How To Provide Support In An Essay

27Jun

The best way to support your point is through the use of supporting evidence. This enables you to “show” your best attributes rather than “tell” (i.e. brag). Supporting evidence can include personal narratives (i.e. stories), examples, and anecdotes. We find that most people do not have a problem coming up with stories that provide supporting evidence; rather, they have a problem weaving their narrative or examples effectively into their essay. Your goal is to use supporting evidence successfully—that is to say, only use the most pertinent parts of the story, narrative, example, or anecdote that are in support of your argument.

There are two ways to use supporting evidence in your essay: (1) to thread one long narrative throughout your essay and (2) to use multiple short anecdotes and examples where necessary. Beware though; neither of these approaches requires you ONLY to tell a story. Your essay should only be a maximum of 40% supporting evidence and a minimum of 60% introspection. A college essay is not the right medium for pure story telling—any stories included are for practical purposes only, demonstrating your capabilities or supporting the points you have already presented in your essay.

One Long Narrative Approach

If you would like to use one long narrative, you must switch back and forth between relevant segments of the story and your own ideas and introspection.  Do not spend four paragraphs telling your story and then wrap up with one paragraph explaining its importance.

The long narrative is a useful strategy if you can come up with a story that has many different elements that can support each point of your thesis throughout your essay. You should also introduce your narrative in the introduction, since the story is going to be such a significant part of your essay.

Take a look at how Nancy introduces her essay in which she plans to use one running narrative:

When I was little I did not know that there was something wrong with my mother. I thought that most mothers used canes and needed other peoples help to go up and down stairs. As I grew older, making sure that every location we visited was handicap accessible became a necessary part of making plans with my family. Not many children have a mother with MS, but no children have a mother who is as extraordinary as my mine. My mother has shown me how to develop the skills necessary to deal with any difficult situation: strength of will, optimism, and gratitude.

Here, Nancy has introduced her main idea: she believes she was heavily influenced by her mother and how she dealt with MS. From here, the body will use more specific examples from the author’s time with her mother to illustrate the positive characteristics that Nancy has developed.

Once the narrative has been introduced and the tie into your main argument is clear, you may extract pieces of that longer story to use in your body. These references should be kept down to two or three sentences. It may seem extremely difficult to keep the story going in such limited space, but remember that the story is not the point of your essay. The story is only a supplement that will strengthen your own points and ideas. Take a look at how Charles, a first generation French American, uses portions from his narrative to support the points he makes in his body paragraphs.

I have been exposed to a variety of perspectives endowing me with a global sensitivity at young age. My parents, before settling in the United States, spent a significant amount of time living in Spain, Morocco, and the United Kingdom.They have raised me to believe that cultural exposure is one of the most important things in a young man’s life. In my classes now, I often contribute information that challenges our cultural norms and helps start discussions. Questioning the limits and constraints of established principles is a necessary part of education—something I am eager to further explore in college.  As a result of my upbringing, my goal is to travel and to decide upon a career that enables me to experience the world in all of its diversity.

As you can see, the underlined portion is the only part that cites a piece of the narrative. This portion supports the topic sentence that precedes it, and is followed by further elaboration and introspection.

When selecting which narrative to use, keep the following advice in mind:

  1. The narrative must have enough depth so that it can support a number of different points. You do not want to use pieces that just support the same point over and over again.
  2. The narrative should not convey any of your negative qualities. Even if it supports your argument well, do not use a story that portrays you in a bad light. This is an essay on why you are a strong candidate; do not let any of your faults or insecurities creep into this paper.
  3. The narrative should not be overly complex. If the story is too complicated to explain and reference in only 2-3 sentences at a time, it is not worth including.
  4. Be careful with drama. It is fine to include episodes of your life that are extraordinary, but please spare your reader a soap opera. The most enticing part of your paper should not be the story, but the introspection.

