Brief Notes on Essay Writing

On Friday, my girlfriend, who is studying for the SAT a little late in life, asked me to help her recall/relearn how to write formal essays, of the 5 paragraph variety.

I wrote her a couple of pages of notes that turned out to be fairly succinct and apparently helped her figure it out.

Just in the interest of posterity, and helping anyone who randomly wanders across this page and also needs to write an essay, I’m going to post those notes here:

Notes on Essay writing:

1. Thesis Statement

1a. Beginning paragraph in which you elaborate on your Statement/concept.

2. Topic Sentence — present your first “proof” or argument supporting your Thesis Statement.

3. More proof/argument. Each of these three middle paragraphs should, ideally, be like a mini-essay with its own sub-thesis statement and its own sub-conclusion that point the paragraph at the original Thesis Statement.

4. More proof/argument.

5. Conclusion – reiterate your Thesis, then tie together your arguments, pointing out how they “prove” your Thesis.

The following is a tiny example essay about thesis statements.

A strong essay must begin with a strong thesis statement.

A weakly stated opinion, even if it is backed by facts and reason, is easily ignored.

A strong thesis statement will grab the attention of the reader and allow credible proof to be presented in a compelling way.

The strength of an essay depends on strong arguments, and a strong thesis statement paves the way for excellent arguments.

The conclusion should revisit the thesis without repeating it, and a strong thesis always bears revisiting. The thesis represents and implies the heart of the essay, and beginning with a strong thesis is the only way to give an essay the foundation it needs to find its strength.

I said it was short. Anyway, some final basic but important advice about how not to get a terrible grade on a school paper: do not speak in the first person (don’t use the word “I” or “me” or in fact refer to yourself at all.)

Don’t refer specifically to the reader, “you,” “yourself,” “your,” anything like that, and finally, don’t refer to a generic unnamed person, “one,” “oneself,” “someone,” etc.

A formal, school-style essay should be written in third person, be made up primarily or entirely of statements (avoid rhetorical questions!) and not use nearly as many commas as I do when I’m writing other stuff. Notice how the essay I put in this post above, though it sounds instructional, does not take the form of person-to-person advice. I do not say, “If you want a strong essay, you need to have a strong thesis statement, or your teacher will get bored instantly and stab out their eyes with a knitting needle.”

The primary effect of “formal” writing is that it does not refer to a person in any way unless you’re specifically talking about or quoting a person, and citing specific references at the end of the essay. That’s usually a whole other thing than your average formal essay, however. I think they call those “research essays” and I stay away from them as much as I can because I hate research. Especially research about any topic an English teacher happens to pick for me to research, because usually that topic is not “rockets and/or explosions” or “sexy women” or “weird animals”. Usually it’s more like “social trends among the working class in the 21st century.” Although since I’m part of the working class, that one would be a gimme.

“Mostly they hate people even more now.”

I would fail that class.