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How To Write An Essay
Part 5 - Writing the Essay
Now that you have a solid outline, it's time to knit the point-form bits together into formal prose. Part of this will just be creating proper sentences out of the notes, but much of it will be putting in your analysis and segues. It is this second part that makes the difference between a ho-hum regurgitation and an essay that actually has something to say. In my opinion, it is the main difference between a B paper and an A paper. Anyone can read and regurgitate, but it takes skill to analyse and bring things together to make an overall coherent point.
Writing your essay is like building a brick wall: if you leave gaping holes all over the place, the entire structure will be weak at best, and may crumble entirely. Even though you're now educated on your topic and think much of it is obvious, it is essential to assume your reader doesn't know much about the topic, unless otherwise specified in the assignment. You should assume your reader knows what the average layperson knows about the subject and write accordingly. This means you should explain what things do, who people are, and how it all fits together instead of just assuming something about your topic is common knowledge. It is better to have a couple sentences that are obvious than to leave the reader confused.
But writing to be understood takes more than stating all the facts. It means your prose itself must be clear and uncomplicated. You can explain very complex ideas without having complex text. This does not mean you should dumb-down your vocabulary. It means that you should make sure you're using words correctly in proper grammatical sentences. If you don't know what a word means or how to use it, look it up or don't use it. Your prose should be free of ambiguity. Sentences should not be choppy, but neither should they run on beyond a single idea. Paragraphs should be logical structures, not random space breaks. If you must say something in a complicated way spanning several sentences, try adding a sentence to summarize the idea. In other words, make every effort possible to be clear about each point in the essay.
(Notice that the last sentence of the above paragraph does precisely what the second last sentence suggests.)
How you say what you say is as important as what you're saying. Instead of providing a list here of things you should or should not do in your writing, I've included examples of good and bad writing in Part 8, and links to grammatical and style help on the links page.
Just because one of your sources uses bad grammar, hyperbole, or other examples of poor writing, that doesn't mean you should replicate the error. This is especially true of web sources, many of which are not reviewed and edited with the same attention to detail that books are. Some sources may be written for an audience familiar with the topic, and as such are very complicated. It is your job as the essay writer to take the information and present it in a clear fashion for your readers.
The best way to test your essay for readability is to give it to a friend to read over, particularly one not in the same class. If they don't understand it, find out why and fix it, then ask them to read it again. Tell them to mark on the pages anywhere where they are confused by your wording. They don't have to be grammatical experts to realize that there's something inherently wrong with a sentence. I'll expand on this suggestion in the next section.
For now, let's just get the thing written in the first place!
Assuming you're working on a computer, keep your outline document in an open window and begin a new document for the writing. This is to protect your outline in case you change things around as you write, but then decide it isn't working and want to backtrack. Furthermore, if you work directly from your outline, you run the chance of accidentally not typing out a point form note properly. For example, when writing my book Sorrows of Adoration, I was working from a 45 page outline and more than once I took something like this:
...and in rewriting it from the outline, ended up with this (errors in bold):
So don't work directly from the outline. Instead, begin writing your opening paragraph and then follow through the essay, writing as you go and occasionally cutting and pasting the full quotations into your text. If there is something in your outline that you have already written as a proper sentence, cut and paste that in at the appropriate time as well.
As you're knitting the points together, think about them. What do the points mean? What are you saying overall by including this point? How does it all relate to the overall topic? Don't be redundant and restate the focus in every paragraph, but make it clear where you're going with each point.
And an invaluable tip for computer users: get into the habit of saving after EVERY paragraph. It's awful to come up with a wonderful way of knitting points together just to have a computer crash or power outage and lose six paragraphs' worth of thought. You can't ever seem to get the same good flow back again.
Let's now go through our example and illustrate how to knit the points together in a skillful, intelligent way, section by section.
Don't be cheesy in the introduction and conclusion. Don't kiss-up to the teacher or professor by saying how wonderful the topic they're teaching is. Don't elaborate on how exciting you find the entire thing, unless it's an informal essay. Don't use hyperbole. Simply introduce the topic and explain what you're going to write about, without using 'I' at all. You may wish to begin with a blocked quotation if you have found one that really sums up your focus point well. Don't use one just for the sake of starting that way, though. Compare the following examples of how we could start our widget watching essay:
The second one clearly sounds more like a formal essay introduction.
