An essay expresses your opinion on a particular topic, in which you provide evidence to support this opinion. It is important to note that your paper must be a critical essay NOT a review. Avoid value judgments, sweeping generalizations and colloquial language. A critical essay persuades by the way it is argued and the evidence it advances in support of that argument. Your opinion on the topic is based around a thesis (your main idea or argument on the topic) which you proceed to prove and develop over the body of the essay. Your essay must be structured in such a way as to present a convincing argument to the reader.
Writing the Essay
Starting your essay with a plan or map before you begin will help you to structure your material. This is where you organize and prioritize your ideas into a structure that will make a convincing argument for the reader. To be convincing you will structure your essay as a progression of key ideas rather than a listing of unconnected fragments. Your outline functions as the map of where and how you want your essay to go and as such it helps to facilitate your writing process.
The thesis: The thesis is the point that you are arguing (your own approach or angle on the topic). It defines your position on the subject and your essay will provide evidence to support that position. You need to develop a working thesis early in planning stages to help you focus your thinking and research. One way of finding your thesis (argument) is to ask yourself questions about the topic and to focus on a specific issue, idea or problem that the topic raises. Your answer to this question could be your thesis. Although you start with a working thesis, this may change and develop as you work through the process of reading and writing around your subject, particularly as this process uncovers information and ideas that are new to you.
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Once you are clear about your thesis and you have found supporting evidence you will think about how you will use the body of your essay to demonstrate this. Most essays use three or four key ideas that support and advance the argument or thesis. These key ideas provide the strands of your thesis. They demonstrate and prove your main argument and they must be closely tied to it. Each of these strands provides the focus for a separate paragraph.
There is no set pattern for essays, since they are shaped by the subject and nature of your sources, but must adhere to this basic form:
- An introduction, which clearly states your interpretation of the question or topic and outlines what you are going to do in the essay.
- A middle, which contains evidence and illustrations that support the argument. In this section too, you might present opposing arguments, giving your reasons why you think the line of argument you are taking is more appropriate.
- A conclusion, which clearly and succinctly sums up your position or argument. A good conclusion answers the question, in a nutshell, summarizes the main points and rounds off the argument. But a conclusion does not have to be conclusive, as you may find that there is no tidy resolution to the issue you are discussing. Your conclusion would then need to show why this is the case, and how your argument serves to reveal this. You can choose also to close your concluding paragraph by relating your thesis to the present or to the future or to other issues. Be careful here not to end with a review type value judgment that would only serve to weaken the critical argument you have advanced.
BASICALLY: Tell what you’re going to tell me, tell me, and then tell me what you’ve told me. Generally speaking, introductory paragraphs go from general to specific in making a point, and concluding paragraphs go from specific to general.
Please do not procrastinate on your essay. As soon as you have the essay questions, peruse them and think about which question you’d like to address and/or which media text you wish to analyze. Think of an “angle” on that text/topic that is interesting to you. Then get to work immediately in reviewing readings in this class as well as (if applicable) searching for articles relevant to your topic. You should have a detailed outline in place no less than three days before the paper is due (probably sooner, if you can). Begin writing the paper as soon as possible, so that you leave yourself enough time if you get stuck. In the vast majority of cases, writing is full of starts, stops, backtracking, revisions, etc. You are unlikely to turn out a quality essay by blazing through it from start to finish in one go. Once you have finished, leave it aside for some time and come back and re-read it. Remember also to allow yourself time to actually type it: if you are a slow typist or poor speller, this should be taken into account. One final word of advice: do not start on one topic and then switch to another. Think hard about what you want to do, and then stick to it, no matter how difficult or ultimately boring you find it to be.
Grammar, Spelling, and Punctuation
Accuracy and correctness of written expression will help to present your argument. The fewer impediments in your presentation, the easier it will be for the marker to see what you are trying to say. The following pointers may help you with your presentation:
- Your language should be precise and clear;
- Use paragraphs to develop your argument. Treat each topic in a separate paragraph. As a rule, begin each paragraph either with a sentence that suggests the topic of the paragraph or with a sentence that suggests a transition from one paragraph to the next;
- To check the fluency of your essay read your work aloud. If you read from one full stop to the next you will be able to hear where something is missing or where there are too many complications. If you read a sentence aloud and it isn’t obvious what the sentence is about, try re-writing it;
- Make sure you are clear about the meanings of the expressions you use, especially abstract terms. It can also be helpful (depending on the essay topic) to include a brief working definition of such terms. Many of the terms used in contemporary theoretical writings are subject to contestation; dictionary definitions do not, therefore, necessarily grasp the meanings intended by scholars or by you. It tends not to be useful, then, to simply regard dictionary definitions as authoritative;
- Avoid slang, contractions (can’t, won’t) and abbreviations (UN, USA), unless they are part of a quotation;
- Check your spelling. Remember that computer spell-checks do not pick up all errors;
- Check your use of apostrophes. They are used to show possession with nouns (ie. people, places and things). A singular noun takes an apostrophe followed by an ‘s’. Plurals ending in ‘s’ add an apostrophe after the final ‘s’: Eg. a girl’s dress (one girl); the girls’ dresses (more than one girl);
- A common error is to write it’s for its and vice versa. The first is a contraction for “it is.” The second is a possessive. Also know the difference between there, their, and they’re;
- Expect to find some time proofreading and correcting a draft of your essay before making a final draft;
- If you have trouble with grammar there are many style books available in the library on essay writing skills.
