How to Write an Essay: A Crash Course
This document, based
on the work of another colleague and revised for
our purposes, attempts to provide basic instruction on constructing essays
in fulfillment of the essay component of all my upper-level courses.
In the English Department you perhaps learned how to respond to literary
texts. This interesting and worthwhile enterprise can focus the skills of
the novice writer, but
unless you become a teacher of English remarkably few people
in later life will be interested in your thoughts about Jane Austen. Your ability to talk,
think, and write critically, however, will interest others. Through our weekly "Essay Question", you
to write professionally. The guidelines that follow show you
how to do it . . . or rather how to learn to do it.
The first task involves gathering the necessary materials: primary and secondary sources. Primary sources are usually original literary texts: the actual material on which you work. Secondary sources are works of criticism.
The more primary texts you read and reference the better the essay. You can not possibly read too many primary sources. Remember, the key to a quality essay rests in both the number and quality of your ideas about the primary text. If you refer, from at least an apparent position of familiarity, to primary source material, you will win the admiration of your reader. If you refer to tons of secondary source material, however, particularly obscure material, the reader's eyes will probably become hazy and dull. Exceptions to this rule exist but the basic principle stands: original texts (primary sources) are better than critics (secondary sources).
The short answer: to offer the writer somebody with whom they may disagree. A longer answer: secondary sources (critics of primary source material) offer critical opinions on a text, thinker or idea. Exploring these expressions can allow you to start at the heart of the matter rather than spend your time mulling surface issues or generating critiques that have been in existence for decades. Secondly, secondary sources can stimulate your own ideas on the topic. But remember: ultimately, in your essay, only your ideas obtain merit.
Never quote a critic just to state "...and I agree." Such "straw horse" positions add nothing to an essay. Instead, try quoting a critic in the following form:
Surely, the use of quotation without explication stands as one of the most common errors in undergraduate essays; what a waste of space.
Secondary sources publish in two forms: books and articles. You should be familiar with the library electronic catalogue and how to search it to find books . If you have a problem, ask a librarian or stop by my office. Spend one half an hour simply playing with the electronic catalogue, search for secondary books on your topic, idea or primary source.
But books can pose
a set of problems. Library books may be checked out by another
patron. More often, Magale Library might not own the book; many books will need to be tracked down through interlibrary loan.
Books may not offer you the critical insight you
need. Further, you might be hard pressed to explore and digest
secondary material in book form quickly enough to know how it might stir
your imagination in a productive manner.
Rapidly becoming a fantastic resource, the World Wide Web offers copious information concerning almost every imaginable topic. But the WWW should be used cautiously. For assistance in evaluating web sites, click HERE.
When you have found the books and articles you are going to read, you will need to read them. Some basic principles:
One suggestion: carry a spiral-bound stenographer's notebook at all times. If an idea comes to you,
however intimate or urgent the accompanying moment, write it
down. Nobody need ever see the content of the notebook, so no need to feel
self-conscious about what you write in it.
Reading either a primary text or a work of criticism will usually generate numerous ideas, thoughts and feelings. Take notes while you read. Do not, however, make notes in the form of simple outlines or summaries, unless you need help remembering a line of reasoning or a plot to a narrative.
Always read with a pen and notebook; in other words, read interactively. Think about both the content of the reading and the author of the writing. Record your thoughts on both dimensions. When a thought occurs under these circumstances it will be in reaction to a piece of the text at hand: a quotation. On a single sheet of paper, draw a vertical line down the center of the page, thus forming two columns. In the left-hand column, write the quote and a page reference from the resource so you can find it again to check it if necessary. In the right-hand column, record your responses, feelings, ideas and questions. What attracts you to this part of the text? In this way, you generate a document that clearly demonstrates the interconnection between a quote and your own thoughts.
Always write one idea only per page. Why? So that you can file the ideas. On a regular basis--say every other day--go through all of the notes that you've accumulated. Take them out of the notebook (or wherever you store the pieces of paper). Add more responses to the quotations, if possible. Next, give titles (headings) on each note. At this point, you may consider throwing away the trash notes (the obvious trash, since some trash can become treasure if worked with just a bit). Then file them in a way that you can find them again. Make sure you know where all the quotes came from: editions, page numbers, and so on.
Every book and article you read should have its details listed in your master book-list, or bibliography: Author/s, title, date, publisher, shelf mark, place of publication. In the future, you will need this bibliography and your carefully filed notes that contains ideas about particular texts.
So, the material has been gathered, books and articles read,
stenographer's pads filled with quotations, notes, ideas, comments, and
feelings, and a bibliography constructed. How do you write the essay?
You see: the essay writes itself, painlessly, because most of the thinking has already been completed prior to the construction of the rough draft.
The plan you construct should be in the form of an indented outline. This is a series of headings and subheading:
A. Title One (Heading One)
Behind every decent essay there exists a great outline. Heck, I used such a process to build this essay on essays. Can you tell? Hope so.
