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How To Write An Essay

Part 7 - Extra Touches

"Creativity often consists of merely turning up what is already there. Did you know that right and left shoes were thought up only a little more than a century ago?"
-- Bernice Fitz-Gibbon

"Genius is one percent inspiration and ninety-nine percent perspiration."
-- Thomas Edison

The difference between a good essay and a great essay often lies in elements that take it above and beyond what most students hand in. Sometimes it is as simple as avoiding common things that detract from formality, such as hyperbole and colloquialisms. Sometimes it's adding extras, such as contradictions or extra research. Here are some tips on improving essays:

Avoid Hyperbole

"Hyperbole \Hy*per"bo*le\, n. [L., fr. Gr?, prop., an overshooting, excess...](Rhet.) A figure of speech in which the expression is an evident exaggeration of the meaning intended to be conveyed, or by which things are represented as much greater or less, better or worse, than they really are; a statement exaggerated fancifully, through excitement, or for effect."
-- Hypertext Webster Gateway

When a wise instructor sees hyperbole in an essay, they know that the student is overstating something in order to appear more convincing. Overstatement, however, does not equal proof. If your essay relies on hyperbole instead of proof, it is a weak essay.

Consider the following examples of hyperbole:

  • Joe Smith was the greatest scientist that ever lived.
    • Not only is this not provable in any meaningful way, but the hyperbole itself fails to indicate why the author would assert such a thing.
  • Great thinkers have benefited human advancement in astonishing and unimaginable ways.
    • Very few elements of human advancement could fairly be described as astonishing, especially since the reference is historical and therefore known. Being unimaginable means it cannot be imagined, and clearly the advancements were imagined or they never would have occurred. To use two grandiose words is even more extreme hyperbole.

Your instructor does not want to read hyperbole. They do not want cheesy diatribes declaring your topic to be superior to all other related topics. That is irrelevant and distracting. Don't do it.

Your high school teachers may have rewarded hyperbole because it can masquerade as proof. At the university level, it is amateurish.

Avoid Libel

Libel is the act of writing something about someone that is false and can injure that person's reputation. Libel can also be against a group or company. Students usually do not intend to commit libel, but in an effort to be dramatic they sometimes accidentally do so. Libel in essays often comes out of hyperbole; as a student overstates something, they may inadvertently overstate to the point of being injurious.

It is not libel merely to say something negative about someone. It becomes libel when the statement is false or cannot be proven to be "fair comment." It is fair comment to say that Adolph Hitler was anti-Semitic. It is not fair comment to say that George W. Bush is anti-Semitic for not choosing a Jewish running mate as Al Gore did in the 2000 U.S. presidential election. Calling Bush an anti-Semite in that regard would most certainly be libel.

Chances are, no student will ever actually be legally challenged for writing libelous statements in their essays, because no one other than the professor is likely to see the essay. Still, you should be careful to avoid it, because it looks very bad on your part to declare false statements in this manner.

Avoid Colloquialisms

"Substitute "damn" every time you're inclined to write "very;" your editor will delete it and the writing will be just as it should be." -- Mark Twain

"Colloquialism \Col*lo"qui*al*ism\, n. A colloquial expression, not employed in formal discourse or writing." -- Hypertext Webster Gateway

If your assignment is to write about your personal experience in an informal fashion or to write fiction, feel free to use colloquialisms to add colour. If, however, you're writing a formal essay, avoid colloquialisms entirely. Never do any of the following in a formal essay unless it is part of a direct quotation:

  • Well, since Joe Smith invented the widgetiscope...
    • Using "well" to begin a sentence like this is conversational and colloquial.
  • The methodology Smith used to reach this conclusion sucks.
    It is a damned good thing that Smith invented the widgetiscope.
    • Never use foul language or expletives, no matter how tame. They don't belong in formal language and only serve to make you look like you have a poor vocabulary.
  • Can you believe that Smith almost didn't invent the widgetiscope?
    • The personalization of "you" is addressed below, but the entire sentence is conversational and colloquial, and should be avoided in formal writing.
  • Smith's invention is really, really important.
    Smith's invention is very, very important.
    • Using "very" and "really" is somewhat colloquial; doubling them is colloquial and redundant.
  • God knows what modern widget watching would have been like without the widgetiscope.
    • This is also conversational and colloquial. Furthermore, unless the essay is about religion or a religious topic, religion has no place in it. Bringing religion in unnecessarily is likely to provoke negative reactions in people of different faiths.

