It’s getting to that point where I have a boat load of essays to do. Maybe you’re at that point in your lives as well, maybe you already passed it, or maybe it’s in your future (my advice is to change things now to prevent that from happening). As an English major, you have to have your essay writing boiled down to a science, otherwise you’ll be quickly run out of hair to pull from your head.
Right now, I’m writing an essay that compares a chapter in Reading in the Dark by Seamus Deane to Star Wars: A New Hope through an ecocritical lens. You don’t need to know what any of that means to know how to write an essay, that’s just for the examples I’ll be using. Otherwise, this should be a fairly universal guide to the essay-writing process. So turn on your favourite video game soundtrack, and let’s jump right in.
Step 1: Thesis
This is by far the most important part of your essay. Sometimes, you have to turn this in separately before you even start working on the essay itself. This is where you come up with what you’re going to be talking about for the rest of your essay. It should be as long as possible to make sure you cover absolutely everything. In my case, it looks a little something like this:
Both Deane’s and Lucas’s writing exploit the subversion of nature as a powerful and encompassing force in their depictions of the wonton destruction of natural objects due to the coping mechanism projection.
Yeah, that’s pretty hefty. The heftier, the better. The thesis statement is the only sentence in your whole essay that should be able to stand alone. And, anything that comes before or after should implode into redundancy with only a mere glance at your thesis.
Step 2: Outline
The first thing you need to know is: what the hell am I talking about. Sure, you think you know, but do you? The worst thing for a teacher/professor/employer to read is a rambling mess. So the first thing you want to do is list out each thing that you want to talk about.
My essay is comparing two works to each other and to a theoretical framework. So, I’m gonna start by introducing each work and then compare them together and then bring in the theory part. Each of those is gonna take a paragraph, so my outline looks a little like this:
Death Star -350
–Barry Commoner’s 4th Law of Ecology
Of course, every essay needs an introduction and a conclusion. If you’re writing a longer essay (spanning a dozen topics or a dozen pages) each section would need an introduction and a conclusion.
The little numbers next to each title are how many words I need to put in that section to make my word count (in this case, 2000 words). When you write an essay, there’s a very blurry line between being concise (which all professors tell you to do) and rambling on ad infinitum (which they actually grade you on). I could write this essay in maybe two hundred words, but I have to expound on that tenfold because I guess my professor loves being bored. Word counts are incredibly important if whoever assigned your essay is pedantic (they assigned an essay, so they probably are); it’s always good to stay within 10% of that word count, so that you’re not slacking/pissing off the professor.
Step 3: Quotes
When using other source material, whether you’re writing a critical essay or a research essay, it’s always important that you get across the true meaning of whatever that other person is saying, and you do that by stealing. Take it from me, no [English] professor will believe a word you say unless someone said it first, so instead of making your own argument take someone else’s. But, make sure you cite your sources (more on that later) because if you don’t, then it’s plagiarism and that’s worse than more using any quotes at all. It’s important to use as many quotes from as many different places as possible. That way, it seems like you did a whole lot of research.
Once you have your quotes, go ahead and plop them into your outline. Depending on the length of your essay, each section should have between one and ten quotes in it; 10-30% of your paragraphs should be quotes. But that’s just for the body paragraph. If you decide to put quotes in your introduction or conclusion, they should not be from any of the sources that you’ve cited in the rest of your essay. Any quotes that you put in your introduction or conclusion should be as vague and aloof as possible. Because this is such a short essay, I’m gonna keep about two quotes per section and none in the introduction or conclusion. Here’s what that looks like:
——“I felt such a fury then, I could have done it all over again.” 108
——“The petals were shining crimson all over the path and glinting weakly in the disturbed earth.” Page 106
Death Star -350
——“Not after we demonstrate the power of this station.” G.M. Tarkin.
——“No! Alderaan is peaceful.” Leia.
——“I’m going to clip some of the roses. They’re in bad need of it.” 104.
——“Ask Father. He’ll know.” Page 107
——“In a way, you have determined the choice of the planet that will be destroyed first… on your home planet of Alderaan.” G.M. Tarkin
–Barry Commoner’s 4th Law of Ecology
——“We abuse land because we regard it as a commodity belonging to us.” Aldo Leopold (page 6)
——“Everything we do on Earth has costs, some less obvious than others.” Page 9
——“The costs of our changes and alterations to the environment need to be considered along with the benefits.
If you need to at this point, you can add little notes to remind yourself of what you’re trying to accomplish with the quote, but most should speak for themselves, like:
“Not after we demonstrate the power of this station.” G.M. Tarkin. The destruction of the planet is purely for demonstration of the station, it has nothing to do with the planet itself.