Now think of a professor having to read up to a hundred student essays. A decent level of concentration is hard to maintain. The professor, while a seasoned reader, can become lost or lose their train of thought. . . just as you do in some of my lectures. It is essential therefore that an outline be obvious to the the professor/reader, clearly perceptible in the way the essay is written. To achieve this effect, construct an outline for your own benefit before writing the essay.
To maintain and make obvious such a clear structure, remember that the paragraph functions as the basic structuring unit in the essay. Basically, every paragraph should represent and flesh out a heading or sub-heading in the outline. The paragraph is the building block of the essay. Therefore:
But the main thing is to make each paragraph a solid unit that develops a clearly announced sub-theme of the essay. In this way, the indented outline that stands behind the essay will be obvious (not too obvious: don't write subheadings before every paragraph) and the reader (namely, moi) will not have that terrible lost feeling that immediately precedes giving the essay a low mark in disgust.
Behind everything I've said so far there are two themes. One: your ideas about primary source materials and presented ideas matters. The other theme:
Always put the reader first
ALWAYS PUT THE READER FIRST
Some additional guidelines
Every essay without exception should end with a list of books and articles used. Often a reader will look at this page first, to see what kind of work you've done: where, as it were, you're coming from. On the whole and within reason, the longer this is, the better. As long, that is, as you can reasonably show that you have indeed used the works on the list.
Documentation styles abound. The rule of thumb: find one and stick with it. Do not mix and match writing or documentation styles. Style books will tell you how to organize references, use quotations, punctuate text, and so on. Buy one and use it. I rarely look at mine now: I more or less have memorized the Style book Professionalism in writing suggests that you follow my example.
Check also the method for arranging references within in the text. They should be indented on each side and separated from the rest of the text with a white line above and below, if they are longer than a line or so. And they should have a reference: author, title, and page number.
Remember: put the reader first. If you are using a word processor, take some time to get the layout right. Double space, with an extra space between paragraphs. The first line of a paragraph should be indented. Number the pages, and put in a header with the short title of the essay and your name in it. And use the spelling checker before you print.
A note on safe computing. Save to disk frequently. At least every ten minutes. Secondly, you should develop the feeling that whenever you switch the computer off, you are doing a dangerous thing. Dangerous to your data, that is. When you switch it on again, there is no guarantee whatsoever that it will come up and present you with your work. It might crash. It probably won't, it's quite unlikely that anything bad will happen, but nonetheless this is the time of maximum danger for your essay. I have been working with computers equipped with hard disks since 1987. In that time I have experienced numerous hard disk crashes. Wipeout. Obliteration. Everything gone for ever. I have also had computers stolen and all the data on the hard disk gone for ever.
As a result, I never switch off the computer without making sure that all the data is backed up. Never. Ever. This means that whatever I've worked on since the last time I switched the machine off gets copied on to disks or burned to a CD. If it's creative writing, like your essay, make two or even three copies. If you feel really nervous about losing it, print the file out on to paper, as a final security.
When I tell students to write or print on one side of the paper only, they give me the same look that I frequently get from my cat: "Is this man totally out of his mind?" it says. Look: it makes it easier for the reader. A lot easier. If that doesn't convince you, try sending any piece of writing whatsoever to any form of publication whatsoever, written on both sides of the paper, and see how long it takes for them to send it back. Unread.
There is a simple but unpleasant rule about this.
They will be wrong; it will just mean that you can't spell, or can't punctuate, or don't know some of the grammar rules. Nonetheless, that's what they will think. Since it will almost always be in your best interests to show that you are intelligent, rather than stupid, if you have a problem in any of these areas you should do something about it. If you have a word processor, get a spelling checker. Persuade someone you know who can spell, punctuate, etc. to read over your work first and check it: learn the sort of mistakes you make, and don't make them again.
There is one particular error that is very common, students quite often are in the habit of running two or more sentences together and joining them with commas, it is really a very bad idea to do this, a marker when he or she sees it will become very irritated, I hope you are by now with the strange breathless quality of this sentence. Don't do it. A sentence is a sentence. It should end in a full stop. Putting two sentences together with commas between them is becoming acceptable in creative writing, but it's still a bad idea to do it in an essay.
Controversy rages over the best way to bind the thing. For our online work, simply cut the completed essay from the word processor page, paste into the essay blank and press the submit button. But if you want to submit a hard copy, then you might follow these simple principles.
The pages should be stapled together once, at the topic left hand corner for ease of turning. Do not use cover sheets, since it is a waste of good paper. Do not use binders of any nature; they take up more space and do not add to your grade whatsoever. A crappy essay that is well bound is still a crappy essay.
Style is not something I can prescribe in a set of notes like this. Instead, look at my "Writers Cheat Sheet."
Here is a summary of things to keep in your mind about writing an essay. When I mark an essay, they are the things that I particularly look out for: