Clas/hist1631 Essay Boot Camp Back to Basics

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Back to Basics

  • What is an essay
    • The heart of an essay is its argument
    • Formal writing:
      • full sentences, paragraphs, proper spelling, punctuation, etc.
      • Avoid contractions like 'don't'
  • What is an essay not:
    • Collection of facts, summary or introduction to topic
    • Personal introspection

Read Your Topic Carefully

  • e.g., “Read Books 1 and 2 of Thucydides' Peloponnesian War. What was Pericles' plan for the defence of Athens? Why did it fail?”
  • Note:
    • Required reading
    • Question in two parts
    • Things you have to learn to even begin to answer the question

The Structure of An Essay

  • Introduction
    • What do you need to know about this topic to join me in considering it?
    • “In 431, the Athenian empire began a war against Sparta and its allies which was to last over twenty years. Athens' democracy had as its leading politician one Pericles ...”

The Thesis

  • Thesis
    • When the essay topic is a question, this is easy:
      • An answer to the question
    • Also tells the reader what the shape of the paper will be, this is its argument
    • Your argument and thesis cannot be wholly personal
      • “Pericles plan was to enlist the help of an army of UFOs. I know this because a pink unicorn told me.”
    • It has to be something that you can argue from the sources

The Body of the Essay

  • Comprises paragraphs, each of which should move the ball down the field
  • Ideally, these follow the progression of the argument presented in the thesis
  • Packages the thesis in bite-sized chunks
  • With no paragraphs, you're probably rambling
  • One-sentence paragraphs usually show that you've run out of steam

What To Avoid

  • Paraphrase or extensive quotation
  • If your main source is an historian, don't just retell the historical narrative
    • Every question requires analysis, just restating the events doesn't give analysis
  • If your main source is literature, don't just say what the literature is about
  • All this has to be packaged inside the argument
  • Think of your essay as the source text turned inside-out, so that the seams are showing

Be Ruthless

  • You are the general, and each essay paragraph is a batallion
    • If it isn't working for the whole, it goes!
  • Or, you are the District Attorney and your paragraphs are witnesses for the prosecution
    • If they aren't making your case for you, you need new ones
  • Most long essays were full of junk:
    • Don't waste your reader's time

How to Make an Argument Stick

  • Your arguing about something that you have no direct experience with, and about which you are not an expert
    • Most of your life will be like this
  • So you have to draw on evidence to convince
  • This is what citations are for:
    • they connect your argument to an authority regarding facts
    • Or the connect your argument to another argument so you don't have to repeat it

Do Your Readings

  • Take notes:
    • What more would you ask?
    • What don't you know that you should?
    • Keep record of interesting quotations

Read Around Your Topic

  • You need to make yourself informed:
    • Who was Pericles?
    • Why did Athens need to be defended?
    • How had it defended itself in the past?
    • Where is Athens?
      • What natural defenses does it have?

Using the Internet, Course Notes and Textbook

Don't Put All Your Background Reading into the Essay

  • We call this 'gathering wool'

While Reading, Don't Look for 'The Answer'

  • Topics are chosen to not be subject of recent papers or books
  • You'll still need to argue it from your readings, etc.
  • There are many, many arguments that deserve a 'A+'
  • (But there are even more that don't)‏

How to Make an Argument

  • Audience: your classmates
  • Have a progression of points to make, and summarize them in a 'thesis' or 'topic sentence', usually at the end of the first, or introductory paragraph
  • Argue these one-by-one in a paragraph or two dedicated to each
    • Paragraphs offer a discussion of evidence


  • Forensic scientists “bag it and tag it”
  • Scholars cite
  • Not just to keep you out of trouble
  • It also provides authority for your argument
  • Otherwise, you present yourself as the authority:
    • “the walk from my house to Hart Hall is about 20 minutes”
    • “the population of ancient Mycenae was about 7,000 at its peak”

Rules for Citing

  • Basically, the only essays that got this right used Zotero
  • Otherwise, fastidiously follow the MLA rules on the university website


  • Spell-check at the very end of the writing
  • Double-check the technical terms, names and place-names you don't know
  • If you don't use Zotero, you have to:
    • Check that all your sources are in your Works Cited list, and that nothing in your Works Cited list is not in your paper
    • Format your works cited list
    • None of my essays did this right

In General

  • Write more than one draft
  • Have someone else read your writing, mark it up
  • Use complete sentences
  • Spell-check, sensibly

Comma Splice

  • Avoid comma splice:
  • X “The ducks are resting in the sun, the swans are resting, too.”
  • Ok “The ducks are resting in the sun. The swans are resting, too.”
  • This often results in run-on sentences

Sentence Fragment

  • This is used all the time in advertisements.
  • X “I crept upstairs to find the source of the noise. A cat.”
  • What does a sentence need?
  • Ok “I crept upstairs to find the source of the noise, a cat.”

Avoid Passive Verbs

  • X “I was kissed last night.”
  • Ok “Mari kissed me last night.”
  • Larger rule: avoid boring verbs like, is, are, were, shows

When to Use a Semicolon

  • Do you know what a balanced clause is?
    • Really?
    • Are you sure?
  • If so, then use a semicolon only when you are separating two of these
  • If not, don't go near them
    • Most semicolons in 1st year papers are ill-placed
  • If you want to know how to use a semicolon, read any book on writing

Settle For Clarity

  • Academic writing gets very few points for beauty
  • Just settle for making yourself understood
  • Don't make up phrases or use extended metaphors, search for the right word or words that are already part of English
  • If English isn't your first language, you need the help of someone for whom it is

More Advanced: Be Artful

  • Words like 'segue', 'evidences' and phrases like 'the fact that' are like putting the drive-train on the outside of a car.
  • Transitions (segues) are meant to be hidden!
  • Evidence is integrated, not painted orange and put on the roof.
  • If you find these in your text, revise.

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