Recently, an anon came into my inbox asking for advice on writing essays for class. And since I am a liberal arts major, and good for so little else but writing a lot of papers, I thought I’d share some knowledge. So pull up a chair, tumblr, and I shall take you by the hand and lead you through the perils and pitfalls of paper writing!
I. WHAT THE HELL IS AN ESSAY ANYWAY????
It’s an argument.
That’s it, really. Writing an essay is about constructing an argument. You’re trying to convince the audience that whatever you’re saying is sound—a philosophy term that means “both accurate and logical.” You are trying to convince your audience that whatever you’re saying is not only true, but that it can be arrived at through logical thinking.
This means that in every essay, you have to 1.) say what it is you’re arguing for, and 2.) give evidence as to why your reader should believe you. Yes, even if it’s just a research paper about the life of William Faulkner, you still have to make an argument—though in that case it’s “This is how Faulkner’s life was and here is how I know.“
So…that’s it, that’s my whole explanation. An essay is just saying what it is you’re arguing for, and then giving evidence as to why the reader should believe you.
…of course those things aren’t as easy as they sound.
II. HOW TO HYPO A THESIS
“Saying what it it you’re arguing for” is kind of a mouthful, so let’s give it a nickname. Let’s call it a thesis. Just like a hypothesis in science, this is a claim you are going to prove through the rest of your report.
(Except instead of beakers and shit, you’ll be using the text and/or literary criticism. And LOGIC.)
A thesis is just a statement, sometimes a single sentence, sometimes several sentences. For example, I might have a thesis like “The major theme in Romeo and Juliet is the struggle between the personal and the political.“ It’s a statement, and it says what it is that I’ll be trying to you prove in the rest of the paper—that R+J is about the struggle between the personal and the political.
But I’m also going to give you a couple handy tips on how to make sure your thesis is sure-fire. Ask yourself three questions:
1.) Am I trying to answer a question?
"The personal and political in Romeo and Juliet” is not a thesis. It’s a statement! But it doesn’tsay anything. You can’t prove it or disprove it, it just sits there like a brownie half-eaten by someone else.
A real thesis sounds like the answer to a question. What’s the major theme of Romeo and Juliet? “The major theme in Romeo and Juliet is the struggle between the personal and the political.” A thesis has to actually say something, not vaguely gesture in its direction.
2.) Am I trying to answer an interesting question?
This isn’t just whether your topic is boring—a lot of people can find Shakespeare boring, but you can still have an interesting thesis about his work. In this case, we’re really asking, am I trying to answer a real question?
My rule is that if no one would disagree with your thesis, then that is probably not an interesting thesis. For example, it is not interesting to ask whether, in Romeo and Juliet, the Montagues and the Capulets are at war with one another. No one would disagree with you—the text explicitly says they are at war with each other. It is interesting to ask whether the political struggle between Capulets and Montagues juxtaposed with the personal struggle of Romeo and Juliet is meant exemplify the tension of private vs. public. Your reader might have another opinion, could have read it differently. You’re writing an argument—someone needs to disagree.
3.) Can I reasonably answer this question?
Asking whether a question is interesting is making sure you don’t get too small. If a question is too small, then your essay will be pointless, an explanation of what your audience already knows. But you can go wrong in the opposite direction too. If you try and tackle a topic too big, then your essay will have too much stuffed into it, or be totally unanswerable.
Avoid theses like:
- “Shakespeare meant Romeo and Juliet to be read as a tragedy” (you have no way of knowing what Shakespeare “meant")
- “Romeo and Juliet presents an accurate look at life in Mantua in the 16th century” (researching life in 16th c. Mantua is probably beyond the scope of an English essay)
- “Romeo and Juliet is the best of Shakespeare’s plays” (your teachers are not asking you to evaluate, but to critique. You’re a scholar, not a book reviewer.)
Hint: if you need a time machine, access to documents in a library more than fifty miles away, or significantly more pages than your teacher assigned, chances are you have bit off more than you can chew.
III. BACK THAT SHIT UP: SHOWING EVIDENCE
Okay, so now you’ve got your thesis—it’s a statement, it answers an interesting question, and we can reasonably answer it without hiring a necromancer or traveling abroad. Now it’s time to write the meat of the essay, and give evidence as to why the reader should believe you.
TO THE LIBRARY!!!
(or online database)
(or google books)
or wikipedia well if you’re going to use wikipedia at least go down to the “resources" part and check the sources themselves okay? every time you quote wikipedia and attribute it to Plato, part of an intro philosophy TA’s soul dies)
Honestly, there are two parts to giving evidence for your argument, but they happen simultaneously and effect one another, so it’s hard to just list them. The first is what I like to call sourcing, and the second is called building.
SOURCING is about diving into the text/library/database and gathering together the proper sources to support (or change!) your thesis. For our Romeo and Juliet thesis, this means going through the play and picking out relevant quotes; finding published literary criticism about politics in R+J; even reading other books on the subject. At first you’ll probably cast a wide net (look at and read a lot of different things) which you’ll narrow down as your figure out what your argument is going to look like.
Think of this as gathering together a panel of experts who will back up your point. You, standing by yourself saying, “The major theme in Romeo and Juliet is the struggle between the personal and the political!” isn’t very persuasive–you with half a dozen Shakespeare scholars at your back, scowling menacingly and ready with quotes? Much better. Every outside source you bring to the table as research will strengthen how persuasive your argument is.
Which brings us to BUILDING. Building your argument involves figuring out how all smaller points of your argument and the research supporting them will fit together. It’s a lot like laying down a series of stepping stones across a pond. Like this picture I googled literally ten seconds ago!
