Writing a Cause or Effect Essay

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Writing a Cause or Effect Essay

  • Mrs. Wishart
  • Senior Adjunct Instructor
  • Burlington County College

What is Cause & Effect?

  • When writing about a cause, the writer looks at events that occurred and how they led up to something occurring:
    • What were the causes that led up to the 9/11 attack?
  • When writing about an effect, the writer looks at events that occurred after an event to analyze what has occurred as a result:
    • How has American society been effected by the 9/11 attack?

Beyond Events

  • A Cause or Effect Essay often examines more than events:
    • The essay may give reasons or explanations for:
      • Events
      • Conditions
      • Behaviors

Remember the Timeline

  • When writing this essay, writers who decide to write from the perspective of a cause need to focus on what happened before a specific event. Writers who decide to write from the perspective of an effect need to focus on what happened after a specific event.
  • Causes
  • Effects

Make Sure to Avoid Correlation

  • Correlation is different from causation:
    • Correlation: there is a connection between two or more things
      • While there may be a correlation between children receiving vaccines and autism, that does not mean that the vaccine causes autism
        • Think carefully about various types of fallacies – is this “cause” a hasty generalization? Is it non sequitur? Is it post hoc? If it is any of these, it’s a correlation and not a cause.
    • Causation: something makes something else happen or exist.
      • A loud noise may be a causation for a baby crying.

Neeld’s Heuristic Questions for Cause/Effect:

  • These questions will help guide the writer on how to look at the specific topic deeply:
    • What causes females to perform better in school than males?
    • What causes people to choose to go to college/to choose not to go to college?
    • What are the effects of people earning a liberal arts degree instead of a more specialized degree?
    • What are the effects of colleges prejudging students who are considered “street smart”?
    • What is the purpose of attending college in the 21st century?
    • Why does increased job growth in college graduates happen?
    • What is the consequence of colleges maintaining traditional instructional methods?
    • What comes before deciding whether or not to go to college?
    • What comes after going into debt to earn a college degree?
    • Adapted from: Lindeman, Erika. A Rhetoric for Writing Teachers. 2nd ed. New York: Oxford U P, 1987. 82-3. Print.

Playing the “Why” Game

  • When writing a Cause/Effect Essay, the writer is often answering why something occurred.
  • After asking why the first time, the writer should continue to ask why in order to drill deeper into the subject:
    • Malcolm X said, “Education is the passport to the future, for tomorrow belongs to those who prepare for it today.” WHY?
    • Malcolm X noticed that life takes preparation. WHY?
    • More than likely, in their family lives, some people were taught that they would go to college and some were taught that college was not in their future WHY?
    • Some parents were unfulfilled in their educational pursuits, so they have become cynical about the need for further education. WHY?
    • The writer continues to play this game until he/she can go no further. The game reveals how certain events may be related and reveals deeper thought instead of surface thought.

Organizing Thoughts with a Modified Venn Diagram

  • Causes
  • Topic
  • Effects
  • Record what happened BEFORE the topic. The writer should make certain the list contains at least 6 items so the best 3 can be chosen for the essay.
  • Record the THESIS STATEMENT here. The writer needs to keep his/her eye on the topic, so recording the thesis statement will help assure the lists are on point.
  • Record what happened AFTER the topic. The writer should make certain the list contains at least 6 items so the best 3 can be chosen for the essay.
  • Once the lists above are recorded, review each list carefully.
  • Which list has the most potential to intrigue the audience?
  • Which list interests the writer most?
  • Choose the list, and then writer either a Cause OR an Effect Essay.
  • A 5 paragraph essay will not give the writer enough room to write about both causes AND effects.

Characteristics to Include in the Essay

  • Present the event or issue.
    • The audience needs to understand the problem or issue. Without this explanation, the analysis will fall apart.
  • Use strong, assertive language that does not reflect negativity or bias.
  • Use factual evidence and direct quotes from They Say, I Say articles.
    • Treat the writing scientifically – make a hypothesis and then prove it through direct information from the sources.

Other Questions to Consider:

  • Does the essay have an effective introduction?
  • Is the thesis clear, effective? Does it preview the main points?
  • What are the causes/effects discussed?
  • Does the writer focus on cause or effect?
  • Is there a good conclusion?

Avoiding Bias and Negativity

  • Biased or negative statements steal the authority of the writer. Which of the following feels more convincing and has more authority?
    • The American public has long been blind to the horrible effects of student debt on our children’s futures. Student debt must be avoided or the consequences will be dire
    • In order for students to succeed in their lives, student debt needs to be studied and considered. Managing the amount of debt taken on will help to assure a college education has the desired effect on one’s life.

3rd Person REQUIRED

  • For this essay, ALL paragraphs, including the introduction and conclusion, must be in 3rd person.
    • 3rd person adds a sense of authority and makes the writing more forceful.
      • I believe college should be made affordable for all Americans.
      • By passing policies and instituting that make college more affordable for today’s college student, America will be better equipped to compete in a global economy.

Types of Causal Relationships

  • Material cause: a material determines its behaviors – a rock falls because of its heaviness.
  • Formal cause: an item’s form determines its nature – a human differs from the statue of a human.
  • Efficient cause: the event that begins the first notable change – a human lifts a rock.
  • Final cause: the ultimate end – often difficult or impossible to predict, especially if all events have not completely played out.
  • Wikipedia.

Other Types of Causal Relationships

  • Necessary Cause: If x is a necessary cause of y, then the presence of y implies the presence of x. The presence of x does not imply that y will occur.
  • Sufficient Cause: If x is a sufficient cause of y, then the presence of x implies the presence of y. However, z may also cause y. The presence of y does not imply the presence of x.
  • Contributory Cause: If the presumed cause precedes the effect, and altering the cause alters the effect, it is contributory.
  • Wikipedia.

Double Check

  • The writer should not state something that is obvious.
  • The writer should make sure to demonstrate the significance between the causes or the effects in the paper.
  • Surface thought is boring; deep thought is informative and interesting.

The Pattern

  • For effect:
    • Many causes might lead to one effect:
      • Cool kids didn’t study
      • Few kids went to college from neighborhood
      • College tuition rose faster than inflation
        • Effect: College not deemed plausible
  • For cause:
    • One cause might lead to many effects:
      • Cause: More jobs require college
        • Effect: More students attend community college
        • Effect: More students carry massive student debt
        • Effect: More students consider which major has best chance of leading to a job.


  • Maldonado, Christina. “Writing Cause and Effect Essays. “ Roxbury, MA: Roxbury Community College Writing Center, Fall 2008. Web. 20 March 2013.
  • Lindeman, Erika. A Rhetoric for Writing Teachers. 2nd ed. NY: Oxford UP, 1987. 82-3. Print.
  • Wikipedia: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Causality#Necessary_and_sufficient_causes

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