Essay Workshop General Suggestions

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Essay Workshop

General Suggestions

Once you have a general thesis statement and some idea of what sources are available to you you can move forward with the essay. There are several things you need to do:

  1. Establish a writing schedule

  2. Refine your thesis

  3. Collect more sources

  4. Write an essay plan

  5. Write and editing a draft

  6. Write the paper

A) Establish a writing schedule

The key to completing any large project is to have benchmarks, deadlines for parts of the project that are realistic and keep you from dwelling on any one part of the project for too long. This paper is due last day of class, which leaves you approximately two months to complete this assignment. The good news is that you will have already done a good chunk of the work (establishing a thesis, researching the material) before writing the essay. A few general scheduling points to keep in mind:

  1. Do not wait for the feedback from the annotated bibliography to continue working on the paper. If you have strong concerns about your thesis or sources talk to me about them before receiving your assignment 2 grade.

  2. I will not look at drafts in the last two weeks before the assignment is due.

  3. Each step I have outlined above takes time on its own, so allocate time appropriately.

  4. This is not the only paper you will have to complete, so budget time realistically.

  5. The sooner you get to work the better, as you will identify problems and have more time to fix them.

  6. Feel free to ask questions about your paper before you have a full draft in hand.

B) Refining your thesis

You can work to refine the thesis by making it more specific. The idea is that the thesis for the annotated bib is supposed to be general, good enough to help you find sources; after reading these sources you should be able to make the thesis a bit more specific. There are several ways to do this. You can narrow your thesis down to:

  1. a particular time (e.g., 17th century)

  2. a particular place (e.g., England)

  3. a particular technology (e.g., the automobile)

  4. a particular branch of science (e.g., chemistry, or organic chemistry)

  5. an individual or group (e.g., Isaac Newton, industrial chemists)

  6. a particular event (e.g., the Scientific Revolution)

Keep in mind that you can write about general issues even if you focus on a specific area. For example, I may choose to write about the role of scientists (a general issue) in the 19th century (a particular time period). Your thesis will probably have a combination of general and specific.
A thesis should be argumentative, not descriptive. Here are two versions of one general thesis:
a) The automobile has caused significant environmental harm through pollution, waste and urban redesign.
b) The automobile industry has claimed that cars are no more environmentally harmful than other forms of transportation when all costs and benefits are included, but evidence from pollution studies, waste management surveys and urban planning show that on balance, cars are the most environmentally harmful form of transportation.
a) is descriptive. It tells you something, perhaps something interesting, perhaps even something that you did not previously believe. But on its own it is not an argument; it is a statement or a declaration.
b) is an argument, it has a claim (that cars are no more environmentally harmful than other forms of transportation…), and a counter-claim (other sources of data show that this is not true). An argument has to be *for* or *against* something.
With respect to your thesis, you should ask yourself the following sorts of questions: is it clear, is it interesting, is it “big” enough to write a whole paper about? Generally, if the thesis is unclear, then I will have difficulty evaluating your paper, and your grade will suffer. An uninteresting thesis is also a problem, as your paper will likely be poorer if the thesis doesn’t even interest you. Having said that, don’t try to argue for something that is so complicated that you don’t really understand it, or something that is too ambitious for a short paper. In general, I am more impressed (and therefore grade higher) a paper that is simpler but clear and well written than one that is over-ambitious and hard to follow. Save the “redefining the field” paper for your fourth year seminar, give me something solid, well researched and relevant. On the other hand, if the thesis is too narrow then you won’t be able to fill up an entire paper on the subject. Whatever you do, don’t pad a paper with unrelated information, it will stand out.
A few other points, the thesis needs to be stated in the beginning of the paper, not necessarily the first sentence, but by the end of the first paragraph is good. The conclusion should summarize the argument very briefly, as this leads the reader back to the paper for ideas they may have missed. Expect to be refining your thesis right up until the end. As you go along the changes should be smaller and smaller, but event the last draft might have some small tweaks. If you find that your thesis doesn’t work anymore, then modify it before throwing it (and all of your work) away. The sooner you begin on this the more likely you will find problems and solve them.
C) Collecting more sources

