Cause and Effect Essays
© Bill Stifler, 1997

Dangers in Writing the Cause/Effect Essay

Confusing Modes

Be careful when writing the cause and effect essay that you do not slip into other modes. The two modes that sometimes get confused with cause and effect essays are process and narrative essays.

Process: A process essay explains how to do something or how something happened. The process essay focuses on procedure, one step leading to another toward a final product. The thesis in the process essay focuses on the significance, importance, relevance, or value of the final product or of the process itself.

Narrative: A narrative essay tells a story about something that happened. The narrative essay focuses on chronology, certain things happening in a certain order. The thesis in the narrative essay focuses on the personal significance, importance, relevance, or value of the event--the change that occurred to the narrator. Because the narrative essay is in the expressive mode, the reader is not so much to understand how or why this event changed the reader as to vicariously share in the feelings of the narrator as he or she responds to the event. The change that is dealt with in the narrative essay, therefore, has an emotional impact on both the narrator and, vicariously, the reader (for a definition of vicarious, go to Webster's Online).

Cause/Effect: The cause and effect essay explains why something happened. The cause and effect essay focuses on the relationships between actions, motivations, or attitudes and the consequences which follow. The thesis of the cause and effect essay focuses on the significance, importance, relevance, or value of those consequences. For that reason, cause and effect essays may follow non-linear patterns of organization; that is, the cause and effect essay may order causes or effects according to their significance, importance, relevance, or value and not according to their chronology. For a cause and effect essay to have validity, then, the cause must lead to the effect and not merely chronologically precede the effect. For instance, the fact that a black cat crossed my path a few minutes before I was struck by a baseball does not prove cause and effect. The action of the cat merely occurred prior to the ball striking me. To argue otherwise is to fall into the post hoc (literally, before this) fallacy (faulty thinking).

Faulty Cause/Effect Relationships

Another danger when writing the cause and effect essay is viewing the cause/effect relationships shallowly by oversimplifying either the causes or the effects. For instance, people oversimplify effects by assuming that what may be a cause and effect relationship in some instances is the cause and effect relationship in all instances. Writers oversimplify causes when they assume that one cause is sufficient for a particular effect which may have resulted from a number of causes. Some things may contribute to a particular consequence, others may be sufficient in themselves to result in a particular consequence, still others may be necessary to produce a particular consequence. The writer engaged in causal analysis reveiws possible relationships and draws a conclusion about the relationships between possible causes and actual outcomes (or in some cases, actual causes and forecasted outcomes).

When prewriting/revising a cause and effect essay, carefully evalutate relationships between causes and effects:

Range: Is the cause immediate or distant from the effect? The more distant the cause, the less certain its impact.

Degree: Is the cause possible, probable, or definite?

Extent: Is the cause necessary to produce the effect (without the cause, the effect would not have taken place), sufficient to produce the effect (the cause, by itself, could produce the effect, or this is the sole cause of this effect), or merely a contributing factor in producing the effect (the cause played a minor but not insignificant role in producing the effect)?

Types of Cause/Effect Essays

Like comparison/contrast essays, cause/effect essays fall into four types or patterns of organization:

Valuation:Valuation essays focus on issues of value or worth. This type of cause/effect essay deals with consequences and often includes essays that discuss the factors leading to or results/effects of a decision.

Example thesis: My teachers at Chattanooga State have forced me to evaluate my priorites, develop self-discipline, and think critically.

Interpretation: Interpretation essays explain the unknown by reference to what is known. This type of cause/effect essay begins with a known cause and projects probable effects or begins with a known effect and infers probable causes. The analysis of the causes and effects, therefore, are generally speculative.

Example thesis: Total nuclear war would destroy modern civilization.

Analysis: Analysis essays break a subject down into its constituent parts for the purpose of understanding their function in relation to the whole. This type of cause/effect essay focuses on the major causes leading to some effect, the major effects of some cause, or cause-effect chains in order to understand the meaning of, importance of, or significance of some event, occurrence, action, or attitude.

Example thesis: The Civil War had lasting effects on the American psyche.

Synthesis: Synthesis essays explore the connections of some subject with a larger context. This type of cause/effect essay explores the broader implications to be drawn or relevance of the causes and/or effects behind some event, occurrence, action, or attitude.

Example thesis: The military decisions and policies which led to thousands of soldiers suffering months of anguish from Gulf War syndrome reveal the need for a Congressional board of inquiry into Pentagon practices.

Organization of the Cause/Effect Essay

Introduction: The introduction to the cause/effect essay should explain the significance, importance, relevance, or value behind the cause and effect relationship being studied. If the essay is a valuation approach, then the introduction will focus on the value behind the consequences of the action/actions being discussed. If the essay is interpretive, the introduction will focus on the significance, importance, relevance, or value of exploring the probable causes or probable effects. If the essay is analytical, the introduction will focus on why the reader should understand the major causes or effects being explained. If the essay is synthetic, the introduction will explain the significance, importance, relevance, or value of the implications involved in the cause/effect relationships.

Body: Each body paragraph will begin with a clear topic sentence that focuses on a consequence, cause, effect, or implication of a cause/effect. The remainder of the paragraph will provide support for that topic sentence in the form of evidence.

Conclusion: The conclusion of the cause/effect essay will return to the reason for writing about the cause/effect relationships. In valuation essays, the conclusion will return to the value of the relationships or the significance of the consequences of what has happened. In interpretative essays, the conclusion will do with the significance and importance of the speculations made, often providing a warning about potential consequences or suggestions for what might have been done to prevent the action. Analysis essays often conclude by recapping the major causes or effects which have been identified and reiterating the significance of the cause/effect. Finally, synthesis essays return to the significance, importance, relevance, or value of the cause/effect relationships as they impact the larger context of the discussion.