Another Essay on Essay writing
An Introduction To Essay Writing
The word "essay" comes from the French essai, a try or attempt. The essay is an attempt to communicate information, opinion, or feeling, and usually it presents an argument about a topic. In the university context, an essay is an exercise that gives the student an opportunity to explore and clarify thoughts about a subject. In the larger world the essay appears in newspapers as opinion articles, editorials, reviews, and the more thorough commentary on news.
If at times the essay form seems a little artificial, or removed from the kinds of writing you expect to produce when you leave university, remember that the skills you learn in thinking, organizing, researching, and writing will be required in almost any career. There will always be expository reports to write and arguments to present.
Writing As A Process
In Greek legend, the goddess of wisdom, Athena, was born fully armed from the head of Zeus. Unfortunately, this is the only recorded instance of instant wisdom. Especially in the medium of the written word, the communication of complex ideas is a process--a process that requires thinking and rethinking, working and reworking. The student who claims to have dashed off an 'A' essay at one in the morning the night before it was due is either a liar or a genius.
Writing is a complex process; it is a learned craft which requires a lot of practice, and no formula can guarantee a good essay. What we suggest in the following section is a workable linear model for preparing and writing an essay--it could be summed up in a chart, thus:
But the actual process you will probably go through will be far more complicated, more like this:
The important thing is to keep the simple model in mind. As you become more proficient, you will become more confident in developing your own study practices and writing techniques.
Types of Essays
The Expository Essay
Sample topic: "How to Tame a Dragon."
The function of the expository essay is to explain, or to acquaint your reader with a body of knowledge. By explaining a topic to the reader, you are demonstrating your own knowledge.
For example, if you are asked to write an essay about taming dragons, you decide what you plan to concentrate on, create a paragraph structure, and describe the process step by step. An essay becomes more complicated when a position has to be defended, as in a persuasive essay.
The Persuasive Essay
Sample topic: "Dragons Should Not Be Tamed"
In the persuasive essay, you must defend your side of an argument. You are no longer merely showing, you are convincing.
The persuasive essay must choose a side, make a case for it, consider and refute alternative arguments, and prove to the undecided reader that the opinion it presents is the best one. You must be aware of other sides and be fair to them; dismissing them completely will weaken your own argument.
It is always best to take a side that you believe in, preferably with the most supporting evidence. It can often be educational to adopt a different position from what you might normally choose (debating requires this kind of flexibility).
The Informal Essay
Sample topic: "Me and My Dragon."
The informal essay is written mainly for enjoyment. This is not to say that it cannot be informative or persuasive; however, it is less a formal statement than a relaxed expression of opinion, observation, humour or pleasure. A good informal essay has a relaxed style but retains a strong structure, though that structure may be less rigid than in a formal paper.
The informal essay tends to be more personal than the formal, even though both may express subjective opinions. In a formal essay the writer is a silent presence behind the words, while in an informal essay the writer is speaking directly to the reader in a conversational style. If you are writing informally, try to maintain a sense of your own personality. Do not worry about sounding academic, but avoid sloppiness.
An Informal Essay--On Punctuation
The essay which follows is an opinion piece that was written forThe Globe and Mail. The style is therefore journalistic but aimed at a fairly sophisticated readership. Paragraphs are short, as is normal in a newspaper with its narrow columns, and the tone is more conversational than would be appropriate for a formal essay. Notice the clear statement of the thesis, the concrete illustrations in the body of the essay, and the way the conclusion leads to a more general statement of what is perhaps to come in the future.
It is included here both because it is a good example of the essay form and because it explores the kind of problem you will come up against as you try to punctuate your essays correctly.
Minding Your P'S And Q'S
by John Allemang
I hereby call this meeting of Nit-pickers Anonymous to order. Today we will deal with the apostrophe, which you might say at first glance is as small a nit as can be picked. But let me suggest to you that even though the apostrophe is a tiny little mark on the page, it's use and misuse??make that its use and misuse--can lead to much head-scratching and irritation.
You say this problem doesn't concern you. You say you know the in's and out's, the why's and wherefore's, of apostrophic etiquette. Or should that be ins, outs, whys, wherefores? Yes I think it should, although ins looks pretty strange on the page. And if ins looks strange, what about yeses and noes or hes and shes or ps and qs? Or should that be p's and q's? Yes, it should, according to the style I'm forced to follow at The Globe and Mail.
Caught your attention? I didn't think so. It's??right one, this time??hard to interest anyone in apostrophes. They're easy, people say, or they don't matter. You'd've thought folks're smarter than that. It's thinking like this that has given us ads proclaiming "Potatoe's??49\O(,/) a kilo" or signs warning "Auto's parked illegally may be tagged and towed" or rock critics plugging Guns 'n Roses. Nits these may be, but the world is lousy with them.
The problem with explaining apostrophes--apart from the fact that nobody takes them too seriously--is that they cannot be made systematic. We say Tom's and his the same way, and by that final s we mean the same thing, possession or belonging. But one carries an apostrophe and the other doesn't. The word his is the older form, and shows us the possessive as our ancestors used to deal with it. His is the genitive, or possessive, form of the pronoun he, and nouns in English that indicated this grammatical relationship took this form. The apostrophe was originally added to show that letter e had been left out of the genitive, but by the 18th century the apostrophe was being used in almost all possessives, even those without an e.
That may sound reasonably systematic, but the system is once again collapsing. That wouldn't be a bad thing if we could collapse in unison, and get rid of the apostrophe altogether and write dont instead of don't. But instead all is flux and we seem to be at sixes and sevens (six's and seven's? 6's and 7's? 6s and 7s?).
Look at how we deal with periods of time. At The Globe, the decade of rampant materialism and Gorbymania was called the 1980s, but at The New York Times they say the 1980's. Since there is nothing omitted here and no suggestion of possession, I can't see why The Times carries on in this way. The reasoning of The Times' word columnist, William Safire, is that the apostrophe is used to form the plurals of numbers and letters, and so there.
Mr. Safire compares p's and q's, and the phrase dressed to the nine's, but to my mind the truth is not quite so self-evident. If one rule of writing is to keep punctuation to a minimum, then I think that 1980s, a natural looking plural, is much nicer than 1980's. Accept 1980's and you start referring to The Smith's or the delegation of MP's.
