Paper proposals

The purpose of this exercise is twofold: 1) to encourage you to think through your approach to the topic before getting well into the actual writing, and 2) to allow me to respond to the essential substance of your essay before you submit it for grading.

The first step, of course, is reading the paper assignment and choosing a topic—follow the "paper x assigned" link on your class's schedule page on my website. 

You are not committed forevermore to the approach you set up in the proposal. It's a natural and important part of the writing process that you rethink and revise your approach as you proceed in the actual writing.

Your proposal should consist of a topic sentence outline beginning with the central question your paper will address, then indicating each body paragraph's specific "answer" to this question in its topic sentence, and concluding with your thesis statement, the succinct and comprehensive answer to the central question, combining the separate points made in the various topic sentences.

To reiterate, the outline should begin with a literal question, a complete sentence of the interrogative variety that ends in a question mark. The question you raise should set up the topic you are addressing in the simplest and most direct fashion. For instance, if you were writing about the issue of whether or not Adventures of Huckleberry Finn is a racist novel, the obvious question to raise would be, "Is Huck Finn a racist novel?" Or if you were addressing the topic of Twain's social criticism in Huck Finn, a workable question might be either "What social criticism does Twain offer in Huck Finn?" or "How does Twain criticize American society in Huck Finn?"

Your topic sentences should all answer the central question squarely and directly, as should your thesis. Note how each topic sentence and thesis answers the stated question squarely and directly in the two sample outlines below:

Paper proposal sample 1

Central question:
How does Twain criticize American society in Huck Finn?

Topic sentence 1: Twain criticizes American society first and foremost for the racial prejudice that underpinned its sanctioning of slavery.

Topic sentence 2: Twain also criticizes his society for its gullibility, as we see especially in the success of the various scams the duke and the king pull off with such ease.

Topic sentence 3: Twain criticizes nineteenth-century Americans for being cowardly in the Colonel Sherburn/Boggs episode.

Topic sentence 4: In the Grangerford and Shepherdson episode Twain criticizes the outdated and harmful notions of "honor" which were so important to his contemporary audience in the 1880s.

Thesis: Above all, Twain criticizes his late nineteenth-century American society for its prejudice, gullibility, cowardice, and foolishly romantic notions of "honor."

Note: If your question sets up an argument, as is especially the case if it suggests a "yes or no" answer or if it suggests several different contradictory answers, you might do well to include one or more body paragraphs of the "opposing viewpoint," "answers" opposed to your own as in the first two topic sentences below.

Sample 2

Central question:
Is Huckleberry Finn a racist novel?

Topic sentence 1: Some consider Huck Finn a racist novel simply because the offensive "n-word" occurs so frequently throughout the book.

Topic sentence 2: Huck Finn may seem racist also in its depiction of Jim as ignorant and superstitious.

Topic sentence 3: On the other hand, the novel may be absolved of the "racist" charge if one considers that the offensive language is a matter of historical accuracy in Twain's faithful attention to dialect and realism, and Jim's "ignorance" is an historically accurate reflection of slave owners denying slaves any formal education.

Topic sentence 4: Huck Finn is clearly not a racist novel in that Jim is the only purely admirable or "good" character in every important respect in the entire novel.

Topic sentence 5: We must acknowledge Huck Finn as clearly not a racist novel, too, in recognizing that its entire plot and its most central theme are both built around Huck's growing appreciation of Jim's essential humanity: the moral climax of the book, after all, occurs when Huck says he would rather be damned than betray Jim by returning him to slavery.

Thesis: While this classic book may seem racist in some respects, the final analysis indicates that Huck Finn is not a racist novel: the prejudice it presents is simply a matter of historical accuracy—ultimately, Jim is the one purely admirable person in the entire cast of characters, and the whole point of the book is to show Huck's recognition of Jim as his truest friend and equal.

Do let me know if you have questions about your topic or the proposal/outline. Call me at home or send email.