Of course, it's still a bit awkward, mostly because of the heavy reliance on quotations. Sometimes you can't avoid the quotations, because you don't want to risk plagiarising. An introduction doesn't have to be done in one paragraph, and definitions don't necessarily have to come first. Let's try to make the introduction better by removing some of the initial citations and giving the words some breathing room. We'll keep the introductory quotation, though, because it's a good, solid statement summarizing why the reader should care about Joe Smith.
This introduction gives the reader the essential information fairly quickly, but draws them in first before hitting them with the dictionary. It also establishes the fact that Smith's life story is relevant, and thus hints that his life will be discussed in the essay. Furthermore, it introduces the concept of the widgetiscope as something important without getting into the nitty gritty of why it is important.
The Main Body
Now we knit in the next section according to our outline. Don't just plunk down the next set of facts. Try to relate each paragraph to the next in some fashion. In longer essays, you can also use subtopic structures to break up the prose and avoid having to segue between all sections. Let's do that in this essay, but still put in sentences that give some kind of overall link:
Note that it isn't necessary to attribute every single sentence in a simple paragraph such as this one if the entire paragraph is attributed as indicated. The reader can safely assume the facts presented in the paragraph are a paraphrased version of several pages of history from Superwriter's book. This makes for easier reading that is also properly attributed. The attribution is outside of the final sentence. If it was inside the sentence, there may be confusion as to whether it was only that sentence being attributed, or the entire paragraph.
Be careful, however, to not leave long gaps between attributions in this manner. A paragraph is fine, but several are not. Also, you cannot pull the attributions to the end of the paragraph if there are multiple sources cited within the paragraph. When in doubt, cite each sentence.
We would then continue in this fashion, knitting the points together into well-written prose, until the end of the section on his childhood and schooling. Let's skip to the next section, then:
When we get to the next section, we can begin by describing what the New York group was to Smith, and then reintroduce the contradiction between the authors.
Here we see analysis without overstatement and the presentation of contrary opinions without negating the essay's focus. When you cannot be certain of something you're stating on your own, be sure to include couching words and phrases so it cannot be assumed that you are stating absolute facts. If your analysis can be stated as fact, however, do not use couching words, because they will minimize the impact of your analysis. When deciding whether or not to use couching words, ask yourself: can I prove this? Is this a fact or speculation? Is this a possibility or a certainty? Don't get caught declaring something is true if you can't prove it.
Continue through the rest of the outline, knitting the pieces together as above.
In your conclusion, follow the same rules as the introduction: don't kiss-up, don't use 'I,' and don't be cheesy. Also, don't declare the future for certain, tempting though it might be to make grandiose statements about how your topic will be viewed in the future. Here again is a bad example followed by a good example:
Notice the difference in each example's mention of the widgetiscope: the first example just tosses the mention of the device in, but the second one summarizes why it was important. The conclusion is your final chance to tell the reader why they should care about your topic, so don't just use it as a summarizing cut-off. The second example mentions the fact that he is recognized in the field without going over the top and playing future-psychic.
Notice also it mentions the interesting new conflict you discovered in your research, emphasizing the interesting part without jumping up and down screaming "Lookie lookie! I learned this!" Tying the facts together like this legitimizes why you bothered to mention his life at all.
Use of Quotations
While quoting sources is a major element of this level of essays, your essay shouldn't merely string a bunch of quotations together, even if they are strung in a well-ordered format. Paraphrase long, awkward, or complicated quotations down into words that better suit your essay - but don't forget to cite a paraphrased comment! You don't make it your thought merely by rewording it.
Your essay should reflect your interpretation of many sources, not be a summary of what the sources said.
Too many quotations looks like laziness on your part. It also may hint that you don't really understand what your sources have said, but you're just going to throw their words in there to impress the instructor. Never put two quotations back-to-back; either paraphrase one or both, or find something to go between them.
