Troubleshooting for Common Content Problems


1) Understanding the difference between a claim and an observation (for more on this, see “Claims versus Observations” handout)

Novice writers often confuse thesis statements (argumentative claims that warrant further discussion and must be argumentatively proven) with observations (empirical observations about the text that are factual, generally statements of plot/summary, that cannot be proven). Take these sentences, for example:


Example: “They [Weisman and Garner] are very familiar with the lifestyle of dealing with a disease, being in innumerable hospitals and intensive care.”

Ä                  An empirical observation; an “obvious” statement that tethers the writer to plot summary


Example: “In their stories, Jamie Weisman and Tamra Garner talk about what they had to go through, the pain of no one believing that they are sick, and the people who though nothing was wrong with them.”

Ä                  Notice the words talk about, a phrase that almost always signals summary is forthcoming. This sentence is nothing more than a “Cliff Notes,” watered-down version of the text’s plot, offering no argumentative claim. A paper that founds itself on these sorts of observations will generally do little more than summarize throughout the body paragraphs.


The failure to identify the difference between a claim and an observation is also seen in topic sentences. Topic sentences, remember, offer a claim that the rest of the paragraph will prove and support. This claim should relate to and somehow expand upon the thesis idea.


Example: “Jamie Weisman now lives in Atlanta with her husband.”

Ä                  Empirical observation; nothing to argue here. Typically, paragraphs that begin with observations will remain “loyal” to the topic sentence and continue to summarize.


Example: “In As I Live and Breathe, Jamie Weisman is diagnosed with an autoimmune disorder.”

Ä                  Same as above.


Example: In her poem, Garner states, “My disability does not show. But it is still there.”

Ä                  As a rule in a formal or academic essay, identify the paragraph’s claim or intent before illustrating examples (see 3”Ied” monster handout).


2) “Shallow” and/or broad thesis statements that lack complexity

No way around it: strong analytical content is always the outgrowth of assigning a strong, compelling, and argumentative thesis (see rubric).  The rubric specifies that an A and B essay has a “compelling” and sophisticated thesis; it goes beyond surface-level meaning and stating the obvious; it is specific; it offers a view of the text not readily obvious to the reader; it “recognizes complexities” and shows “serious consideration of the topic.” The statements below are to some degree argumentative, but hardly compelling. Ask yourself, can this idea lead to provocative analysis? What insightful conclusions can be drawn from this? Is this statement “one-dimensional” or “three-dimensional”?


“Most of the time, these people [the authors’ families] affect the authors in a very positive way, trying to make the best of their disabilities and helping them any way they can.”

Ä                  This statement is “flat” and superficial; it invokes vague, clichéd expressions and doesn’t require involved unlayering of the text to prove. In other words, a thesis statement this shallow or simplistic (one might call it “broad”) is self-limiting, reducing the paper’s focus to generalities.


“Weisman and Garner both have disabilities that are not noticeable to the naked eye. In some ways, this can be a good thing. In other ways, it can really be frustrating and become one big misunderstanding.”

Ä                  This statement is “flimsy” and artificial: There are so many directions one could take with a statement of this sort that the individual often whitewashes issues without mining their potential complexities. It is obvious that the student hasn’t put a whole lot of thought into it. Imagine, then, what the body paragraphs look like :-))  


3) Development in body paragraphs that lacks focus (i.e., ¶ Unity)


Another thing that Weisman and Garner have in common is that neither one of them was born with their disabilities. Both authors knew what life was like before life with a disability, leaving them with the painful dual perception of life before and after. If Garner, when she found out about her disability, hadn’t told anyone, some people might not even know today. Appearance is not an issue in her case, but some of the basic functions in life are. What people need to understand is that even though you cannot “see” her disability, it is definitely still there and does affect her everyday life. Garner writes about the things that this disability affects, like missing classes, becoming easily tired and being easily hurt when she is touched. Others who also have disabilities may get treated differently, too, but may benefit from it. Having a noticeable disability might get people many more opportunities or services that they need to get them through life. Not being able to get the services or help that they need just because people don’t see or believe that they have the disability is crazy. These are they types of things that stereotypical people misconstrue when they judge someone with a disability.


