How to Write an Essay:  A Crash Course

 

 

 

1. What is an essay?

2. Why write in this way?

2.1 Learning how to write professionally

3. Collecting the material

3.1 So why use Secondary sources at all?

3.2 Books and articles

3.3 Using the World Wide Web

4. Reading, making notes, having ideas

4.1 Making notes

4.2 Bibliography

5. Planning and structuring

5.1 The outline

5.2 The paragraph

6. Presentation

6.1. The list of works consulted

6.2. Styling references

6.3. Type it if at all possible

6.4. One side of the paper only

6.5. Spelling and punctuation

6.6. Handing it in

7. How to write

8. Getting it back


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. 


1. What is an essay?

      • An organized collection
      • of YOUR IDEAS AND INVESTIGATIONS
      • about a particular question
      • nicely written
      • and professionally presented  


In other words, the essay must be well structured (i.e. organized) and presented in a way that the reader finds easy to follow and clear: it must look tidy and not present any obstacles to the reader. It must have a clear, readable interesting style. But, above all, it must consist of ideas about the question at hand (often called the thesis of the essay). 

 

2. Why write in this way?

2.1 Learning how to write professionally

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 will learn to write professionally. The guidelines that follow show you how to do it . . . or rather how to learn to do it.

So, why do I engage in such an endeavor?

  • I think it's my job to offer you the best advice I can, not to tell you how to just get by.
  • If you learn what these guidelines teach, you will get better marks in all the essays you do from now on. You will surprise others with the quality of your presentations, by producing a better quality than they expect.
  • You will learn a skill, a not-very-hard-to-learn skill, that will last you for the rest of your life.

 

3. Collecting the material

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. 

NOTE

It is always better to read an original text and refer to it than to read and refer to a critic.

 

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). 

 

3.1 So why use secondary sources at all?

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: 

"(The author) says, 'insert your quote at this point,' but I find numerous contentions with such a position." Then proceed to explore the numerous oppositions you hold and your evidence for your position.

 Or: 

"(The author) says, 'insert your quote at this point."  While I find the content of the argument non-contestable, the logic appears in error."  Then proceed to describe the error in logic and how you would correct it.

But NEVER: 

"...as (the author) says, 'insert your quote at this point."   

Surely, the use of quotation without explication stands as one of the most common errors in undergraduate essays; what a waste of space.  


In addition, use quotations sparingly.  Attempt to place all material in your own words, but be sure to provide proper credit to borrowed ideas and inspirations.  Finally, NEVER block quote (that means, place a multi-lined citation from either a primary or secondary source) within an essay.   You are simply telling your reader that you have no idea how to construct a proper essay and that, indeed, you do not care.

 

3.2 Books and articles

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.

Articles often overcome such obstacles, however.  Utilizing articles from academic journals can:

  • Expose undergraduates to current, useful and sometimes obscure information rarely touched by most students
  • Provide rapid availability either on the shelves or through an online database
  • Offer shorter documents that undergraduates find easier to digest than books
  • Garner the admiration of your reader, since undergraduates are not expected to know about such things. OK, I EXPECT YOU TO KNOW
  • Contain interesting, original, and up-to-date ideas about texts and ideas
  • Challenge your reader with new insights that you can claim as your own (but don't count on this: stealing ideas is heavily penalized under Honor Code)
  • Allow the writer to even make use of trash in journal articles because you will have plenty of information with which to disagree.


The way to get hold of articles is to play with the SUPERSURF.  It is not difficult and a librarian or professor will gladly assist you. Spend some time playing.  You will find numerous titles not housed in our library.  While frustrating, you can interlibrary loan these articles.  But you will also find at least a few relevant articles and you can always interlibrary loan the rest--if you have the time.   

3.3 Using the World Wide Web

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.  

4. Reading, making notes, having ideas

When you have found the books and articles you are going to read, you will need to read them.  Some basic principles:

Always carry a notebook.
Always read interactively.
File and rewrite the notes so you can find them again.
Construct a bibliography.


Essay writers collect ideas about texts and ideas. This raw material serves as the basis from which the essay arises.  Ideas can occur to you at any time.  If you do not write them down, you will probably forget them. If you do write them down, you will probably think of additional ideas while recording your initial thoughts. Write these ideas down as well.   OK,  so some of the ideas and thoughts seem silly, out-of-place or just plain ridiculous.  So what: just write them down anyway.  Remember: out of trash may come unexpected treasures.   

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.

The most useful aspect of the stenographer's notebook idea: it beats THE CENSOR, the small voice inside your head that tells you your writing is rubbish. In your notebook you can ignore that voice.  As a result you will accumulate ideas. Some ideas will be good, some bad; when you re-read the notes you can separate one type of idea from another rather than attempting to do so while under the stress of creative writing. 

 

4.1 Making notes

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.

 

4.2 Bibliography

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.

 

5. Planning and structuring

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?

In short: you already have written the essay.  Ok, so perhaps a bit of an overstatement.  You have "the fixins" of the essay.

