American Lit II (EL 267)

16 Feb 2006

Ex 1-3a: Pro/Con Paper Draft

Use your close reading skills to examine more than one side of a complex argument about one or more of the literary works we have studied. (Choose a different work than the one you discussed for Ex 1-1 or Ex 1-2.)
Length: 3 pages minimum (about 700 words).
Chapter 1 of Writing about Literature is a valuable resource.

The paper should avoid plot summary

  • X "This is a story about..."
  • X "After the protagonist discovers the truth, he gets a real shock: his wife is just as dishonest as he was!").

The same goes for character description. Assume your reader knows the story well, and has a copy within reach.

The paper should avoid gratuitous personal responses

  • X "This exciting passage makes me think of the time I was climbing a mountain with my friend Sally, who..."
  • X "When I first read this passage, I thought..."
  • X "People should be judged by what they can do, not by who their parents are."

The paper should make a claim about the literary text, not about life or faith or politics or the changing role of women in society anything else about life in general. Literature is the study of a particular artist's particular representation of reality, not the study of reality itself.

Your thesis should be a claim about the specific work in particular

The harsh faith of the Puritan fathers perpetuated misery, forcing imperfect people to choose between keeping up the external appearances of moral perfection, or risk being rejected by the society they needed in order to survive.

The above thesis is unacceptable because it makes a claim about the Puritan faith, and refers to the nature of moral perfection and the social needs of the human individual for support. That way lies chaos.

Sometimes religious authorities are corrupt. One example of such a corrupt society can be found in Hawthorne's The Scarlet Letter, where [plot summary begins here].

A different kind of problem. This one makes a claim about religious societies, and uses The Scarlet Letter as a handy example. If you swapped out this text for a different text that showed a corrupt religious society, or a news article about corruption in religion, the points the author wants to make will pretty much be the same.

Consider instead the following:

While Hawthorne is deeply critical of the Puritan society he represents in The Scarlet Letter, the story does not advocate the complete rejection of moral authority. Rather, it illustrates, through Dimmesdale's demise, the destructive power of moral irresponsibility, and through Hester's eventual triumph, the healing power of accepting responsibility for one's own weakness.

The revision makes a claim about Hawthorne's The Scarlet Letter, and refers to specific incidents from the novel for support.


In your high school English class, if you read a short story about tension between a mother and daughter, your teacher probably rewarded you for writing an essay in which you described parallels between the story and your own life. Your teacher wanted evidence that you had read and understood the story, and so your teacher rewarded you for summarizing the plot, for describing how you felt while reading it, and for explaining what you might have done if you were in a similar situation.

In a college literature class, your instructor expects that you already know how to summarize a work of literature and relate it to your own life experience. You wouldn’t have passed high school English if you hadn’t mastered that skill.

One-sided claims such as “Adolph Hitler was evil,” “People should be judged by what they can do, not by the color of their skin” or “Women in the 1800s had fewer freedoms than they do now” are not good topics for a pro/con paper, because you will find little credible evidence to support an opposing view.

You might even think of this as a pro/pro paper – that is, you present all the best arguments for a claim, then you shift gears completely and present all the best arguments for a competing claim.

Avoid making a claim about faith, government, women, sin, how things are different today, or otherwise trying to use a creative literary work to prove a point about the real world.

If you cannot find evidence that points to a coherent argument that works against your position, then you have not found a thesis statement worth arguing.

On the Value of Outlines

Students often ask for an outline to follow when they write a pro/con paper. I want students to feel like I am being helpful and responsive to their requests, and I can hardly resist the opportuntity to write yet another online handout. I paper certainly is easier to start if you can follow the outline someone else gives you. A paper is even easier if someone tells you what text to write on, assigns a thesis statement, supplies you with quotations to use, tells you what your conclusion should be, types it up, proofreads it, and hands it in for you.

The writing process is about discovering what structure is right for your particular writing assignment. You have to shoot at the backboard and miss a lot of times before you can expect to make free-throws dependably. Discovery is a process, and that process takes time and effort. Rough drafts, peer-reviews, and opportunities for revision are all part of that process.

An outline that works beautifully for one paper may be the wrong outline to use for a different paper. A student who is brimming with historical facts about a particular time period will thrive with an outline that invites the use of numerous kinds of evidence to support a small number of points. A student who is looking deeply into a new area may want to cover a large number of sequentially connected points that build up to form a single picture. And in the past when I used to give detailed outlines, once in a while I ran into a student who felt frustrated because he or she followed the outline religiously but still ended up with a mishmash of a draft. (Someone can tell me how to hold a golf club correctly, or what ingredients to buy at the store, but that alone doesn't make me a good golfer or a good cook.)

A complete draft of a literary essay does not include subheadings like "Introduction" or "Point 2." You don't need to have exactly three supporting points, and for longer papers, you won't be expected to handle each point in a single paragraph.

Okay, Here's a Very Basic Outline

The general shape of a pro/con argument looks something like this.