But what about p's and q's? The reason we don't mind them at The Globe is that individual letters are easier to see as individual letters, uncluttered by a neighbouring s. And here's where we get unsystematic. Turn those letters into capitals and suddenly they're As and Bs and MPs and VIPs, comprehensible and a little more elegant without the apostrophe. This kind of plural is made easier when you have left out the periods between letters, as is more and more the case with modern style.
But still there is confusion. For every St. Andrew's, there is a St. Andrews, where long use has banished the apostrophe and made the s part of the name. St. Catharines, St. Marys, St. Davids, Canada is full of slights to punctuation. The Canadian Teachers' Federation is doing its best to keep the apostrophe alive, but what can they do against the massed forces of the Canadian Swine Breeders Association and the Teamsters union? We are turning away from the apostrophe. (The Globe and Mail, March 23, 1991. Reprinted by permission.)
Sample title: "The Fire Inside: A Review of John Scale's Dragons."
A review may be either formal or informal, depending on the context. Its goal is to evaluate a work, which implies that the reviewer's personal opinion plays a significant role in the process. However, a certain objective standard needs to be maintained and, as in a persuasive essay, your assertions need to be proved.
The formality of the review will be determined by how much of the essay is analysis, how much is summary, and how much is your reaction to the work you are reviewing. A more formal review will not only discuss the work on its own merits but also place it in context. Newspapers and popular magazines tend to review in terms of finance: is this record or film worth spending money on? Critical journals will attempt to determine whether a new novel or play has achieved something new and significant. A good review will discuss both the qualities and the importance of a given work.
The Research Essay
Sample topic: "Dragons and Demons in Norse Mythology."
The research essay leads you into the works of others and asks you to compare their thoughts with your own. Writing a research paper involves going to source material and synthesizing what you learn from it with your own ideas. You must find texts on the subject and use them to support the topic you have been given to explore. Because it is easy to become lost in a wilderness of outside material, you must take particular care to narrow your topic.
The greatest danger inherent in the research essay is plagiarism. If your paper consists of a string of quotations or paraphrases with little input of your own, you are not synthesizing but copying, and you should expect a low grade. If any of the borrowings are unacknowledged, you are plagiarizing, and the penalties are severe. The pages on Quotations give information on how to use secondary sources properly, and the one on Works Cited and Bibliography has instructions for documenting your sources.
A research paper should demonstrate what you have learned, but it should also show that you have a perspective of your own on the subject.
The Literary Essay
"The Characterization of Dragons
in the Works of Tolkien"
In the literary essay, you are exploring the meaning and construction of a piece of literature. This task is more complicated than reviewing, though the two are similarly evaluative. In a review you are discussing the overall effect and validity of written work, while in a literary essay you are paying more attention to specifics.
A literary essay focusses on such elements as structure, character, theme, style, tone, and subtext. You are taking a piece of writing and trying to discover how and why it is put together the way it is. You must adopt a viewpoint on the work in question and show how the details of the work support your viewpoint.
A literary essay may be your own interpretation, based only on your reading of the piece, or it may be a mixture of your opinions and references to the criticism of others, much like a research paper. Again, be wary of plagiarism plagiarism and of letting the opinions of more experienced writers swamp your own response to the work. If you are going to consult the critics, you should reread the literary work you are discussing and make some notes on it before looking at any criticism.
Writing Your Essay: Getting Started
Narrowing Your Essay Topic
The first step in writing an essay is finding something to write about. Whether you are working from a list of assigned topics or selecting your own, try to find something which sparks your interest: not only will working on the assignment be more stimulating, but your commitment will also help you write a more convincing essay. Some preliminary reading may help determine how deep your interest goes, as well as letting you know what kind of material will be available as you write your essay.
A common problem of beginning writers is wallowing around in a topic too wide for their purposes. General words such as "media,""war," "life,"or "nature"are often incorrectly used as if they were topics (even "dragons"is too broad). However, students often begin to write essays with nothing more in mind than a general concept, and the result is a vague and generalized essay, of little interest to the student and less to the instructor. If you start with a broad area, concentrate on narrowing your subject„it will also help you deal with your topic within the length of the paper assigned and the time you have been given to complete it.
You can narrow your topic by considering a particular approach to the subject, or a sub-topic within it. You might ask yourself key questions, such as the following:
Am I writing of one specific species of dragon, or of dragons in general?
What kind of dragon do I wish to write about? Chinese? Fire-breathers? Kites?
What activities, qualities, or myths of that particular dragon do I wish to explore?
Am I writing of one war or of war in general?
Which war do I wish to write about? WWI? WWII? The Gulf War? "War"taken more metaphorically„between the sexes, siblings, or members of different races?
Am I concentrating on the history of the war itself, or its causes or outcome?
What specific events or examples will illustrate my points?
In deriving a workable topic from your subject, be careful not to narrow it too far; your topic must provide scope to develop a sustained presentation and argument.
General subject: Media
Narrowed topic: Commercials
Specific topic: How commercials manipulate their audience
General subject: Dragons
Narrowed topic: Fire-breathing dragons
Specific topic: Problems in fighting the medieval fire-breathing dragon.
All essays that involve the development of an argument require a thesis: the point you are arguing. While the topic is your subject, the thesis defines your position on that subject. Your essay will take a position and will provide convincing evidence to support that view. It is important to develop a working thesis early because it will help direct your thoughts and research; of course your thesis may change as your reading and writing progresses and you begin to incorporate new information.
Once you have chosen your topic, you can begin to formulate your thesis by thinking closely about it, doing some exploratory reading, or drawing from lectures or conversations with classmates and friends. One way to develop a thesis is to ask yourself questions about the topic and to focus on a central issue or problem which the topic raises. Your answer to this question will be your thesis.
If you are having trouble developing a thesis, try brainstorming. You can brainstorm verbally with other people, or work alone, writing all your ideas on paper. The important thing about brainstorming is not to edit your thoughts. Write down everything which occurs to you about the topic, no matter how irrelevant or bizarre.
The next stage is to make connections between your ideas, and to group them into sub-topics, expanding those that you can explore in more detail. Then see if you can put the groups into some kind of logical order, discarding those that do turn out to be irrelevant or bizarre. In most cases you will find that you have the beginning of an essay--something that implies a basic point of view you can explore further and refine into a fully developed argument.
