Learning! — Writing Essays

I’m going to go out on a limb here and wing this post. One could argue that I wing every post, and while that’s certainly true, for Learning! posts I actually do research to make sure I know what I’m talking about, giving links to the websites I did research on to help anyone that wants to cross reference or whatever in case I didn’t explain something very well.

Today, though, I’ll mostly be talking about how I write essays. It’s worth mentioning that I put relatively little effort into these things, but I’m fortunate enough to be able to intuitively know what works for me. These strategies may not work for you, but this is how my mind works when I go about handling essay writing (regardless of topic or length).

First and foremost, you have to have at least minimal interest in what you’re talking about. If you are writing about the imports and exports of China in the seventeenth century, you’re probably screwed, but maybe you can find some aspect of even that that you find interesting.

If you’re writing an argumentative paper (which in my experience is by far the most common), find something you can actually argue. Something you’re passionate about but has an opposing view. If you just talk about how X game is the best selling game of all time, making it the best game of all time, and use only facts throughout the essay, there’s no debate. For argumentative papers, you need to use your own opinions and then back those opinions up with facts. It’s a small but very important detail.

In college, most of my essays have been about books or papers I’ve read (big surprise for an English major, I know), so that works a little differently. If I’m discussing the theme of mortality expressed in Hamlet or the allegory of the cave in Plato’s The Republic, I obviously need to know what I’m talking about. Now, of course, its ideal that you will have read the thing you’re writing about, but if you mess up big time and find yourself with an essay due tomorrow for a book you haven’t read, you’re not out of the game yet. For me, even if I have read the book, I look up sparknotes or shmoop. Very often they’ll have clear summaries of how themes are expressed in the work, so I can get an idea of what the author meant when they used X theme a lot and how Y character enforces it. After that, I read some other essays (google “Z book critical analysis” for some quality content you can cite in your own essay) and use their words to help make my own argument.

I’m not going to go over how to construct an essay, because pretty much any teacher in any English class should have covered that at some point. But as far as outlining goes, the thesis is everything. I’ve had professors that graded me more heavily on my thesis than the actual content of the essay, so it’s imperative that you know how to write one. I’ve heard somewhere that in essays, all you have to do is this: “Tell them what you’re going to say, say it, then tell them what you said”. Deconstructing that, the thesis should tell the audience exactly what the essays about. It should say something like this:

In The Blithedale Romance, Hawthorne shows his audience that while everybody has a noble goal to strive for, a single ‘sin’ or misstep leads them to social banishment, as is the case with Hollingsworth, Zenobia, and Coverdale as they each seek Priscilla’s affections, which ultimately leaves the reader to conclude that no person is beyond fault.”

That is an actual thesis that I wrote less than a week ago for one of my classes. These are my major ideas that each had their own (several) paragraphs, and they are ideas I went into in the same order I described in the thesis: ‘everybody has a noble goal’, ‘a sin leads them to social banishment’ (which I further went on with each of the three characters), ‘each seek Priscilla’s affections’, and my last point was ‘Hawthorne says no person is beyond fault’. Each of those quotes should have at least one paragraph. In this essay, since it was eight to ten pages, each idea in this specific circumstance typically took two or three paragraphs.

So, the thesis is a little mini outline, if you want to think of it that way. It certainly helps structure what you’re going to say. After you write body paragraphs that reflect that thesis, then you can wrap it all up with a conclusion. When I write my concluding paragraphs, I ask myself these questions: “What does it mean?” aka “So what?” and “Why is this information important to ME the reader of this essay?” I try to use the information I discussed, briefly summarize it, then explain what it should mean to you and how you should go about life having read it.

Here are some (sort of irrelevant) links if this wasn’t helpful at all!

http://www.fastweb.com/student-life/articles/essay-tips-7-tips-on-writing-an-effective-essay

http://www.internationalstudent.com/essay_writing/essay_tips/

http://writingcenter.fas.harvard.edu/pages/strategies-essay-writing

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