How to Write an Essay: the PRO CUPED approach

Do you want to learn to write? Do you want to love to write? Try PRO CUPED (pronounced similarly to Pro Cupid, a Roman God of Love). Use PRO, an acronym for Precision Revision and Organization, for your analytical writing process (to become a writing "Pro"), a process which is a form of structured thinking. Use CUPED to structure that thought. Our PRO+CUPED approach is a means of structured thinking that lends itself as a foundation for writing critical or analytical essays.

PRO (Precision Revision Organization) encapsulates the pith of what we teach our writing students: be Precise, have a logical Organization to your argument and essay (via CUPED, another didactic device we've devised), and Revise Revise Revise. Keep these ideas in mind in your critical or analytical writing assignments to produce focused, effective writing. CUPED, which stands for Conclusion(s), Unstated premise(s), Premise(s), Evidence, and Definition(s), is a method of logical reasoning to use to form the argument structure and then the outline of your essays.

O is for Organization

OPR wasn't very catchy so we went with PRO even though Organization then Precision then Revision is the order you should follow in writing an essay. Organization means two things: both the organization of your essay (e.g. the topic of each paragraph) and the logical framework of the argument you're going to make in your essay. The latter is the crux of your essay. Once you've put together your argument, then you can organize an essay around it.

It's absolutely essential to make an outline and think through the logical framework of your analytical essay before you start writing it. One reason is that analytical writing is a form of structured thinking, not free thinking! You need to think through what you want to say, why you want to say it, why you believe it's true, and how to make the argument clear before you begin writing. For really long assignments like a thesis or a dissertation, you'll be overwhelmed if you start writing without a logical structure for your whole work (the conclusions or the overall thesis as well as intermediate conclusions for each chapter and how those fit together) and outlines for each chapter. Having an outline for your essay also breaks down the writing process and makes it manageable. You'll be able to pick up a week old essay and see which points haven't been put to paper and pretty quickly start writing them.

The standard method for organizing an essay is a roman numeral outline. Here each paragraph is represented by a roman numeral (I, II, III, etc.), each point in the paragraph is represented by a capital letter below that numeral (A, B, C, etc.), and every supporting fact or detail is represented by a lower-case arabic numeral below the letter (1, 2, 3, etc.). If you're not familiar with this type of outline, read this (for more help do a search as there are many other websites that teach how to make an outline).

Before you put your outline together, you need to identify your argument and analyze it. In our approach, we recommend our students first set up an argument via CUPED and then use that argument to make the outline for their essay. CUPED is a method not for the writing process in general, but rather for the specific process of making an argument, a logically reasoned framework for your essay. This argument or framework will be (fairly easily) turned into an outline which then (not quite as easily) gets turned into your essay.

Organization: Using CUPED

An argument is comprised of five parts according to CUPED: conclusion(s), premise(s), unstated premises, evidence, and definitions. The conclusion is basically what you want to argue--usually your thesis. Premises, whether stated or unstated, are basically assumptions that you make upon which you build the argument. The premises are the reasons or assumptions that when accepted lead with ineluctable logical force to the conclusion. Evidence is simply evidence (facts, logic, etc.) that support your premises. Definitions are precise definitions of the terms you're using in your premises. (Note: Our method is similar of course to formal elementary logic and Toulmin's logic--we find CUPED an easier to learn and a more powerful framework for generating new thoughts than those others, but if you're interested in delving deeper into logical reasoning, those are good places to start).

The best way to get to know CUPED is by putting together and then breaking apart arguments. Take a simple argument, let's say to argue for a new dam to be built on a river in your city:

Premise 1: My city needs more environmentally-friendly energy.
Premise 2: Dams are a source of environmentally-friendly energy.
Conclusion: My city should build the XYZ dam because it will be a source of environmentally-friendly energy.

The conclusion is in this case an action we hope to implement, building a dam, that's what we're arguing for. We hope you scratched your head a bit after reading the argument as even though there's nothing wrong with it (the conclusion follows from the premises), but it can't be that simple to justify a decision to build a dam? Let's try to see what may be missing. From CUPED, our U or unstated premises are missing. Let's try to add some by brainstorming some considerations that are left out of the argument.

Are there alternative clean power sources? Are there are any disadvantages to building a dam?

