As a writing professional, I occasionally get asked to help someone’s child nail an important essay. Whether it is for College or High School, the type of essay that succeeds is the same.
Nailing the Essay
One of the most important things to remember when writing an essay in the academic world is that academic writing does not necessarily conform to what is considered good writing elsewhere. In fact, the kind of writing that succeeds well in academia is generally not the kind of writing you want anywhere else. Newspapers need a grabbing headline followed by the necessary who, what, when, with a lot less emphasis on how and why. Fiction writing is very much about pacing and keeping reader interest. Magazine writing requires “writing to size” which means either cramming information into too short of article, or bloating too little information into a bigger article. None of these will win you any A+ marks in school.
The Five Paragraph Essay
As a writer, the temptation to be creative is a powerful one. However, this impulse should be resisted unless you are well into graduate school. Most high-school teacher and many college professors are experts in their subject area, not in writing. They understand and expect a specific style of essay. When you get creative, they may not see that you have written everything necessary for a high mark because the format is distracting.
Keep in mind that you are writing to prove subject mastery, not to prove writing ability. You wouldn’t answer the questions on a multiple choice test by singing limericks. Yes, it is very creative and very original, but it isn’t how you answer test questions. The same concept applies to writing an essay. Even if the teacher expresses an interest in originality or creativity, do so within this structure or risk a lower grade.
The standard academic essay is the Five Paragraph Essay. In a nutshell, this format is an introductory paragraph, followed by three proving paragraphs, and finished with a conclusion paragraph.
The Introduction Paragraph
The most common flaw from students writing an essay can be traced to an incorrect introduction paragraph. Problems here lead to issues throughout the essay, so it is important to hit all the points before moving on.
The first thing to write (though it does not come first in the final product) is your “thesis statement.” This is a fancy way of saying what your essay will be about. The key to a thesis statement is that it must be a supportable opinion. The number one mistake is not stating an opinion. An opinion is not a fact. To verify that you have chosen an opinion, ask yourself, what is the opposite opinion? If there isn’t a reasonable one, then you have not stated an opinion.
For example, in Shakespeare’s Macbeth, teachers and professors love dissecting the role of Lady Macbeth. Stating that Lady Macbeth is an influential character, or central character is not an opinion. Any statement to the contrary is false. She obviously is both. Stating that she is more responsible than Macbeth for the tragedy that befalls them both is an opinion. One could just as easily argue that she is doing nothing more than supporting her husband’s ambitions, and that Macbeth is responsible for his own actions. One could even argue that the witches are more to blame.
Once you have your opinion, turn it into a thesis statement. In our example above, a good thesis statement is something like, “Lady Macbeth’s manipulation of her husband’s emotions is the true cause of both their tragedy.”
The next thing you will need is your “essay map.” This is a fancy way of saying what proof you have to support your thesis statement. Since, your essay will have five paragraphs, you need three “locations” on your essay map. All three of these points must be directly supportive of the thesis statement. If you want to write about something that is not going to support the thesis statement, then you need to change your thesis statement. In other words, if you want to go down Main Street, then pick a location that requires travel in the direction of Main Street. You cannot be a bad taxi driver and take a longer route just because you like Main Street.
In our example above, your essay map might include a discussion of what happens before the king arrives, what happens after the king name’s his heir, and what happens after the king’s murder.
Now that you have your thesis statement and essay map, you are ready to write your introductory paragraph. Ready?
First, write a sentence that would clue someone who did not know the assignment in. For maximum grade points this sentence should also praise the subject matter.
- Shakespeare’s Macbeth is a masterpiece of tragedy that fully explores the both the depths of human depravity in the name of ambition and the related consequences.
- Harry Potter is a fascinating look at the life of a young boy who suddenly finds that he is capable of so much more than he ever imagined.
Notice how these sentences both state the subject matter (This essay is about Macbeth or Harry Potter) and praise the subject matter (masterpiece, fascinating).
Second, write a sentence that moves toward your point and acknowledges that there were other equally wonderful topics.
- Although Macbeth provides a wide exploration of the human condition, the manipulation of Macbeth by Lady Macbeth is perhaps the most powerful example of human interaction.
Now, insert your thesis statement. No editing required.
Next, insert your essay map. This should be one sentence stating how you will prove your thesis statement by examining your three points. It must be one (and only one) sentence and it must name all three points.
Never ever use the words “this essay will prove” or “this essay will show”. In fact, the words “this essay” should NOT appear anywhere in your paper. If they do, re-write.
- Lady Macbeth’s manipulation of her husband’s emotions is the cause of both their tragedy. When the king arrives, she plants the seed of greatness in her husband’s head, then when the king names his heir, she plants the seed of murder, and following the murder, she plants the seeds of both their doom.
Done! Move on to paragraph two. At this point, many students want to write about other things they want to say. The answer is NO. If your introduction paragraph has anything other than these five sentences, I guarantee you it is weaker, not stronger. You don’t need anything extra. In fact, if you have something else in your introduction, the reader has a right to expect that you will further address it in your essay. Since you will not deviate from proving your thesis, this is a problem. Do not offer any proof in your introductory paragraph. Like a lawyer at a trial, this is your opening statment. You can say, “The evidence will show that my client is innocent.” You do not say, “The picture on the desk proves that my client has never been to the conservatory and has never even picked up a candlestick.” This is not evidence time, this is coming attractions time.
Introduction Paragraph Summary
- Write thesis statement.
- Write essay map.
- Write one praising introductory sentence.
- Write one “there were many wonderful things but I chose this one” sentence.
- Insert your thesis statement.
- Insert your essay map.
- Move on to paragraph 2.
- If you followed the above, you will only have 5 sentences in your intro paragraph. Don’t get cute.
Bonus A+ Tips
If you really want an A, pick a topic that your professor or teacher has raised and had the class discuss. Obviously, you don’t want something that has been covered ad nauseam, but you do want something that came directly from the professor. If your professor made only a passing reference to Lady Macbeth’s influence, then that means he or she doesn’t believe in its importance.
It is easier to prove something the other person already believes. So, pick something your professor believes. If instead, he or she has discussed the powerful use of imagery (river of blood) or the role of the witches (would he have done any of this if they hadn’t said those things?) then write about that. The time for writing what you want to write is when you are not writing for grades. Until then, write for grades (which means writing what the professor wants to hear).
Up Next – The Proving Paragraphs
Get the RSS Feed to get the next parts automatically, or come back!