these words and phrases.
- For essays that use dialogue, you may treat exchanges of dialogue as a single paragraph, where appropriate. In all other cases, you must treat each paragraph individually.
Write up your list in outline form. Group the paragraph summaries under the main points. Each main point should have a number of paragraphs under it.
- These paragraphs come in sequential orderthat is, you would not put paragraph 1, paragraph 5 and paragraph 11 into one group and paragraphs 2, 4 and 8 in another. Instead, the groups of paragraphs go in sequencefor example, 1 4, 5 9, etc.).
You should now have a short, manageable list of main ideas that cover the entire article or chapter, as well as a brief summary of each paragraph that supports each main idea.