Avoid Personalization

Again, if you're writing an informal essay or a story, using "I" and "You" are perfectly acceptable. In a formal essay, however, they are bad form. Don't do the following, unless it's part of a direct quotation:

  • I think Smith's widgetiscope is an important invention.
    • Don't bother to say "I think" at all. Saying "Smith's widgetiscope is an important invention" implies that you think and is a much stronger statement.
  • My research indicates that Smith did not die of a heart attack.
    • Just present the research, not the fact that you've done it.
  • Smith was born in Scotland, as was I.
    • The essay is not about you, so your facts don't belong here.
  • You can see that...
    • Don't tell the reader what they can or cannot see. You can't know that, and it's informal.
  • Can you believe that...
    • The reader doesn't get to answer you, so don't ask them to. It's informal.
  • If you were to read Widget Watching of the Late 1800s, you would see that...
    • It was your job to do the research, not the reader's.
  • If you consider the possibilities, you must come to the conclusion that...
    • Again, it was your job in the essay to consider and conclude. Don't force the reader to do it.
  • Now we can see that...
    • Using "we" is as bad as using "you." It's informal.

Avoid Gender Limitations

You can be gender inclusive without resorting to political correct redundancy. Use "he" when referring to a specific individual who is male, and use "she" when referring to a specific individual who is female. Do not use a gender-specific pronoun when referring to a non-specific person. Using "they" instead can be awkward, especially since it is often supposed to mean more than one person. PC constructs like he/she or s/he are also awkward and jarring to the reader. When possible, rewrite the sentence in such a way as to make the pronoun unnecessary, as in the following examples:

Bad: If a widget watcher sees the widget behave in this way, he must record it in his journal.
Good: A journal entry must be made if the widget is observed behaving in this way.

Bad: The average widget watcher doesn't like to see her research go unnoticed.
Good: Widget watchers don't like to see their research go unnoticed.
In this case, we've pluralized the subject, so it's okay to use the plural "their."

Bad: Widget watching is a stressful science, and a student should think carefully before he dedicates his life to it.
Good: Widget watching is a stressful science, and a student should think carefully before becoming dedicated to it.
Or go fully plural: Widget watching is a stressful science, and students should think carefully before dedicating their lives to it.

If you absolutely must use pronouns, it is probably better to alternate between he and she rather than to use he/she or s/he. Below is a post I made on to demonstrate how alternation works, assuming the reader does not attribute meaning to the pronoun:

Originally posted at

RE: He, She, It
Posted by KaCee on Sunday, September 10th @ 05:22:15 PM EDT

Variating doesn't break the flow if the pronoun is truly irrelevant.

For example (this is quickly made up on the spot and shouldn't be associated with any specific RPG):

A player who wishes to have his character trained by a master should prepare to have the character out of adventuring for one to two years in world time. During this time, the character will make no money nor gain experience points, but will gain the skills of the master. If the player does not want to sacrifice the time because, for instance, the race of the character requires a short lifespan, she can decide to take the skills individually at a point cost equivalent to any other character.

I've variated whether the player is a he or a she. I've been inclusive now. How does that variation make this paragraph complicated? I read it aloud to my husband and didn't tell him what I was testing. His questions were about whether it made sense that the master wouldn't be paying the student and other comments on the nature of the game itself (which of course is irrevelvant since I just made it up and it has no context). He didn't even notice I changed gender. When I told him that was the point, he came over, read it to himself, and agreed that the variation in the gender of the player has no bearing on the comphrension of the instruction.