Multiple Short Anecdotes and Examples Approach

When using this story telling strategy, the author does not commit to a single running narrative, but rather uses short anecdotes and examples to illustrate his or her points throughout the essay. In this instance, the supporting evidence does not act as a thread for the paper as a long narrative does. Rather, it is the introspective thoughts that tie all of the stories together. The most difficult aspect of using multiple separate pieces of evidence is that you must present your anecdote or example in only two or three sentences, whereas if you were using the single narrative approach you would have several opportunities (and therefore more time) to tell your story. The key to effectively describing many short examples is not to include any unnecessary information; only include the main point of the story (i.e. the part that made you think to include it) and the bare minimum of background information that is necessary for the story to make sense.

Take a look at how Anya chooses to include an anecdote to support the main idea in her body paragraph:

Having a father who is a politician has helped me develop communication skills that I now realize are vital to success. I have learned to communicate logically and effectively and have thus been able to learn and engage with people of various ages and standings. On one such occasion, I sat next to an ER doctor on a long train commute. I engaged him on a multitude of topics ranging from medical malpractice to surgical techniques and benefited not only from a pleasant conversation, but also from the wisdom and advice from a seasoned doctor. I now have a better and more realistic understanding of my ideal profession. I intend to apply these communication skills in the college classroom and in my future career.

As you can see, only about a sentence and a half is dedicated to the anecdote. The rest of the sentence is made up of ideas that Anya has formulated from this experience. However, all of the necessary, pertinent details to her story are there: the ER doctor, the circumstances under which they met, and the topics of conversation that they covered.

Because examples can be extremely short (less than a sentence long), they can even be integrated into the long narrative approach. You may choose to have a long narrative as a thread throughout your paper, and then season it with other very short examples. If you do this, be careful not to get carried away with only stories and examples. Remember that your reader wants to know more about how you reason, not about the cool stories you have to tell.

When selecting which anecdotes or examples to use, keep the following things in mind:

  • You must be able to explain all of the crucial details in 2-3 sentences. If more explanation is necessary, do not use it.
  • It must be relevant to your point (thesis if it is in the introduction, topic sentence if it is in the body). Make sure that it is very clear to the reader why you chose to cite this specific example.
  • Do not use flowery language or imagery. This is a persuasive paper, so using metaphors and vivid images will not reveal your qualifications, it will distract from them.

In a Nutshell: Supporting Evidence

Do not let our emphasis on limiting your supporting evidence dissuade you from using it altogether. Whether you are using one long narrative or a series of anecdotes and examples, storytelling can prove extremely effective in supporting your claims. You are establishing your credibility by citing instances where the ideas you have just put forth have proven true.

Do

  • Introduce the story early to indicate its importance to your essay if you are using a running narrative.
  • Only spend a maximum of 2-3 sentences on storytelling at a time.
  • Weave supporting evidence throughout, going back and forth throughout your essay between introspection and narrative.

Don’t

  • Use any supporting evidence that portrays any of your negative qualities.
  • Spend too much time telling stories, and not enough on introspection.
  • Use imagery or flowery language.
  • Include too much drama. Do not let your supporting evidence detract from your main idea.

There you have it—use your stories as tools to support your argument; just be sure to include enough room for introspection.

Related

Discovering Ideas Handbook

 2.4    Support Your Claims

People will usually take your word for certain kinds of claims.  These include claims about events that you have personally participated in or observed.  For example, when you tell me when and where you were born, what your name is, or what you do for a living, I will usually believe you unless I have some reason to doubt you word.  Likewise, if we  believe people are knowledgeable about a subject, we will tend to believe what they say about that subject--to a point.  And, of course, we tend to believe other people when they tell us things that we already believe.  "Common knowledge" consists of a broad range of claims that most people believe as a matter of course, just because they live in the same culture.  (Common knowledge might not be the same for people from a different culture, which is why it can often be harder to communicate clearly with people from another culture.)

