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How to Write an Essay

You’re in one of those dry, textbook-heavy classes, or maybe you have a really argumentative prof that you just know is going to assign an essay at some point. If you’re like most people, you’re probably dreading the night before the deadline, when you finally get around to actually writing the thing. And when you do it, it’s like running your knuckles against a cheese grater, forcing all this half-baked ranty nonsense out of you in an effort to fulfill some arbitrary word or page count limit.

I know where you’re coming from. Sometimes I can’t stand writing essays for classes, too. But overall, I still think essays are a great genre of writing; they’re just frequently maligned by people who either get disheartened with lame topic assignments, or people who just don’t like writing in the first place. But I think a lot of people just look at it from the wrong perspective.

Forget everything you know about essays.

Essays are not five paragraphs long. Essays are arguments, plain and simple. A well-written essay should read like one side of a great debate: it states what the argument (or thesis) is, it brings up all the counterpoints, disproves them, and draws a conclusion from the mess. It’s all about the journey from thesis to conclusion, and that journey can, theoretically, be however long you want.

Of course, sometimes (especially in high school) you get stuck with overly-restrictive guidelines for your essay, and you have to follow those. But try to find the fun in writing an essay. This is basically your only chance to argue with the prof without getting an automatic F, so be a real asshole about it.

Here are some tips that could help you write better essays faster:

1) Write snappy bookends

No matter how caught up you get in the aforementioned “be an asshole” suggestion, always remember that your essay is still a written work that needs to be paced properly. There’s no narrative, so the pacing obviously has nothing to do with plot advancement; rather, pacing your essay properly is about bookends: the things that go on either side of something. This “something” can be the entire essay (in which case your bookends are the introduction and conclusion) or just a single paragraph (in which case they’re the transitional sentences).

Maybe it sounds like a cliche to you, but the conclusion is the most important part of your essay other than the thesis itself. In fact, all bookends are very important — without them, your paper would read more like a mess of thoughts than something planned by an intelligent human being. Bookends are like palate cleaners that refresh the reader in between everything else, gently guiding them to your points so they don’t get overwhelmed.

Let’s look at an example. Here’s the first paragraph of our hypothetical “dogs are better than cats” essay:

Professor K. Eirsley, head of the animal sciences faculty at Quendelton State University, has long argued that cats make better companions than dogs. Over the years, many have challenged his opinions by insisting that the preference for one domesticated animal over the other is subjective; however, if one examines the evidence as presented, one has to come to the conclusion that Eirsley does have a point: this is an issue with an objective answer. The only problem is, Eirsley’s answer is wrong. Cats are not inherently bad, but dogs are better companions in the long run.

This paragraph is firstly the front bookend (bookstart?) for the entire essay — it eases the reader into your argument and provides some context for the argument. A good question to ask yourself when writing the introduction is, “What’s happened so far?” You’re not the first to say something related to your essay, so make sure to talk about other things that have already been said about it. Starting off with a quote (or near-quote, as above) is a bit cliche, but that’s not going to be a problem unless you plan on becoming a professional essayist or something.

This introduction — and every other paragraph — also has bookends within itself. The first sentence here is a statement related to the topic of the essay, and the last sentence is a counter-statement that leads into the rest of your argument (which will eventually prove the first sentence wrong).

The next paragraph in your essay would be something like this:

One key thing that makes dogs better companions is how much easier they are to keep clean than cats are. A study in Useless Statistics Daily in August 2007 proved that over 80% of dogs like being wet, while only slightly under 12% of cats do. Being easier to clean means that dogs will smell better on average, which is important for a happy home life. In families with children, it is not uncommon for a child to want to wash a dog personally; the fact that they are easier to clean means that the child will not be in as much danger of the animal snapping at him or her, and it can be a great experience for the child.

(Yeah, I know this isn’t a very good essay. It’s just an example.)

The thing to take away from the second paragraph is how the first sentence ties into the last sentence of the previous paragraph above. This is how the bookends function as transitional sentences, linking the different ideas in the essay together for a smoother read. This all ties back into pacing, which is very important.