I'd like to call for a vote by anyone reading: if this was confusing to you on the basis of a changed gender, say so. If the gender thing was irrelevant to you, say so.

Now, if you are assuming the player is male and thus the "she" throws you off, you have attributed specific meaning to "he" and are NOT considering it a universal pronoun. That then means you are making an assumption that the players are all male or female players are not being referred to. That's sexist.

If a writer can't express themselves clearly and inclusively, that's a fault of the writer.

-- Kimberly "it's really not that hard" Chapman

Avoid Using The Same Word Repeatedly

Unless you're using the same word repeatedly to make a point, try to vary your words. If you read over one of your paragraphs and find the same word being used several times, try to think of a different word that can be substituted. For example, if our example essay had the word "widgetiscope" in a paragraph too often, we could substitute one or two instances with alternate phrases like "the device" or "the scope" or "Smith's invention."

Do make sure, however, that whatever substitution you make is an accurate one. Too often, students make liberal use of a word-processor's built-in thesaurus without consulting the dictionary to see if the so-called synonym fits the given context. For example, let's say that we've used the word "number" too often. In the sentence: "Smith's number was 555-1234, which he thought was an interesting random assignment," MS Word's thesaurus gives us synonyms for number such as "total," "aggregate," "amount," "collection, and "sum total." Obviously, our use of "number" has the specific context of being a phone number, so none of the synonyms fit.

Contradiction and Argument

As shown in the widget example with the contradiction over how Smith died, discovering that your sources contradict each other is not a bad thing. In fact, it allows you to introduce contradiction into your essay easily, which is more interesting to read. It also may give you the chance to analyse both sides of the issue and indicate which side you think to be most correct. This can lead to a better grade since you're demonstrating independent reasoning instead of simply quoting a bunch of sources.

An essay need not be argumentative overall in order to have one argumentative element, such as one that arises out of a contradiction. Furthermore, you are entitled to debate your sources even if they are in agreement, so long as you can do so logically and eloquently. Be forewarned, however, that while some instructors are pleased to see a student who boldly takes on a debate of their own accord and does it successfully, there are some that see this as an argument against their own ideals. In subjective courses such as the social sciences and liberal arts, instructors have been known to strike down essays that don't happily conform to the standard presentation. It might be best to consult with the instructor first to get a feeling for whether they'd accept sound refutation or if they'd prefer you just follow along.

In general, however, showing that you're aware of a conflicting viewpoint amongst sources is a good thing, and showing that you can deal with it within the essay is the mark of a good writer.

Extra Research

As stated before, it's not a good idea to pad out your bibliography with texts you didn't really read. It is, however, almost always useful to go beyond the recommended reading list to find other information. The only exception is if you're specifically instructed not to go beyond certain sources.

Part of this is knowing what other sources exist. There is, of course, the standard selection of library resources, including reference books (encyclopedias, dictionaries, etc.) and focused texts. Most students today are also aware of Internet resources, although it should be mentioned again that Internet sources carry a greater risk of invalidity since anyone can web-publish anything. What many students seem to miss are periodicals and newspapers. Newspapers tend to be fairly current, but if your library stores old papers (often on microfilm), you can access old articles that can significantly benefit your essay. For example, for an essay I wrote on the racism inherent in the Quebec Separatist movement, I was able to cite several newspaper articles in which Separatist leaders made clearly racist remarks, as well as instances when the party issued anti-Native edicts or spoke out against certain ethnic groups that weren't "French enough." Without those articles, I only had a couple of anti-Separatist sources to work from. By adding in those direct bits of evidence, I made the essay's hypothesis difficult to dispute.

