This archived article was written by: Carlie Miller
One of the meanest and oldest tricks in academia is the infamous line, “there will not be a final exam in this class,” or something very similar to it. If you do not understand the sick humor in this phrase then you are a very gullible college student. Either you are spared false hope at the beginning of the semester or you receive a crushing blow around this time with the rest of that odious statement, “but you will write a five-page essay.” It seems the instructors feed off of the groans in response and you know they enjoy it when they grin and add, “be sure to cite your sources.”
This article will not dwell on the reasons for the big essay, but on something more important that, hopefully, will help both students and instructors: how to write a reasonable essay. Before we delve into this topic, I would like to say that I am by no means the greatest writer in the world or an expert on writing essays. I just happen to be a student who has written her share of papers and listened to the frustrations of both professors and fellow students.
Let us start with the DO NOT of a paper. These no-no’s are simple and are usually avoidable if you read the course syllabus. If you have a professor who wants a paper, but doesn’t give you specifics, then consider these anyway. If you only have three short paragraphs but you need three pages, DO NOT make margins larger than one inch! Your instructor is likely to fail you for thinking he/she is stupid enough to actually consider the miserable thing. The exception is if you are instructed on margin size. Another cheat used to make papers longer is putting spaces between paragraphs, NO. This is bad and will also anger your instructor. Consider the age of your instructor, older people tend to be fussy and are no nonsense. Do you think they will accept a paper in gothic font? Professors prefer Times or a simple san-serif font (such as Arial), UNLESS they give you creative license (but this is usually for the title only). If the grade-giver cannot read your paper, you will not receive a very nice grade. Though you must consider the age of your sage, do not make your font larger than 14 pt. (instructors usually prefer 12 pt. so you should ask if you are not sure), they do have glasses. Never write “I”, “me” or “I think” unless you are writing a personal narrative.
Before we go onto the rest of the tips, let us discuss the worst no-no that students commit (on purpose or from sheer ignorance): plagiarism. I’m sure you have heard the word before, but did you know it is a crime? Plagiarism, in layman terms, is when you quote someone who is not you without mentioning them, even paraphrasing (quoting without using quotation marks) a statement that is not your own is considered plagiarism. It is such a simple process—citing your sources—that I am baffled as to how people can accidentally plagiarize.
Depending on the type of essay and its format, there are books and a magical place called the Internet which offers help. On the Internet, there are a gazillion sites on how to cite references and evidence from any media. One of the best sites is owl.english.purdue.edu which gives very simple instructions as to how to cite anything from voice recordings to newspapers and from books to blogs. Also, there is a little room tucked away on the second floor of the CBB with a door plaque that reads, “The Writing Center.” In this room, there are computers and a person called a tutor. When you are having problems with a paper, go to that small room and ask the tutor for help, the tutor will be more than happy to help you figure out how to cite a quote from your Uncle Bob the Human Cannonball or a book by Harry Foote.
Now for the DOs. The best tip I ever received did not come from an English class, but from debate. In competitions when you are given a topic a few minutes before you present it or debate it, the best way to organize your thoughts is to make an outline. You should have at least three points and the easiest way to organize them is to number a piece of paper from one to five. Example: the topic is “America and the color red” (the topics could get really abstract), three points could be “red in U.S. politics”, “history of the Red Scare”, and “star treatment: the red carpet”. Point one, the introduction, could be about red being a part of our culture from politics to history to entertainment. Point two would go in depth on how red is used in political identification (red is generally the Republican Party color). Point three is about the Red Scare. Point four is how the red carpet is a symbol of status and special treatment. Point five is the conclusion where all the points are summarized.
You might have an instructor who asks for a rough draft before you turn in the final draft. Even if you are not asked to write drafts, it is a good idea to make it a habit. If you are more comfortable writing than typing, then write a few drafts before you type it, then type a few drafts before accepting finality. The point of the draft is to help you evolve your paper. The rough draft could be an outline with a paragraph for each point, or even a jumble of ideas that pop into your mind. The next draft needs to be more organized, and the best way to do that is to employ the Five Paragraph Formula. The Five Paragraph has an introduction, a body, and a conclusion with the body being divided into three paragraphs that represent three points, arguments, or events. Your final draft should be clear of all grammatical errors and typos and show a smooth transition between each point (if you use references, then your final draft should have a works cited page at the end). Suggestion: reading your essay out loud will help you to find typos and awkward sentences, also ask a kind friend or roommate to listen to you read it or proofread it. Remember that it is not the end of the world if your paper is returned to you covered in marks, they only show where you can improve, writing an essay is a learning experience.
Last, I will discuss one of the most problematic features of an essay: the thesis. Depending on how snobby your professor is, a thesis is pretty much a topic or a point you try to relate using an essay. The thesis can be tricky since it changes depending on the type of paper you are writing. In a research paper, your thesis should be an idea that you must research and describe further. Also, a secret to making a professor love your paper is to make it controversial, after all, who doesn’t like to read about conflict? The easiest way to put an argument in your research paper is to use compare and contrast. Be sure to make your arguments strong and sensible by armoring them with evidence.
With a descriptive essay, your thesis can be a main point which you describe (such as a person, place, situation, object, etc.). Your description of the point should be split into sub points. Example: the main point is “unicorns”; three sub points can be “what a unicorn looks like”, “unicorns in folklore”, and “unicorns in today’s media”. Again, add argument to make your paper more interesting (an essay with arguments is like professor catnip, it is guaranteed to give you a higher grade) “the existence of unicorns”, “what unicorns represent in folklore”, and “unicorns today: the Asian Unicorn” would make interesting arguments. The descriptive essay is the most fun to write because you can exaggerate, be dramatic, and write is like you were telling your friends some gossip or a funny story. It gives more artistic freedom than most paper types.
The narrative essay thesis can be the “moral of a story”, or your opinion of book or movie you are reporting on. The narrative is like writing a fairytale or a journal entry about an experience you learned from, it’s all you so be creative. It is also a critique of a book, movie, or even a play in which you summarize and give your opinion. I repeat, add argumentation. The story needs a climax to be interesting and what is more climatic than conflict? Also, add the reviews of others in your critique and be sure your argument is stronger.
A favorite for most people is the persuasive or argumentative essay. This paper focuses on the argument of your essay using evidence to back it up. Usually, you must present an argument that will persuade your reader to “see things your way.” You are usually given a thesis for this type of essay, but you must “pick a side” or if you are forced to a side, you must present your argument as if you were passionate and in full support of it.
The easiest way to develop a thesis is to relate your major to class objectives (if you are allowed to choose your topic). For Criminal Justice, I did a compare and contrast about human rights in prison systems in the U.S. and India, in which how societies view basic human rights was a main theme (I am an anthropology major, cultures are my thing). You could even use your hobbies; a baseball player in an anthropology class can have a thesis about the origins of baseball, baseball rituals, or why baseball is popular. If you are given a topic, you can split it up into three points (three is a magical number in language arts for some reason, but it works as a good basis). For example: the topic is “compare and contrast Dr. Frankenstein and the Creature in Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein”. Decide to compare three things: personalities, experiences, and who the real monster is, for example. If coming up with sub topics proves difficult, try writing questions such as “who is Dr. Frankenstein and what is he like” and “why doesn’t the Creature have a real name”? Use your answers to create a thesis. Looking at similar essays online can also inspire you but do not buy or copy them, use them as examples.