There are several good books on using the brainstorming process to generate ideas for writing, including Tony Buzan's Use Both Sides of Your Brain and Gabrielle Lusser Rico's Writing the Natural Way. If you are still unsure about the topic, you should consult your instructor after you have done some thinking about the topic on your own.
The Statement Of Your Thesis
Once you have discovered a thesis, sharpen it into a concise statement. The thesis statement usually appears in the introduction of your essay, and is best expressed in one sentence as a definition of your position, or the point you intend to prove in your essay. A good thesis statement will help organize your essay and give it direction; it is the central idea around which the rest of the essay is built.
The ideal thesis (like the topic itself) will be neither too broad nor too narrow for the compass of your essay. Clearly a 3000-word essay will have a more complex argument, and correspondingly a more complex thesis, than an essay of 600 words. One of the most common problems with essays is that they are based on a thesis that is too obvious to be worth arguing--a truism. Here are some examples of possible theses:
How commercials manipulate their audience
A thesis that is a truism:
"Television Commercials attempt to sell their products to the largest possible audience."
A thesis that is too broad:
"Several tactics are used to entice consumers to buy the advertised product."(This thesis is likely to produce an essay that is simply a shopping list of examples, dull both
for the writer and reader.)
A sharper thesis:
"Commercials sell their products by suggesting that those who buy them will instantly enter an ideal world where they are irresistably attractive."
"Molson Canadian commercials are offensive."
Problems in fighting the medieval fire-breathing dragon.
A thesis that is a truism:
"Fighting fire-breathing dragons was hell."
A thesis that is too broad:
"The flames of passion in courtly love claimed more knights' lives than all the fire-breathing dragons in medieval Europe." (The topic is unwieldy because it involves two areas of research, courtly love and fire-breathing dragons.)
A sharper thesis:
"Fewer knights would have been broiled in their armour if the medieval world had known of fire-extinguishers."
" 'Puff the Magic Dragon' is a sweet song."
When You Don't Know Enough About A Subject
To Form A Thesis
It is possible, particularly when you are tackling an expository essay on a subject you know little about, that you will not be able to formulate a thesis, no matter how hard you storm your brains. In this case, the best strategy is to narrow the topic as best you can and to move straight to the process of writing an outline. Then you should begin your research and gather evidence As you learn more about the subject and begin to form clearer opinions, you can pause to restructure the outline, and then to draft a thesis.
Writing Your Essay: Organizing It
Methods Of Organizing Your Essay
Now that you have narrowed your topic and formulated a thesis, you know what you are going to write about; organizing your essay will help you determine how to write it. While a well-formulated, sharpened thesis will give your essay purpose and direction, careful structuring and organization will ensure that every part of your essay works to support and develop that thesis.
Ideas as we first conceive them may tumble in an improvised dance, but an essay needs the formality of a beginning, a middle and an end. Organizing before you write gives your ideas a structure to cling to; it allows you to articulate, analyze, and clarify your thoughts. If you devise some structure for your essay before you begin to search for supporting evidence, you will be able to conduct a more effective and directed search.
Organization (or reorganization) is a continuous process„it goes on simultaneously with other activities, such as narrowing your topic, forming your thesis statement, and conducting your research. However, formal organization generally involves two components: determining a method of organization for the essay, and drawing up an outline which applies your ideas to that method.
As you begin to plan your essay, give some thought to the methods you will use to organize the evidence that will support your thesis. You will want to choose methods which are most suitable to your subject and the type of essay you have been assigned. Here are some principles of organization:
Paragraphs separate the process or series of events into major stages. ( See also chronology within paragraphs.)
Paragraphs divide the material into major categories and distinguish between them.
Paragraphs are arranged so that the most important point comes last, thus building the essay's strength.
Cause and effect
Indicates causal relationships between things and events. Be careful, however, not to mistake coincidence with causality, nor to disregard other possible causes. See the various pages that deal with logic.
Comparison and contrast
Involves lining up related ideas for a detailed account of similarities and differences. In this kind of essay it is important to decide whether you will be concentrating on similarities or differences. In general, the more similar things are, the more you concentrate on the differences, and vice versa. If you are comparing two works by the same author, or two love poems, for example, what will most interest you will be the differences between them; if you are comparing an Anglo-Saxon riddle with a science fiction novel the differences will be obvious enough that you will want to focus on the similarities.
Although one pattern should serve as the overall organizing framework, your argument can benefit from a combination of these strategies. For example, while the paragraphs may be arranged in ascending order of importance, within the paragraphs it is likely that you will incorporate comparisons, causes, classification or chronology. These principles apply to both the greater structure of the essay and each individual idea.
The Essay Outline
Once you have determined your method or methods of development, put together a working outline. This plan can range from a brief sketch of main points to a detailed point-by-point outline complete with paragraphs and topic sentences. The idea is to provide yourself with a rough map of where the essay will go, making a diagram of your thoughts to sharpen and define your purpose. At this point you can also give your essay a working title. The outline shows where to begin and breaks the assignment into manageable parts.
The Structure Of The Essay Outline
The beginning is the, introduction containing your thesis statement; the end is the conclusion; and the middle or body of the essay contains the argument, supported by evidence or example and designed to prove your thesis.
The essay should progress towards the conclusion. At this stage, all you are preparing is the outline, which will take you from one end of the essay to the other, like a road map. It should be constructed to keep you from losing your sense of direction as you research and write the essay. A good outline will ensure that everything you write in the essay supports your thesis, preventing you from wandering off into the tempting byways of irrelevance.
Construct your outline by listing all the important points you want to cover in your essay. You should provide one main point for each paragraph. Start with the introduction, under which you will write out your thesis statement and work through logically, point by point, until you reach the conclusion. Categorize your points according to their importance, keeping in mind the method of organization you intend to use.
Group related ideas together under general headings and arrange them so they flow logically. It may be useful to number each point, giving more weight to major points and less to minor ones (e.g. A 1 2 3 B 1 2 3); alternatively, you can simply set the points off further from the margin of the paper as they decrease in importance:
Some essays read as if each point had been written on an index card, then the pile thrown down a flight of stairs to determine the order. Make clear why one point follows another: each point in your outline should connect with the next; each main category should be linked to your thesis; and each sub-category should be linked to the main category. Focus your outline by discarding anything not useful or pertinent to your thesis.