Finding newspaper and periodical articles involves knowing how to use things like their respective indices. If you don't know how or where to do this, ask your librarian. Any reasonable-sized library, particularly at a university, should have a subscription to a periodical index that will list, year by year, all of the articles printed in listed magazines. You then find the magazine in storage and read the article. Some magazines and newspapers also have searchable web archives, but most still do not at this time.

There may be other sources that you aren't aware of, particularly in a big university library. Many such libraries run short, free courses on how to do research and where things are in that particular building. Taking such a course might seem like a dull way to spend a few hours, but the reward of much improved essay grades should serve as incentive.

Graphics and Tables

Graphics and tables can enhance your essay by adding a visual element to explain complex concepts. Here are some examples of how they can be used well, so long as they are relevant to the essay:

  • a timeline showing the important steps in the development of a science
  • a flowchart summarizing a chain of command or family tree
  • a table listing which countries import or export which materials
  • a typical floor plan from the type of castles being discussed in the essay
  • medical diagrams
  • sketches of dress styles in an essay on changing fashions

The essential question to ask yourself when considering using a graphic or table is: is this directly relevant to my essay's focus, or is it just a neat way to fill some space? Only include it if it helps the reader understand your points better. Never use a blurry, faded, or otherwise hard to read graphic or table. That is pointless and irritating. In our example of Joe Smith, it might be relevant to include a labeled diagram of a widgetiscope. It would be superfluous, however, to include a picture of Smith's childhood home, unless there was something about the architecture that was directly relevant to his life.

Do not use a graphic or table in place of writing. Only use it to enhance a written explanation. For example, if your essay assignment requires you to demonstrate a mathematical proof, it is not acceptable to photocopy a text book's page on the subject. Your instructor wants to see that you understand what you're talking about, not that you're skilled at using a photocopier, scanner, or word processor.

Clipart has its uses in visual presentations, but almost never belongs in a formal essay. Essays are primarily linguistic presentations, and visual elements should be minor enhancements, not major detractions. Resist the urge to use every nifty clipart graphic you can find. Similarly, resist the urge to use different fonts all over the place or different colours of font. These things are fun to play with, but they make an essay very difficult to read. You don't want to do anything that takes attention away from what you're saying.

If you do use a graphic or table that isn't your own creation, you must attribute it as you would any other quotation. Copying a picture from a website into your essay without attributing it is plagiarism, regardless of whether or not the website had a legitimate claim to the picture. Photocopying a picture of Smith's notes from his biography and including it in your essay without attribution is plagiarism. It implies you gained access to his notes yourself, and denies credit to the author of the source that legally reproduced it.

Use of Humour, Puns, and Clever Twists

Sometimes your essay topic will lend itself to puns and twists galore. For example, in an essay on the circulatory system, it might be difficult to resist the temptation to declare that you're going to get to the "heart" of the matter. Try hard to resist such puns. Most of the time, they're gags your instructor has read far too often, and they ceased to be funny long ago (assuming they were ever funny in the first place).

That being said, humour can add to an essay in some cases. Don't use humour at all if your essay is on an unpleasant topic such as the Holocaust or hunger in Africa. But if the essay topic is light and you conceive of a bit of humour that would genuinely add to it, go ahead and put it in. To test if the humour is effective and worthwhile, however, have a friend or two read the essay first. If they groan about the humour or miss it entirely, take it out. What you thought was a clever twist on some element of your essay may be so referential, so obscure, or so vague that nobody else gets it.

If you do use humour, use it sparingly. Professional humour writers can get away with a joke every paragraph, but if you do this in your essay it is likely to come off as flippant as opposed to funny.

If you can truly make your instructor laugh with your well-placed, well-constructed humour, you're likely to earn a good grade. You're also likely a good enough writer to not have needed this entire set of lessons in the first place.

The best way to illustrate some of these qualities is to look at good and bad examples from real essays, and discuss how the bad ones could be improved.

Next Lesson: Examples

Last updated in February 2005.

Copyright © 2000-2005 Kimberly Chapman. All rights reserved.

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