Would you look at that, I’m back at it again with some tips to help you write an amazing essay. I’m not going to lie – this entire “how to write gooder” series (name stolen from one of my fave profs) is entirely self-serving. I haven’t had to write an essay yet this year and I’m trying to re-teach myself how to write one now that I have a few assigned.
They’re good tips if I do say so myself. I’ve included some quotes from essays I’ve written just to demonstrate the point I’m trying to get across. You don’t have to know what’s going on in them.
Hopefully you find these tips helpful, although I will say I’ve never had a chance to apply to them something that isn’t a critical analytic essay so I can’t promise anything (you didn’t pay for this so I can’t give you a money back guarantee).
ONE – be intentional
This is probably the most important thing an essay can do, after all, you’re trying to argue something. Being intentional means considering the message you’re trying to get across and making sure that message is conveyed in not only every paragraph, but every sentence too. This might seem impossible, but a good essay should be able to do it without too much trouble. All you have to do is consider a few of these questions:
- Why are you writing this paper (other than because you have to)?
- What effect do you want the paper to have?
- Who is your audience? What do you want the audience to get out of the paper?
- What work needs to be done to get the message across?
TWO – let your reader be lazy
Chances are you’ve had to read someone’s paper and it makes no sense. What they’re saying must be smart because they’re using big words and complex sentences, but the message is getting lost in translation. These are not the people you want to imitate, trust me. We all like being lazy when we read a papers. Using common language wherever possible is way more effective than heading over to a thesaurus and looking up every other word. Sure, there’s going to be some jargon and complex words that don’t have a common replacement, but you should still try to help your reader whenever possible.
I like to assume my reader isn’t very smart, but has been attending class. If you can make things less vague by restating something or briefly explaining a concept, great! Do it.
One thing that people often forget when writing an essay is the use of the word ‘this’. People love starting sentences with ‘this shows…’ and thinking their reader knows what ‘this’ is. Try not to leave a reader hanging. Always clarify what you’re trying to say. You might have explained what ‘this’ is in the previous sentence, but I don’t want to go back and figure it out.
Ex: NOT THIS : “The death instinct is an unbinding force because it is self-destructive behaviour expressed as aggression. This creates chaos…”
BUT THIS : “The death instinct is an unbinding force because it is self-destructive behaviour expressed as aggression. This instinct creates chaos…”
Do you see how adding the word ‘instinct’ between ‘this’ and ‘creates’ helps you understand just a bit better?
THREE – a mini essay
Every paragraph you write should be motivated by your thesis. I shouldn’t have to constantly look back to your first paragraph to know what you’re arguing. Preferably your thesis is embedded in each paragraph. It doesn’t have to be restated but it should be clear what the paragraph is helping you argue.
I like to think of each body paragraph as a mini-essay. Taken out of context, it should argue something about a particular claim, using specific quotes as evidence. To argue something, you’re going to need a little mini-thesis. Nothing too fancy, just answer the question “what is this paragraph going to argue about your claim?” and make that the opening sentence.
FOUR – get rid of it
Filler sentences are my least favourite thing to read when I edit essays (although I’m guilty of adding them all the time). One of my profs likes to say “don’t talk about something, do it.” Does your sentence move the paragraph forward or is it hinting at something you’ll explain later? If it’s hinting, drop it. All of your sentences should make a claim and they should provide all the information necessary to make that claim.
On the same note as filler sentences, ending your paragraphs with a “so what?’ statement is also a good way to tie off the mini-essay. Some profs/people like to end with a “movie trailer sentence” (basically you tell me what’s coming next), but that sentence doesn’t really do anything for you in terms of improving your argument.
FIVE – always try to qualify
Generic statements should be avoided at all costs. This is one of the hardest for me. I love to open my essay’s with some vague generalization.
What’s a generic statement you might ask? Well, a generic statement is often a sweeping statement that doesn’t take much to accept. So something like “birds lay eggs” is a generic statement.
As I said, I love to open my essays with a generic statements. So, my last essay started with: “The Creature in Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein is a popular figure in the retellings of her novel.” You can’t argue with that, can you?
A trick I like to use is just tossing out the first few sentences of my essay. If I’d done that with this last guy, my essay would have started a little stronger with a claim like this one: “Modern adaptations of Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein rarely acknowledge the Creature’s difficult relationship with human morality.” That’s a better start, don’t you think?
Always try to qualify what you’re writing. Sometimes I find it easier to make a generalization and then in the next sentence qualify it. That’s not necessarily the best option, but if you absolutely can’t avoid a generic statement it’s better than nothing.
SIX – don’t just drop a quote
One of the easiest ways to misuse a quote is to just drop it in. Quotes should flow seamlessly into your paragraph so you can keep control of your message. When you drop quotes into your essay, you often leave room for interpretation of how the quote is supposed to work with everything else you’ve just said. That won’t always work in your favour.
Dropping in a quote looks a little like what I did up in tip number five. A better way to incorporate quotes is to make them flow with your sentences. This is also my preferred way to use quotes so I might be a little biased.
“He begins his story by describing the “multiplicity of sensations” he feels through descriptions of opening and closing his eyes as well as his first encounters with the cold (Shelley 120).”
Do you see what I did there? How sneaky that quote was? I’m using my own words but then dropping a quote in there to remind you that I have textual proof for my claim. That’s the best way to use quotes. After all, the only reason you need a quote is to prove that you aren’t just making wild claims about the text.
If you need to just drop a quote in, add a follow-up sentence to stress the important points of the quote by putting them into your own words.
SEVEN – meta-commentary is actually pretty cool
I am a huge fan of meta-commentary. Basically all it is, is you making a claim or using a quote, and then jumping up and down while pointing at it and saying “look over here! This is important!”
Meta-commentary uses words likes “this matters because…” or “what is important here is…”
“Once the Creature loses his dignity, he “might as well surrender all appearances of acting well, and instead make the most of a shameful, unrestrained line of conduct” (Flahault 69). This refers back to the Creature inverting “nothing into everything” (Flahault 69).”
What I’ve done here is made a point and forced my reader to understand why I think it was important to make that claim. I’ve already discussed my second point, so the reader should be familiar with my second claim.
EIGHT – don’t use your intro to end it all
I don’t know about you, but when I was in high school I was told to repeat my introduction in my conclusion. That’s a horrible idea. That’s not at all what you should be doing. If you’re seriously stuck and you just need to submit your essay, go ahead, but if you have time try not to do it.
Use your conclusion to highlight the best point of your essay, or the point you most what your reader to take away and explain why. Don’t be afraid to put quotations into your conclusion and don’t drop that analytical tone you’ve used throughout the essay.
And remember, all essay means is try. Just give it a shot.