The Subtle Science of Essay Writing

1148656_36643902That title makes it sound much cooler than it is. As an English major, I wrote a lot of essays for a lot of disciplines. I preferred the religions and social sciences when I wasn’t in literature classes, but all my professors seemed to demand the same kind of writing structure. By my senior year, I was so burnt out writing what I felt was essentially the same thing over and over with different words that it was a real test of my patience to force myself to sit down and write. I had all the information, but writing another essay was like pulling teeth to get me to do it. I felt like I had no room for my own more creative voice while robotically spitting out my basic arguments.

Essays are the same at each level: You get the same pattern for the larger essay as you do the smaller sections. It’s really quite simple, but you’ll probably understand why it frustrates me when you see it.

In an essay, you tell ’em what you’re gonna tell ’em.

Then you tell ’em.

Then you tell ’em what you told ’em.

As an alpha-omega fiction writer who starts with the first word and goes to the last word, that makes me very linear. Essay writing isn’t necessarily circular, but it’s self-contained curlicues, where you eventually move forward, but always double back before you do.

As I said before, the rules above are true at every level of an essay. For the larger essay:

Introduction – Tell ’em what you’re gonna tell ’em. This culminates in the thesis statement at the end of the Introduction, which will not only include your main argument but also the three or more reasons that you use to support it.

Body – Tell ’em. This is pretty self-explanatory. You cover all the reasons and/or evidence that you use to support your thesis, always bringing it back to the thesis.

Conclusion – Tell ’em what you told ’em. And in the Conclusion, you reiterate what you’ve already gone through, often mirroring the thesis statement in a different way and explaining some of the ramifications of your thesis being true.

Now, bring that same structure into the Body of the essay. Let’s just assume you have three separate points, since three is the magic number for whether your thesis is adequately supported. I’m guessing that has to do with three points establishing a pattern, whereas two points could just be coincidence. Usually your three or more points will be supported by at least three additional pieces of evidence.

Whether your three points are three paragraphs or three sections depends on how long your essay is supposed to be. I found I had much more room to be creative with longer essays, since the essay structure got a whole lot less stifling with more room to breathe. The essays I had the most fun with were over 12 pages long. Sure, it took longer, but at least I enjoyed the time more. Anyway, if you feel like a paragraph is getting too dang long and covering way too many topics, separate your essay into sections with headings and let your paragraphs break at their natural places, usually at the end of one piece of evidence supporting your larger support for the thesis.

Okay, so you’ve set up your outline with your essay Body showing three separate points to support your thesis. Within each section of the Body, you mimic the larger essay structure.

Each thesis support will have its own mini-thesis statement, reiterating what you said for that point in the original thesis statement, and then you mention the evidence that supports that support. So you’ll tell ’em what you’re gonna tell ’em (and tell ’em what you’ve already told ’em … feeling Escheresque yet?).

Then you present your evidence, thus telling ’em what you told ’em you were going to tell ’em in the first place.

Then you conclude your section or your paragraph with creative repetition of your section’s mini-thesis, which should include a reiteration of the original thesis. So you tell ’em what you told ’em twice over.

Within each piece of evidence, you’ll do the smallest representation of this structure, usually within a few sentences in the average essay. Your evidence for your thesis support must be rigorous and concise. Don’t dawdle on and on; go straight to the point.

When presenting evidence, you tell ’em what you’re going to tell ’em by stating the evidence in a clear statement like a mini-mini-thesis.

Then you present the evidence. This is when you start quoting references and citing reliable sources. Be sure to examine carefully the style guide for exactly how you should do this – they can vary radically.

However, you cannot just depend on other people’s conclusions to speak for themselves; you have to show you understand why this evidence is relevant to your case. So you explain the evidence and show why it supports the point that supports your thesis by detailing the exact significance of the evidence.

After you present your evidence, of course, you detail exactly what you’ve just said at the end of the section, but I’ve already talked about that.

As you can see, essay writing can be very repetitive. What I quickly learned after some trial and error with professors is that you have to assume your reader is an idiot and cannot draw the same conclusions from the evidence that you did, even when it’s perfectly obvious because the source explains it more clearly than you ever could – more clearly, because now you have to waste time making the point less concise by explaining what does not need to be explained.

It all comes down to Tell ’em what you’re gonna tell  ’em, tell ’em, then tell ’em what you already told ’em. You’ll see I kind of followed that structure here in this explanation as well. It’s insidious.

I personally prefer a much more organic, linear structure, but I do grudgingly admit that knowing the essay structure – and knowing when to use it to its best advantage – can be useful when you’re not just trying to tell a story or muse aloud, but make a point. Because the essay structure is appropriate for just about any argument you ever make. It’s very dry, especially when you’re writing it over and over and over and over again, but it has its moments. You have to be able to support your argument, and you have to show why your evidence supports that argument, and you have to do that over and over again in an essay to make your case.

In real life, this structure is good for op-eds, opening statements and closing arguments in law, and for any blog post where you’re making your case. You don’t have to be quite as formal as the academic essay, but you can use your knowledge of essay writing to help form a good argument.

So, if you just remember the basic principle of essay writing, you’ll always know how to set up that argument. Say it with me, folks: Tell ’em what you’re gonna tell  ’em, tell ’em, then tell ’em what you already told ’em.

It can’t do much for the quality of the writing and the credibility of your evidence. That’s all on you. Remember, write responsibly.

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