2) Make your thesis bold

The thesis of your essay is just a sentence that defines the key argument you’re making in as succinct and accurate a manner as you can manage. It’s very important that the thesis be bold; no “I think”s or similar wishy-washy language, but a flat-out statement as if it’s fact. Recall that the thesis in the example essay above was, “Cats are not inherently bad, but dogs are better companions in the long run.” You’re not saying that you think dogs are better, you’re saying that dogs are better.

Oftentimes you’ll find that your thesis is quite long, which is fine, but make an effort to keep it short. A punchy, simple sentence sounds bolder than something full of commas and the word “whereas”. In fact, try never using the word “whereas” ever. That word is like a poison that kills your essay; it makes everything look stilted and fake unless you use it very carefully.

Depending on the specifications of your professor or just personal preference, you may want to summarize your supporting points within the thesis itself. I tend not to do this, but lots of people do and it’s an integral part of the five-paragraph format if you’re adhering to that. In that case, the thesis of our example essay would be something like, “Cats are not inherently bad, but dogs are better companions in the long run for a variety of reasons: they are easier to keep clean, they show more affection on average than cats, and they literally crap money.”

(Please note that dogs do not literally crap money. This is just an example.)

3) Write strong body paragraphs (the supporting points)

The body is obviously the meat of your essay. Everything else is just presentation, making sure the reader takes your essay seriously and remembers everything. If the supporting points presented in your body paragraphs aren’t convincing, no one will care about the essay (and you’ll almost certainly fail the assignment).

What a supporting point is should be obvious to you. If your thesis says dogs are better than cats, you should have multiple supporting points to explain why this is; three is pretty much the minimum, as I’m sure high school taught you, but the more evidence the better.

A supporting point pretty much gets its own mini-thesis, a topic sentence. Recalling our second paragraph above, the topic sentence is, “One key thing that makes dogs better companions is how much easier they are to keep clean than cats are.” That tells the reader what the body paragraph is about, similar to how the thesis tells the reader what the entire essay is about. After the first sentence tells what the paragraph is about, the rest of the paragraph should a) prove that the claim made in the first sentence is true, and b) explain why this is relevant to the thesis. Of course the first and last sentences should still function as bookends.

Each unique supporting point should get one paragraph to itself at the very least, unless arguing the point takes a really long time, in which case you should consider splitting it into multiple related points (thus multiple paragraphs). For example, a second paragraph starting with something like, “One key thing that makes dogs better companions is how much easier they are to have around the house,” would be too general to fit the proofs into one paragraph. You could split it into multiple paragraphs looking at specific examples of how dogs are easier to have around: how they’re easier to keep clean, how they’re better with kids, how they don’t climb on furniture, etc.

4) Have a high-quality argument

How to formulate a convincing argument is beyond the scope of this article (and beyond my ability to even write). However, bear in mind that the quality of your argument will pretty much determine whether your essay is good or not. Now would be a good time to learn how to debate; a lot of schools have classes on it, or you could just watch the debate teams (most schools have those, too). Watch for logical fallacies and use analogies to get your point across.

Appearing to have a bias towards one side of your argument could make your readers roll their eyes and discount the whole essay. There is a difference between being bold and being biased; tell us that something is, but make us believe that you’ve come to this conclusion through logic, not emotion. Nothing’s more tragic to me than someone who argues for a cause I support, but displays a clear bias and gives the whole cause a bad name.

(I’m looking at you gay rights advocates, pro-piracy groups, and drug policy reformers.)

5) Do research and plan ahead

And do it in advance! I’ve never personally had an issue with writing an essay the day before the deadline, but you definitely can’t do research the day before without turning in a shoddy product. At least a few days before you sit down to write, spend a couple hours in the library, on the internet, and reading your textbook (you know, that thing you were supposed to be reading since the first day of class). Jot down notes or highlight any pertinent information, copy down all the information needed to cite the source later, and try to figure out just how you’re going to present and analyze this information in your essay.

Go ahead and use Wikipedia, but don’t cite it. It’s a good place to get an overview of your topic, but that’s about all; specific information should come from sources that aren’t open to constantly being edited. Go to the bottom of the articles you look up and check out the sources that Wikipedia takes its information from; if there are no sources, you probably shouldn’t take the article terribly seriously. Technically this should apply to all encyclopedias, but profs are notoriously paranoid about Wikipedia in particular, so make sure not to cite it.

