Sunday, February 20, 2011

Basic Rules for Writing an Essay or an Article

I recently discovered this great blog on how to write well (and a lot) academically, and it motivated me to share my own little tricks on how to proceed about writing an  academic essay or an article.

First, you need to create a specific question you will be answering. The question should begin with an interrogatory word (why, when, how, why, etc.) and end in a question mark. "I'm going to write about Cervantes" or "I'm going to write about Galdos's modernity" are not good essay topics. They will confuse you and create a very watered down, imprecise piece of writing. The best thing to do is to come up with a specific question, write it on a cue card, and stick it in front of the computer screen. Then, every sentence you write should be aimed at answering this particular question and not spread out into other topics. 

Experienced writers might not need to do that, but beginning academic authors and students really benefit from this strategy. In the courses I teach, I always dedicate at least an hour to practicing the creation of such questions with the students. Say, a student tells me he wants to write about the Cuban Revolution. A 10-page essay on the Cuban Revolution will be a complete disaster, unless the student chooses a specific direction in which he wants to go in his analysis. 

The second piece of advice is to come up with a very specific answer you will provide to this question as a result of your research. I have noticed that people who cannot summarize the point of their essay or article in one or two precise sentences are the ones who are not entirely sure about what they are trying to say. Whenever I get bogged down in a sentence or a paragraph, I ask myself, "What am I trying to say here?" And then I try to answer the question aloud. More often than not, I discover that I'm not really sure what it is that I'm trying to say, which is what causes the problem of not knowing how to say it.

One of my colleagues in grad school kept struggling with his dissertation. Whenever we asked him what the dissertation was about, he would launch into a 20-minute response that left everybody confused. Only after he was able to formulate his topic in 2 or 3 concise sentences, did he manage to proceed with the dissertation and finish it.

Feel free to share your own writing tricks in the comments section.


Rimi said...

In middle school (around class four, the fourth grade), we were taught these basic rules:

An introduction: One paragraph, or two at the most, where you clearly out what you are arguring for/against (in case of an argumentative essay) or set the stage (for fictional pieces).

Then for the next seven and eight paragraphs you develop on your theme. In case of an argumentative essay, it's best to deal with each point in its own paragraph, but that shouldn't mean alienated paras which make the essay read like a broken collage. Fictional pieces were easy -- this is where the plot developed.

Finally, the conclusion. For argumentative ones, here is where you tied up your points to the chief idea in the introduction. In fictional pieces, this is where you put in a sting in the tail or a more usual "and they went home happily to dinner" ending.

That was how we were trained to write since class four, and there were no word processors neither. We had to sit at our desks and write those in the longhand, so the bare skeleton had better be mapped out before we put pen to paper, otherwise the intro and conclusion wouldn't match and we would fail.

Astonishing that we managed it, really, now we think back. This longhand, analysing-as-you-write was continued right through undergrad and masters. For publications, I've carried the same attitude forward. Of course, I branch out and red-edit my intro (whether I outline the bare bones of my thesis), and reshape my conclusions, and the style never satisfies me, but that essential tripartite structure has remained with me:

Rimi said...

My apologies for the terrible typos above :-)

Anonymous said...

When I was in seventh grade, our English teacher gave us a format for essay/speechwriting that I still use today.

First paragraph: introduction. First sentence asks the question that the piece is about. The rest of the paragraph describes how you will answer it, in the same order that the next paragraphs will do that.

Each of the middle paragraphs starts off with a sentence stating what you will do in that paragraph. Then do it. The last sentence explains what you did.

Conclusion is about wrapping things up. Absolutely no new information goes here. Just go over the initial question again, then what you talked about in each of the middle paragraphs, and finally wrap it up with the conclusions gained from these.

I'm not saying that I do exactly that these days. But the basic idea has served me well for almost two decades now :)

Clarissa said...

Announcing what you will do is not a very good idea, in my opinion, if we are talking about an essay or an article (as opposed to a book.) This makes for a repetitive writing full of needless introductory phrases. 'Don't tell me what you are going to do,' one of my profs used to tell us. 'Just do it.'

Rimi said...

I was told that too. "Don't go on about what you're going to show or prove. Just do it!" The idea was to slowly build towards a cohesive argument, with supporting proof (data, research et al), and a GOOD essay would also deal with the potential critiques of contestable parts and show why they didn't hold water. All this would be in the body.

But perhaps there's a cultural difference in writing styles, because in the US, my profs told me exactly what considertheteacosy's teacher told him/her.