When you write an essay, many of the claims you make will be drawn from our cultural common knowledge, which you share with your readers.  But if your entire essay consists of common knowledge, it won't be a very interesting essay.  You'll just be telling us what we already know, stating the obvious.  Your thesis statement would be neither controversial nor informative (1.4.4.3).  So if your essay is going to be interesting, if it is going to tell us something we don't already know, most of what you say will be claims that we are unsure about.  Sometimes they are the kind of claims that we will accept on your authority--for example, a personal experience that illustrates your point.  But unless your essay is entirely about your own experience, we probably won't accept your word for everything.  (You can, of course, write a good essay just from your personal experience.  But you probably can't write three.  And you probably can't write one on any topic.  It would require a topic that you have significant experience with.)  So the major factor, often the major factor, determining whether your readers believe what you claim will be the quality of your supporting evidence.

Evidence is information that answers the question "How do you know?" of a claim you have made.  Please take that question very literally.  It is often hard to tell the difference at first between telling readers  what you know and telling them how you know it.   But to become an effective writer, in almost any context, you need to be able to ask this question repeatedly and test the answers you give for effectiveness.


2.4.1    Discover what claims in your essay need supporting evidence.

2.4.2    For every claim that readers might doubt, tell your readers how you know the claim is true.

2.4.3    Explain your sources and cite them where necessary.

2.4.4    Apply the tests of evidence to your supporting material.

2.4.4.1    Source Tests

2.4.4.2    Direct Tests


2.4.1    Discover what claims in your essay need supporting evidence.

You may need to point out in writing your essay that China is the largest nation in the world, in population, or that most Americans watch television or that Barak Obama was elected president in 2012.  Claims like these draw on common knowledge.  You can assume that your readers will recognize the truth of such claims without any further evidence. You can also assume that readers will accept claims about your own personal experience--assuming they sound reasonable--without further evidence.  But when you make a claim that is not common knowledge, then you need to support it.  

In reviewing your essay, keep in mind that not everyone knows everything you know.  If you are writing to a general college-level audience you need to assume that many readers will not know detailed information about most subjects.  

2.4.2    For every claim that readers might doubt, tell your readers how you know the claim is true.

Most of the words in a good essay will be devoted to answering the question "How do you know?"  When revising your essay, take that question very literally.  If you do in fact believe that a claim you are making in your essay is true, let your readers know what you saw, read, or heard that convinced you it was true.  In many cases, of course, you may not be able to answer that question without doing further research, because you may not remember how you learned something.  That means that you will have to, in effect, learn it again for your essay.

Note that the standard here is that you should support every claim that readers might doubt.  Don't fall into the trap of assuming that everyone knows what you do.  If a reasonable person could question your claim, you should tell us how you know it's true.  Even readers who tend to agree with you already or know most of what you're saying will find that your essay more strongly reinforces their existing beliefs if you support your claims with good evidence.

There are several ways of telling readers how you know.  In some cases, you have learned that your claim is true through personal experience.  Tell your readers about the experience, so they can see how you learned what you know.  If your description of a child with Attention Deficit Disorder is based on your observation of your younger brother, who was diagnosed with the disorder, then tell us that.  And describe what you observed.  If you conceal your experience and just give us your conclusions we have no reason to accept the conclusions.

The experience you relate doesn't have to be your own direct experience, of course.  You may have read about an example in a book or even seen a documentary on television that illustrated the point you are making.  That's fine.  Tell your readers whose experience illustrates your point and how you found out about it.

Often experience and examples aren't enough because you are making claims about most people or a large number of people.  In that case, you need to show your readers not that the claim you make was true once but that it is true often.  How do we know that most students who attended private schools in high school had an experience like yours?  How do we know that most kindergarten teachers use techniques like the ones you observed in Mrs.  Andersen?  To generalize beyond examples like this usually requires either statistical evidence or the testimony of experts.