One of the most helpful things about a full outline is that it will quickly make clear to you where the gaps lie. If you don't yet have enough support in one area, you will know that you have more reading or thinking to do. Remember that sometimes your reading will unearth new facts or idea--and you will modify your essay to reflect them
Writing Your Essay: Getting It Down
Audience And Tone
Your research is complete; you have a thesis, a complete outline, a bibliography, and a pile of notes. All you have to do is to write the essay. And instead you call a friend or watch television.
The trick is simply to get started. Choose a part of the essay towards the beginning of the outline where you know the material well, and write that paragraph. Then continue. You can backtrack later to fill in the gaps.
There is one important part of the process of writing, however, that you must complete before you set the first word of your first draft on paper: you must decide what audience you are writing for. If you were writing an oral presentation, you would consider your audience and adjust your style accordingly. The same procedure applies to writing. Your audience will influence your choice of vocabulary, sentence structure, and even the kind of evidence you use to support your thesis.
Writing a paper for a university professor obviously requires a greater level of stylistic polish than writing a letter to your six-year-old sister might. However, writing for one professor as opposed to another may require nearly as much variation in method. You would be well advised to keep in mind the preferences of the instructor, as well as the requirements of the essay. Even within the relatively narrow limits of the English essay, there are still a variety of approaches that may be taken and the appropriate path to follow depends to a great extent upon the person who gave the initial directions.
The tone of your essay is dictated in part by the subject matter. If you are writing an article for The National Enquirer you will probably take a more casual approach than if you are contributing to Existentialist Quarterly. An essay need not always be grim and impersonal„it may suit your thesis to be more subjective or ironic. However, while this approach may be appropriate to an essay on double entendre in Shakespeare, it may not serve you well in an essay on the nature of tragedy in King Lear. In a university environment, it is safe to assume that a certain seriousness of tone is necessary, but there are exceptions to every rule. Addressing students in this style manual, we feel freer to be moderately light-hearted than we might if we were speaking to a convention of Scandinavian drama scholars.
What determines tone more than anything else is the kind of language you choose. An honours thesis is a highly formal work; therefore, one would not expect to find it strewn with slang and colloquialisms. The page of this guide which deals with usage explains the difference between formal, informal and popular language.
Another consideration is the attitude you communicate as you express yourself. Be wary of being either too timid or too aggressive. A timid essay hedges on every point, incorporating words and phrases like probably, it seems that, to some extent and perhaps. These phrases have their place, but overusing them suggests that you are not confident in what you are saying. Conversely, an essay featuring numerous examples of obviously, definitely, of course and the like is being overly confident.
Often students fill essays with superlatives and flamboyant emotional outbursts in an effort to please their professors, finishing papers with sentences like "His masterful use of puns proves that Joyce is unquestionably the greatest writer in the English language." Dramatic declarations are not welcome in serious critical essays; what is welcome is carefully considered and well-supported argument. Do not shout at the reader with overstated convictions or pretentious moralizing.
While many essay topics encourage an objective and dispassionate discussion, there are other occasions when it is appropriate to be critical or adversarial toward your subject. Your instructor is unlikely to be satisfied with an essay which merely regurgitates class lectures, or timidly praises to avoid controversy. If you have an opinion, declare it. Students are often afraid to write anything negative, especially if the subject is Shakespeare or another such major figure. Be honest but methodical; support your opinions and never lose sight of the opposing viewpoint.
The First Draft
The first draft of your paper is the arena into which your ideas, observations, criticisms and hypotheses are thrown to battle one another and prove themselves. In other words, the first draft is the place where you can write anything and everything down and determine whether or not it works. Although you have prepared an outline of your basic points, it is likely that the process of composing an initial draft will alter your original plans somewhat. The composition of any essay is a journey through the tangled underbrush of your unformed ideas, and hacking from one end to the other will clear a path to a more definite perspective on your material, eliminating the weak points that you cannot prove and the flaws that undermine your argument. Your messy first draft will help you clarify the issues.
As you begin the first draft, do not worry about crafting a captivating introduction. Many find writing the introduction the most challenging part of the essay process, and allow it to prevent them from starting. It is better to plunge directly into the body of your argument, with perhaps a two-sentence opening, simply summarizing your thesis. Once you know what you have said in the essay, it becomes easier to find an effective way of introducing it.
It is important to realize that writing is a way of thinking. Do not feel that you have to have all of your thoughts fully organized in your head before putting fingers to keyboard. A written work is not an Athena and will not leap fully formed from your brain to the page. It is a carefully prepared and heavily revised simulation of rational thought that usually begins as a series of poorly expressed and disconnected ideas.
Once you have done your research and planned your outline, the best way to think about your essay is to write it. Seeing your thoughts written down allows you to regard them critically and objectively, and putting one sentence down will inspire another one. There is no need to feel disappointed with a messy, even incoherent first draft. The purpose of the initial draft is to produce raw material, not to dazzle the critics with your finely-shaped prose. Having something on paper gives you something to work with.
According to the Roman writer Pliny, a bear's whelp was born a shapeless mass, and the mother had literally to lick it into shape. Now that you have a mass of print before you, your task is to lick it into something resembling an essay. Your principal concerns are these: clarity, coherence and unity.
Clarity As you create sentences in your first draft, you will use the first grammatical constructions that come to mind. Once you are revising, it will become necessary to rewrite much of your original work for the sake of clarity. Essays tend to be written one painful sentence at a time, and it is easy to lose sight of the bigger picture.
Repetitive or unwieldy sentences are irritating and distract the reader's attention from content. Make sure that you vary your sentence structure; for example, do not begin three sentences in a row with The.
Trim redundant phrases (many of these, such as off of, are covered in the Dictionary of Usage (15K) ).
Watch for passive sentences ("A decision was made by the Premier to resign") and, unless the passive voice is crucial, change them to active ones ("The Premier decided to resign").
Do not try to be wordy in the mistaken belief that it will make your essay sound more "serious." See the section on writing sentences, especially the discussion of wordiness and (again) the passive voice.
Coherence. Students often have trouble putting a collection of perfectly good sentences into an order that makes sense. The page on organization talks about the logical processes used to structure an essay; apply the same guidelines to every sentence.
Ask yourself why one thought follows another, or if it might be more effective somewhere else in the paragraph.
Every sentence in your essay must follow from the previous one, and the paragraphs must work toward the goal of developing and exploring your thesis.
