Writing Guide: Two Methods of Constructing Paragraphs using Conflicting Interpretations

If you know how to write a topic sentence and how to analyze quotes, you more or less know how to write a paragraph. Write the topic sentence, offer a sentence of context, copy the quote, serve up a couple lines of analysis—and presto, you’ve got an analytical paragraph.

What about the arguments that you didn’t make, however? What about the smaller supporting examples, the larger counterexamples, or the alternative analyses you might have given? In a strong paper, these sorts of side explanations aren’t supplemental to your main argument; they’re the foundation of a strong argument.

Here are two ways of writing paragraphs that incorporate alternate—and sometimes conflicting—interpretations.

Use Hierarchies of Meaning

Establishing priorities of what is and isn’t important constitutes half the work of argumentation. Use Hierarchies of Meaning to structure papers, paragraphs, and even sentences.

What are hierarchies of meaning? Think of phrases that tell a reader one point is more important than another:

- “More importantly,”

- “Most significantly,”

- “Not only____ but ______,”

- “A closer reading reveals that…”

These phrases establish hierarchies between points while showing off the writer’s ability to go deeper. Hierarchies of meaning are essential for establishing the depth of an argument.

What does it mean for an argument to go deeper, though? Deeper can actually mean going closer or farther away:

- Looking more closely at the language

- Looking more broadly at the quote in context

As a result, your “deeper” argument may support or challenge the superficial argument.

How to use hierarchies of meaning?

While hierarchies of meaning can be used to structure any series of examples or interpretations (see “Incorporate Counterpoint” below for some examples), they are primarily useful for establishing the relative weight of three kinds of interpretation: the speaker’s interpretation, the author’s interpretation, and in the case of a research paper, your interpretation.

Here, for example, is a model analytical paragraph incorporating three hierarchies of meaning (though few paragraphs will incorporate all three):

- Topic Sentence (The author/character suggests that…) (1 sentence)

- Background context for quote (1–2 sentences)

- Quote, incorporated into your own writing (1 sentence)

- Recap of what speaker means in your own words (1 sentence)

- Hierarchy of Meaning to show speaker’s interpretation:

“More importantly,” what a close look at the language of the quote reveals about the speaker’s interpretation of events (2–3 sentences)

- Hierarchy of Meaning to show author’s interpretation:

“Most significantly,” what a look at the context of the quote reveals about the author’s interpretation of the speaker (Should we believe the speaker? Does the author agree with the speaker? How can the speaker’s quote here be compared to quotes and actions elsewhere?) (2–3 sentences)

- Hierarchy of Meaning to show your interpretation (research paper only):

“Ultimately, it can be concluded/argued that” one of the interpretations above is more compelling than another or neither interpretation is valid because [insert point about problems of previous interpretations] (2–5 sentences)

Incorporate Counterpoint

You have a doubt about your own argument — a counterpoint. You have four ways for dealing with this counterpoint:

- Ignore it: It can be a distraction to acknowledge every little argument.

- Refute it: Disproving the counterpoint strengthens your own argument.

- Minimize it: Acknowledge it’s valid, but not as important.

- Reconcile it: Prove it actually supports your point despite appearances.

In most cases, you shouldn’t ignore the counterpoint. After all, if you have a doubt about your argument, your reader will likely have the same doubt, and you should address it.

In fact, many top writers will begin by asking what others would say about a text (point A) and then see if they can flip the interpretation to offer something more original (point B). “Although the speaker seems to support Point A, a closer reading reveals that in fact, she is questioning this notion with Point B.” (Note the use of “a closer reading reveals,” from the hierarchies of meaning phrases above). Incorporating counterpoint is often essential for establishing the originality of an argument.

In fact, you can often use your own doubts to structure papers, paragraphs, or sentences.

How to use counterpoint?

- In the intro: Use a straw man argument to establish a false, way-too-obvious argument you will brilliantly refute throughout your paper (see intros)

- As the second body paragraph: You can devote your first body paragraph to a claim, your second to counter-arguments, and your third to refute these

- Within the paragraph (before main example)

If you want to refute the counterpoint, place it before the main example:

“It may seem as though… [insert counterpoint]”

“Yet in fact… [insert main example]”

- Within the paragraph (after main example)

If you want to minimize or reconcile the counterpoint, place it after the main example:

“The author suggests that… [analyze main example]”

“While it might be argued that [counterpoint], nevertheless…”