O.K. so you’re frustrated. You keep writing essays, and you keep getting “C’s” when you want “A’s.” You read the instructor’s comments, you follow instructions, and still you can’t get the grade you think you deserve. There is both an art and a science to great essay writing, and you are going to have master both of these skills, if you want those “A’s.” So let’s take a look at both angles.
Step 1: The Science of Writing an Essay
You know “the drill,” and you have been taken through it many times before. But here are a few pointers that you may be able to use:
1. Topic/Purpose: All essays have a topic and a purpose, as you well know. Whether you are given the topic or you get to choose one, that’s a “done deal.” What you really have to focus on is the purpose. Are you being asked to explain, define, compare/contrast, or take a stand? This will “drive” how you organize the essay, so be certain you understand what your instructor wants!
2. Do the Research: You cannot write an opinion essay about abortion unless you have facts and data to back you up; you cannot compare and contrast two things unless you have detailed information about each of them; you cannot even define something unless you have the key elements of the concept or idea you are attempting to define. The point is this: take some time and research your topic. Given “Google,” there is no excuse not to.
3. Read Examples of Essays on Your Topic: You can “Google” essay samples by topic and purpose. For example, “Samples of persuasive essays on abortion,” of “sample essays on the definition of justice.” You’ll find hundreds. Look at how the essays have been organized. Take notes. You don’t have to re-invent the wheel here – you can model the work of others! A word of caution: don’t try to “lift” an essay from the Internet – you will get caught. Use the ideas; use the structure. But the writing must be only yours!
4. Don’t Write One Word until You Have a Graphic Organizer: You may have been taught to use an outline to organize your thoughts, but there are many other types of organizers that may be better. Some people just make a list of points they will cover; others use Venn diagrams (esp. for comparison/contrast). You need to use an organizer that will work for you. The point is you need to have some kind of a skeleton of the order for your body paragraphs. Again, if you have read some examples, you will see how others have organized their thoughts. Follow those examples.
5. Do Not Start with Your Introduction: Until you have written the body paragraphs, you do not know what you want to say in your introduction. You have to get an overall “feel” for the content first. If, for example, you are defining justice, each paragraph will address an element of your definition. You need to think about those elements as you write about them. Why are they important to include? Do they all point back to one overriding idea? Maybe you are realizing that justice means different things to different people – that is a point for your introduction!
6. The All-Important Introduction. Here, you are going to do two things. You will introduce your topic and you will make a thesis statement about it. To get a thesis statement, you have to ask yourself some questions? Why is this topic important? What do I want the reader to understand by reading my essay? When you answer these questions, you will have a thesis that should be included toward the end of your introductory paragraph.
7. The Conclusion: There are a lot of things you can do with your conclusion, but you cannot introduce any new information. You may want to re-state your thesis in another way; you may want to urge your reader to do something. Whatever you do, you are wrapping up, and you want your reader to know that this is the end. Look at sample conclusions and get some ideas!
8. Editing: Like the lawyer who represents himself, the student who edits his own writing has a “fool” for an editor. Find someone who gets “A’s” and get that person to edit your essay. It may cost you, but if you want the grade, bite the bullet and just do it! That individual can “fix” your structural and grammar mistakes and find issues that you may have overlooked.
Step 2: The Art of Essay Writing
No one gets an “A” on an essay unless it is “artfully” written. There are 3 things that make an essay superior, once the organization and grammar is sound.
1. The Introduction: Most instructors are “turned off” from the beginning, because the introduction is dull and boring. You have to “hook” your reader immediately. How about a shocking statement as an opener? How about telling a short anecdote related to your purpose? Here’s an example. If you are writing an essay on the “horrors” of college student loan debt, here are two perfect openers:
“The average student in America graduates from college $43,000 in debt.” OR “Tom has just graduated with a degree in accounting and $43,000 of student loan debt. His first job will pay $40,000 a year, and he will be able to make minimum payments on that debt. If he continues to make minimum payments, he will be paying off that loan for 30 years and he will have paid over $200,000 total – the cost of a pretty nice home!”
Now you have your reader’s attention!
2. Transitions: You can’t just stop a thought at the end of a paragraph and then just begin an entirely new thought in the next one. You need to have a transition sentence at the end of each paragraph to clue your reader in on what is coming next. Here’s an example from an essay on child hunger in America. You are at the end of a paragraph in which you have spoken to the issue of families living on minimum wage not being able to afford enough groceries to feed their families for 7 days straight before their next pay checks. You final sentence might be something like this: “In addition to the lack of food for an entire week, parents have to make some pretty bad choices about the types of food they buy.” Now you are ready to open the next paragraph that will address those horrible food choices. Parents will have to buy lots of starch because it’s cheaper and filling, so children will not get fresh fruits and vegetables or whole grain products, which are so much more expensive.
3. Varying Sentence Length: Most students do not think about this, and yet it is one little strategy that can bring more interest. When you have a long sentence, find a way to make the next one a short simple one. If you are writing about childhood hunger, for example, and you have just finished a rather long sentence on the need to purchase starches and the lack of fresh and whole grain foods, your next sentence might be: “Eating like this is dangerous.”
Science and art combined – that is what will get you that “A!”