Suggestions for Writing Essays
SUGGESTIONS FOR WRITING ESSAYS
1. Write your thesis statement as an assertion, an idea that you plan to prove, a question that you intend to answer, a direction you intend to travel. A strong thesis statement might suggest a forward movement in your essay—might suggest that you plan to show the change in a character, the development of a theme, that you plan to move from your own doubt or confusion about something in the work to some kind of clarity, that you plan to follow a causal path (A leads to B, which leads to C, etc.), that you plan to show how something reveals itself during the course of the work (either chronologically or moving from least important to most important, etc.). Let your thesis be suggestive, but not deliberately confusing or ambiguous.
2. Or consider beginning your essay with a question related to the topic—like why is T.S. Eliot so difficult to read? Or how can Pound think two lines make a poem? Or what does Stevens mean by the “malady of the quotidian”? Or why does Fitzgerald call Gatsby great? Or why doesn’t Sandra Cisneros create a totally likeable character in “Never Marry a Mexican”? Or what’s the point of having a character talk to a frog on Murakami’s “super-frog saves tokyo”? Or are Nabokov’s characters realistic? Then follow it with a quotation or plot detail or something else that seems connected to your question. Then play off of this quotation/detail attempting to answer the question until you’re ready to move to another quotation or a plot event. Examine each quotation and plot detail in a sequence, devoting separate paragraphs to each, constantly trying to answer the question. You might expand or qualify or alter your question as you move through. You might (probably will) do the same thing to your thesis which becomes a kind of evolving thesis. Keep writing until you satisfy yourself with your answer or grow completely exhausted. Conclude.
3. Do not include the topic ideas you plan to deal with in your thesis. It makes your paper too much like a mathematical formula. But do provide the reader with a sequence of topic ideas during the course of your essay. You must have a reason for organizing your paper in the way you do. A topic idea can be explicitly stated in a sentence or two, or it can be implied, but if implied, it should be easily understood by the reader. A good way of thinking about topic ideas might be to consider them signposts on the journey your essay takes.
4. Write an introduction that captures the reader’s attention either by beginning with a startling quote (from the story you’re examining or elsewhere) or fact or idea; or by writing fluent, entertaining prose that eases the reader into your thesis and essay; or by offering necessary background information; or just begin with the thesis itself. Obviously, there are many ways to begin an essay. Look at how authors begin the essays you read for class.
5. Mention the author and title of the work you are writing about ASAP—either in the title or early in the first paragraph.
6. Build your paragraphs with specific evidence primarily from the text (quotations, paraphrases, plot details, words, phrases, images, implications) and your own explanation of how that evidence supports and develops that evidence. Don’t just say the evidence supports your ideas. Show the reader how the evidence supports your ideas. In fact, don’t just write directly about the evidence, but frequently use the evidence as a springboard to think further about your idea, to lead you into more depth. More profundity.
7. Remember a paragraph usually only deals with one idea or one example. When you shift ideas or examples, consider creating a new paragraph.
8. Don’t just offer evidence and then explain how it supports your idea. Or present your idea and then offer the evidence. Vary how you present your evidence. For instance, try to weave your evidence into your own sentences so that you’re constantly arguing, constantly pondering your topic. Learn to use brief quoted phrases, even single quoted words from the text in your own sentences.
9. Don’t put any quotation in its own separate sentence. At least say the author states or describes. Try to explain what the quotation means or at least begin to explain what the quotation means in the same sentence that you put the quotation in. Avoid phrases, if you can, like “This means” or “This shows”. Always explain how the quotation connects to your argument, unless that connection is absolutely clear.
10. Write a conclusion that doesn’t just summarize what you have said, although you might want to do that, especially in long papers. If you choose to summarize in a short paper, keep it brief and use different words from the ones you have used in your thesis the body of your essay. The best way to end a paper is by saying something important about your topic like answering the question “so what?’ or explaining to the reader what you think the significance of your essay has been. Consider writing your conclusion as a call to action.
11. Proofread the entire paper. If you’re short on time, at least proofread the first paragraph. If there are numerous mistakes in the first paragraph (and all throughout your paper) you will prevent the reader from understanding what you are trying to say. She will think you do not care about your essay and she won’t care either. If you have the time, a good way to proofread an essay is to look at the last paragraph first, then the next-to-last, and so on, until you arrive at the first paragraph. This well help you focus on grammatical and phrasing problems.
12. Write as if you are thinking. The illusion of the mind in the process of thinking. In other words, let the reader accompany you on your journey toward some kind of conclusion. Let her follow the twists and turns, the forward, backward, and sideways movements of your mind. Write to excite and please and thrill and instruct and amaze your reader.