The annotated bibliography is like a snapshot of your research at a particular time. Some of the sources from the annotated bib will appear in your final paper, some will not. The point was to get an idea of what material was out there to determine whether or not your project was viable, and to refine your thesis appropriately. There is no hard and fast rule as to how many sources will appear in the final paper. If you lacked academic sources (books or articles) in your annotated bibliography then you will need to find them for the final essay.
In all likelihood you will have to go out and get some sources before the final draft of the paper is due, however, there are some guidelines to keep in mind here. First, unless you found very little of use in the annotated bibliography, you should not be looking for that many new sources. In fact, you should be doing targeted searching for sources. E.g. you find that there is some specific question you need to answer to write your paper, so you go look for a source to answer that question. In the example of the paper on the environmental damage caused by the automobile, you might go out and look for a source on how urban planners take into account traffic volume when locating high density apartment blocks.
In general, there are always more sources to find, more arguments to read, more information to process. In addition, there is always another theoretical perspective to use, some new way of looking at old evidence. The process could go on forever if you let it. Also, you have to avoid trying to stump your professor. Yes, it is always good to find sources I haven’t read, it shows me that you are doing your homework, but what really matters is what you do with those sources. At some point you have to stop and get on with the writing. My best suggestion is to stick to the writing schedule.
D) Writing an essay plan

This is optional, but highly recommended. One of the biggest problems with essays is that they are extended arguments, and it is very easy to wander when writing a long or complicated paper. The best way to avoid this is to have a plan for your overall argument: a plan will help you to stick to your thesis, keep the paper within space limits, and make sure that you don’t contradict yourself along the way. The plan can be a point form list of the main arguments of the paper. Using the example above:
Thesis: The automobile industry has claimed that cars are no more environmentally harmful than other forms of transportation when all costs and benefits are included, but evidence from pollution studies, waste management data and urban planning show that on balance, cars are the most environmentally harmful form of transportation.
Here is the plan:
The Auto Industry Argument

  • US auto industry stats on costs and benefits associated with cars, trains and planes

    • Discussion of exclusion of bicycles from paper

  • US auto industry analysis of these statistics

  • US auto industry ranking of environmental harm of these technologies: planes, trains, and cars



  • Data from US car pollution studies from outside of auto industry

  • Comparison with US Auto industry evidence

  • Conclusion: Auto industry evidence skewed due to unfair assumptions and questionable ranking of costs

  • US waste management studies

    • Specific evidence on recycling and disposal of automobile materials

    • Conclusion: US Auto industry studies omit this data entirely

  • Data from US Urban planning studies

    • Most data does not consider automobile pollution

    • Discussion of one study that considers car pollution

    • Conclusion: moderate evidence that urban planning has not taken car pollution into account, increasing harm

Planes and Trains

  • discussion of US plane and train pollution evidence

  • discussion of US plane and train waste management evidence

  • discussion of US train urban planning evidence

    • inclusion of studies on subways

  • conclusion: studies from outside of the auto industry show significantly higher environmental costs due to cars than due to planes and trains.


The US auto industry has minimized environmental costs associated with cars when arguing that competing technologies (trains and planes) are more harmful to the environment. When other studies are included, the impact of automobiles is shown to be significantly more than the impact from competing technologies.
This skeleton of an argument makes clear what each section is for, what the conclusion of each section is, and it shows how the overall argument fits together. Once you have a plan like this you will find it easier to identify problems with your argument, and to see whether or not your argument supports your thesis. It will thus help you with your thesis revision as well.
E) Writing and editing a draft

Once you have a somewhat specific thesis and a plan on paper, you can focus on writing the paper itself. There is no magic formula for writing; there are many different ways to bring a thesis and a plan together. My main advice here is the sooner the better, as for most of you (not all, but most), the best way to improve your writing is to:

  1. write more and get more practice

  2. write sooner so you can edit a lot and improve the writing

  3. a) and b) allow you to find the problems with your essay earlier, and thus make the argument stronger and correct problems before the grading process

A good general thought to keep in mind is that whatever you don’t fix I will likely find and thus you will lose marks.
I recommend a complete draft before the final run at the essay as it allows you to see the whole argument together before it is due. Once the draft is completed you can set it aside for a few days and then come back to it, you will be surprised how much you will catch when you do this. It also allows you to give a draft of your argument to someone else to look at. It is surprisingly hard to give a plan or a section of your paper to someone and get useful feedback, but a complete draft is enough to at least determine if you are making sense or not. I highly recommend getting someone else to read your work. Other people will always catch things you miss, and things you assume without stating. I am also willing to look at drafts as long as they are given to me well before the essay is due (this also allows you to incorporate any changes I suggest).
F) Writing the paper