Common problems to avoid:
Do not make unsubstantiated claims or sweeping generalizations (e.g.: “All Americans can identify with this image…” How do you know this? Can you prove this?).
Remember, if your essay topic calls for analysis it is just that, not a descriptive list. Use examples from the text to support your argument rather than providing paragraphs of details of the features of your text. For example, if you are analyzing a television show or film, a brief synopsis is sufficient—do not go into extensive detail concerning what happens, unless what happens is directly relevant to your argument. For instance:
- BAD: “… and after Luke cuts off Vader’s robotic hand, he then contemplates his own robotic hand. Luke then tells the Emperor he will never turn to the Dark Side. At this point the Emperor says, ‘So be it, Jedi,’ and begins electrocuting Luke …” [Note that in this passage, the author is merely describing action that can be plainly seen, and provides no further analytical or critical insights.]
- GOOD: “… when Luke cuts off Vader’s robotic hand, it serves as a tipping point for Luke’s character – will he become like his father, or will he choose another path? We see this inner conflict played out through a close-up on Luke’s face, followed by a close-up on Vader’s hand, then back to Luke examining his own robotic hand, which implies that Luke fears he is becoming his father …” [Note that in this passage, the author describes specific filmic techniques and how they convey meaning that the author has analyzed for critical reflection.]
Remember that you are not writing a review of your chosen text, and you must avoid using sweeping value judgments. Some of the best essays are written about the seemingly most mundane, frivolous or “trashy” things. You do not have to tackle an “important” or “serious” subject in order to write a superb essay (though you are welcome to do so). The goal is not to take apart something for being poorly made or being culturally base; the intent is to talk about what it means or what it reveals about our culture.
Referencing is important. It tells readers where the evidence or ideas you used came from and allows them to check their validity by checking the source themselves. All sources must be documented both within your essay at the point where you reference them and also in the bibliography.
Where you make explicit or implicit use of another source within your essay you must note the source, including the relevant page number(s) either within the body of your text or by footnoting.
You must use a consistent style of referencing throughout the essay. For this course, APA or MLA are recommended. You may choose either of these; the main thing is that your referencing style should be consistent.
You must also provide a bibliography which will appear as a separate page at the end of your essay. Here you give a complete and accurate documentation of all the works that you refer to in any way within your essay. Once again, for guidance on layout, you should consult the above style books.
Guideline for referencing:
Include your references in your first draft (there is nothing worse than throwing out your draft to find you have to search again for the reference’s source).
Check your references for accuracy, correct format, and consistency of style.
Be careful when you take notes that you record the source and identify what material is quoted and what is recounted in your own words. Both sorts of material need to be cited, but in a different form. IMPROPER REFERENCING MAY BE CONSTRUED AS PLAGIARISM (see below). Therefore spend the time to reference fully and properly.
Failure to properly acknowledge sources constitutes plagiarism. Plagiarism means taking the ideas and words of others without acknowledgment. It includes:
- Paraphrasing an author’s work without a reference.
- Copying verbatim phrases or passages without using quotation marks and acknowledging the source.
- Copying another student’s work.
It is expected that all students will pursue their studies in a responsible and ethical way.
Quotations should be brief and should never dominate the essay. Use them sparingly, showing how they serve your argument. You must always incorporate them into your discussion and not just leave them to speak for themselves (especially, do not end paragraphs with a quote).
Short quotations (three lines or less) are usually run on, in single quotes, as part of the text, with quotation marks and the source noted to mark them from the rest of your writing. After the quote, cite your source using parenthetical citation (usually author and date), followed by the period or full stop. DO NOT PUT YOUR PARENTHETICAL CITATION AFTER THE PERIOD. Long quotations are usually set apart from the main body of writing by indenting them as a block quote, and quotation marks are not used. Remember to reference all quotations.
Always record full bibliographic details when you are taking notes from a source. This can save invaluable time later.
The purpose of references is to ensure that anyone reading your work is able to trace the work you have read and used. Therefore, certain kinds of information are necessary. And there are conventions which make it clear parts of the reference refer to which kinds of information. CITATIONS AND BIBLIOGRAPHIES MUST ADHERE TO A RECOGNIZED CITATION STYLE.
Special note on internet sources:
Although Wikipedia is an excellent source for an overview of a subject and may contain useful exterior links, IT CANNOT BE USED AS A CITED SOURCE IN THIS CLASS (the same goes for About.com and other reference websites). This is not only because Wikipedia may not have the best or more accurate information but also to ensure that you have done the readings and other assignments properly and that you are utilizing them. Wikipedia is, however, a superb starting point for learning about a thing that you know little to nothing about – whereafter you can find scholarly or journalistic articles that cover that subject in more detail and with more precision.