Then again considertheteacosy may not be American, in which case my hypothesis bites the dust.

Pen said...

All through school (in the US), I was told exactly the same thing as considertheteacosy stated. Then everything changed. By that, I mean the magical appearance of an IB Internal Assessment (as well as more than one IB class).

This time, we had to develop a very narrow preliminary question before looking for any sources. The IB wanted all the information in this format (for the history IA):

1.) Plan--Restates the question in the first sentence. States how you evaluated the different aspects of the question, what kind of sources you looked at, and which sources were included in the evaluation.

2.) Summary of Evidence--Exactly what it says.

3.) Evaluation--Takes two main sources and evaluates them for their origin, purpose, value, and limitation.

4.) Analysis--Analyzes the evidence based on the question.

5.) Conclusion--Directly answers the question based on the analysis.

When we write essays, though, we write them in much the same format as Rimi was taught. A basic introduction, each body paragraph should be based (and typically analyze) on a separate point, and then a conclusion that answers the question. I guess it helps that no summaries are allowed in English papers. I was told that you want as much analysis as possible.

Considering these are college-level classes I'm taking, I guess it makes sense that everything in this post has been applicable in my academics. But Rimi, I agree--all the kids I know who aren't in these classes learn how to answer essay questions in much the same way considertheteacosy stated.

Rimi said...

What is an IB and a history IA? I've no idea :-)

And I think it's telling that most freshmen have to writing classes, don't you? Once you're in college -- highschool, frankly, no one bothers to teach you how to do things anymore. You either float or sink on your own merits, or you hire a private tutor. I'm torn between finding these compulsory Comp classes a good intellectual nurturing, and finding in them the proof of appalling middle and high-school levels of teaching (generally speaking).

Which is it, do you think?

Clarissa said...

The most annoying thing is how many spammers tried leaving links to their sites that sell essays to students in this very thread.


Pen said...

IB is International Baccalaureate. It's kind of like AP (Advanced Placement), but focuses more on depth rather than breadth of content. Students who complete x number of IB classes in x areas (consisting of art/music and core classes) also get a special diploma. The diploma track is life-sucking and unreasonable, which is why I am not participating in it. However, the people that do manage to survive the program often end up testing out of their freshman year.

An IA is an Internal Assessment. It's required for a student in an IB class to take the exam in May and accounts for twenty percent of their final grade. In math, it constitutes an extensive portfolio consisting of lots of proofs. In history, it's a historical investigation (that's what was outlined in my first comment). The psychology internal assessment (an experiment) is very similar to the historical investigation. And for English there are two essays and a ten-minute oral commentary based on works read in class.

I think it's very telling, Rimi. My history teacher teaches a class of sophomores in addition to our class. She says that to pass that (the sophomore) class, you have to get at least a four out of five on the essay, not including the multiple choice (they take state tests at that grade level). And yet, the average score is a two--and people are still passing the exam, because of the multiple choice. These kids aren't learning basic writing skills, but the state rewards them for knowing how to pick one answer out of four? The result is a class of virtual illiterates.

There's a lot to say about the stupidity of state testing. It only serves to hurt the students--and their future teachers, who have to deal with them.

Anonymous said...

Just to toss into the conversation--anyone taken the GRE's lately? I found out, too late, that the analytical writing portion is designed to fit EXACTLY to Teacozy's map, and if it does not fit exactly to said map one is graded lower. (I, on the other hand, wrote them two well-organized and intelligent essays that did not blow my wad in paragraph two, operating under the "don't say what you're going to do, just do it" principle...)

Just FYI.

I personally think in real life, if you follow the map too much, you'll get a lot of people reading your first and second paragraphs, skipping to the final paragraph, and ignoring everything in between.

Thanks for the prosedoctor link!

Clarissa said...

Yep, you are absolutely right. The GRE essay is supposed to be written in this very formulaic, unoriginal kind of way. From what I understand, it's graded by TAs who are trained to look for this structure and who don't even seem to read the content very carefully. It's all about replicating the format they are used to. Then, of course, we have to teach the grad students to leave this format behind and learn how to write anew.

Anonymous said...

I don't have documentation for this, but I think one of the GRE readers is a COMPUTER now. Which is even worse.

Clarissa said...

That's very possible. It wouldn't be all that hard to make a program looking for the markers that considertheteacosy listed.

Still, the good thing is that nobody on the admissions committees cares much about the GRE scores.