13. Step Eight: Writing the essay – arranging your material

Having undertaken the bulk of your reading and research, it is now time to

A Thesis Statement

If you have not already done so, you need to write a “Thesis Statement”. This is a description of the purpose of your essay in a single, terse sentence. The essay title may well help you to focus on what precisely you are intending to do but if the title is a general one you may need to be more specific. Do this now: Scribblewrite down your thesis statement. If you cannot do this yet then review what we have said above.

Here is mine:

Who was Amos, what did he achieve, and why did he do it?

On reflection, I may decide that I do not want my Thesis Statement to be a question so I can recast this as:

A survey of the life of the prophet Amos outlining his achievements and discussing his motivation.

You are not obliged to agree with my thesis statement but if yours is radically different you had better have some good reasons to be able to defend your thesis.

Checking for relevance

Consider your facts and ideas and delete any that are irrelevant to your purpose as defined by your Thesis Statement. If you become aware of any gaps in your research that need to be filled Scribblemake a note and go and find out what it is you need to know.

Looking for central points

Look at how your essay can be structured. By now it should be apparent that you have lots of material on some aspects of the essay so use these as your central points (“chapter” sounds too big). Have you found out lots about what it means to be a prophet? Use this as a key point. Or has your research given you plenty of material on the religious life of eighth century Israel? Then focus on this. Always remembering that your essay is about the prophet Amos and that you need to give specific attention to him as well as more general attention to his background. Look at your provisional outline from Step Four.

Now is the time to move everything into its final position.

Ordering your points

ScribbleDecide the order in which you will present your main divisions. In the good old days this may have involved writing notes on separate pieces of paper and shuffling them around on your desk to see how best to present them but in the brave new world of Information Technology you can do all of this by cutting and pasting on screen (but please ensure you have saved everything before you start). Do whatever suits you best. When you are satisfied that everything is where you want it to be you can number your subheadings. As we have said before, there are different ways of doing this so use whichever you are familiar with. If this is new territory for you then follow my example:

A. Introduction
B. Judah and Israel in the Eighth Century B.C.
C. The Call of the Prophet Amos
D. The Mission of the Prophet to Israel
E. The Book of Amos
F. Conclusion
G. References

We have not yet said anything about the “Introduction” and “Conclusion” but you need both, so put them in. We can fill in the details later.

“Judah and Israel in the Eighth Century B.C.” is background. The material needs to be covered but not in so much detail that it dominates the essay. Keep to the point!

“B.C.” is a standard abbreviation (for “Before Christ”) but be aware that some prefer the politically correct “B.C.E.” for “Before the Christian / Common Era”. The policy of the British Bible School is to use the traditional and Christ-honouring “A.D.” and “B.C.” although whether or not you use the full points is up to you: AD and BC seem to work just as well without them.

“The Call of the Prophet Amos” could include some background material on the call of prophets in general – but only in so far as it helps us to keep moving towards our goal. If you have found some useful material on the call of prophets in general you could document it within a footnote so you can return to it later without it taking over your essay on Amos.

“The Mission of the Prophet to Israel” needs some background. What was the problem and why did God have to send a Judahite to Israel to address this problem? This section should send us into the text of the Book of Amos for our answers.

“The Book of Amos” might need an outline of the book itself and you may wish to ask who wrote it and when and also how much of the record is historically accurate. Sceptics will be sceptical here but you should be able to find some responses that defend the reliability of Scripture. Again, your arguments may need to be summarised in footnotes to keep your essay manageable.

“References” will list all sources from which you quoted both directly (within quotation marks) and indirectly (as summaries of what was said) as well as all other sources that have helped you.

A logical sequence

ScribbleWithin each division, arrange your material in a logical sequence that will allow your readers to follow your arguments. Lead the reader step by careful step from one point to the next. If the reader has to make a jump there may be something missing in what you have written. Depending on how much material you have you may need to sub-divide. Here is one example from my outline:

B. Judah and Israel in the Eighth Century B.C.

1. Judah: loyal to the House of David

2. Israel and the Sin of Jeroboam the Son of Nebat

3. Israel During the Reign of Jeroboam II

We could say more but too much background is too much.

