Sidebar: Make Your Claims Thematically Explicit

Readers use a document's introduction to decide whether to keep reading, and your claim is the centerpiece of your introduction. When you phrase your claim, be explicit about its key themes to help your intended readers anticipate that your arguments will address issues that they care about.

Consider this claim:

Moral judgments are irrational.<

The claim offers one theme—morality—as its main character. Beyond that, it offers only one other general theme—rationality. In this form, the claim's paucity of explicit themes leaves readers guessing where the argument will be heading.

To help your reader see whether your paper addresses ground that they care about, make sure that your claim:

  • Uses language that alerts the reader to the key ideas;
  • Connects to disciplinary ideas of importance to readers;
  • Allows for supporting reasons<;
  • And prepares the reader for the kinds of evidence< that will be used.

Replace general terms with specific ones

Readers need to know which sense of a word is relevant for your argument. In our example, “irrational” can mean either “lacking in reason” or “based on sentiment and emotion rather than on rational principles.” The former would set up an argument about reaching unreasonable conclusions; the latter would introduce an argument about how conclusions are reached.

To make sure a reader knows which sense of “irrational” this writer means, he can replace the general term with the specific usage:

Moral judgments are based as much on sentiment and emotion as on rational principles.<

By clarifying what he means by “irrational,” this writer makes his claim about moral judgment more specific.

Connect to Ideas Your Readers Find Important

By referring to concepts that are important to readers in a specific discipline, you let your reader know that you have considered other possible solutions and which aspects of those other solutions you will be considering.

In this example, many readers might think that people make moral decisions by rationally applying a set of rules. So the claim could be rewritten:

Many people think of morality as a matter of following a coherent set of rules, but moral judgments are based as much on sentiment and emotion as on rules and rational principles.<

By addressing this objection, the writer not only tells readers that he is aware of alternative viewpoints but also provides a specific idea – applying rules to moral judgments – that he will return to later in the paper.

Forecast important reasons

You will most likely organize your paper into a few sections, each corresponding to a reason or sub-claim<. You needn’t list every reason in the first paragraph, but you should give your reader a sense of what to expect.

In this example, the paper goes on to explain that people make moral decisions too quickly for them to be based on rational principles. The claim could be rewritten:

Many people think of morality as a matter of following rules. But many moral judgments are made instantaneously and instinctively, which suggests that morality is based as much on sentiment and emotion as on rules and rational principles.<

The second part of the new claim contains what will be the most important sub-claim of the paper, “many moral judgments are made instantaneously and instinctively, which suggests that morality is based as much on sentiment and emotion as on rules and rational principles.” This lets readers know what kind of argument this is going to be (and in this case, might allow them to infer what kind of reasons and evidence the writer plans to use to support his claim).

Click here to see why our claim is now more than one sentence.<

Refer to general categories of evidence

Just as readers want to know what reasons will develop your claim, they want to know what kinds of evidence you will use to back up your reasons. In this example, "morality" is sufficiently general that a reader might expect historical or philosophical arguments; such an argument would be based on examples and quotations. But since this writer focuses on moral psychology, the claim can be rewritten to prepare the reader for the evidence that will follow:

Many people think of morality as a matter of following rules. But new psychological research shows that many moral judgments are made instantaneously and instinctively, which suggests that morality is based as much on sentiment and emotion as on rules and rational principles.<

With this revised claim, the reader begins with several concepts to use as organizing themes: moral judgments, rules, psychological research, instincts, sentiment, emotion, and rational principles. By giving readers a set of related concepts up front, you prepare them for the rest of your argument.