13. Organize the paragraphs in the body of your essay in a sequence. Any kind of sequence. Causal, chronological, least important to most important, etc. But a sequence.
14. Try to organize your essay so that it moves forward toward some conclusion. If you digress, try to explain why your digression adds to the reader’s understanding of the topic. If your digression is actually a digression that doesn’t belong in your essay, but you feel you have to include it for some reason or other, please tag the beginning with the word “digression” and the end with “end of digression” in order to let me know that you are aware of violating the unity of your essay.
15. Try to come up with more than one interpretation of every passage or detail or example you use. Don’t necessarily include all your interpretations in your essay, but definitely try to see things in multiple, even ambiguous and paradoxical ways. This will help you arrive at the strongest interpretation and might lead you to a deeper your interpretation of a passage or detail when you actually write about it in your essay. A good way to do this is to keep asking why or so what or how, etc.
16. Always question yourself. Never assume that your impressions are completely correct. But at the same time, trust your intuition. Just be sure to justify it.
17. Consider tone. Should you be humble, assured, aggressive, funny, serious, playful, etc.?
18. Ask several questions (other than the lead question) in your essay and then try to answer them. Perhaps, not specifically, but in way that leads to your reflecting in detail on the question. In other words, don’t write your entire essay in statements. Mix some questions in. This will pull your reader along giving her the idea that you are thinking as you are writing.
19. Use hyphenated words somewhere in your essay. You may invent the words if you wish. The hyphenated words may (and frequently should) combine more than two words. Three or four-word hyphenated words can be both fun and meaningful. I always give prizes to the student who creates the most outrageous but still meaningful hyphenated word.
20. Mention the author’s name at least once every one or two paragraphs. Remember the author created the work and the characters, wrote the passages, etc. This will also remind you and the reader that you are talking about a specific work written by a specific human being maintain an objectivity toward the work itself that is sometimes lost when you focus strictly on the characters.
21. Try only to use “this” as an adjective followed by a noun, never by itself. Well, hardly ever and only if the reference is clear.
22. Address your reader directly at least once in your essay. You may call me Bob, Mr. Dickerson, or some clever bit of profanity of your own invention.
23. Vary sentence lengths, beginnings, and structures. Do not begin two sentences in a row with the same word or words. Do not write two simple sentences in a row unless you’re doing it for effect. Try to write sentences of different lengths and kinds. Write short ones, long ones, in between ones. Write simple, compound, complex, compound complex. Mix them up.
24. As said above, begin sentences differently. Start with a subordinate clause, an adverb, an adverbial phrase, even a conjunction—anything to shake up the customary subject-verb phrasing.
25. Try to write sentences that end not with an anticlimactic whimper, but with a bang. Sentences that trail off don’t push the reader on. Sentences that explode and that assert usually drive the reader on.
26. Use mostly who rather than that if you’re speaking of a person or persons. Don’t confuse the words to, two, and too; or it’s and its (it’s means it is and its is the possessive); or there, they’re, and their; or woman (singular) and women (plural); or man (singular) or men (plural).
27. Never use always unless you mean always. Instead use almost all or most or many, etc.. Never use never. Well almost never.
28. Double-space your essay. Use correct margins. See the edited MLA style sheet in the reader or look at the LA style sheet either online or in a handbook.
29. Explain, rhapsodize, be clever, make connection to previous sections, foreshadow, have fun, play, think, argue, astound, excite, teach, show something new—you get the idea.
30. Surprise the reader at least once in your essay by seeming to change directions, but then explain why you really didn’t change directions or why it was important that you changed direction.
31. Make at least two references/connections to other literary works you’ve read in this class or in another class. Identify the author of the passage you’re using.
32. Refer to a historical event or current political event or something to do with present day society or culture. Could be a joke. Probably should be a joke.
33. Allude to a famous quote. Transform it. Combine it with your own words. Examples: “This writer deserves far more than a penny for his thoughts. Give him a nickel.” “The character definitely pursues happiness, but seems to overlook life and liberty.” “It was the best of times; it was the worst of times; frankly, it was the most boring of times.” Since these are famous quotations, I don’t think you have to cite the author.
34. Intentionally write at least one sentence fragment. Make that two. Sentence fragments can be fun and they can enrich meaning through emphasis. They can also undercut meaning. Don’t be afraid to use them. You might let me know that you’re using one by writing fragment in the margin next to your fragment.
35. Vary words. Try not to use the same word in one sentence unless it’s an article like a, an, or the. Try not to use the same word in consecutive sentences.