In order to get from one side of the pond to the other, every stone needs to be in place. When you take one of those stones away:
whoever is following the trail will end up the water. It’s exactly the same with essays–you should lead your audience from point to point, making sure they don’t have to jump too far. If they can’t quite make the leap, then you’ll lose your audience and your argument has failed to be persuasive. (Plus they’re all wet.)
Let’s walk through a basic outline for an essay I wrote my sophomore year of high school, about how Holden Caufield and Julius Caesar’s Brutus are both tragic heroes.
- First, I define what a tragic hero is, according to Aristotle’s Poetics. I quote passages describing the tragic flaw, the fall, and the catharsis that characterize a tragic hero. If Holden and Brutus fit this definition, they are tragic heroes. I’ve just set out a checklist for them to fill out. Aristotle backs me up.
- Since I’ve given myself a checklist, I start working down it. I talk about the role of the tragic flaw in Holden and Brutus’s stories. To back up my assertions, I quote from Aristotle, Julius Caesar, Catcher in the Rye, and from an article of literary criticism.
- Rinse and repeat with the points on my checklist, highlighting the similarities of the stories to the tragic hero description.
There’s some other stuff in the essay that helps explain the difference in their stories, but primarily? This is it. I said what I was going to prove–how Holden Caufield and Julius Caesar’s Brutus are both tragic heroes. Then I laid out how I was going to do it–I gave you a definition of a tragic hero, because if Brutus and Holden fit that definition, they were tragic heroes. Then I gave evidence that my argument was sound–I quoted Aristotle, the original texts, literary criticism, and showed, yes, that definition applied.
Each step had sources backing it up and they followed the other, you could see the logical flow between them. Congratulations, you’ve written a literary criticism!
(There are other kinds of arguments, of course–exegesis, philosophical critique, historical survey–but I doubt you’ll be asked to write those. If it’s a research paper, you’re really just telling a well sourced story. My medusa history post is an example of a straight research paper, albeit a very informal and poorly-structured one.)
IV. CONCLUSIONS: THE VESTIGIAL TAIL OF ESSAYS
So, you’re so close to the finish line you can taste it–you’ve got a killer introduction paragraph with a killer thesis that fulfills all three criteria; the body paragraphs build a logical argument and cite excellent sources. You’ve only got one thing left:
The conclusion can feel a bit useless–you’ve already done everything! But the conclusion is a chance to get a little florid, a little poetic, to shake your reader awake. It’s a chance to bring the whole party home, to say hey remember that awesome logical argument I just guided you through wasn’t that awesome??? Hey, I even recognize the larger implications of what I’ve just said, you know you want to give me that A+…
Hence my title for this section–yes, a conclusion (like a vestigial tail) doesn’t serve a particular purpose, but it reminds us of where we’ve come from.
V. FINAL TIPS AND TRICKS
- CITING IS SO SO IMPORTANT OH MY GOD PLEASE CITE WELL–check to see whether your teacher wants footnotes, endnotes, or parenthetical citation and always include a bibliography!
- Here is a guide to MLA style (most common for English essays), APA style (social sciences), and Chicago Style (social sciences and those attending the University of Chicago)
- If that’s too difficult, use easybib, where you just need to type the information in and it will format your citations for you.
- EDIT YOUR PAPERS, STUPID ERRORS AND TYPOS ARE PREVENTABLE, LIKE FOREST FIRES AND BAD HAIRCUTS
- Read your paper aloud to yourself. If it sounds ridiculous, edit that shit.
- If possible, get someone else to read your paper to catch the things you can’t see because the words are inside your head and you can say them in your sleep
- THE URGE TO VOMIT A THESAURUS ALL OVER YOUR PAPER WILL BE VERY STRONG!!!! AVOID FANCY SYNONYMS AND JARGON EXCEPT WHERE NECESSARY–BULLSHIT SMELLS NO MATTER HOW MUCH PERFUME YOU DRENCH IT IN
By now, you’ve probably already realized that Tumblr is a surprisingly great studying resource. Study-themed Tumblr accounts–or, to use their given soothing-sounding portmanteau, “studyblrs“–are all over the site, and they are all rife with legitimately helpful study tips, organizing techniques, and tricks for raising your grade a few points. And one of the most prevalent studyblr genres? Ones that teach you how to write papers.
This is good, because if your schooling experience is in any way similar to the way mine was, you totally forget how to write a good paper the second your last one gets turned in. And, given that you’re fresh off of winter break and working up to your first essay of the semester, you probably need a few reminders on how to actually write a paper that won’t make your teacher assume that you’re illiterate. (Or, uh, more than a few tips.) So, check out these excellent essay-writing tips from Tumblr that will help you get the inspiration you need for your next paper:
1. Just do this:
JK! Don’t do that.
2. Instead, make sure you plan out the paper ahead of time:
3. Gather all your materials together and create a soothing environment to write in:
4. Write out each step so you don’t feel overwhelmed later:
5. It’s particularly helpful if you do this by hand:
6. If you’re studying for the SAT, try and do as many hand-written practice tests as possible, since you’ll be writing by hand for that exam:
7. Follow this checklist:
8. And make sure that your paper fulfills these components:
9. Write out all of your quotes and the purpose you would like them to serve so you don’t have to search for them when you write the paper:
10. Use transition words that your teachers will love:
11. As well as fancy words that won’t make your teacher think you’re trying to be better than them:
12. Learn how to turn facts into a compelling argument:
13. Use websites that’ll help you strengthen your essay without plagiarism:
14. First impressions matter–read this guide to writing a good introduction for your paper:
15. And know key terms on how to do so:
16. Most important? Proofread everything:
17. Seriously–your teacher will thank you (and your grade will reflect it):
Do you have trouble writing school papers? Are you going to follow these tips? Let us know in the comments!
You can reach the author, Sara Hendricks, on Twitter and Instagram.
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