Also, make sure you take notes on where you found the quotes, the worst thing to do is lose the quote and have to come back when you have to do the citations and rummage through an entire book, just to find one line.
Step 4: Write the damn thing.
Now that you have your outline and the quotes, it’s time to turn those ideas into full sentences. Although it seems like a good idea to write strong sentences, no sentence (save your thesis) should be able to stand on its own. Every sentence has to rely on the one before it and the one after it. That way, if anyone tries to cite your essay in the future, they won’t be able to without taking a large, paragraph-sized bite out of it (which is totally not allowed, by the way). I don’t know why that’s the preferred writing style for professors, but it is.
Writing may seem like the hardest part of the essay, and it’s definitely the most time consuming (that, or research depending on the type of essay). The trick is to think about the subject, not the writing. When you’re thinking about your subject, you’re probably forming words and sentences in your own head. The best way to articulate yourself on the page is just to snatch the words out of your head and put them on paper exactly how they are. That way you have your content and you can move onto
Step 5: Editing
There’s this book you should look into called “The Elements of Style” that, aside from outfitting your essay with a snazzy fedora, tells you everything you need to know about grammar and punctuation in a way that (and I’m being serious here) is not reminiscent of being shot in the face by a meerkat cannon. Give it a good once over before you start, and then flip through it whenever you decide to use a semicolon or have something that just doesn’t “sound right” (if you don’t know what a semicolon is, don’t try to use it).
One big resource that you shouldn’t take for granted when essay-writing is your big gaping maw. Yes, it’s more useful than just eating another M&M cookie (I get that they were on sale; that doesn’t mean you get to finish the whole box in a day). Read your essay outloud. Read it to yourself, read it to your friend, read it to your wall, read it to your tree, read it to your housegoat. As long as you take what’s written on the page and make them noises that you or someone can hear, then you’ll be able to spot any poor sentence structure. Look up all the grammatical rules you want, nothing’s gonna beat your “that doesn’t sound right” instinct. When you’re reading in your head, you can easily pass this instinct over, but not so much when you actually say it. Especially if someone else is there listening.
Step 6: Citations and Formatting
I’m pretty sure the Modern Language Association, the American Psychiatric Association, and Chicago (the play, I think) like to team up and fuck with people. Those are three ways to cite your sources when writing an essay. Your professor will tell you which one to use, but if they don’t it wouldn’t hurt to ask because there’s absolutely no way of knowing which one to use otherwise. MLA, at least, changes every week. As a result, I’ve never actually taken the effort to learn it. It’s much easier to use an online resource like OWL to do that work for me.
While in-text citations and bibliographies have their merit, the way their required to be formatted is completely useless. They used to be used to look up books, I think, back when you needed to navigate a labyrinth (and avoid a minotaur) just to find the resources you needed. Personally, were I a professor, I’d use nothing but hyperlink citations because they get to the relevant information when it’s relevant and not two decades too late.
As for your works cited. I use Citation Machine, or EasyBib because I couldn’t be bothered to learn the myriad of different citations for every single different type of source under the sun. Your bibliography then gets sorted in alphabetical order and thrown at the bottom of your essay. If it’s short enough, you can probably get away with sticking it at the bottom of your last page (if there’s a lot of extra room). Otherwise, throw that on a new page, or three. Put “Works Cited” above that, centred of course, and format it the same way as the rest of your paper.
Moving on to formatting. Usually, you can’t go wrong with: 12pt, Times New Roman, double spaced, one inch margins, left justified, single sided, with your last name and page number in the top right corner of each page. As for a header, it should look thusly:
30 February, 2015
But with your own information substituted in (duh!). And then your title goes under that, but centred in the page.
That is, unless you’re supposed to have a cover page. A cover page will have all the same information as your header, but it’ll make a tree cry each time you write it out. On a cover page, you put the title of your paper in the middle of the page, your subtitle underneath that, and your header (same as above) below that. Then you soak your cover page in the blood of orphans and staple it (with one staple in the top left corner, only!) to the rest of your paper.
Step 7: Turn it in!
That’s it, you’re done! And look at the time, it’s due in seven minutes. Even though it’s stapled together, make sure your name is on every page because the first thing a professor does when he gets a stack of essays is shuffle them like a deck of cards. Throw your essay into a folder or something on your way to school because a wrinkly essay is the equivalent of spitting on your professor’s mom, and you’re only allowed to do that when you have a PhD, too.
Many professors collect the essays before class. This is to prevent students from completing the essay, printing it out, and stapling it together while pretending to take notes. But just because your essay is on the table in the front, that doesn’t mean you don’t need to stay for the rest of the class. Who am I kidding? Yes, it does. Go take the next hour and a half off! You deserve it, champ.