Handout on Essay Writing
The Writing Process
The writing process is not necessarily sequential - a linear path from invention to proofreading. Writers may generate a topic, collect some information, organize their notes, go back and collect more information, invent subtopics for their work, go back to organization, etc. The writing process is recursive - it often requires going back and forth between steps to create the strongest work possible. Knowing these steps and strategies, however, can be a great help to writers who struggle with their work. It may help to think of the writing process in terms of the following stages:
An outline will allow you to visualize the content and structure of your paper, giving you a better idea of what you want to say in the essay, how you will say it and what the overall structure should look like. Creating an outline can be as simple as splitting up the paper into its respective parts: the Introduction, the Body and the Conclusion.
The introduction continues upon the tasks of the title - it both introduces the topic and generates audience interest in reading the entire paper. The introduction also indicates the purpose of the paper - to inform, persuade, call to action, etc. - as well as offers a plan for the ensuing argument. The introduction must contain a thesis statement, which is the single most important sentence in your paper. It lets the reader know what the main idea of the paper is, and answers the question: “What is the purpose of this essay?” It is not a factual statement, nor a question, rather it is a claim that will be elaborated on and supported throughout the course of your paper.
A thesis statement should clearly and concisely formulate your argument; it must be debatable.
“Shakespeare’s Hamlet is a play about a young man who seeks revenge.”
That doesn’t say anything–it’s basically just a summary and is hardly debatable. A better thesis would be this:
“Hamlet experiences internal conflict because he is in love with his mother.”
That is debatable, controversial even. The rest of a paper with this argument as its thesis will be an attempt to show, using specific examples from the text and evidence from scholars, (1) how Hamlet is in love with his mother, (2) why he’s in love with her, and (3) what implications there are for reading the play in this manner.
The paragraphs contained in the body of your paper should build upon the claim(s) made in your introduction. Ground your claim(s) using examples from primary and secondary sources; engage these examples by making it clear what relevance they have for your argument. Your arguments should always be supported, i.e. do not just mention something without supporting it by some facts and examples. In the same way do not just mention an example without mentioning what you want to show by using this example. For that reason quotes have to be introduced and placed into context, i.e. they should not just be inserted without an explanation.
Conclusion: The conclusion provides the last words that a writer will present to his or her audience. Therefore, it should have a lasting impact. The conclusion should work to reemphasize the main claims of the argument, articulating the importance of the argued. Writers should also avoid raising new claims in concluding paragraphs - there is no more room to argue points comprehensively or convincingly. Such new points would be better repositioned within the body paragraphs.
Structure, Format and Style
If you are unclear about how to structure your paper, write it in as straightforward a fashion as possible: “In this paper I will show X. I will demonstrate X by looking at A, B, and C.” Then your body will deal with subsections A, B, and C.
A paragraph consists of more than one sentence. It should focus on one thought, or one cluster of thoughts relating to one subject. The opening paragraphs of an essay should contain the hypothesis; the following ones run the course of the signposts. Ideally, a paragraph is linked to the paragraph preceding as well as to the one following it, so that the paragraphs within the text construct an unbroken and coherent chain of argumentation.
Within the paragraph, the first sentence should introduce the subject and / or signal the relation to the preceding paragraph (as comment, continuation, objection …). The second sentence brings in the topical focus (=signpost/stitching) of the paragraph; following sentences support / expand on this topical focus, and serve to illustrate / support the argument with evidence from the text. The last sentence summarizes or comments on the paragraph and anticipates the following paragraph, or closes the subject.
Unity/Coherence: Unity means that everything you write in the main part of the text is related to your thesis. That is, you should not write about Lady Macbeth’s psychological problems, when you are trying to show that Macbeth is a tragic hero. Your essay will be coherent if your arguments flow logically from one to the other.
Font, Indenting & Spacing: Use either Times New Roman size 12 font or Arial size 11 font. Indent the first sentence of each paragraph by using the tab key and format your paper with 1.5 line spacing. There is only one space after a period.
Using Quotations: Short quotations (up to 3 full lines of text) are integrated into the text and should be set off by quotation marks. Longer passages that exceed three lines should be set off from the rest of the text by putting it into a block quotation using font size 10, single space, indented. Leave a free line above and below the block quotation. Consult the MLA Handbook for Writers of Research Papers (Sixth Edition) for proper citation style.
Stylistic Concerns: Avoid expressions like “In my opinion” or “I think that”; avoid colloquialisms and slang. Contractions, such as “he’s” and “isn’t,” are generally considered too informal for academic writing. Use the present tense to describe fictional events; use the perfect tense only to describe events that occurred at an earlier time in the narration. Only use the present progressive tense when you are describing an event that is occurring at this particular moment.