Although not articulated in the best terms, these statements raise an astute and potentially provocative point, one that leaves room for further discussion and investigation.  As a reader, I’m engaged…


Notice, however, how the focus slips almost entirely away from the idea communicated in the topic sentence. Numerous ideas are introduced in this paragraph. Even if the paragraph was well-written, the focus is not unified, leaving the reader disoriented.



4) Development in body paragraphs that lacks analytical substance

Keys to developing strong analytical paragraphs: the “3-Ied” monster




a specific claim that supports your thesis statement and warrants further discussion.



its place in the text (in other words, quote the lines(s) where the element appears).



its function. Give a detailed analysis as to how the specific element supports your thesis. Explain its significance in the text in relation to your thesis. Develop probing and provocative interpretations.

The third “I” should always be the largest.



In Sula, Toni Morrison breaks with the typical expectations surrounding the mother figure in order to refashion the archetype: the traditional sweet, gentle, care giving role most often assigned to the nurturing soul called Mother.  Morrison’s portrayal certainly provides her readers with a fuller picture of a mother with a hint of suggestion for them to embrace the whole. 




Helene Wright and Eva Peace represent Morrison’s primary matriarchs in Sula.  The early experiences of these women shape their own capacities as mothers, and in turn, affect their children’s capabilities.  For example, Helene is taken and reared by a strict grandmother, because her mother works and lives as a prostituteHelene’s physical beauty increases her grandmother’s level of fear that she too might go astray.  Her grandmother’s love removes her from harmful circumstances in order to provide the opportunity for a better life, but the fears induce a pattern of behavior that will last for generations.  The tight, religious reign effectively squelches “any sign of her mother’s wild blood” (Morrison 17).  Helene receives the mantle of fear and with it proceeds forward in the rearing of her own child, Nell.  Interestingly, Helene experiences an unimagined fulfillment in motherhood.  “Her daughter was more comfort and purpose than she had ever hoped to find in this life” (18).  In Helene, Morrison reveals an underlying motivation of self-interest.  This unattractive quality functions in mothers without detection for the most part. However, Morrison brings it to light as she describes Helene’s unconscious desires to mold Nell into an object that will reflect her own well constructed respectability“Under Helene’s hand the girl became obedient and polite.  Any enthusiasms that little Nell showed were calmed by the mother until she drove her daughter’s imagination underground” (18)Rather than nurturing her child’s own personality, she “enjoyed manipulating her daughter” (18)Helene’s love for Nell is tarnished by her own needs.  While she enjoys the work of childrearing, she never truly knows her daughter.  Subsequently, Nell orders her life after the pattern she inherits from her mother.

NOTE: Illustrating examples and interpreting them are interspersed throughout the paragraph so that, at times, you might cite an example and interpret its significance all in the same sentence. In other words, illustration and interpretation are not necessarily separate or sequenced in the paragraph so that you cite all your examples first and then interpret them last. This would be clunky and awkward. As you illustrate examples, follow through by interpreting their significance, citing more examples, drawing conclusions about their significance and meaning to the text, and making clear connections to the thesis.  Remember though, the meat of an analytical paragraph should consist of interpretation, not merely cited examples from the text.

5) Failure to effectively integrate quotations into the paper’s context:

Limit your use of quotations. Spend more time interpreting and analyzing than merely citing quotations and examples.

Don’t assume that quotations are self-sufficient and prove your point automatically. In other words, don’t drop a quotation in a paragraph without explaining it. You need to analyze it thoroughly in your own words, explaining why it is important. You may need to clarify a point or define a key term in the quotation. As a general rule, each quotation should be followed by at least several sentences of analysis.

Follow through by interpreting the relevance of a quotation to your topic and thesis. It is not necessary to recap what has already been said in the quotation. Neither is it necessary to use phrases like “Weisman is saying in this quotation that….,” which are obvious and redundant. Instead, illuminate the importance of the quotation to the thesis, to your topic.

Effectively assimilate, introduce, and integrate quotations into your own writing. Use lead-in phrases that signal a quotation and orient the reader on the context of the quotation. Avoid using obvious and unnecessary cues like “This quotation is saying that…”

Be discrete and selective when using quotations. Don’t quote a paragraph from a text when a single sentence contains the heart of what you need. Don’t quote a whole sentence when you can simply integrate a few words into one of your own sentences.

Give the whole story. Be careful of altering the context of a quotation by pulling out portions of it and leaving out the context within which the quotation is situated. Be true, in other words, to the author’s intentions.