Long quotations can often be broken up by putting ellipsis (...) between relevant phrases. Only use the part of the quotation that is necessary, and put ellipsis in place of removed portions. BUT BE CAREFUL! If removing part of the quotation changes the meaning of the quotation, don't do it. Here are two examples; one is fine, the other is wrong:
Original Quotation: "Smith spoke to several members of the association, including David Jones, Gertrude Fingle, Barry Backwater, Paul Dingleberry, Melinda Wossname, and Jane Doe, in order to promote his widgetiscope idea." (Bogus 47)
Original Quotation: "Smith did not want to invent the widgetiscope, but felt that someone had to." (Bogus 3)
Keep in mind that quotations longer than two normal lines of the page should be put into blocked form. A blocked quotation has the margins indented on both sides, does not use quotation marks, but does require the same attribution as any other quotation. Here's a sample:
Smith's initial experiments found that the widgetiscope results varied based on how the entire device was set up, and whether or not it was placed on a level surface. The widgets would sometimes slip on the slide, making the watching a challenge. The materials used in the construction of the widgetiscope itself also seemed to affect the outcome of the experiments. Smith's diary reflects how stressful the invention process was:
Smith's total dedication to his project would finally pay off, however, when he discovered that...
If you use too many blocked quotations, your essay becomes disjointed. Only use quotations this long if there's something special, significant, or particularly brilliant about the way the source wrote it or spoke it. For example, an essay on a great speaker such as Churchill, Lincoln, or Gandhi would have reason to include large portions of their speeches, and rewording those quotations could trivialize them. But there's no real reason to cut-and-paste unwieldy paragraphs from average sources into your essay if they would fit better when paraphrased.
What Twain meant is that it takes effort to write something concise, but it's fairly easy to babble on endlessly.
Most essay assignments come with a specific word count in mind: some a minimum, some a maximum, some both. I have found that most essays tend to easily fall within the required word count range naturally. The exceptions have been, frankly, on essay assignments that were poorly constructed by the assigning teacher or professor, or on open-topic assignments where the topic chosen was too broad or too narrow to properly fit the assignment. If in doubt about your topic, you should consult your teacher/professor.
Some assignments are given page count requirements instead of word count. A normal, typed, double-spaced essay without footnotes is said to yield approximately 250 words per page. Page count requirements are open to cheating by doing things like extending the line height, widening all four margins, increasing the font size or using a wider-style font, using footnotes, and other style elements that help spread the content over the pages. While this may satisfy the requirement, keep in mind that your instructor is expecting a certain level of content in the essay, and an incomplete essay stretched over the required amount of pages is still an incomplete essay. Conversely, an essay that blathers on will still seem to blather even if the student creatively crams more words into a smaller space.
If your essay is thoroughly researched, it should be difficult to fall below a word count target. In fact, if your research was very good, you may have more difficulty staying below a maximum word count. You have to find a balance between fitting in the information you deem essential and not making the essay sound disjointed and choppy. Too often, students write the same points over and over again, wasting space and making the essay boring. Consider the following paragraphs:
CHOPPY, DISJOINTED, REPETITIVE:
The sentences are choppy and jarring to the reader, and facts are repeated for no reason. The bit explaining what the widgetiscope does should probably be in a separate paragraph from the historical information about it.
The changes, not including the other widgetiscope information to be added, result in nine less words. That doesn't seem like much, but consider that a page on average will contain four paragraphs. That means a possible saving of 36 words per page. For a standard 10 page essay, that's 360 words, which can make a significant difference when trying to stay below a word count maximum. Furthermore, it reads better the second way.
Repetition can be useful when trying to drive a point home. For example, in an argumentative essay, you may wish to structure it like this:
The hypothesis would be repeated throughout the essay to hammer the point that it is true. There is also repetition of proofs; the proof is explained at one stage, then reintroduced to combat a contradiction later. This is not only acceptable, but a very strong way to structure an argumentative essay.
But this kind of repetition is not necessary when your essay is simply presenting a case study or set of facts. Our example essay on Joe Smith isn't really trying to argue anything. If our focus had instead been "Joe Smith was the most important scientist that ever lived," we would have taken a completely different approach. I recommend a site called Writing Argumentative Essays by Bill Daly for more information on how to write such an essay.
Once your essay has been written and fits within the required word or page count, it is time to add the finishing touches.
Next Lesson: Finishing
Last updated in February 2005.
Copyright © 2000-2005 Kimberly Chapman. All rights reserved.
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