Examine the material you have put together in your rough draft and experiment with different sequences (if you are working on a word processor this kind of experimentation will be much simpler).
No matter how strong your ideas, if they are disconnected they will have no impact. You are trying to convince, and convincing requires logical, systematic presentation. There are more suggestions on the organization of ideas in the pages on paragraphs.
Unity Check everything you have written to make sure that it contributes to the essay. The strength of your argument will be diluted by irrelevant digressions or redundancies. In the course of writing the first draft, you will probably compose a number of sentences whose only function is to help you think and lead you toward something else. Determine whether or not you need a given sentence to advance your argument. If you are only spinning your wheels, then that sentence must go. Everything in your essay must be there for a reason.
It is often a wise decision to begin work on the introduction after you have completed a rough draft of the body of your paper. Many find the task of writing an introduction perplexing, wondering why they should write something once if they are planning to say it again in the next paragraph. After all, novels do not have ponderous opening paragraphs which explain what is going to happen in advance. But the introduction is not a disposable redundancy; it is a crucial component of the essay.
An essay is an exploration of an idea which needs to be defined before it is developed. Because the material in an essay always relates to this central thesis, it is necessary for the writer to introduce that thesis and make the reader aware of its importance and relevance. The introduction is the place where the essay has to make a good impression, informing the reader what is to come and encouraging him or her to read further (but without rendering the succeeding paragraphs repetitious). If the introduction is tedious or fails to make the rest of the essay sound interesting, the reader will not wish to continue.
Of course, when you are writing a class assignment, you can assume it will be read no matter how bad the introduction. But your introduction serves the same purpose as it would if the reader were coming to it voluntarily. You must give the impression that your essay is worth reading.
The Structure Of An Introduction
A simple model for the relationship between the introduction, the body, and the conclusion is the old newspaper maxim:
"You tell 'em what you're gonna tell 'em you tell 'em, and then you tell 'em what you told 'em."
In an introduction, you lay out a plan for what will follow. However, there is more to writing an introduction than merely summarizing the points of your essay; you must find a way to open discussion of the topic. There are several ways to do this, but a simple and effective method uses the analogy of a triangle.
Imagine an inverted triangle, thus:
In this model, your introduction begins with the general and moves toward the specific, as the sides of the triangle narrow toward a point. Ask yourself how the specific question you are addressing in the essay relates to a greater issue or field. For example, if you are writing about how Waiting For Godot subverts traditional notions of plot, you might want to begin by explaining what a traditional notion of plot is, or by discussing the characteristics of Beckett's work in general.
The question you take up in your essay does not exist in a vacuum; it arises out of a greater set of concerns. Your introduction can provide this background so that the reader is not coming to the discussion cold: ask yourself what your audience knows already, and what it needs to know in order to understand the context for your thesis.
By the time you reach the end of your introductory paragraph, you should be ready to state the thesis of your essay. The introduction need not give away all your opinions and conclusions, but you should give your reader a clear idea of what you will be discussing.
The Length Of The Introduction
The introduction should be brief relative to the rest of the essay. If the opening is inappropriately lengthy, the reader will lose interest, annoyed that you have failed to get started. Do not include unnecessary background information, especially if the professor is already conversant with the material on which you are writing. For example, this introduction is clearly too long:
In the play The Glass Menagerie,Tennessee Williams uses a number of realistic and non-realistic techniques. The characters and the language are predominantly realistic. The narrator, Tom, is excluded as a realistic character when narrating. The characters and their actions are unrealistic because they are seen through Tom's mind. Tom's memories of the events are revised and his acting in the play is formed around his guilt and his selective recollections. Various other unrealistic techniques include the music, lighting, and screen devices. Williams uses symbolism in this play. The places, characters, actions and objects centre around the idea that the Wingfield family is trapped in an unrealistic world and is unable to face reality. The use of the setting emphasizes the hopelessness of the Wingfields' lives. Amanda, the mother, holds on to the past, which is indicated by her clothes and her language. Tom, the son, desperately seeks to escape from home to follow his father's adventurous lifestyle. This is suggested by his continuous attendance to the movies. Laura, the daughter, lacks self-confidence due to a crippling illness, and thus feels she is unable to survive in the working world. Laura's glass collection symbolizes Laura herself. Lastly, Jim represents the only realistic character. The use of symbolism helps to describe the roles of the characters in the play.
You may wish to spend some time analysing what is wrong with this introduction. Can you tell whether the essay is to be about realism realism or symbolism? The final sentence, which is presumably the thesis, makes a statement about symbolism, but the paragraph begins with a discussion of realism. Is there too much detail about the play for an introduction? Should some of the material be left for later paragraphs? Are there other problems of usage, repetition, truism and so on?
This introduction, on the other hand, is inadequate because it is too brief:
In Jane Eyre, the heroine comes into contact with two men who share some qualities but differ greatly. Mr. Rochester and St. John Rivers are emotionally and socially strong, which helps to mold Jane's character.
The reader learns virtually nothing because the paragraph does not suggest how the argument will develop.
Try not to be too self-referential in your introduction, or elsewhere for that matter. When you talk to someone you do not continually remind that person that you are having a conversation. Avoid sentences like "It is this problem that my essay will focus upon."
Though you have been advised to begin with the general, do not start your essay with a bland statement like "Catch-22, written by Joseph Heller, is an extremely interesting novel." The first sentence is important; do not waste it on a meaningless generality.
The Body Of The Essay
Usually the easiest part of the essay to write is the part where you turn your notes into paragraphs to support your central thesis, according to the particular method of organization that you decided on when you were sketching it out.
If the introduction is an inverted triangle, the middle section is a sequence of paragraphs that support your thesis, or (in an expository essay) provide the information you promised in your introduction.
The important thing at this stage is to ensure that you construct paragraphs that are unified --one topic per paragraph, each topic suitably and sufficiently supported. If your outline has been carefully thought out, the sequence of paragraphs will make logical sense.
"Telling 'em what you told 'em" can often be the hardest part of the essay, especially if you are not exactly sure what you have said. If you have had your thesis in view throughout the essay, you should be able to announce a specific conclusion confidently and definitely. If you cannot find a way to sum up what you have said, then you have not said anything.