2.4.3    Explain your sources and cite them where necessary.

In order to tell us how you know something, you need to tell us where the information came from.  If you personally observed the case you are telling us about, you need to tell us that you observed it, and when and where.  If you read about it, you need to tell us where you read about it.  If you are accepting the testimony of an expert, you need to tell us who the expert is and why she is an expert in this field.  The specific identity (name, position) and qualifications of your sources are part of the answer to the question "How do you know?"  You need to give your readers that information.  

Keep in mind that it is the person, the individual human being, who wrote an article or expressed an idea who brings authority to the claim.  Sometimes that authority may be reinforced by the publication in which the claim appeared.  Sometimes not.  But when you quote or paraphrase a source you are quoting or paraphrasing the author, not the magazine or journal.

So if you were introducing a source on the effects of progressive education, which of the following would sound more persuasive:

  • "An article in an education journal says that the progressive movement failed because most teachers never adopted it."

  • "An article in The Harvard Education Review reports that the progressive movement failed because most teachers never adopted it."

  • "Richard Elmore, a professor at Harvard's Graduate School of Education, concludes that the progressive movement failed because most teachers never adopted it."

The last example is the most persuasive because most specific.  The name and qualifications of the source are the most important information in establishing the credibility of your evidence.  Never omit them.  Usually the best way to introduce a quotation is to make the name of the person you are quoting the subject of your sentence.

Of course, sometimes the source will not be an individual author but several people or an agency or group.  Always report the authorship as it is presented on the title page of the work.

Whenever you got your information from a published or broadcast source, whether you are quoting it directly or not, you need to list the source in your list of works cited and cite it correctly in the text.  The detailed rules for doing that in MLA format are in K&M 33a.

2.4.4    Apply the tests of evidence to your supporting material.

You have evidence that you plan to use in your essay.  The key question for you, because it will be a key question for your readers, is whether the evidence is true, whether you can trust it.  How do you tell?

Unless you are reporting your own personal experience directly to us, your evidence comes from somebody else.  If you use the word of some other person or group to answer the question "How do you know?" it just moves the question back a step: How do they know?  Even if you you understand them, and they were telling the truth as they saw it, they may have been just plain wrong. If you really care about the truth of what you are reporting, then you have to have some way of checking the reliability of your sources. 

In reviewing one another's evidence, you can use a few tests that are widely used to evaluate evidence and sources.  Not all of these tests are relevant to all evidence, but one or more of them will apply to almost all evidence.  

They fall into two broad categories: source tests, tests that apply to the credibility of the source of the evidence; and direct tests, tests of the evidence itself.

2.4.4.1    Source Tests

  1. Specific Reference to Source:  Does the writer indicate the particular individual or group making the statements used for evidence? Does the writer tell you enough about the source that you could easily find it yourself?

  2. Qualifications of the Source: Does the writer give you reason to believe that the source is competent and well informed in the area in question?

  3. Bias of the Source: Even if expert, is the source likely to be biased on the question? Could we easily predict the source’s position merely from a knowledge of his job, her political party, or organizations she works for?

  4. Factual Support: Does the source offer factual support for the position taken or simply state conclusions?

  5.  

2.4.4.2    Direct Tests

  1. Recency: Is the evidence too old to be of current relevance to the issue? Would the source have had knowledge of recent developments or discoveries that might have bearing on the issue?

  2.  Sufficiency: Is their enough evidence to justify all of the claims being made from it?

  3. Logical Relevance: Does the claim made in the evidence provide a premise which logically justifies the conclusion offered?  Can you reasonably draw the conclusion being urged based on what the evidence says?

  4. Internal Consistency: Does this source make claims that are contradicted by other claims from the same source?

  5. External Consistency: Are the claims made by this source consistent with general knowledge and other evidence? If not, does the writer account for this discrepancy?

 


2.5    Use Specifics and Examples


Copyright © 2000 by John Tagg

Palomar College
jtagg@palomar.edu

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