Tips for Success on Essays

The ability to write an organized, fluent, and compelling essay ought to distinguish the recipient of a good liberal arts education from everyone else. If you cannot write such an essay by the time you graduate, both you and Saint Anselm College have failed.

A mere command of words does not produce good writing; no one can write well without thinking well. Poor writing and sloppy thinking usually go hand-in-hand. Indeed, sloppy thinking often leads to poor writing, which in turn promotes even sloppier thinking, creating a vicious circle whereby thinking and writing both degenerate. George Orwell claimed that written English in his time had deteriorated for this very reason: "It becomes ugly and inaccurate because our thoughts are foolish, but the slovenliness of our language makes it easier for us to have foolish thoughts."

Writing comes naturally to no one. The habits of mind that make a good writer develop only after years of practice. I cannot pretend the essay assignments in this class will make you as proficient a writer as George Orwell. Nevertheless, four years of essay assignments in college will provide you with the experience, judgment, and knowledge to improve yourself. Try not to think of the essay assignments as a series of punishments or unpleasant chores. Instead, look at them as an opportunity to make progress in mastering a difficult but worthwhile skill.

The page that follows includes detailed information on how to write a successful essay. We've provided a table of contents for this page to help you navigate to specific information more quickly, but please take the time to read the entire page at least once before handing in any essay assignments for our class.

TABLE OF CONTENTS:

Preliminary Preparations
Read the Essay Assignment Carefully
Thinking
Break the Question and Answer into Parts
Making Outlines
Assembling Your Paragraphs
As You Write
The Parts of an Essay
Introduction
Body of the Essay
Conclusion
Title
After You Have Finished: Quality Control
Proofreading
The Dangers of Spell Check
Neatness Counts

PRELIMINARY PREPARATIONS

Read the Essay Assignment Carefully: If you want to know what the professor expects of you, read the essay assignment as carefully as you can. Write down all the issues the assignment expects you to address. Think. Sometimes there is more than meets the eye. If you feel confused or fear you have not fully understood the assignment, ask the professor to make the necessary clarifications.

Thinking: In IBM's glory days, "THINK" was its motto. IBM used to print this mantra on all of its paraphernalia. One day, the motto disappeared, IBM stopped thinking, and the whole company fell apart. The moral of the story is that thinking is the key to success. If you wish to produce something valuable, you cannot avoid thinking. Writing notes, producing outlines, and highlighting books are all rituals associated with thought, but they do not constitute thought themselves. Thought takes place inside the mind. So think!

I cannot give you a recipe that will show you how to go about thinking, but I do have some advice you ought to keep in mind. Remember that thinking is a difficult thing to do. Calm down and relax. Turn the radio and the TV off.

Putting Ideas on Paper: As you think about the essay for the first time, write all your thoughts on a piece of paper. You do not have to write them down in any particular order. Experiment with various ideas. Listen to your imagination.

Break the Question and the Answer into Parts: In all likelihood, although the assignment will ask you one question, you will have to consider a number of associated issues. Addressing each of these issues will probably require you to analyze two or three problems. Break down and isolate these problems until you can go no further. A good way to do so consists of asking yourself as many relevant questions as you can about each issue. Create a chart of some sort that allows you to survey these issues and problems in an organized manner. In the end, you ought to devote a paragraph to each problem.

Making Outlines: Your teachers in high school probably advised you to make an outline of your essay before committing a single word to paper (or in our day, to the screen). They're right. An outline is a plan. It functions as a sort of road map that will help you find your way from point A to point B in the most efficient manner possible. If you had to drive to Lebanon, you'd look at a map and plan your trip before you left, right? (All you smart alecs who live in Lebanon ought to hold your tongue!) You wouldn't just get in the car and start driving, would you? The outline is your plan. To start writing without a plan is like driving without having any idea where you're going. Instead of Lebanon, you could end up in Franklin, Littleton, or Rochester—and those would be the wrong places, trust me.

Assembling Your Paragraphs: Each problem ought to receive its own paragraph. Using whatever method you find convenient, assemble your paragraphs in some sort of order. Write down this order on a sheet of paper. Make notes to yourself elaborating upon what you want each paragraph to accomplish.

As You Write: While you write, keep the following suggestions in mind.

THE PARTS OF AN ESSAY

The Introduction: Many students do not write the introduction until they have finished the rest of the essay. In other words, having finally realized what the paper is about, they understand what they have to introduce. This approach works particularly well for clever and lucky people who have a knack for landing on their feet. Less clever and less lucky people need to write an introduction first. The introduction not only serves to guide the reader, but in many cases, it helps remind the writer of his task and prevents him from wandering too far from the topic.

The Body of the Essay: Your outline ought to determine the order in which you will introduce various issues and problems. This outline serves as a skeleton. Now you must flesh out this outline into a paper. Even though you already have an outline or plan, writing does not always turn out as planned. Most of the time, you should stick to a well-considered outline, but sometimes you will have to adapt and show some flexibility.

Conclusion: When I was in fourth grade, as soon as I got tired of working on a paper, I'd just write "THE END." My teachers were so thankful that I didn't sniff glue or carry a gun in my backpack that they never deducted points for my idiosyncratic approach to ending essays. I will not be so lenient with you. You must include a conclusion, a real conclusion. Remember, the conclusion is your last opportunity to leave the reader with a good impression.

Title: Your essay must have a title. Don't name it "Essay #4." Give it a title that describes the topic and provides some indication of the stance you have assumed on that topic.

AFTER YOU HAVE FINISHED: QUALITY CONTROL

In one sense, you can never finish an essay. No matter how much work you put into it, no matter how good you think it is, it always remains a work in progress and can benefit from improvement. Of course (sadly), there will come a time (sniff) when you will have to turn your essay in, no matter what its state. Before you do so, make sure you have performed the following checks.

Proofreading: Proofreading is an arduous task. Everyone has a difficult time detecting mistakes in his own work. Only three methods prove effective. First, if you read your essay aloud to yourself, you will find many errors that you would not otherwise catch. Second, ask a friend of yours (preferably a smart friend) to read your essay. Third, visit the professor and ask him to look over your draft. These people will prove far more adept than you are at noticing your mistakes. Then, after you've input all corrections and are convinced the paper is perfect, read it again yourself. You'll be surprised how often you'll find just a few more mistakes.

The Dangers of Spell Check: Spell check alone will not prove sufficient to remove all mistakes. Spell check will not tell you if you have used "their" or "there" correctly. You must read the paper yourself after using spell check.

Neatness Counts: Make sure your paper looks good before you turn it in.

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Copyrighted by Hugh Dubrulle, 2008.