What you say in your conclusion should match what you said when you introduced the essay: it should be a restatement (but not a mere repetition) of your thesis, ideally in a way that shows more fully and clearly what you have been arguing. If the process of writing the essay has changed what you are arguing--and this is surprisingly often the case--you may have to reword your thesis in the. introduction Otherwise, the essay will suffer from schizophrenia.
As the diagram above suggests, the triangle of the introduction is inverted in the conclusion. Instead of narrowing, you expand. Begin by restating your thesis, retracing the steps of your argument. By doing so you remind the reader of how the components of the essay fit together and strengthen their cumulative effect. Because this paragraph is a conclusion, you must be conclusive; that is, you must present your thesis in its final, most persuasive form. In the introduction you were giving the reader an idea of what was to follow, trying to attract interest. In the conclusion, you have the weight of the essay behind you, and you can state your case succinctly, knowing that the reader has all the information you have provided.
The introduction is a forecast, while the conclusion is a final analysis. Avoid repeating the introduction too closely; the tone of your conclusion is different because the reader has finished your paper.
Once you have tied up your argument, a good way to conclude is to use the final lines of your essay to suggest a way in which the material you have covered applies to a larger concern. As in the introduction you explained the thesis in terms of a bigger picture, so in the conclusion you can demonstrate the effects or the problems inherent in what you have discussed. For example, a paper on clear-cutting might end with a warning about the consequences of irresponsible logging practises. Remember, however, that an overly sentimental or obvious statement will weaken rather than strengthen your essay ("If we do not save the forests the entire world is at risk").
These concluding lines from Carl Jung's "Approaching the Unconscious" are an example of how a thesis can be broadened at the end of an essay:
Our actual knowledge of the unconscious shows that it is a natural phenomenon and that, like Nature itself, it is at least neutral. It contains all aspects of human nature--light and dark, beautiful and ugly, good and evil, profound and silly. The study of individual, as well as of collective, symbolism is an enormous task, and one that has not yet been mastered. But a beginning has been made at last. The early results are encouraging, and they seem to indicate an answer to many so far unanswered questions of present-day mankind. (94)
The paragraph moves from a conclusion about the subject of the essay to a consideration of the impact of the subject matter (in this case, the study of the symbolic nature of the unconscious mind) upon society.
Never make a claim in your conclusion that is unsubstantiated or even unmentioned anywhere else. New material may enter a conclusion occasionally, but it must be closely related to everything else you have said. Writing "Another character that Helen is similar to is Simon from Lord of the Flies" as the second to last sentence of an essay on Jane Eyre is a poor way to finish a focussed discussion.
Remember the obvious but important fact that the conclusion is the last thing the reader looks at. Do not allow a strong essay to fizzle with a weak conclusion. Always end with a definite statement„as this concluding paragraph does.
Proofreading and Presenting Your Essay
Here are a list--whoops, make that "Here is a list"--of tips for proofreading:
Once you are satisfied with the content of your essay, be sure that it is visually satisfactory: look for careless mistakes. Proofreading is an essential task that many writers do not take seriously. Reread the essay, out loud if possible, to make sure that it flows well and that it makes sense as a whole.
Since you have worked on the essay one section at a time, you may have forgotten to connect those sections properly. Reading your essay aloud from beginning to end may make you realize that it is less coherent or not as thorough as you had thought, and you may even have to do some last minute research to bolster a weak point. Hearing a sentence may make its faults clearer than they appear on the page. You may discover that you have left a sentence incomplete, omitted a citation, or (if you are using a computer) forgotten to erase unwanted text.
If you have typed your paper or used a word processor, you must beware of the illusion of perfection that the printed page presents. Your essay looks so official and sophisticated that mistakes seem inconceivable. However, they are probably there. A typo is no less an error than a spelling mistake. While the professor may know that the error comes from your fingers rather than your brain, the experience of reading your paper will still have been interrupted, and there will be an ugly gash of red ink on the page.
One of the most efficient ways of picking up spelling errors (if you have the time) is to read your work backwards, word for word. That way you are looking at each individual word, not reading for the overall sense of the passage.
Alternatively, get a friend to read your paper, or (best of all, both for spelling and for style) leave the paper for several days, then come back and read it carefully. The only problem with this last solution is that it is seldom practical in the real world of university assignments.
The presentation of your essay is not a trivial matter; you wish to show the reader that you are thorough and organized. A series of typos suggests that you are careless, and does not reflect well upon your work. Check very carefully for errors in spelling, typing, and, especially in the Bibliography, punctuation. Many professors deduct marks for these mistakes.
Reading a messy essay is not a pleasant task. A professor wading through a massive pile of papers may grow impatient with illegible work. Make sure of the following:
Your essay is visually appealing
The type is large enough and dark enough
There are sufficient spaces between the lines
If you are handing in a written assignment, do not fill it with scribbled out words or indecipherable squiggles. Handwriting looks deceptively readable to its writer. Make it easy for your instructor to enjoy reading your work, and you will likely get a better mark.
Directions for presentation of a standard expository essay:
Use white, 8 1/2 X 11 paper.
Typing is always preferable and usually required. If you have to write, use lined paper.
Use only one side of the paper.
Double-space, so your instructor can both read and criticize your work effectively.
Leave margins of at least one inch on the top, bottom and sides of the page.
Page numbers should be placed in the upper right hand corner. Make sure that all pages are numbered. Title pages are not numbered. Page 1 is the first page of the essay proper, and must be numbered.
Do not hand in loose pages; always bind them together, either with a staple or a folder. If you use a folder, be sure that the whole of the written text is clearly visible. Do not use folders that will substantially increase the bulk of the pile your professor has to carry home.
A title page is not necessary for research papers but may be used if desired. Alternatively, you may enter your name, instructor and course number, and the date at the tope left margin of the first page (double-spacing after your name and the course number). Enter the title two spaces below the date and double-space it if it extends more than one line. (See the student essay for an example of how this looks.)
Writing Exam Essays
Bereft of the luxury of revision, students often lose control of their writing skills during examinations. Writing an exam essay is essentially a two-part process: outline and first draft. There is no time for rewriting, so it is incumbent upon the student to make that first draft as coherent as possible under the circumstances.
Because the student has a limited amount of time and only a nervous and fallible memory to work with, instructors are much more lenient on exam essays than they would be on papers written at home. However, the principles of organization that govern any piece of written work still operate in an exam. You must still develop a thesis and stick to it. Some students panic in exam situations and produce garbled streams of information that demonstrate their capacity for memorization but fail to develop any kind of logical thought. Writing a very brief outline will help you avoid this pitfall.