36. Use strong, active verbs. If possible, use the verbs, is, have, become, and their various forms, sparingly.
37. Try to avoid the phrase “the fact that.”
38. If you want to mention a person, object, or thing after you have mentioned another person or object or thing, do not use a pronoun, but use the name of the person, object, or thing. Example: “Flannery O’Connor frequently wrote about violence in her stories. For instance, the grandmother is killed suddenly and horrifyingly. She is known for her peacocks” (Wrong since “she” can refer to the grandmother). Instead, write “O’Connor is known for her peacocks” to make the reference clear. The reader initially assumes that the pronoun refers to the previously mentioned person, object, or thing.
39. Avoid dangling or misplaced modifiers. My favorite of all time was when one of my female students wrote: “Standing in his bathing suit, I looked up at him.” I mentioned that it might be cozy and exciting, standing in that swimsuit with a man or the scene might suggest a fondness for cross-dressing. Be certain that all your references are clear.
40. Try to include at least one objection to your opinion or one qualification that might make you re-think your idea (even a minor objection). Explain how it makes you rethink your idea or try to disprove the objection. Deal with it in a sentence or several sentences or paragraph or several paragraphs. This will let the reader know you are thinking since she has probably already thought of this objection and it will help you think about stories and life in ways that are not perfectly unified.
41. Use at least two parenthetical expressions in your essay.
42. Use dashes to add explanation or emphasis or to qualify something you’ve just said. Dashes can also separate parenthetical expressions.
43. Use at least two appositives. If you don’t know what an appositive is, look up the term in a grammar handbook. Here is an example that uses four appositives: Anne Sexton, genius poet, mad lover, tortured soul, suicide, performed in a rock band at Golden Gate Park in front of thousands of screaming fans who had never read a single line of her verse.
44. Organize at least one paragraph or the entire essay around a metaphor. Use at least two similes to clarify points. A simile is a metaphor that uses like or as.
45. Imitate the style of the author you’re writing about in at least one paragraph.
46. Imitate the style of another author either in one paragraph or throughout the essay.
47. Try to write with a musical rhythm, with music as well as sense. Consider the sounds of your words and phrases and sentences. Each of us has our own rhythm within us. Call it voice if you want. Or call it music. Or call it your beat.
48. Consider using the following words: consequently, literary, opinion, suggests, denotes, depicts, implies, complex, simple, irony, paradox, ambiguous, psychedelicize, although, however, and others of your own choosing. Try to use at least three new words somewhere in your essay.
49. Write a clever title that fits your topic. Consider using a colon to write a two-part title.
50. Include an epigraph (a quotation after the title but before the beginning of the essay), but make sure it relates to the topic. Consider referring to it in your essay. It could be a famous quotation or a not-so-famous one. Identify the creator of the quote and identify her if she is not a household name. Shakespeare is a household name. Believe it or not, Lady Gaga is not and should be briefly identified as “androgynous chanteuse.”
51. Try to write one sentence that is over fifty or sixty words. On second thought, try to write two. You need to be able to write long complex sentences that are grammatically correct and make sense.
52. Write one sentence that is no more than five words. Or two such sentences. Frequently following a very long sentence with a short one that comments on that long sentence is an effective way to frame a portion of your argument.
53. Use parenthetical citations correctly. See the handout on MLA citations.
54. Do a works cited at the end of your essay. Do it correctly. Do it MLA style.
55. Use at least one word incorrectly just to see if your teacher is paying attention.
56. Make the reader laugh with a joke or pun or humorous idiocy or bit of foolishness that connects to the topic. BE SILLY.
57. Take risks. And be brilliant. Absolutely brilliant. Do something different each time you write a new essay.
58. Read your essay out loud to yourself or to someone else. If you read to your self, try to listen as if you were a different person (conscious schizophrenia), an objective reader trying to understand your work. Ask the people you read your essay to for their opinions, but don’t necessarily use them. Make the final decisions about your writing yourself.
59. Read the written words of others. Read for content, style, and form. Reflect on how they say what they say.
60. Enjoy yourself and your reader will probably enjoy herself. Teach yourself something as you write and the reader will probably also learn something. Avoid tight-assed prose. Write playfully.
61. Break every rule if you feel like it, but be prepared to pay the consequences. Dare to rebel, to risk danger, to be crazy, to find and tell the truth, even to be clear, which is the most essential quality of any writing. Follow up that clarity with passion and intelligence and empathy, and you have yourself the beginnings of an extraordinary essay.
Originally from Prof. Bob Dickerson