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Susan Ioannou

Essay Tips
for Student Writers

Another Essay?

Manuel groaned. On the last one he sweated ink, but got only a 'C'. He did lots of research. He just couldn't get his ideas across. Every time he sat down to write, he felt Ms. Dembowski peering over his shoulder, sharp red marking pen poised to stab. Instead of finishing his essay in one night, he got stuck on the first three sentences, struggling to make them perfect—and safe.

Sound familiar? Like Manuel, many students face the same essay-writing problem. Why crumple page after page into the wastebasket? A few tips can make the task easier, and raise that 'C' to a 'B', or better. Here's how.

Brighten your mental picture

Lean back for a few minutes and forget your all-powerful teacher. Instead, imagine a friendlier face. Perhaps it's your kid brother, or Sarah, the neighbour's girl. The trick is to choose someone younger, who knows a lot less than you do. Picture yourselves sitting comfortably side by side. The youngster is puzzled. "Which video game is the War of 1812?" your kid brother wants to know. Or perhaps Sarah wrinkles her nose. "Hamlet? Your book's about a baby pig?"

You take a deep breath. To set either youngster straight, how simple and clear your points will have to be! Where can you begin? Pick your most basic idea first. For example, with Sarah you might start, "Hamlet is not a pig. He was a prince." Look at Sarah's face. Does she frown? You need to keep talking. "He lived in Denmark, a long time ago. He was very unhappy. Why? Because his father, the king, had died. How? Well, that's the big problem in the play. . . . " Every time you give your answer, imagine Sarah's next question.

Because this is only an imaginary conversation, you can change your answers as many times as you want, until you see that eager face nod and smile. If you get only blank looks, dream up a comparison to help, or give an example. Remember, Sarah is younger and knows a whole lot less than you. She won't say an idea is stupid or silly. All she wants is to understand. You don't need fancy words to impress her. Keep your language clear and plain.

Eavesdrop on yourself

As the imaginary conversation goes on, listen to what you are saying and copy down the best parts, just as you hear them. It doesn't matter if the writing sounds chatty or slangy. This is your FIRST DRAFT only, the time to scribble ideas on paper before they can fly away. Once the words are caught in ink, you can clean them up or add to them later. That's what the second, third, fourth drafts are for. Not even professional authors write perfectly on the first try. Good writing is like cabinetmaking. It goes through different stages, from rough cutting, through glue and nails, to finer and finer sandings. It also needs time in between for each layer of varnish to dry.

Let your ideas simmer

Once you've copied down the imaginary talk, your ideas need a chance to settle. Watch a TV show or telephone a friend. When you come back from your break, it's time to fill in the gaps.

Look at the big picture

To create your SECOND DRAFT, look at what you've copied down already. Are the three main parts of an essay there? To find out, use this easy formula. Did you tell them, tell them, tell them?

The first main part, the Introduction, lets your readers know what you're going to tell them. Chances are you don't have an introduction yet. When you were talking through your ideas, you just wanted to get them on paper. You might be able to add the introduction now. If not, you can still do it later.

In the second main part, the Body of the essay, you tell them in full what you promised you would, by explaining the ideas in detail, one whole paragraph for each. If more thoughts come to mind, you can add them now too. The body should be at least three or four paragraphs long, or even more. Don't worry yet about which paragraph comes second or fifth. You can switch them around later.

Within the body of the essay, every paragraph, as well, should have its own three parts. Again there is a simple formula to follow. SEE: state, explain, example. In the first sentence, state the idea the paragraph will discuss. In the next few sentences, explain that idea fully. Finally give an example or a quotation to illustrate.

The last main part of your essay is the Conclusion. Here, in one paragraph, you tell them what you told them; that is, briefly you sum up the main ideas you already discussed. Once you write your conclusion, you'll find it easier to go back and make up, or fix, your introduction. It's just the conclusion turned upside down, after all.

Make the pieces fit

When you've written the three main sections, how do you link the paragraphs inside them smoothly? Find out with your THIRD DRAFT. To move from one paragraph into the next, you need transitions. Transitions are like bridges. Some travel one way, taking the reader forward only. For example, go back to your imaginary conversation with your kid brother. You've told him that the War of 1812 was a series of real-life battles between the Canadians and the Americans, the most famous fought near Niagara Falls. Now he needs to know why the war started at all. To show the shift in topic, you put in a sentence that signals the change ahead: "Next, three causes of the War of 1812 will be explained."

Other bridges are two way, looking both forward and back. Such transitions say how the new idea is similar to, or different from, what came before. For example, a new paragraph might begin by looking back, "While the main cause of the war was the Americans' wish to take over Canada," then continue, looking forward, "a related cause was their dislike of England."

To make such looking forward or looking back clear, you can hang a verbal signpost on each bridge.

Now is your essay organized clearly? To check, read just the first sentence of each paragraph. Does one idea follow the other in logical order? If a few sound out of place, try putting the paragraphs into a different order. In other words, think of these first sentences as the wooden frame of the cabinet, giving it shape and supporting the top, sides, and drawers. If the pieces of the frame connect at the right points, the whole cabinet will be strong.

Sharpen the language

Once you've fitted the ideas together smoothly, your FOURTH DRAFT takes an even closer look, at the language itself. Remember your kid brother and Sarah? If they try to read your essay, will they understand it? Can you make the wording simpler? If a long sentence is hard to follow, split it into two or three shorter ones. In each shorter sentence, deal with only one main thought.

What if your kid brother is easily bored? An essay needs action. Rather than using "of the" phrases that bunch up nouns, choose action verbs to speed the ideas ahead. For example, why keep the clunky sentence, "The heaviness of the rains in the valley caused the flooding of the battlefield? Throw out "of the" and switch to verbs. You'll energize your prose: "Heavy rains pelted the valley and flooded the battlefield."

You can make the language exact and lively in other ways too. Watch out for a stranded "this", as in "This is true." To be perfectly clear, make sure that words like "this", "that", or "which" point straight to the idea you mean: "This conclusion is true."

Why use an extra word? For example, there's no need to write "in order to" when "to" alone is enough: "Hamlet spoke to his father's ghost [in order] to find out the truth." Drop "really", "very", "rather", and "quite" also. Most of the time they don't make an idea stronger. How much difference is there between a Doberman that is "angry" and one that is "very angry"? Either way, the dog bites!

Trust your ears

The essay is written. You've followed the tips above: changed your mental picture, talked through your ideas, copied your spoken words onto paper, fitted the pieces together, smoothed transitions, and tightened the language. But is your essay good enough to hand in? Give it the FINAL TEST. Read it aloud from beginning to end. Often your ears will pick up bumps in the wording and structure that your eyes slip over. Fix them, then read aloud again. Repeat the process. When at last Sarah's eyes light up, or your kid brother grins, chances are your essay is ready—for at least a bright red 'B'.


Copyright © 2014 by Susan Ioannou
Copies of this article may be reprinted for classroom use.

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Updated February 2014