Essay Writing 101

First, congratulations to our classics students who convocated on Saturday, especially to the MA students. I know you’re all going on to great things, and I hope to see you at the Wine and Cheese on Thursday at 5:30, where we’ll also see the release of the first issue of Tiresias, the student run undergraduate journal. Anyway, on to the actual lesson.

You wrote essays in high school, I’m sure. Five paragraphs, with the hamburger model. Introduction, conclusion, three paragraphs supporting your thesis sentence. You can do this, and it’ll net you an okay mark. Or you can abandon it, and start working toward an awesome mark, while making your life, and your professor’s life, easier. Or at least better. Today I’m going to go over some better strategies for paper writing that you can replace that model with, and some crucial paragraphs your high school teachers never told you about that, if you include them, will make your paper better and boost your marks.

the reason you need to unlearn the model is because the papers in university are too big. Five paragraphs won’t cut it for a ten page paper, and even if you conceive of it as five parts, it doesn’t encompass everything you need. In ten pages, with one page each for the introduction and conclusion, that leave you with eight pages of your three supporting points. If it takes you nearly three pages to explain a single salient point, it’s too much. You need to cut some things and make it more precise, because you have room for more information. So instead of the five paragraphs, I have three pieces of advice.

1. Think About Your Reader

Who’s going to read your paper? Your professor or their TA obviously, both of whom probably know a great deal more about the subject matter than you do. In first or second year, you can’t impress them by being more knowledgeable than they are, so don’t waste time trying. Instead, imagine that the person reading your paper is someone who ‘s smart, but disagrees with you about each of your points. When you read it, imagine you’re them, and try and find the holes, or the places where things need to be explained. They won’t grant any of your assumptions, they’re not familiar with the history, and they’re really looking for problems with your arguments. This will serve you in a couple of ways. First, it’ll help you explain things better. It will also help you spot holes in your arguments. If you have trouble with this at first, get someone else to read your paper. Don’t have them go over it line by line with you and proofread, just get them to read it, and then ask them to summarize it. Whatever they say, that’s what most people will get out of your paper. If that’s not the message you want, changes need to be made.

2. Some New Paragraph Ideas

In line with the last piece of advice, there are paragraphs you need to include that aren’t part of that model. They don’t support your thesis, but they do support your paper. One of them is a paragraph defining any terms you’re using that the reader might not be familiar with. As part of my graduate work I wrote a paper on Dungeons & Dragons, and had to spend some space explaining various elements of the game that were relevant to my work, because my advisor had never played. Without that context, the argument would have been full of ambiguity, but it didn’t support my thesis in anyway, just helped out the reader. In classical and medieval studies it’s even more important to establish historical context. Spend some time talking about the period or tradition in history you’re focusing on. It shows that you’re familiar with it, and more importantly familiarizes your reader with it. Don’t expect them to know the difference between the first and second Punic War at first. This also gives you something to refer the reader back to, rather than just using a citation (though your account of context should be well-cited).

3. The Question Model

I used this model with great success in graduate school, and a lot of other scholars I know use it. It’s simple, and easily adapted to any discipline. This is just the writing side, not the research side, but I’ll break it down into a few steps.

1. Choose a question you want to answer.
2. Answer it in a sentence. That’s your thesis.
3. Think of all the things someone would need to know to understand the question and the answer. Write those down.
4. Think of all the reasons your answer is a good answer to the question (not that it doesn’t have to be the right answer, but a good one). Write those down.

That’s the content of your paper. Turn those things into paragraphs. Whenever you finish a sentence, a paragraph, or an argument, you only need to ask one thing. “How does this help me answer my question?” If it doesn’t, then change it until it does, or cut it. Your reader doesn’t agree with you, so you can’t take any short cuts. If you leave something vague, they’re going to jump on it. So don’t.

4. Introductions and Conclusion

Now you’ve written a middle, but you have to write a beginning and an end. Your high school teacher was right when they said that your introduction should contain your thesis sentence. When you have a doctorate and are a well-published academic badass, you can bury your thesis in a footnote on the third page, but until then, keep it simple and up front. It’s okay to explain what your’e going to do in the paper. It sets up expectations, and lets you deliver on them. Don’t just say what you’ll do, talk about how and why, as well.

For conclusions, there’s only one question that matters. “So what?” You’ve made your point, you’ve gone over everything one more time to refresh them on the argument. So what? Why is your question important? Why does your answer matter? Make a serious effort to answer that, and you’re doing well. Actually manage to answer it, and you’re doing great. Some potential answers include pointing to its implications in the scholarship or to the arguments of some people in the field, about history itself or how we conceive of it, or just in the way your reader looks at things.

So that’s lesson one. Unlearn. University is a different world in a lot of ways, and the expectations can be startlingly different. Best of luck on your papers, and share your own essay writing tips in the comments, so we can all benefit from them.

Jim Tigwell actually did write part of his thesis on D&D, and writes about it a lot at TPK. He also convocated on Saturday with a Master’s degree in philosophy from University of Waterloo. Congratulate him on Twitter.

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