  • Thesis: Introduce a position (supported with evidence)
  • Antithesis: Anticipate objections to your claim by presenting all the best arguments against your position (backed up with evidence)
  • Synthesis: Refute those arguments (with evidence) and demonstrate that your position still holds up

When you say "A thing seems to be X, but it is really Y," then Y is your "pro" (your thesis) and X is your "con" (antithesis). You end the paper with a section in which you expand upon, modify, or further qualify your thesis, or otherwise demonstrate that it still holds up. That concluding section is the synthesis.

More Detailed Outline

Note that a literature paper does not include subheadings like "Introduction" or "Antithesis," but it may be useful for you to make sure you are paying attention to each section.

Title Block

MLA style asks for your name, the date, course name, and instructor name. I also ask for an assignment label (Exercise 1-3a), so I know exactly how to evaluate each particular document.

Thesis: Introduction

The most important element of the introduction is a thesis. A thesis is not a general statement of what your paper "talks about," or a list of ideas that you promise your paper will investigate. Rather, it is a concise statement that gives away the ending of your paper.

In The Scarlet Letter, Hawthorne places Hester Prynne on the borderline of many groups. As a newcomer to Salem, she retains her European beauty. As a married woman who lives alone, she is not under the control of her husband. As a sinner who does not hide her guilt, she is the model of the redeemed Christian, whose behavior shows far more Christ-like mercy and charity than she herself received from the community leaders. While the male authorities of Salem punish her for her failings, Hawthorne presents a complex, admirable woman whose moral courage more than makes up for her moral failings.

This thesis paragraph includes the topic (Hester Prynne in The Scarlet Letter), the thesis (within the story, Hester's moral courage more than makes up for her failings) and the blue print -- short list of supporting points (Hester exists on several borders; she is a better Christian than the religious leaders who condemn her; her complexity is the author's deliberate choice).

Let's consider some other sample theses.

In F. Scott Fitzgerald's short story "Bernice Bobs Her Hair," Marjorie and Bernice are very different.

That's not a thesis, that's a topic. It's good that you mention the author and work early on, but that's just throat-clearing. You haven't actually found a non-obvious point that's worth arguing.

There are many different ways to look at differences between Marjorie and Bernice.

Once gain, that's not a thesis. It's a plain-vanilla observation, it's not a specific claim that a reasonable person could disagree with.

In "Bernice Bobs Her Hair," a selfish and vain girl ruins the social hopes of a gullible would-be protege.

That's nothing but plot summary. Maybe it would be worth arguing whether Marjorie is vain or realistic, or whether Bernice might be just as selfish as Marjorie, or whether Marjorie really wants a protege -- but the way this sentence is written, none of those potential arguments are positioned as the main idea.

On the surface, "Bernice Bobs Her Hair" seems to be a story about a struggle for popularity, but Fitzgerald is careful to specify that Bernice is more interested in gaining the intimate friendship of her cousin than she is in displacing her cousin in the social scene. While Marjorie is an expert at manipulating the opinions of men, she is incapable of considering that she might be wrong about Bernice's actions and values, which suggests that she is even worse at questioning her own values. Bernice, on the other hand, is willing to try "everything" not simply to gain social status for herself, but in order to please Marjorie.

The above example makes a non-obvious claim about the literary work. To complete this paper, the author would need to supply quotations from the text to support each of the supporting ideas -- that popularity is an important but ultimately secondary theme; that Bernice's motivations are centered on befriending Marjorie; that Marjorie misreads Bernice's motivations.

Thesis: Background/Explanation

This can be a single sentence that's part of the introduction, or it can be slipped into the transition between the thesis paragraph and the start of the argument proper, or it can be cut entirely. It all depends on how much setup work you have to do in order to ensure that your reader can follow your argument.

After you have introduced your main argument, introduce any contextual information that will help your reader understand your point. If you feel it will help your argument, here is the right place to introduce certain events in the author's life, themes that were common in other literary works published during the time period, public statements made by the author, etc. But remember, a literature paper should defend a non-obvious claim about the specific representation of reality, not about the historical period that inspired the work, or your personal response to the work, or what you feel today's society can learn from this work. or how the work would be different if it were written today, or how the society depicted in the story differs from our own.

Thesis: Confirmation

Following the order in which you introduced your supporting points in the thesis paragraph, work logically through each point. Back up each claim with evidence (direct quotations from the literary work you are examining -- the primary sources. In later assignments, you'll be asked to introuduce other evidence as well.)

Usually you should begin with the strongest points in favor of your thesis, but if you want to argue a positon that you feel your audience won't accept right away, it's often better to begin with a fair but lukewarm presentation of the position you're about to disgaree with. (I did something like that when I first mentioned that students often request outlines to help them write pro/con papers, and then explained why I don't think giving detailed outlines is very helpful.)

Antithesis: Refutation and Concession

Here is where you anticipate all the best objections to your claims, presenting specific evidence that works against the claims you want to make..

