Some Thoughts on How to Write an Essay?

Instructor: Ann-Barbara Graff
Office: Room 291
Office Hours: As posted or by appointment.

Site Map
What's An Essay?
Evaluation Criteria
Getting Started
Evaluating Your Own Work
Peer Editing
D. G. Rossetti, Pandora's Box

What's an Essay?

In an expository essay, you must make an assertion and then set out to prove it. Your reader expects that your essay will have a clear statement of your position. Typically, this summary statement, assertion, claim or THESIS (one sentence or two, depending on the complexity of your argument) comes in the first paragraph, but there are no steadfast rules about this. Wherever it appears, your thesis must (a) narrow the topic to a single, manageable idea that you want your reader to gain from your essay and (b) provide a concise preview of how your will arrange your ideas in the essay.

Evaluation Criteria

You will be evaluated on the following:

Getting Started

1. Get an idea!
You can't be taught how to arrive at an idea. It just takes practise. Don't worry, the more questions you ask, the better you interrogate the text, the more likely you are to happen on an idea that you want to explore and about which others will want to read.

2. Brainstorm or Freewrite
Sit down with the topic you are interested in and brainstorm or freewrite. In other words, don't edit or censor yourself. Let your mind wander on the topic, free associate, write everything down. Look for patterns, analogies, significance.

3. Formulate a provisional thesis
A thesis is a focusing tool. It is key to clear organization. However, there is nothing to suggest that you can't tinker with or even throw out your thesis after a few days, as your argument becomes more clearly defined. When you are writing, a provisional thesis will help you focus. You might uncover the thing you really want to talk about by simply following the train of thought provided by a provisional thesis. WARNING: Don't tinker with your thesis forever. Settle on a thesis leaving yourself enough time to write the paper (and the appropriate number of drafts) that goes with it.

4. Prepare to write and rewrite a number of drafts
Writing (good writing) doesn't happen the day before the assignment is due. Yes, adrenoline is a wonderful thing, but it doesn't allow you to think clearly, deeply, comprehensively, subtlely, etc. Each draft should represent an improvement on its predecessor marked by a more convincingly or compelling argument, formulated in a way that draws your reader in.

Evaluating your own Work

Because you are writing drafts, there is ample time to evaluate your own work and seek advice from others (including classmates who presumably have read the same material and thus are experts as well as relatives who might not have). The benefit of an expert reader is obvious: the expert reader will know if you are misrepresenting an idea, scene, character, plot point, etc. The benefit of an uninitiated reader needs to be summed up: a novice reader will tell you if you are making sense generally, if your argument is compelling and logical.

Firstly, trust yourself. You know what you think and what you want to say. At this stage in the process the key is to figure out whether you've said "it" in such a way that others understand and is clear (not confused or contradictory) and makes the point you want to make.

The best way to review and revise your own work is to do it in steps. Don't try to correct grammar, spelling, syntax, structure, organization, focus, tone, etc. all at once. Go through your paper in an orderly fashion correctly spelling first (for instance). READ YOUR PAPER ALOUD to yourself. Your ear can hear what your eye fails to notice. READ YOUR PAPER BACKWARDS, from the concluding sentence to the introductory phrase, sentence by sentence. You will notice misplaced modifiers, antecedents without precedents. Each sentence should make sense on its own. If it doesn't, ask yourself why!

Ask a colleague for an opinion (but you don't have to trust the opinion to the exclusion of your own good sense). Other students in the class are familiar with the same material and the issues discussed; they are well-suited to evaluate your essay.

Peer Editing

Peer editing develops the skills you need when writing. What follows is a questionnaire designed to help you edit someone else's essay. It might also help you evaluate your own paper. Editor's Worksheet.

Please do not hesitate to contact me by email, during office hours or leave a voice mail message if you having questions about your paper. The Academic Skills Centre is a wonderful resource. Make an appointment there if you need help or encouragement. As well, the University maintains Web pages offering writing support on line. Visit Writing Support if you have questions about writing, grammar, structure, citations, etc.

Revised 5 July 2000