On a more serious level, it is important to prepare carefully when writing about a complex subject. Your object throughout is to sort your material into a few simply-arranged groups and sometimes your research and preparation will take longer than the writing, which can be disappointing: all that work to produce a couple of paragraphs! But if you can get to the point and keep to the point every word should make a contribution and we, when we assess your essays, look for quality not quantity.

A reasonable conclusion

Make sure your conclusion is a consequence of what you have written. If you write something along the lines of “Amos is therefore one of the greatest prophets in the Bible” are you certain the body of your essay has in fact shown this to be true?

Reviewing headings

Review your title and sub-headings critically. They should identify and not merely describe the subject matter under them. Do not try to be too clever. You are not writing headlines for a newspaper and amusing puns and other types of word play are not appropriate in what is intended to be a serious piece of work. Brevity is desirable but three or four precise and informative words are better one or two vague ones.

Visual aids

Consider what use you can make of visual aids. Maps, timelines, photographs, all can help get your point across but do not use them merely for decorative purposes or filler. A map showing Tekoa in relation to Jerusalem and Bethel is going to be much clearer than trying to describe it. Do not forget that all visuals need a title and if you have taken them from another source you must give appropriate credit.

Checking footnotes

ScribbleCheck that your footnotes are ready to be inserted. If you have the technology footnotes (at the foot of each page) are much easier to use than end-notes (at the end of the essay) as the reader can see what is written at a glance rather than having to find the end of the essay. Footnotes may contain additional information that would interrupt the flow of your argument if they were included within the main body, but they should not be used to exceed word limits. They may be used:

  • To give full details of quotations or references given in the text. (Some prefer to include Biblical references within parentheses in the text rather than relegating them to footnotes. This is a matter of personal style.)
  • To indicate authorities or sources of additional information.
  • To show that you are aware of alternative points of view.

A footnote is made by placing a superscript number 1 after the quotation and the same number at the foot (bottom) of the page with the comment or bibliographic details in a smaller font size if typing or in your usual handwriting but under a ruled line if writing by hand so as to separate the footnotes from the body of the text. For example:

Some doubt the necessity of Bible study but most Christians would disagree. As John Job says:

“The purpose of Bible study is thus that the message of a particular passage should become part of us. This is our objective in the long run with the Bible as a whole. This aim may be achieved, as we have made clear, in a variety of ways, but it can be achieved only with effort.”2

And at the bottom of the page we see: (see below)

It is worth introducing two Latin phrases that you often meet in footnotes: ibid. and op. cit. Both are in italics as they are foreign words (underline them if writing by hand) and both have full points after them as they are abbreviations. Ibid. is short for ibidem, “in the same place” and is used if the same source is used again directly after the first quote. If you quote from the same source after quoting from another source in between then the author’s surname (or the editor’s name, if appropriate) is given, followed by op. cit. or loc. cit. followed by the page number. Op. cit. is short for opere citato, “in the work cited” and loc. cit. is loco citato, “in the place cited”. Do not worry – you will get used to all this jargon. Here is another good one before you get sick of all this Latin: sic, “thus”.

This common word is used by writers and editors to indicate an apparent misspelling or a doubtful word or phrase in a source being quoted. ‘This dessiccant [sic] is useless.’ ‘The meeting was the most fortuitous [sic] I ever attended.’ Insertion of sic in these examples absolves the quoter of misspelling the word ‘desiccant’ and misusing the word ‘fortuitous’ and lays the blame – if blame it is – on the source quoted.

(It is not generally considered necessary to give page numbers when quoting from a dictionary as the reader can be assumed to know that these are arranged alphabetically and so the entry for sic comes after sesquipedalian verba (“oppressively long words”) and before sic itur ad astra (“this is the path to immortality”) but I do not suppose that this is a major point.)

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  1. A little numeral above the type line
  2. Job, John B., Studying God’s Word, 1972:10