On the Spartans and the Perfect Paper

I have a ten page paper due in 3 days and I’m not worried about it at all. In fact, I haven’t had to worry about a paper since before high school. I’ve developed a formula for your academic paper or essay that has been so successful that in almost every English class I ever used it in, the teacher printed it out and taught it as curriculum. So far I’ve been hesitant to teach to more than a few friends, but I figured I can give it away here.

Let’s begin with a bit history to lay the foundation. The tactics of Spartan general Brasidas are an apt analogy here. Brasidas stood apart from his Peloponnesian comrades due to his rhetorical skills and ability to see war–as Von Clausewitz put it–as the extension of politics by another means. In other words, he fought with ingenuity and a level of elegance unseen in the rest of the brutish Spartan ranks. Particularly in retreats, Brasidas would bring his troops together in an outward facing square with their supplies and wounded in the middle. As they moved away from unfavorable ground, the men would defend their side stepping out only slightly to meet their attackers and then retreating immediately back to the safety of the shape. And thus they were completely impenetrable, able to travel fluidly and slowly demoralize the attacking army.

This essay format works similarly. Consider your introduction as the creator of the shape, and then the following paragraphs making up each side. They venture outwards when called to but it never abandon entirely, the safety of the formation. It is a process of constant realignment, maintaining the square at all cost. Your thesis–like the intro–imitates the square, so it so it always a point of return. Chuck Palahniuk calls these “chorus lines” and you can see in books like Fight Club, how whenever the plot skitters too far to the fringes he immediately comes back to one–“I am Jack’s sense of rejection.” And so the reader is once more protected in the center of the squared troops and doubt is successfully fended off.

So let’s look at the outline for a hypothetical five paragraph paper:

Introduction: (see an entire one here)

1. Begin with a broad, conclusive hook. This will be the metatheme of the paper. Ex: “When citizens exhibit a flagrant disregard of morality and law, societies quickly crumble.”

2. Thesis. This needs to specify and codify the hook in relation to the prompt/subject. Ex: “This atmosphere as shown in F. Scott Fitzgerald’s “The Great Gatsby”–with blatant corruption and illegal activity–eventually seems to become all but incompatible with a meaningful incarnation of the American Dream.”

3. One sentence laying foundation for first body paragraph. (These are mini-theses for each point you will argue.)

4 sentence for second body paragraph.

5. One sentence for third body paragraph.

6. Restate the hook and thesis into a single transition sentence into the first paragraph. “The 1920’s as the epitome of excess and reactionism symbolized a sharp break in the American tradition; one that no one seemed to mind.”

Body #1

1. Rewrite first body paragraph thesis.

2. Support the mini-thesis with evidence and analysis.


-Begin with your strongest piece of evidence

-Introduce quotes/points like this: Broad–>Specific–>Analysis/Conclusion

-Always integrate the quote, and try to incorporate analysis into the same sentence. As a general rule never use more than 5-7 of the author’s words. Normally you can use even less: “It was Jay, who despite the corruption around him, looked forward to what was described as an ‘orgastic future.'”

3. Restate body paragraph thesis in the context of thesis as a whole.

Body #2

1 Rewrite second body paragraph thesis.

2. Support mini-thesis

3. Restate body paragraph thesis in context of the paragraph above and thesis as whole

Body #3

1. Rewrite third body paragraph thesis.

2. Support mini-thesis

3. Restate body paragraph thesis in context of the paragraph above and thesis as whole


1. Restate hook/metatheme.

2. Specify this with restatement of thesis once more

3. One sentence for each body paragraph, surmising its assertion

4. One sentence for each body paragraph, surmising its assertion

5. One sentence for each body paragraph, surmising its assertion

6. Rewrite hook and thesis into a conclusion sentence.

7. Transition to general statement about human nature. “The American dream–and any higher aspiration–requires a society that both looks forward and onwards as well as holds itself to corrective standard.”

And that’s it. So you can see why this frees you up as a writer; essentially, the format requires just six original sentences and the rest is nothing more but reiteration and support. The idea that you ought to “reread your paper to make sure you have a thesis” is completely irrelevant here in that the paper literally could not exist without one. In most cases, I’ve already written the entire paper before even sitting down at the computer. Just like the tactics of Brasidas , you forge the rudimentary shape with the introduction and then all that’s left is defense. No longer is the professor grading you in terms of the prompt, because you have redefined the dynamic on your terms. By emphatically laying out your own rules and track, excellence is achieved simply by fulfilling them. You take the prompt and make it your own. You place the reader in the middle of the square, protected by all sides, and methodically move them forward, defending doubts and objections as they arise.

Consider how well–if done right–this format addresses every possible angle of the subject. The thesis is buttressed at the top by your metaphysical hook and at the end by your look forward. The middle then, is simply dealing with reality, the easily quantifiable part.

Consider too, how easy this is. The thesis is the entire paper–as it is, and always should have been. Once that is written, everything else falls quickly into place. The metatheme, logically, is deduced from your primary theme just as your mini-themes are. All that is left to the writer is to simple decide a theme and record it to paper. And like Palahniuk, when we venture too far from it, remind the reader with a chorus line.

And if you object too much to rigid structure, consider the freedom this truly allows you. Once you’ve disregarded–or been able to reduce to the subconscious–the actual form of the paper, all that is left is the ideas. Isn’t that what is truly important? Would you rather parrot back plot summary or take the theme not only to a new level, but an understandable one? If a professor can’t respect that, what does their grade even mean? All I know is that this technique has allowed me both to remove any sort of stress from paper-writing, and even better, given me the opportunity to put to words, concepts I’m grappling with.

Update: I posted on this topic again, and fleshed out the entire introduction for a paper I wrote.

Update #2: Xenophon vastly improved Brasidas’ tactics, which I discussed here

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Written by Ryan Holiday
Ryan Holiday is the bestselling author of Trust Me, I’m Lying, The Obstacle Is The Way, Ego Is The Enemy, and other books about marketing, culture, and the human condition. His work has been translated into thirty languages and has appeared everywhere from the Columbia Journalism Review to Fast Company. His company, Brass Check, has advised companies such as Google, TASER, and Complex, as well as Grammy Award winning musicians and some of the biggest authors in the world. He lives in Austin, Texas.