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When I was in university, I helped friends by typing and proofreading their essays. I found that most people's writing was decent, but a few had managed to get through high school without learning how to construct a basic paragraph, let alone an entire essay. That was Ontario, where, at the time, high school went to grade 13 and the education system was fairly good. Now I live in the US, where high schools seem to churn out graduates that, for the most part, don't seem to know how to construct an essay. So many students making so many of the same errors must be indicative of a failing by the school system and not a lack of intelligence or ability in the students.
Thus, as a service to my husband's students who sometimes have to write essays, as well as a service to the greater Internet community beyond, I have put together the following tips and instructions on how to construct a good essay for a university class.
These are methods I used successfully in high school and university. While each specific tip or instruction might not suit every writer's personal tastes, it might be wise to try these methods and then alter them rather than to ignore parts entirely. Remember: you shouldn't break rules until you first understand those rules. If you want to do something grammatically incorrect in order to emphasize a point, make sure you know the proper grammar first. Similarly, if you want to approach a topic with a strangely formed essay in order to deliver a surprise to the reader, make sure you first know how to write a properly formed essay first.
Most of the instructions and tips here are geared towards informative essays as opposed to argumentative essays. I believe this information is still relevant to argumentative essays, but the examples used don't tend to follow argumentative structure. For more specific information on argumentative essays, please see Writing Argumentative Essays by Bill Daly. The information I do include specific to argumentative essays is on the writing page.
The lessons provided are as follows:
Part 1 - Research
Remember to schedule your essay well. Don't wait until the last few days to do the research, or you're likely to find all the good books have been signed out already. Don't wait until the last minute to do your writing, because if you discover you're missing a key bit of information, you may not have time to get it. Worse, you might end up feeling ill or having conflicting obligations the night before the essay is due, and no reasonable teacher or professor will give you an extension if you bring them a pathetic excuse such as, "I had to go to work," or "I had a headache." Furthermore, whatever you churn out in the wee hours of the morning is bound to be second-rate at best. Leaving the essay to the last minute is also tempting Murphy to throw in problems such as malfunctioning printers, computer crashes, being out of toner or paper, long lines at the printers on campus, etc. I always aimed to have my essays done one full week before they were due. In some instances, circumstances did prevent completion a week early, but because I had that buffer zone of a week, I never had to hand in something late.
Scheduling also means not trying to finish all the parts of the essay in one day. Your brain and body need rest between research and writing. Your final product will be much better if it is created through diligent use of time. See my page on student responsibilities for more.
And incidentally, the word "quote" is a verb, not a noun. You do not place a "quote" in your essay. You place a "quotation." This is probably not something that will actually come to play in your essay, but it's one of my nitpicky things, so I thought I'd mention it.
Last updated in February 2005.
Copyright © 2000-2005 Kimberly Chapman. All rights reserved.
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