Once you have feedback on your draft you have all the components necessary to finalize your work and hand in a good paper. The remaining suggestions here are meant to fine tune the paper in terms of overall argument, style, etc. The unfortunate truth is that there are some problems you just don’t see until the whole thing comes together, so check for these things when your draft is done and you are in the home stretch. You are welcome to check for them earlier as well, but you also want to avoid slowing yourself down too much by over analysing the product too early in the game. My suggestion is to write something as early as possible, usually it will be very badly formed and full of holes, and then fix it. This involves a lot of editing, but it works very reliably. You can estimate that you should spend almost two to three times longer editing a paper than writing it, which means you need to have a draft done early enough to give you this time.
What to look for when writing the final draft:

  1. Do not simply summarize the research material in your paper; this is necessary but not sufficient. You need to give me a good account of your sources, but you also need an argument about those ideas, summary is not enough.

  2. Proofread for sense or meaning as well as for style, argument form and facts. This is why it is useful to get someone else to read your paper, it may make sense to you, but that doesn’t mean it will make sense to anyone else.

  3. Make sure it is clear who your audience is. Assume you are writing for an intelligent student (so you don’t have to explain everything), but do not assume that your reader is an expert in the field (and thus that you don’t have to explain anything). Define any technical terms you use, but only use them if you understand them and they add clarity to the paper. Big words don’t impress me unless they add to the power of your argument.

  4. Be fair to those you criticize, do not invent a weaker version of someone’s argument to demolish. As a matter of fact, the stronger the argument you attack, the more convincing your position, and the better your grade.

  5. If you draw parallels between different cases (e.g. technological progress in US and Canada) be sure to draw distinctions as well, it gives the case balance and shows that you are being even-handed. The same argument applies to positives and negatives, if you are going to be critical about a position, try to find something worthwhile in it as well, or at least acknowledge its strengths.

  6. Give your opinion in your paper; don’t just parrot your sources. However, your opinion should be backed up by arguments and facts.

  7. Look for places where you say things like, “this just doesn’t make sense”, or that “this is obviously wrong”, and find another criticism, as these are too vague and just beg the question as to why this point didn’t make sense, or that point was obviously wrong. In short, “sense” is somewhat relative, and nothing is obvious.

  8. Make sure you have provided references for all facts and ideas you get from others. Don’t plagiarise, if you are caught you will fail the assignment; if you are not caught you will have lost the opportunity to learn something. Either way, it is a lose-lose situation.

  9. Do not introduce points without developing them, it frustrates your reader and makes it look like you don’t know what you are talking about. It also looks sloppy, like you did not finish the thought and failed to catch it in a reread.

  10. Do not submit a final paper that is far below or above the word-length. Paragraphs should be indented (optional), pages numbered and the essay double-spaced with 1 inch margins and 12 point font. Font colour should be black on standard white bond paper. Cover pages are optional, headings are fine but don’t use them to pad the page count. Don’t leave large spaces in between sections.

  11. Avoid the use of informal language (slang) in your assignments as much as possible. Also try to avoid talking about the paper in the paper (e.g. “when I was writing this paper I thought…) This can be done quite effectively by experienced writers, but it is tricky for those who are less certain.

  12. Don’t capitalize randomly or for emphasis, do not italicize or bold words for emphasis; make your point explicitly. Check your spelling with the word processor but also do a read through on your own. There are literally thousands of words that will not spell check (e.g. steel and steal, lead and led, etc.), so a manual proofread is mandatory. Spelling mistakes alone are not enough to lower your grade, but if you make enough of them they impact the clarity of your paper, and this will lower your grade.

  13. All”, “none”, “every” and similar absolute words are very strong, and usually there turn out to be exceptions to them. As a good general rule, don’t use words like this unless you are very convinced that they apply in full force. Make strong statements; just don’t overstate your case.

  14. Use a standard referencing style (e.g., MLA), but I am not concerned which one you use. Endnotes, footnotes, in text references, I am also not concerned. You should have a bibliography, but I will accept full references instead of a bibliography if they are done well. The main point to a bibliography, no matter what style you use, is that I can find the source, so make sure it contains (at minimum): author, title, publisher, year. For a reference, I need a page number as well, so I don’t have to read the whole book to check your reference.

  15. Don’t pad a paper with excessive quotations; paraphrase wherever possible as it forces you to think things through. Single space and indent long quotations, and introduce quotations and say something about them afterwards, do not assume the reader knows why they are there.

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