Essay Writing 101

Any writer will tell you that one of the keys to a good story is pacing. You don’t have the hero fight for the princess before he’s heard of her. You don’t have a chase scene and a love scene at the same time. It’s true in stories, and it’s true in essays. It’s not just about having everything in there, it’s about having it in the right order. What’s even more important is having the right amount of it. Every paper you’ll write has a word limit, and you need to manage that in the best way possible. You know how annoyed you get when you’re watching something on tv, and instead of wrapping up it just ends with “To Be Continued”? I promise you, if the person grading your essay feels like you ended with that, you’re up the creek. You know which one. Happily, after you’re done reading, this won’t be a problem you ever have again, provided you follow the directions.

How to properly pace a paper varies depending on content, subject, and discipline, but I’m going to talk about the three core rules that apply across the board. Follow these, and you’ll be doing pretty well. Don’t, and you might wind up with something that does little more than take up eight cubic inches of the world’s precious space. Oh, and gets you a D. Or a C, if it’s good.

1. Your Argument is Not a Finale

Fireworks finaleI know this has happened to you. You’ve got a strong thesis and introduction, and you’ve done a ton of background research, but when the time comes to make your point, you’ve only got two pages left to do it. This is wrong. Usually it means that your thesis is too broad, or that you just spent too much time on the history. A good way to find out if this is happening is to get someone to read the first half of your paper. As soon as they’ve finished, ask them what your thesis is. If they’ve forgotten, then you need to make some revisions. In Classics it’s incredibly important to establish historical context for your reader, but this should never come at the expense of your actual argument. If you can’t fit it all in, go back and focus your thesis again. Your argument needs to be present in your whole paper. It’s the star of the show, and deserves the spotlight.

2. Anticipate Your Reader’s Questions

After every paragraph, your reader is going to have questions. One of these is “So what?” Others will pertain more directly to your paper’s content. Find out what these questions are, and answer them. Answer them now. Don’t put up a teaser, and say you’ll come to it later. If it’s something that you’re going to rely on, the sooner your reader knows what it is, the better off both of you are going to be. This serves two purposes. First, it helps your reader understand the paper by giving them the information they need as soon as they’re wondering about it, rather than letting their questions distract them from your content. Secondly, it helps build trust with your reader. If you don’t define a fact, they can infer that they don’t need to care about it, because you’re not going to rely on it. To find out what these questions are, get someone to read your paper. Find someone smart, but who isn’t in the same field as you. Or ask your mum.

3. Know When Not to Follow the Rules

This is a piece of BS advice. If you knew when not to follow the rules, you wouldn’t need to know the rules. But it’s also true. Think about movies. There are lots of movies with good, straightfoward pacing. The Avengers, Up, and the Hangover all have pretty standard pacing for their genre. You can follow along, and it feels comfortable. Now think about movies like Memento or the Usual Suspects, where the pacing is so weird that the movie is all over the place. The Avengers is a pretty good movie, but Memento and the Usual Suspects are great movies, because they know when to break the rules.

How do you know? When it’s brilliant. When people read it and go “Holy crap.” Or more likely, when it could be brilliant, that glimmer of greatness shining through the grammatical muck. You break the rules when you know you can get away with it and have it be good. Here’s an example, a paper I wrote for a fourth year seminar on the philosophy of quantum mechanics. No expertise is needed to read it and understand it, but you’ll notice that the whole thing is in rhyme. the pacing is lilting, but the content is there. I toyed with it, got encouragement, and turned it in. If you can give your professor something they’ll enjoy reading, it’s really helpful.

And that’s how to pace a paper. Make your argument the star of the show, rather than the context. Don’t compromise it to talk about more history or to show your prof how many books you read. Don’t leave your reader hanging, but anticipate their questions and use those questions to help structure your writing. Finally, know that sometimes it’s okay to throw the rules out the damn window and go hellbent for leather. Don’t let good writing rules get in the way of good writing. Now that you know, I look forward to seeing some of your Tiresias submissions, and hope that never again will I utter the worlds “This paper would be brillinant if it were just four pages longer.”

Jim Tigwell writes a lot, and has many other poems and essays on Concept Crucible. You can also rap battle him on Twitter.

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