Some internet sources are excellent and authoritative. Others are pure balderdash. Although it is often very difficult to tell the difference between the good and the bad, a good rule of thumb is to use sites affiliated with accredited universities and academic organizations. Ultimately, use your best judgment, and if you are in doubt, either contact me or do not use it.
Edit carefully for spelling, punctuation, and grammatical errors. Also, check all citations, and make sure they are properly referenced in the bibliography. Pay careful attention also to clarity of expression. For each sentence make sure that your point is clear, and that it is clear why that point is important.
Use the page layout, margins, font, and font size recommended by your teacher.
Each page should be numbered.
The first page should note your name (it is surprising how often students forget this), the title of the assignment, the name of the course, and the name of your teacher. Do not include a separate title page, until required, – simply start your essay below this information (titles in bold, 12-point font).
Italicize the titles of all newspapers (e.g., The Billings Gazette), magazines (e.g., Maxim), TV shows (e.g., South Park), radio shows (e.g., Car Talk), movies (e.g., Alien), books (e.g., The Hobbit), and record albums/CDs (e.g., Abbey Road). Do not put the titles of these media products in quotation marks – simply italicize them.
Article titles and chapter titles, however, do get put in quotations marks, and do not get italicized. (For example: In her Newsweek article entitled “The White House Today,” columnist Jane Smith describes changes to the presidential staff.)
Names of corporations (including media corporations), networks, stations, and web sites are neither italicized nor put in quotation marks (e.g., CBS, Time Warner, The Planet 106.7, AOL, Sony, Microsoft, The New York Times Company, The Walt Disney Company, CNN, Fox News Channel, ESPN, KULR-8, Facebook, Twitter, Yahoo!, CNN.com, Amazon.com).
Papers must comply with stated minimum and maximum page lengths.
While some teachers may have point-by-point criteria for grading essays, here are some key things that they usually look for in deciding how good a student’s work is:
- Appropriate adherence to presentation standards. All essays should be legible, neatly laid out, and be completely lacking in any evidence of fluids (bodily or otherwise). Weird fonts, colored paper, doodles, etc. are not acceptable.
- Good writing. This includes grammar, syntax, spelling, punctuation, phrasing, etc.
- Good essay structure. The essay contains a thesis, has well-organized points, paragraphs typically start with topic sentences and flow well together, and the essay ends with a concluding paragraph.
- Appropriate use of sources. The essay cites appropriate references and convincingly interprets the subject material. Citations are not shoehorned in, but instead organically augment the point you are trying to make.
- Well-argued. This last point is worth dwelling on somewhat. The term “well-argued” is not what students may regard as “correct.” The teacher might find your views (political, analytical, etc.) to be entirely wrongheaded. But what he/she will be grading you on is whether you have examined the subject with care and detail, utilized references to bolster your argument, and made a convincing case for why your interpretation is valid – particularly if it is a unique take on the subject. Therefore, do not write your essay based on what you think the teacher would say about it – tell what YOU have to say about it, and back that up with insightful analysis and scholarly sources.
Things to avoid:
Sweeping generalizations. If you find yourself talking about whole groups of people, or making a single claim about a whole medium or a complex situation, you’re doing it wrong. Be specific about what you want to say, be circumspect about the scope of the issue or phenomenon you’re talking about, and be precise in your use of language.
Moralizing. The teacher doesn’t really care whether a certain subject causes you to drop your monocle into your sherry. Your task is to provide analysis and criticism in terms of what something does or what it means according to your scholarly interpretation, and bolstered by scholarly sources. You telling in your essay whether you think something is “good” or “bad” doesn’t tell anything about your analytical or critical abilities – it only tells one about your tastes, which one may or may not share (and at any rate, you won’t be graded on them).
Rambling. Stay on target, stay on task. You have limited space in which to make a series of thoughtful, well-argued, well-sourced, insightful points. Including amusing asides, or referring to aspects of your topic that do not directly contribute to your argument, will result in a poor grade.
Redundancy. Don’t repeat the same point throughout your essay. You will need to bring to bear multiple points to support your argument. If you find yourself relying on the same point, either you have an extremely weak argument, or you need to be more thoughtful/creative in order to come up with more points.
Not following directions. Essay topics are assigned for a reason: A student must engage with a specific aspect of the course material. If you write about something not assigned, or in a manner that doesn’t adhere to the assignment parameters, there is no way of knowing whether you are merely resubmitting your own material from another class, or submitting someone else’s material, or whether you are capable of engaging with the material in such a way as to ensure that you have learned from it what required from you to learn. It gives the teacher no pleasure to mark down otherwise well-written essays because they are written about something totally different than what was assigned.
Source: AEssay Team, based on customers’ materials