Aha, those questions instantly inform us that the previous argument assumes that there aren't any adverse effects from building a dam and that there are no other clean power alternatives. Let's guess at an unstated premise to add to the argument (by the way, unstated is a good term when you analyze others' arguments, when you analyze your own argument, it's more like discovering premises you hadn't realized you'd assumed--but to avoid confusion, we'll call all non-initial premises unstated premises). We can combine the two points regarding adverse effects and energy alternatives to dams into a single unstated premise.

Unstated Premise 1: Building a dam has fewer adverse effects than other environmentally-friendly energy sources for the city.

We now have a better argument that leads to a more thorough conclusion--remember, adding a new premise will often force you to change (the wording of at least) your conclusion.

Premise 1: My city needs more environmentally-friendly energy.
Premise 2: Dams are a source of environmentally-friendly energy.
Unstated Premise 1: Building a dam has fewer adverse effects than other environmentally-friendly energy sources for my city.
Conclusion: My city should build the XYZ dam because it will be a source of environmentally-friendly energy and has fewer adverse effects than alternatives.

We have a reasonable, basic argument now with premises, unstated premises, and a conclusion. Let's add some definitions and evidence.

Premise 1: My city needs more environmentally-friendly energy.
     Evidence 1: The city's population is growing by 5% a year, but at peak hours the energy usage is 98% of capacity.
    Evidence 2: There is a lot of pollution in the city.
Premise 2: Dams are a source of environmentally-friendly energy.
     Definition 1: Environmentally-friendly means it doesn't promote global warming.
     Evidence 1: Dams don't generate any greenhouse gases.
Unstated Premise 1: Building a dam has fewer adverse effects than other environmentally-friendly energy sources for my city.
     Evidence 1: Coal and Gas plants generate greenhouse gases.
     Evidence 2: Nuclear power plants generate radioactive materials.
Conclusion: My city should build the XYZ dam because it will be a source of environmentally-friendly energy and has fewer adverse effects than alternatives.

If you've imbibed reasoning with premises and conclusions, we hope that you're filling in many gaps in the above argument. For instance, there is a gap in Premise 2's evidence: we need to add a new premise that "greenhouse gases promote global warming." The easiest way to effectively do this is to alter the definition to add "doesn't create greenhouse gases which promote global warming." You could alternatively add another premise to the argument (but it's not that important to the whole argument) or you could embed a premise inside the second premise say (but that gets confusing)--try to keep the argument as precise as possible but also with as clear a structure as possible.

Leaving aside the gaps, the above argument is reasonably developed, and you probably see that what we've now got is basically a Roman Numeral Outline. Let's change a few words around to turn it into an outline for an essay.

I. Introduction
Thesis: My city should build the XYZ dam because it will be a source of environmentally-friendly energy and has fewer adverse effects than alternatives.
II. My city needs more environmentally-friendly energy.
     A. The city's population is growing by 5% a year, but at peak hours energy usage is 98% of capacity.
     B. There is a lot of pollution in the city.
III. Dams are a source of environmentally-friendly energy.
     A. Environmentally-friendly means it doesn't promote global warming.
     B. Dams don't generate any greenhouse gases
IV. Building a dam has fewer adverse effects than other environmentally-friendly energy sources for my city.
     A. Coal and Gas plants generate greenhouse gases.
     B. Nuclear power plants generate radioactive materials.
V. Conclusion

You're now just about ready to write your essay. There are a few little things we ought to correct, though, Generally when you have an A., you should have a B.--so we should try to add some more evidence to paragraph II. (we'll let it slide for now). The other things missing are some ideas for an introduction and conclusion. Other than those points, you've got a pretty good blueprint for your essay in the above outline. You could start writing it now.

To illustrate how thinking in terms of premises and conclusions and CUPED is very powerful and important, let's look at the argument again. What important terms are inadequately defined, for instance? How about environmentally-friendly? Doesn't that encompass more than just global warming? What about protecting rivers and wildlife? That itself, though, begs the question, based on what premise (i.e. why?) should we protect wildlife and the environment? Let's look deeper into other effects from energy generation. We've considered adverse effects, but could there be other positive effects from other types of energy such as coal or nuclear (perhaps they're cheaper)? We're missing, thus, premise(s) that deal with potential beneficial effects of various energy sources.