For instance, earlier I suggested a thesis that "Bernice Bobs Her Hair" is really about the relationship between Marjorie and Bernice, one objection might be the fact that the story opens with a description of a community dance, not an intimate scene between Bernice and Marjorie. Another objection might be the observation that while Bernice acts as if she's a character in a story about her attempts to make friends with Marjorie, Fitzgerald has written a very different story -- one that works actively against Bernice's ideas of femininity and literature as a model for proper feminine behavior.

The goal in this section is not to for you to insist that only an idiot would disagree with you.

A pro/con paper shouldn't look like two contradictory papers spliced together. Neither does the "con" section need to be a complete about-face from the "pro" statement. I like to think of a good argument as a "pro/pro" paper. Be sure that you present the best evidence for arguments that work against the point that you want to make. If, in the process of writing your paper, you find that you've got more "con" evidence than "pro" evidence, that may be a sign that you should change your thesis. (You're perfectly free to do that, if you wish.)

In the "Bernice Bobs Her Hair" example, the "pro" would be "The story is really about the relationship between Bernice and Marjorie," and the "con" would be "The story really is about popularity."

For the "con" you needn't insist that the relationship between Bernice and Marjorie is completely unimportant. You might instead demonstrate that Marjorie treats Bernice as part of her entourage; that, just as she tells Bernice to pay attention to the lower-ranking men in order to attract the attention of the more valuable men, she may be exercising her social power by demonstrating that she can make a sensation out of a nobody and then send her crashing back to earth again. This may be a message she wants to send to the women, and you could argue that it's just as important as the message she's sending to the men by telling them stories and manipulating their affection.


Let's say you introduce three objections to your thesis. You might do it this way.

Opposing Point 1
Rebuttal to Opposing Point 1
Concessions for Opposing Point 1

Opposing Point 2
Rebuttal to Opposing Point 2
Concessions for Opposing Point 2

Opposing Point 3
Rebuttal to Opposing Point 3
Concessions for Opposing Point 3

But the result is likely to be choppy and mechanical. Once you've deeply investigated the connections between the points you want to make, you might find you need a structure like this:

Opposing Point 1
Opposing Point 2
Opposing Point 3

Response A, which rebuts Opposing Points 1 and 2.
Response B, which rebuts Opposing Points 2 and 3
Response C, which rebuts OP2 and OP3, but requires us to accept OP1
Response D, which demonstrates OP1 is really a special case of OP3, and that it's possible to accept both Responce C and the special case of OP3.


You analyze something by breaking it up into components. For our purposes, those components are the supporting points we want to present (and challenge, and reformulate). Synthesis is the re-assembly of these parts into a more complex, new idea.

It's something of an intellectual cop-out to say "A thing is X, but it also seems to be Y. It is actually both X and a Y." If that's really the case, then your initial claim ("This thing is X") was false, and your argument hasn't really made any progress.

In the sample outline above, we started out dealing with individual, discrete ideas, like Pez candies pushed out of a dispenser. But Response C and Response D started egaging more directly with what had been previously separate ideas.

These are the ideas that the author of the above draft should start focusing on in more detail, perhaps even revising the paper's central idea so that it deals with this original confection concocted by mixing together complex ideas in creative ways, and cutting out the Pez candies lined up before it.


Now that you have looked at the pro and the con arguments and proposed a synthesis, what new insights can you draw from the text? Where has the whole journey of this paper taken you? Remember that your thesis and conclusion should be about the literary work, not about love, women, race, America, who killed the bird or Mr. Wright, what the sherrif should have done, etc. In a literature class, you are not studying reality – you are instead studying an individual artist’s representation of reality.


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PRO/PRO concept for PRO/CON paper
Excerpt: Ex 1-3a: Pro/Con Paper Draft -- Jerz: American Lit II (EL 267)I was really stuck on finding a good thesis until I considered this assignment as a PRO/PRO paper as opposed to a PRO/CON paper - thanks for this insight!!...
Weblog: BrendaChristeleit
Tracked: February 14, 2006 12:12 PM

I read through this quickly. However, it makes sense to me. I think that after I read it over a few more times, I will understand it.

Posted by: Onilee Smith at February 8, 2006 08:47 PM

A helpful explanation. Thanks, Dr. Jerz.

Posted by: ChrisU at February 15, 2006 01:01 PM

perhaps I missed something, but do we need to bring two copies for peer review?

Posted by: Jennifer DiFulvio at February 15, 2006 08:07 PM

Thanks for the question. I don't actually need to see the printouts -- we won't be working on them in class.

If you want to trade electronic copies with classmates, that's fine with me.

Posted by: Dennis G. Jerz at February 15, 2006 08:30 PM

Hmm, well, I thought this assignment was going to be easier, but it was incredibly challenging for me. I had a lot of trouble coming up with a thesis, for some reason, and that just made the whole thing feel awkward for me.

I think I'll mark this one down as an area for improvement.

Posted by: ChrisU at February 16, 2006 05:05 AM
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