Never lose sight of the question being asked. It is a good practice to include some of the key words from the question in your opening paragraph, and to return to it in your conclusion. The effect will be to make clear that you have indeed kept your answer on the topic.
Question the question:
Why is it being asked?
Is it a multi-layered question, one that can be answered on more than one level?
Does it invite a largely factual response?
Is it looking for a specific critical stance?
The professor wants to see that you know the material well enough to make a critical judgement upon it, not that you can throw out a collection of unrelated details. The more information you are able to recall and use effectively the better, but always relate what you write to the thesis. A good question will allow you not only to demonstrate what you know but also to make an observation about it.
Many exam questions include a quotation that you are asked to discuss. "Discuss" does not mean "make sure that you agree with the quotation"; rather it opens the topic for exploration. It is likely that your thesis in response to the quotation will be to suggest a modification of it, rather than a slavish agreement with it. Whether you agree or disagree, be sure to support your position.
Common Problems Writing Essays
The most common problems that students encounter with essays are:
There is no thesis at all.
The thesis is too general, or a truism.
The thesis is too narrow.
There is no sense of direction, no reason why one paragraph follows another.
There are few, or inadequate transitions.
There are too many generalizations, and too little support for them.
The introduction or conclusion is weak, or one simply repeats the other.
The essay is poorly set out, with inadequate space for the instructor's comments.
There are frequent typos or misspelled words.
Some Sample Essays To Look At
A Sample Expository Essay
The Guide includes two essays written by students; the one below was written by Susan Chisholm for English 115 at the University of Victoria. (You can also look at the other.)
Both are rather longer than is normally required, but they give some idea of ways of organizing, developing paragraphs, and providing support for arguments.
In Pursuit of Thinness
Throughout history and through a cross-section of cultures, women have transformed their appearance to conform to a beauty ideal. Ancient Chinese aristocrats bound their feet as a show of femininity; American and European women in the 1800s cinched in their waists so tightly, some suffered internal damage; in some African cultures women continue to wear plates in their lower lips, continually stretching the skin to receive plates of larger size. The North American ideal of beauty has continually focussed on women's bodies: the tiny waist of the Victorian period, the boyish figure in vogue during the flapper era, and the voluptuous curves that were the measure of beauty between the 1930s and 1950s. Current standards emphasize a toned, slender look, one that exudes fitness, youth, and health. According to psychologist Eva Szekely, "Having to be attractive at this time . . . means unequivocally having to be thin. In North America today, thinness is a precondition for being perceived by others and oneself as healthy" (19). However, this relentless pursuit of thinness is not just an example of women trying to look their best, it is also a struggle for control, acceptance and success.
In attempting to mould their appearance to meet the current ideal, numerous women are literally starving themselves to death. The incidence of eating disorders, such as anorexia nervosa and bulimia, has "doubled during the last two decades" (Comerci 1294). This increase is no longer limited to women in their teens and twenties, but is increasingly diagnosed in patients in their thirties and forties. "No doubt, the current sociocultural emphasis on thinness and physical fitness as a symbol of beauty and success has contributed to this age distribution" (Comerci 1294).
One of the negative psychological side effects associated with eating disorders is the patient's distortion of their own body image,body image being defined as "the picture a person has in his mind of his own body, that is, the way his body appears to him" (Murray 602). For the anorexic this distortion is exaggerated, the patient feels fat even while emaciated, however, many women who are caught up in the relentless pursuit of thinness also experience some degree of disturbed body image. The experiences and practices of women who "simply diet" are not radically different from those who are diagnosed with eating disorders. For some women, achieving the "perfect" body form becomes the most important goal in life.
Feelings about body are closely related to a woman's sense of self; the "body is perceived as acceptable or unacceptable, providing a foundation for self-concept" (Orbach 78). It is alarming, then, that almost 80% of women think they're overweight (Kilbourne). Body image has very little to do with the way a person actually looks; many women who appear to fit the ideal body type are actually dissatisfied with their appearance (Freedman). Women with perfectly normal bodies see themselves as being heavy; so that the definition of "normal" becomes inaccurate and this perceived normalcy is represented by a very small percentage of women. It follows that if body image is so closely linked to self-image, it is important for women to learn to feel comfortable with the body they live in, despite any "imperfections". Consistently aiming for perfection is a "self-defeating goal that only sets you up for failure" (Freedman 218).
All evidence indicates that "our sense of our bodies develops in the process of learning, and these are social processes, not psychobiological ones given at birth" (Szekely 42). So why is it that during this process of development so many women become dissatisfied, self-critical, and judgemental about their own bodies? One of the reasons may have to do with the media and various forms of advertising. Ads sell more than just products; they present an idea of normalcy, who we are and who we should be (Kilbourne). Advertising is a major vehicle for presenting images and forming attitudes. The majority of ads incorporate young, beautiful, slender models to present their products and services. While individual ads may not be seen as a big issue, it is the cumulative, unconscious impact that has an effect on attitudes toward women, and in women's attitudes toward themselves. As women are consistently exposed to these feminine forms thorough both print and television, it becomes difficult to distinguish what is normal, and even more difficult not to compare themselves to this form. It is not just women who judge themselves, but also men who begin to liken these models to the women in their own lives and then make comparisons. Advertising creates an "ultimate standard of worth, so that women are judged against this standard all the time, whether we choose to be or not" (Kilbourne).
Throughout the media, there seems to be a "particular contempt these days for women who are fat or are in any way overweight . . . above all, we're supposed to be very thin" (Kilbourne). This notion of the ideal body that is propagated by the popular media can be linked with economic organizations whose profit is solely gained through products that enhance this image (Szekely 103). The images that are presented in advertising are designed to create an illusion, a fantasy ideal that will keep women continually consuming. Advertisers are well aware of the insecurities that most women feel about their own bodies. The influential power of the diet, fashion, cosmetic and beauty industries??and their advertising strategies??target this, their "profits are sustained on the enormity of the body insecurity" (Orbach 79).
