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How to Write an Essay

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The essay is a specialised form of writing - there are limericks, ballads, haikus, odes, sonnets and numerous other forms of 'poems', and there are different forms of prose writing, one of which is the essay.

There's no mystery about essay writing, in fact it's a very logical, sensible method of communicating ideas and information.

Basic Steps

There are basically three steps to writing an essay:

1. Tell 'em what you're going to tell 'em

2. Tell 'em

3. Tell 'em what you told 'em!

Another way of putting this is that an essay contains:

1. An introduction (a beginning)

2. A thesis - or body (a middle)

3. A conclusion (an end).

Let's pretend that you've been given this essay question:

World War I has been described as being 'inevitable'.

What conditions made it 'inevitable'?

Could it have been avoided?

How are you going to tackle it?

The Introduction 

This is a brief overview of what you are attempting to do in your essay (you tell 'em what you're going to tell 'em).

A good rule is to make your first sentence an answer to the question posed. In the sample question used above - you could begin:

In the early part of this century, many European nations believed that each country had a duty to extend its influence over others, even at the expense of its neighbours; there was widespread economic rivalry for raw materials and markets and a growing dependence on military power, all of which made war seem inevitable. In the decades before the assassination of the Archduke in 1914, war had been averted by the skilful use of diplomacy and a system of alliances which aimed to maintain the balance of power in Europe. However, what made conditions in 1914 so different, was the build up of tension which had occurred as a result of a series of crises since 1905 and the existence of military 'timetables' which allowed little room for flexibility.

In this answer, we see an outline of the causes of the war in the opening sentence AND a direct answer to the question of inevitability. In the second sentence, an answer is given to the second question posed - 'could war have been averted?'

This paragraph also has indicated the general direction of the argument: 

* given the conditions, war was inevitable in 1914

* war had been averted on previous occasions

* this time, conditions were different.

The specific points to be made are also indicated:

* the causes of the war

- nationalism

- imperialism

- economic rivalry

- militarism

- the series of crises

- the failure of diplomacy

- the alliance system

- military timetables

- assassination.

By dealing with each of these points in turn AND linking the points to the terms of reference in the question, a well developed essay can be written.

To summarise, then, an introduction should:

* outline your argument and answer the question

* raise the issues to be dealt with in the essay

* give a simple statement of your conclusion.

In this way, your introduction becomes a 'mini-essay' - it has a unity of its own and provides the reader with a 'road-map' for the following essay - it also prevents you from losing your way. By referring to your introduction, you are reminded of the main thrust of your argument and it's less likely that you'll go off on an irrelevant tangent.

The Thesis (Tell 'em)

Each main point you listed in your plan (and then referred to in your introduction) will become at least one paragraph in your essay.

Obviously, in a 5,000+ word essay, you won't list every point in your introduction - but the same rules apply - you raise the main issues in the introduction and then deal with each one in the body of your essay, but you may write several paragraphs (or pages) on each point.

Each paragraph you write follows a similar pattern :

* Topic sentence 

- restate more fully the main point you're making in this paragraph

- this sentence should advance your argument in some way

- this sentence MUST be relevant to the question being discussed.

* Explain - don't leave your topic sentence in isolation - go into more detail if necessary, to make sure your point is fully understood


* Argue - elaborate on how this point advances your case

* Support - give facts, statistics, quotations etc as evidence for your claims


* Illustrate - give narratives, quotations etc to support your claims

* Conclude - explain the relevance of the point to the question and to your argument. You can state some consequence or result, emerging from the point made.

* Link - provide a lead into the next paragraph so that your essay flows smoothly from point to point and doesn't leap all over the place like a mad woman's knitting! You don't want your ideas to appear as if they've just occurred to you. This piece of work must be polished.

EVERY paragraph in the body of your essay follows the same pattern.

The Conclusion (Tell 'em what you told 'em)

The conclusion can vary according to your needs; it can:

* tie together all the threads of your argument

* reinforce the main points made in the body of the essay

* relate your main points to the key issues raised in the question.

* make a statement about the main points you've raised

* explain why the conclusion was reached.

Whatever you decide to do in your conclusion, the important things to remember are that:

* it must be relevant to the question

* it must relate to your introduction i.e. it must show that you've done what you said you were going to do

* it must arise logically out of the rest of your argument

* it must end your essay - your reader must never be left looking for the next page!

A common mistake that many students (of all ages) make, is to write a great conclusion, then to sit and look at the essay and then write a 'couple more paragraphs'. This frequently undoes all the good work that has gone into the essay.

If you are one of these people, my advice is:

- read over your work

- when you are satisfied that you've written all you need to write, put down your pen

- lift your dainty derriere from the chair

- sit on your hands!

- maintain that position until the urge has passed.

This is a check-list for essay writing - tick only if you can answer 'yes' to each question.

[ ] 1. Does the first paragraph tell the reader what this essay is about?

[ ]  2. Are there separate paragraphs for each major point made in the argument?

[ ] 3. Does every paragraph have a topic sentence and sentences which add detail to the topic sentence?

[ ] 4. Are your major points supported by evidence?

[ ] 5. Are your paragraphs logically connected to each other?

[ ] 6. Does your essay flow from introduction through your argument to a specific, relevant conclusion?

[ ] 7. Is the final paragraph a conclusion which explains why the conclusion was reached / sums up the case and concludes the essay strongly?

[ ] 8. Have you acknowledged all sources of information?

[ ] 9. Did you proof-read your essay? Does it make sense? Is it interesting? Could this be the material for a block-buster mini-series?

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