Essay Writing for English Courses (Dr. J. Kertzer)

The following are notes to help you in planning, writing and preparing an English essay. They will suggest what I look for and how I judge your work. These notes do not prescribe the only way to write an essay. You are free to follow your own interests and instincts, but if you have trouble, the notes offer a standard to which you can turn.

Each essay should exhibit a clear argument in the sense that it sets out to solve a problem, investigate an issue, or answer a question. Something should be proven or demonstrated in an orderly, convincing manner. The essay should not offer random observations or a series of personal impressions. It should summon evidence as it advances toward a conclusion, however provisional. Any line of argument (analytic, inductive, comparative, question and answer, problem and solution) is acceptable, so long as it is clear.

The thesis is what you set out to investigate. Often it is declared explicitly at the beginning of the essay in a thesis statement, although it need not be. A thesis combines a subject with a specific interest in it, and a definite line of approach. It should be as specific as possible: not a general resolve to consider a subject, but a precise purpose. Continually test your work by seeing how it accords with your thesis.

Most essays cause trouble at this stage, which requires constant tinkering. Block out your plan in well-developed paragraphs by dividing and sub-dividing your ideas (analysis) or by charting a methodical line of attack. These paragraphs plot out the logical course of your argument. They should be unified (each addressing a single subject) and coherent (each idea following in a clear order) and substantial. Avoid a jumble of short paragraphs, which tend to fragment an argument. Develop your ideas in substantial, detailed paragraphs.

Quote accurately and give page numbers. Do not expect quotations to do the work for you. You should use them, that is, inspect their details and style to see how they are revealing and effective. Long quotations especially should be examined closely, and not offered as if they were self-explanatory.

secondary sources
Acknowledge the words and ideas of other writers in footnotes and in a bibliography. Quote accurately. The Students' Guide for the Presentation of Essays is available at the bookstore, and gives the proper forms. As in the case of quotations, you should use secondary sources and not expect them to do the work for you. You should incorporate their ideas and words smoothly in your own argument. If you merely compile a series of references, the result will be fragmentary and disjointed.

This is a serious matter. Please read the English Dept. statement; note the varieties of plagiarism, the penalties and the shame involved.

Common Difficulties

> too objective or descriptive
The most common fault is summarizing the content of a given work: this includes paraphrasing, retelling a story, reporting information, describing characters, offering a precis. In each case, you merely restate what is already in the work. Assume that your reader has read the work and is familiar with its content. See also "description vs interpretation."

> too subjective or speculative
Avoid giving private impressions, experiences and opinions about a subject unless you can justify them by appealing specifically to the work being examined. Do not speculate about what "could /might /should have happened" but is not actually in the work. Do not philosophize about subjects in ways that have little or no bearing on the work. Writing of this sort drifts toward autobiography.

> general and specific
The second most common fault is offering nothing but generalizations, which may be true but are too vague to be useful. Focus your discussion as much as possible by examining precise issues, passages and styles in the work. Precision is always a virtue. You should be specific in two ways: in the attention paid to the work, and in the development of your argument. Scrutinize the work closely; trace the particular implications of your ideas. Always be on the lookout for unsupported, general statements, especially when you are revising your essay.

> description vs interpretation
Instead of describing the content or subject of a work, you should interpret the work's significance, effectiveness and value. Significance involves meaning and theme; effectiveness involves style and technique; value involves any judgment concerning skill or response. The distinction between description and interpretation is sometimes hard to maintain, but there is a difference between merely reporting things, and explaining the how and the why and the wherefore of those things. It is important that interpretations be justified and defended. They do not consist of vague preferences or opinions. They are based on evidence and established by argument.

> theme and style
No matter how an essay question is posed, you should discuss both theme and style -- not just the subjects that appear in a work, but the literary techniques by which those subjects are conveyed and given their force. Style refers to any means of presentation, any use of language or of literary convention, any strategy that elicits a specific response from the reader.

> comparisons
In essays involving comparison and contrast, clarify the terms of the comparison carefully. In what specific ways are the works similar or different, and to what effect? Organize comparisons clearly so that they do not fall into two separate essays.

Common Faults in Writing

In the margins of the essay, I usually draw attention to the following errors. Note especially those mistakes that cloud your ideas and obstruct your argument. Writing counts. You cannot present clear concepts or develop a complex line of thought in confusing language.

Double Checking

Before submitting an essay, it is a good idea to read it over one last time in order to look for: logical argument and clear thesis; specific details and discussion; plot summary or description; attention to style; the above faults in writing. Try to read your work as objectively as possible -- as if you were seeing it for the first time -- and test it by looking out for these points.

Additional Help

For additional help in writing you may use the lessons available at any of the University computer labs.
Consult the grammar page on grammatical terms and examples.
Or consult the Purdue University Language Lab.
For the presentation of essays, consult the Students' Guide to the Presentation of Essays.

Some other books to consult:

Sylvan Barnet, Writing About Literature
Margot Northey & Maurice Legris, Making Sense in the Humanities
Constance Rooke, The Clear Path
Jeff Schiff, HarperCollins Resources for Writing About Literature
University of Calgary Undergraduate Grading System
  A 4excellent, superior performance
  A- 3.7
  B+ 3.3
  B 3good, above average
  C 2satisfactory, basic understanding and performance
  D 1minimal pass
  F 0fail
I also assign split marks: eg. C+/B- = between 2.3 & 2.7 = 2.5