  • Gather all of the notes you have on the topic of the essay.  
  • Read through each note, writing new ones and rewriting old ones if more or different ideas come to you.  Make sure each note has been titled (possesses a header). 
  • Place the headings in a logical order (headings, sub-headings, sub-sub-headings) on a sheet of paper in the form of an outline of the essay. 
  • Physically arrange the notes in the same order of the outline on the top of a table or other large, flat surface (like a floor). 
  • Compare the outline constructed in Step Three with the physical arrangement of notes in Step Four.  Make adjustments to both the outline and the physical collection of notes until both representations appear as an identical logical, clear, and concise argument.
  • Label a new blank piece of paper "Introduction".  One this paper write one sentence about the topic of the essay, followed by one sentence concerning the other pieces of paper on the table or flat surface.  Place this piece of paper at the beginning of physical arrangement of notes.
  • Place a sheet of paper between each of the notes that appear on the table top or flat surface.   You should see the following order appear:
                *  Introduction
                *  Blank sheet 
                *  First Title Page
                *  Blank sheet
                *  Second Title Page
                *  Blank sheet
  • Let each blank sheet of paper represent a "transition idea":  one sentence that will express an idea that links the paper that occurs before it with the paper that immediately follows it.  These soon-to-be-written upon pages will become your transitions sentences that link one paragraph or idea to another.
  • Place a final sheet of blank paper at the end of the physical arrangement.  Label this sheet of paper "Conclusion.".  Write upon this paper the particular ideas you believe the reader should hold convictions about after reading the paper you are about to compose.  Also add one sentence that responds to either the question, "So What?" (what is significant about this paper) or "What next?" (what might the reader do differently after reading this paper?)
  • Move to a blank word-processor screen.  Write the rough draft of the essay, going from one piece of paper to the next.  Check the outline you created in Step Three to check for clarity of logic and flow of the argument and ideas.  

You see:  the essay writes itself, painlessly, because most of the thinking has already been completed prior to the construction of the rough draft. 

 

5.1 The outline

The plan you construct should be in the form of an indented outline. This is a series of headings and subheading:

       I.   Introduction

             A.  Title One (Heading One)
                   1.  First idea
                        a.  Quote or paraphrase from left side of page
                        b.   Idea/Response to quote from right side of page
                   2.  Second idea
                        a.   Quote or paraphrase from left side of page
                        b.   Idea/Response to quote from right side of page
             B.   Transition Sentence + Title Two (Heading Two)
                   1.  First Idea
                        a.  Quote or paraphrase from left side of page
                        b.   Idea/Response to quote from right side of page
                   2.  Second idea
                        a.   Quote or paraphrase from left side of page
                        b.   Idea/Response to quote from right side of page

 

and so on, until 

               E.  Conclusion

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.

 

5.2 The paragraph

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:

  • It should be at least a third to half a page in length, but not too long or the reader will get lost. No one-sentence paragraphs! They give the impression that you read poorly written newspaper articles. 
  • It should have what's known as a topic sentence, near the beginning, that announces the theme of the paragraph. The paragraph should not deviate from this theme or introduce any new themes.
  • The first sentence should somehow be linked to, or contrast with, the last sentence of the previous paragraph.  The "transition" pages should provide you the linking idea or concept.
  • The first paragraph (our "Introduction") should announce clearly the theme of the essay. I prefer first paragraphs that say boldly, "I am going to do this and that in this essay."  In the first paragraph also you should define your version of the title and make it clear. If the reader knows from the very beginning what you are going to do, the reader can bear your acclaimed purpose in mind.
  • The last paragraph (our "Conclusion"), in my humble opinion, is not so important. You can proudly announce that you have fulfilled the aims of the first paragraph.  Ta-da!  Then, you may respond to one or both of the questions ("So What?"  and "What Next?")  Or, you can try simply to end the essay (although it may seem a bit abrupt if not done with some degree of finesse).  Play with several endings and then decide.

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.

 

6. Presentation

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


Up to now, most of the writing you have done has been for people who are paid to read what you have written--like me.  To be honest, we have no choice: we must do it. After you leave the hallowed halls of Centenary College, most of the writing you will do (in the course of your working lives) will be writing you are paid to do for other people. They will not, on the whole, be mandated to read it.  If they don't follow your line of logic or feel offended by its scruffy presentation or not instantly seduced by its beauty and clarity, they will just throw it away and do something else instead.

OK, so I am paid to read your essays. Can you imagine the sheer labor of having to read a large number of essays on the same topic every week?  It's extremely hard (but important) work.  But it is easy to lose that train of thought.  Therefore, if not immediately seduced by the clarity and beauty of the thing I'm reading, I might become irritated, bored or simply confused.   When this happens, however, I find myself at a terrible impasse:  I cannot, as a professor, simply throw your essay away and do something else.  No: I must stick with it.  But the more I look--if the essay is poorly constructed and researched--the more frustrated I become.  Fortunately, I find comfort in the fact that most readers would find themselves standing at a similar impasse.  How do I resolve this tension?  I tend to focus on the grammar and poor construction and grade accordingly.  Most professors with whom I discussed this matter admit to doing the same. But, if you...

ALWAYS PUT THE READER FIRST


and make your essay as beautiful, compelling, and as professionally presented as possible, the reader impasse can be avoided. 

 

Some additional guidelines

 

6.1. The list of works consulted

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.

 

6.2. Styling references

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.

 

6.3. Type it first

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. 

 

6.4. One side of the paper only

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. 

 

6.5. Spelling and punctuation

There is a simple but unpleasant rule about this.

If you produce work that is mis-spelt and/or badly punctuated and/or ungrammatical, however good the ideas are, people will tend to think that you are stupid.

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.

 

6.6 Handing it in.

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.

 

7. How to write

Style is not something I can prescribe in a set of notes like this.   Instead, look at my "Writers Cheat Sheet."  

 

8. Getting it back

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:

  • Use of critics (i.e. don't slavishly agree with them)
  • Range of reference to primary texts, including obscure ones
  • Clear and perceptible structure
  • Interesting ideas tied in to quotations
  • The paragraph:

1. Length
2. Topic sentence
3. First sentence, last sentence
4. First paragraph (sets out themes)

  • List of works consulted (properly styled)
  • Quotations properly laid out, and references styled properly
  • One side of the paper only
  • Spelling and punctuation