When you begin thinking carefully through your premises, conclusions, definitions and evidence, things can get complex. Writing critical essays, making good arguments, and logical reasoning are not easy tasks, but they're essential in order to write a well-argued essays.

There are two things to take away from what we've done. One is that putting together an argument via CUPED is a form of structured thinking. We saw how we started with a very simple argument and through asking questions motivated by CUPED's argument structure, we ended up adding more premises leading to a more sophisticated and more accurate argument by the end of the process. Two is that the final form of our argument (of premises, evidence, definitions, conclusion) got turned into an outline pretty easily (which then needs to be turned into an essay).

P is for Precision

Thanks to the organization phase, we've got an outline for our essay. Now for the precision phase. Precision is an easier concept to explain than organization. More persuasive essays will generally be more precise. They can be more precise in three ways. They can have very precise evidence (facts, figures, etc.) supporting their premises. They can have a precise argument (precise premises and definitions). They can have precise details.

Making your argument more precise is essentially part of the organization phase of writing. It's important, though, in this phase to re-think your argument and see if it could be made more precise. In the example from above, we discovered that our premises and definitions could be made more precise. Environmentally-friendly wasn't very precisely defined. There were still some missing, unstated premises regarding the possible advantages of various types of power generation. There were also some so-called premises which weren't integrated into the argument. For instance, nuclear power plants generate radioactive waste, but there isn't anything in the argument that indicates that such waste is either good or bad. We'd have to make our definition of environmentally friendly more precise so as to prohibit not just greenhouse gases but also radioactive waste. When you get to the precision phase of writing an essay, take another look at your argument, make sure the premises are all related to each other and the conclusion. Be sure your argument is comprehensive, and that your definitions are precise and coherent.

When you're sure your argument and outline are strong, then we need to fill in the evidence. Your evidence should be as precise as possible. This is based on the assumption we make in writing essays that the more precise support we have for our conclusion, the better received it will be (a reasonable premise, right?). For the our dam essay outline, some evidence is vague and not very persuasive--take "a lot of pollution in the city" for example. We need some specific facts or data to support that purported fact. We could cite an increasing incidence of asthma among youth as evidence of air pollution, or a higher rate of birth defects as evidence of drinking water/river pollution. Presenting facts which are only weakly related to your premises are also imprecise and not persuasive. For instance, citing that I find myself coughing a lot as anecdotal evidence that there's a lot of pollution in the city is far less persuasive than the results of a proper scientific study. In terms of our outline, this would be putting and filling in arabic numerals in our outline, a 1 and 2 under each A and B.

Be precise in your description of the details. This is a crucial point for other types of writing such as fiction or personal essay writing. but is also extremely important to keep in mind in analytical writing. Look at the difference between these two examples from fiction writing:

Example One. Still missing his old girlfriend, Jack forgot to cross the street and instead looked at a pile of leaves.
Example Two. Stopped by a pile of brown leaves in front of him--spring was a long time ago, she wasn't coming back--Jack stood there, looking down, and didn't notice the lights change.

Details and precision make a big difference in the effect of these sentences. The first example throws you off in a distracting way when you find out about the pile of leaves after he forgets to cross the street--when the causality is that looking at the pile of leaves first led him to miss the traffic light change second. The second example uses careful word choice to express what's happened to Jack. The first word "stopped" for instance alludes to the traffic light which is stopping traffic as well as to what's happened to Jack's life (we would guess) since she left him. Describing the leaves as brown also keys the reader in that it's autumn; in the first example, we don't know when it's taking place. Knowing that the leaves signify autumn also motivates Jack's memory of spring and then her in the second example. In the first example, there's no reason that's clear to the reader as to why in that moment Jack thought of his girlfriend and why he'd be transfixed by a pile of leaves.

Even though these two examples are from fiction writing, they make it clear how careful attention to word choice and precise details, in this case when telling a story, makes the writing much more effective. This applies to any writing whether you're analyzing MacBeth's character or explaining why someone should study mathematics. In the former case, just describing MacBeth as power-hungry or ambitious isn't very persuasive, but if you present specific quotes ("I have no spur To prick the sides of my intent, but only vaulting ambition which o'erleaps itself and falls on th'other.") and actions (killing his guest Duncan in order to become the King of Scotland), it'll be much harder for your reader to disagree with you. In the latter case, just saying mathematics is beautiful isn't persuasive as well, but presenting examples of specific and easily grasped proofs that are beautiful (say a geometric proof of the Pythagorean theorem) forces a reader to accept your point.

Precision is critical to keep in mind when writing your essay. It's a good idea to take your outline and add in as many precise details as possible at this point. In our build the dam essay, there are many places in which more precision in argument and precise facts are needed. We need to get quantified pollution levels for the city, the benefits and harms of various energy generation methods, an analysis of the city's growth, projections thereof and how well the different energies could meet and sustain energy for that growth.

Once you fill in more precise evidence in your outline, you're ready to write the first draft of your essay. Sit down with your outline and simply write it out. Some writers work carefully revising each paragraph as they write. Others prefer to write the whole thing out without rereading what they've written. Figure out what works for you, but whatever method you choose...you'll have to revise your essay.

R is for Revision

Writing is a process. "PRO" is a way to think about and structure that process. Once you've got a full draft completed of your essay (unless it's due tomorrow), you're not done yet. You need to revise, revise, revise.

When you revise your essay, you'll need to ask yourself, is this argument well made? Are there are any gaps in my argument? Am I making the case as precisely as I can? Are there are any premises or points that I make which aren't integrated into the whole paper? In other words, you'll continue to analyze your esssay from the organizational and precision perspectives we've already discussed.

You'll also need to of course check out writing fundamentals--the "interior decorating" phase of writing an essay. Try to make long sentences shorter. Make sure that there aren't any grammatical errors, awkward phrases, confusing sentences, spelling errors, or any other problems with your writing. Always read every draft you write out loud--if an essay flows when you hear it, it will likely read well.

Also try to have someone (ideally a pretty experienced writer) read your essay. Many teachers are happy to read and comment on drafts (be sure to get drafts to them well in advance of an essay's due date). It's crucial to get feedback from someone other than yourself: of course your essay will sound pretty good to you, the question is how others find it! You need to get a perspective as to how persuasive and how clear your essay is. Another person can also point out gaps or flaws in your reasoning and argument.

Try to space out revisions of an essay over multiple days. It's important to have some distance between a drafts--you need to come back to your essay with a fresh mind. You'll figure out how you work as well. Some writers find that they fill in gaps in revisions; others find that revising is like tending to a Japanese garden, removing everything that's not necessary. The deadlines imposed by your teachers may not allow that, but try your best to start early to have adequate time to prepare multiple drafts.

Short Notes on Introductions and Conclusions

Introductions have to engage the reader. Your introductions should pull the reader into your essay. The key rule for introductions then is don't be dull. Also, usually your key conclusion(s) or the main point of the essay is presented at the end of your introduction in the form of a thesis statement. It doesn't have to be there, but somewhere early in your essay there should be a sentence or two (or three) that expresses clearly what the thrust of your essay is. Here are two web pages that can have some ideas as to potential introductions: Types of Introductions and the Essay.

For essay conclusions, don't be afraid to be short and sweet if you feel that the argument's been well-made. You shouldn't spend the entire conclusion summarizing your essay, though you should briefly re-state the key points and your conclusions. Try to express your conclusion(s) and points in a final, powerful way. Conclusions are the last thing your reader will read and should be memorable. If it's possible to link your conclusion to your introduction, try it, it often works well. For essays of a more philosophical nature or tone, you can in a conclusion extend your ideas a bit; ask questions about them that could be the basis for further essays and explorations. Don't try to answer any questions you pose or analyze any problems you may raise in your conclusion, that's veering off-topic. The key guidance we'll leave you with for conclusions is to express your key points memorably without being repetitive.

The Last Word

Paul Erdos, a famous itinerant 20th century mathematician, once quipped that "a mathematician is a machine that turns coffee into theorems." Since the analytical writing process doesn't rely on bursts of late-night creativity, we don't have to become caffeine-addicts to become analytical writing machines.

Skip caffeine, but stay PRO CUPED. You'll need CUPED to construct your argument or the logical framework for your essay and PRO to guide you in the writing process. You have to turn that argument into an outline, and turn that outline into an essay. Lastly, revise, revise, revise that essay, ideally with the benefit of others' feedback.

Happy Writing--if you find these ideas useful and would like your outlines/arguments/essays published on this site, do send them to us. We'll try our best to publish all submissions. E-mail us at essays AT yaletutors DOT com.