The effect of many current advertising methods is that the "body is turned into a thing, an object, a package" (Kilbourne). In many ads, bodies are separated into individual parts: legs, breasts, thighs, waists; the result is that the body becomes separated from the woman. It then becomes acceptable for the woman's body to be scrutinized. Women's bodies receive large amounts of attention and comment and are a "vehicle for the expression of a wide range of statements" (Orbach 13). Judgements may be made and opinions may be formed about a woman by her appearance alone. A woman who is judged as overweight is often thought of as a woman with little self-control, and from this premise further assumptions may be made. This type of generalization occurs on a daily basis, by both men and women, and it affects the way we behave towards one another.
Our preoccupation with appearance affects much more that the image that is presented on the outside. Feelings toward our own appearance affect the choices we make and the goals we pursue; "more than ever, it seems we are constricted by beauty standards . . ." (Freedman 3). The recent emphasis on fitness, youth, beauty and thinness has caused many women to try harder than ever to attain the current body ideal. The tremendous increase in plastic surgery operations??liposuction, breast implants, tummy tucks, and face-lifts, to name a few??attest to the extreme adjustments that many women feel they must make in order to attain the body ideal, in turn making positive adjustments to their own self-esteem. "One object of women's hard work which, potentially is also a means of their success, is the body . . . women have been given the message that their efforts in improving and perfecting their bodies would be rewarded by success" (Szekely 191), on both a social and professional level. With that thought in mind, women have come to relate to their bodies "as their objects/tools/weapons in the marketplace of social relations" (Orbach).
Perhaps a woman's ability to control her own body size and weight can be seen as a metaphor, a substitution for control that may be lacking in other areas of her life. While women continue to struggle for equality on an economic scale and within their relationships, they still maintain control over their own bodies. It is important that women begin to accept themselves for who they are, regardless of their body type, and to feel comfortable with the body they live in. If women continue to pursue the "elusive, eternally youthful body beautiful" (Orbach 13) they'll only be setting themselves up for failure.
A Sample Literary Essay
The Guide includes two essays written by students; the one below was written by Steve Lyne for English 122 at the University of Victoria. (You can also look at the other.)
Both are rather longer than is normally required, but they give some idea of ways of organizing, developing paragraphs, and providing support for arguments.
Hedda Gabler's Last Dance
One of the social issues dealt with in Ibsen's problem plays is the oppression of women by conventions limiting them to a domestic life. In Hedda Gabler the heroine struggles to satisfy her ambitious and independent intellect within the narrow role society allows her. Unable to be creative in the way she desires, Hedda's passions become destructive both to others and herself.
Raised by a general (Ibsen 1444), Hedda has the character of a leader and is wholly unsuited to the role of "suburban housewife" (1461). Since she is unable to have the authority she craves, she exercises power by manipulating her husband George. She tells Thea, "I want the power to shape a man's destiny" (1483). Hedda's unsuitability for her domestic role is also shown by her impatience and evasiveness at any reference to her pregnancy. She confides to Judge Brack, "I've no leanings in that direction" (1471). Hedda desires intellectual creativity, not just the procreative power that binds her to a limited social function. But because her only means of exercising power is through a "credulous" husband (1490), Hedda envies Thea's rich intellectual partnership with Eilert Loevborg (1484), which produces as their creative "child" a bold treatise on the future of society (1473-74, 1494). Hedda's rivalry with Thea for power over Eilert is a conflict between Hedda's dominating intellect (symbolized by her pistols) and the traditionally feminine power of beauty and love (symbolized by Thea's long hair).
Because Hedda lacks Thea's courage to leave her husband and risk ostracism, she tries to satisfy her intellect within society's constraints. First she seeks power through wealth and social status, marrying George on the condition she can "keep open house" and have "a liveried footman" (1464). But George's small means leave her frustrated by "wretched poverty" (1471), while her social aspirations oppress her with the fear of scandal. Secondly, Hedda achieves a balance of security and independence by marrying a dull academic, who is easily dominated and occupies himself "rooting around in libraries" (1466). But in doing so she shuts herself within a passionless marriage as tedious as a long train ride with a dull companion (1467-68). Finally, Hedda alleviates her boredom by turning to Judge Brack as a confidant: someone with whom she can flirt and speak openly as an equal. But Brack is not "a loyal friend" (1461); rather, just as Thea's husband "finds [her] useful" to take care of him (1458), Brack exploits Hedda's isolation and powerlessness for his own pleasure.
Hedda's oppressed desires become destructive, first to Eilert and Thea, and then to herself. In addition to envying Thea for her creative union with Eilert, Hedda hates her for taming a man she idealizes as a rebel for his past licentiousness, defying social mores. After taunting the reformed Eilert into a night of debauchery, Hedda imagines him returning as a Dionysian hero:
I can see him. With a crown of vine-leaves in his hair. Burning and unashamed! . . .Then he'll be himself again! He'll be a free man for the rest of his days. (1483)
However, Eilert's night of carousing ends sordidly in a brawl that ruins his reputation once again. Hedda then modifies her first ideal and urges him to defy life itself by suicide (1495). Her destructiveness to both Eilert's and Thea's creative potential is symbolized by her destruction of their manuscript: "I'm burning your child, Thea! You with your beautiful wavy hair! The child Eilert Loevborg gave you" (1496).
But Hedda's actions ultimately destroy her own limited freedoms and creative potential, symbolized by her unwanted pregnancy. Brack disillusions Hedda about the beauty of Eilert's death, revealing that her hero died meanly in another brothel fight rather than bravely defying a frustrated life (1504). Moreover, as a result of Eilert's death, Hedda loses her few cherished freedoms. Her power over her husband is usurped, as Thea and George devote their lives to resurrecting Eilert's manuscript from jumbled notes (1502-03); and Thea hopes to inspire George as she inspired Eilert (1506). Then Brack establishes power over Hedda through her fear of scandal, knowing that Eilert was shot with her pistol. With neither limited power nor illusions to sustain her, Hedda bows to Thea's beautiful hair and, after playing a last dance on the piano, admits defeat: "Not free. Still not free! . . . From now on I'll be quiet" (1506-07).
Hedda's tragedy is that she is denied the freedom to realize her creative potential, and so have the self-esteem that comes from personal achievement. Her attempt to retain her independence within society prevents her, through fear of scandal, from marrying the man with whom she might have had a relationship both individually satisfying and mutually supportive. In Hedda's suicide are seen the stifling of intellect and the emotional isolation caused by oppression, even within a commonplace bourgeois family where "People don't do such things!" (1507).