Every trail has its end, and every calamity brings its lesson.” ―James Fenimore Cooper
When I was in grad school, I wrote a paper on James Fenimore Cooper. My original idea was to talk about the humor in his books. This was, admittedly, rather an obscure idea and one hard to defend. But I thought I could do it. I wrote my thesis statement and set about building my argument from his major works.
As I pulled my argument together, I began to see threads of another argument that I thought I could blend into the first to provide stronger support. Instead, I soon found the paper extending from seven pages to fourteen to twenty, and yet I couldn’t wrap it up. I brought it to a hasty conclusion in the wee hours of the due date, and it was still a mess. Why? Because I had two main ideas instead of one, and if you’re familiar with the meaning of the word main, you’ll realize that I had a conundrum on my hands.
When is a main idea not a main idea? When you’ve got two of them.
It was a Sisyphean task, and quite possibly the worst paper I’ve ever written. In the years hence I’ve worked with many a subject matter expert whose online courses also suffered from competing “main” ideas.
How to tease out the single, most compelling, core idea for an entire course, book, report, blog, etc. has to be one of the most difficult tasks we face when we write.
So let me be straight with you here. My one core idea for this blog is to teach you how to use a pyramid diagram to sort out your one main idea for whatever you write.
How to Use a Pyramid Diagram to Verify Your Main Idea
You can work your pyramid from the top block down or from the bottom row up. Either way, your goal is twofold. First, to make sure that everything beneath the top block supports it; second, that the top block is truly above (not equal to) any of the blocks supporting it. And that means, by default, that you can’t have two “top” blocks.
Okay, roll up your sleeves and let’s get started. We’ll use my rotten literature paper as our playground.
Starting from the Top of the Pyramid
Let’s start from the top, with the statement of core intent. Ask yourself:
- What’s the subject of this writing project?
- What question am I answering about the subject?
- What’s the answer?
Answer the questions. In the case of James Fenimore Cooper, the answers could have looked like this:
- What’s the subject of this writing?
- The subject is Cooper’s novels. (You can see how that answer alone is way too broad to be manageable. That’s why we have to dig deeper.)
- What question am I answering about the subject?
- Does Cooper demonstrate a deliberate sense of humor, and if so, how and to what end?
- What’s the answer?
- Yes, he does demonstrate a deliberate sense of humor through his descriptions of characters and situations, to…
And here is where it gets sticky. You’ve got to get that why into this statement, and it could be several things:
- Yes, he does demonstrate a deliberate sense of humor through his descriptions of characters and situations, to add color and humanity to his stories.
- Yes, he does demonstrate a deliberate sense of humor through his descriptions of characters and situations, to lighten up his otherwise heavy moral message.
- Yes, he does demonstrate a deliberate sense of humor through his descriptions of characters and situations, to help tag the nature of his characters.
- Yes, he does demonstrate a deliberate sense of humor through his descriptions of characters, and examining these character descriptions will help us appreciate Cooper’s writing style.
Notice that all the statements will require proof that Cooper has a sense of humor. The first three require proof that the sense of humor does specific work in the novels. The fourth one requires proof that Cooper’s writing style is better than we might think because of his sense of humor, and it narrows the focus to character descriptions—whereas the first three could also include narrative passages and descriptions of the setting. Note, too, that the second one will require developing a position on Cooper’s “heavy moral message.”
The point of all that noticing is that there’s stuff to talk about in all four, signaling that each one is “big” enough to work as the main idea.
All four statements can sit at the top of a pyramid, and you could even combine them in a single statement that would likely need a much longer development. But once you settle on the main idea, the supporting blocks below must develop only that one proposition. You can’t go mucking about in Cooper’s heavy moral tone, for instance, if you’ve decided to focus on how humor helps humanize the characters.
Ask “Why” to Build Your Major Points
As you move to the first row of major points, you’re again asking, “Why?” For instance:
- Why do you say that he has a sense of humor?
