The reality of English class is you are going to be required to write an essay. Why? Fair question. I’d love to tell you that it is because the essay is the purest form of argumentation and a perfect place to demonstrate your literary analysis skills. Unfortunately, the reality is that you have to write essays because you will be required to write essays. That’s the warped logic of school sometimes. It is almost guaranteed that in Grade 11 university level English you will be asked to write a formal essay. So, you need to have written one before Grade 11 to build the skills. You write one in Grade 11 because you’ll be asked to write one in Grade 12 and so on and so on. Bottom line is writing an essay now helps you later. And so we write one. The essay itself is very similar in thinking to any argument. Come up with a claim (something you’re arguing) and then prove it with some sophistication and evidence. That’s it.
However, it is not that straightforward when you want to write something better than formulaic. So, let’s break it down some.
Claim/Thesis: The backbone of an essay is the claim or thesis. It is the idea which everything else is proving to be true. The claim should be something debatable, something interesting, and something that illuminates an idea. For a literary essay, the claim is going to be connected to something you’ve noticed in the book you’ve read. Try to discern a pattern of expression, a technique the author has used, a specific connection to another text or even an argument the author is making. If your claim is weak, your essay will be too.
Body: I know, I know, this is where we should talk about an introductory paragraph and then three body paragraphs and then a conclusion. However, good essays don’t fit into boxes. Instead, they organically make their claim, prove their arguments and provide evidence in a wonderful flow of good writing. So from here, we aren’t going to talk about the component pieces, but rather the body as a whole. First things first though, you have to connect with your reader. In some way, you’ve got to make your essay interesting. Some places you’ll hear it called a “hook” because once hooked your reader won’t stray. The reality is there are many ways to do this. Malcolm Gladwell an excellent essayist almost always starts with a story. Tell stories to strengthen your argument. People respond to stories. When I wrote essays, I’d almost always start with a series of rhetorical questions. Some people start with famous quotes. It really is up to you. In essence, you need to give your reader a sense of what is the bigger idea that is being explored. Give them a reason to think, “Hmmm.” Once you’ve got your reader on board, go about arguing your case. Remember to stay organized, use evidence and always explain the context of a piece of evidence. Don’t let a quote speak for itself, instead, fill in the gaps. However, don’t re-tell the story. Reading an essay that merely explains what happens is so disappointing. Assume your reader has already read the text. Assume your reader has the basic knowledge needed. You are presenting the intelligent analysis, not the basics. You are presenting a sophisticated understanding of the book. In terms of how much evidence to have, totally up to you. However, too little evidence leaves your reader feeling unconvinced. You need to have enough evidence to ensure your reader can not disagree outright. If they want to disagree with you, make them have to work for it, because they’d have to disprove your case. Too much evidence and there is not enough of your voice. Too much evidence and there is not enough analysis, instead it is just a pile of quotes from a text. After laying out your case, answering the “so what” question, and proving your arguments, make sure to leave the reader with power. Leave the reader feeling the force of what you’ve argued. Tell them again what they’ve learned.
Language: I have three tips about writing.
- Write with authority. Write like you know it to be true. Avoid waffling statements.
- Don’t try to sound smart, instead be smart. – Sometimes the smartest thing you can do is know your skills. Don’t add big words because you think it will make you sound smarter. Don’t try to write with flourish if you can simplify. The strongest writing is always from a writer who knows their voice. Trust your true voice.
- Don’t write like it is a formula. Essays are not math equations where an an introduction plus three body paragraphs with three pieces of evidence plus a conclusion equals an essay. Instead, write with courage. Try to find your way to best express your arguments. At the end of the day, you are proving something you’ve identified to be true. If you’ve really only got two arguments, go with two arguments. There is no one way to write an essay.
For heaps more resources, go to The Writing Centre. You’ll be able to get help on everything from citation to commas to sentence patterns.
Task: Write an essay, on an original idea that challenges an existing social norm, using primary source evidence. The essay should be proofread, as per usual, and demonstrate your ability to:
- write with voice,
- write for a specific audience (i.e. an intelligent reader who wants to see some good critical thinking)
- write with organization and an understanding of the essay form
- write using proper English language conventions
- properly use MLA citation format, where appropriate — take a look here for more on the MLA
Example: Use Tony Parker’s TED talk as an example of an oral essay where he layers stories to support and make his argument.