There are a truly stupid number of formats for citations that all convey the exact same information. Follow the instructions for the assignment if any certain format is requested; otherwise, go with something simple and common like APA or MLA style. Bibme is a great app to use for constructing a bibliography without learning a bunch of pointless referencing styles.

6) Avoid definitions

A rule of thumb that many teachers have tried to drill into me is that an essay should only be an argument, and that the writer should always assume that the reader knows all about what’s being discussed. This is actually a good rule to keep in mind, but it can be ignored in some contexts. It is true that filling your essay with neutral explanations of what things are can detract from the pacing and boldness of the key argument, but there’s also your audience to keep in mind.

Definitions should be kept to a minimum, but consider:

  1. Are the majority of your readers really familiar with this idea? Is it something they’d have to look up?
  2. Are the specific points you would cover in your definition addressed in your argument, not just “fun facts”?
  3. Is the definition so long that it requires its own paragraph? Will it seriously affect the pacing?

In our example essay, it is not necessary to define what dogs and cats are, why people keep them as pets, or the concept of domestication. These are all things that would technically be relevant to the topic, but would not be relevant to the thesis — they would have no effect on the actual argument and never be addressed by any supporting point, so they’re just distracting and pace-ruining.

When considering “the majority of your readers”, think about who would even be interested in reading your essay. It’s true that some aliens from a far-away galaxy might not know what cats and dogs are, but would they be interested in reading an essay about them? Probably not, so don’t cater to them by providing definitions.

An essay about conservatives and liberals probably wouldn’t need to tell the reader what those words mean. But if the essay’s thesis is how people who claim to be conservative aren’t really conservatives, then you’d be totally justified in defining the words so that you can refute specific points in the definitions that your readers wouldn’t otherwise be aware of. It’s all about context and audience.

Obviously you should be shooting for the briefest definitions possible here; only give a definition its own paragraph if it’s absolutely imperative that it be thorough and have attention drawn to it. Never directly quote a dictionary; nothing could be more boring. You can cite a dictionary if you want, but rephrase the definition so it reads like just another part of your essay.

7) Write an epic conclusion

Reiterate all the points from your essay, not just the thesis! This is the last paragraph of your essay, where you get one last chance to gather your points together and prove to the reader that you’re right about everything. As this is also a bookend, it should be snappy and memorable; give it some clever connection to something you said earlier in the essay. If you quoted someone in the introduction, address their quote again here (don’t quote it again, just address it). If the conclusion isn’t at least as long as the introduction, something has gone horribly wrong.

If you aren’t being held to a strict format, it might also be worthwhile to throw in a bonus one-line paragraph after the conclusion. This is a good place to throw in a quick joke (a punchline for the essay, perhaps) or give extra weight to a particularly provocative line. You probably shouldn’t do this in a serious academic context, but it’s a good idea if you have a prof with a good sense of humour, or if you plan to publish your essay to a blog or other informal medium.

The conclusion to our example essay could look like this:

Although personal preference will undoubtedly continue to be the biggest factor in determining whether a person likes dogs better than cats, it is undeniable that this is an issue with an objective answer. The fact is that dogs are easier to keep clean, that they show more affection than cats, and that they literally crap money. Cats still have their upsides, many of which are examined in detail by Professor Eirsley, but the benefits of dogs as companions out-weight the benefits of cats. In the end, dogs will always be man’s best friend.

And the bonus paragraph could be:

And woman’s, too, if internet porn has taught me anything.

(Which might not be acceptable in an academic context.)

Sometimes you just get stuck with lame topic assignments and sometimes you’re just not in the mood, but essays can be fun if you look at them the right way. This is your chance to really express your opinion, make yourself look smart, and argue with the professor. Essays really are a great genre of writing; make the most of your torture and be a real asshole about it. Arguing is always more fun if it’s got some anger and boldness to fuel it.

Written by Likes to Ramble

4 Comments

  1. Bran Rainey · November 30, 2010

    Yeah, it was broken for about a day.

  2. Mike · November 30, 2010

    Oh. It’s back now. I swear it was missing before. :O

  3. Mike · November 30, 2010

    This is terrific. Where’d the toolbar go so I can like it? 🙁

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