- Why will examining his sense of humor help me appreciate Cooper’s writing?
And so forth. You fill in that second row with these questions, and if you’ve got sufficient material, you should be able to ask at least two or three major questions. If you find that you have more than three major questions, you need to consider whether your one main point needs to be narrowed or how long your content will need to be to address all your major questions.
A longer work, such as a book or a 60-lecture course, will obviously address more than a few major questions and have a broad enough core idea to develop through such length. On the other hand, if you find that you don’t have at least two major questions, you need to broaden your one main point.
Ask “How” and Answer “Because” to Build Your Subpoints
The next tiers, down to the bottom tiers, answer “how” your statement at the top and your major points come to be true. Put another way, you might start every lower tier with “Because…” Those statements would go in the blocks on each level, with more blocks in turn supporting them as you unpacked them.
Effective Structure Is Both Vertical and Horizontal
But the pyramid isn’t just vertical—representing the connections between points and subpoints. It’s also horizontal, representing the ways that the subpoints work together to hold up the larger points and the main point.
All the ideas below the main point at the very top will always have both a vertical and a horizontal relationship to the other ideas in the material. Any idea that doesn’t, either doesn’t belong or is in competition with the main point.
How to Test Your Main Point and Supporting Points
As you add your supporting tiers, then, you can continually test the efficacy of your main point and your supporting points (both points and subpoints) by checking them against one another. How do you do that? Ask questions such as these:
- Does this point help explain “why” and “how” for the main point, or does this point bring in a different idea that is unrelated to the main point?
- Does this subpoint help explain “how” for the point or bring in a new idea that is different than the point and steers away from the main point?
- Does this subpoint say the same thing as another subpoint?
- Is another main idea emerging? If so, what is it? Is it stronger (i.e., more supportable) than the main idea I have?
- Thinking about this visually, are you building too far out in one direction or another to create a solid pyramid? If you throw your points on sticky notes and physically lay this out on a wall or table, you will see clearly how it’s developing and whether you need to make some changes.
Use Deductive or Inductive Reasoning to Build Your Pyramid
In the example above, we started from the top of the pyramid and worked our way down to build tiers of our points and subpoints. This is the route of deductive reasoning (start with a thesis statement and provide supportive facts and examples).
But we could have built our pyramid with inductive reasoning by starting with that bottom row, listing all our examples. Then we could have examined them to see what they led us to conclude; those conclusions would build the next row up, and so forth, until we got to one final conclusion. That final conclusion would be the block on top of the pyramid.
Whether you build your pyramid from the top down or bottom up (and likely you’ll go back and forth, deductively and inductively), paying attention to the overall shape as well as each level will help you verify that only one main idea is truly capping off the whole affair.
If you build your pyramid before you start writing, and then revise your main idea according to your findings, you will have a much easier time writing because everything you write will have already been verified as belonging to your structure.
In my paper on Cooper’s humor, I didn’t have a strong enough base to support my thesis, so I kept broadening the base to have enough to write about. I failed to recognize (in time, anyway), that I had two competing capstones and needed to rewrite the main point. The tiers of the pyramid revealed this to be the case, however, and if I had been drawing out my organizational structure, I probably would have ended up with something that looked more like a lopsided steamship with two big chimneys.
So get out your Lego blocks and build a structure around one main idea. That would be a pyramid, not a steamship.
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Please send me your questions for future issues, and tune in next Friday for Issue #32 of “Everything You Need to Know to Create Outstanding Online Courses.” We’ll talk about the role of titles in developing an online course.
Contact Marcy for help crafting your online course: https://www.marcymcdonald.com/contact.html
Marcy McDonald is an Online Course Producer. She helps Subject Matter Experts and Professors create online courses with better content, delivery, and production, for better teaching. She’s developed ~450 online courses for lifelong learners, worked in video and audio studios, and filmed in the field (literally).
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