Suggestions for Writing EssaysSUGGESTIONS FOR WRITING ESSAYS
1. Write your thesis statement as an assertion, an idea that you plan
to prove, a question that you intend to answer, a direction you intend
to travel. A strong thesis statement might suggest a forward movement
in your essay—might suggest that you plan to show the change in a
character, the development of a theme, that you plan to move from your
own doubt or confusion about something in the work to some kind of
clarity, that you plan to follow a causal path (A leads to B, which
leads to C, etc.), that you plan to show how something reveals itself
during the course of the work (either chronologically or moving from
least important to most important, etc.). Let your thesis be
suggestive, but not deliberately confusing or ambiguous.
2. Or consider beginning your essay with a question related to the
topic—like why is T.S. Eliot so difficult to read? Or how can Pound
think two lines make a poem? Or what does Stevens mean by the “malady
of the quotidian”? Or why does Fitzgerald call Gatsby great? Or why
doesn’t Sandra Cisneros create a totally likeable character in “Never
Marry a Mexican”? Or what’s the point of having a character talk to a
frog on Murakami’s “super-frog saves tokyo”? Or are Nabokov’s
characters realistic? Then follow it with a quotation or plot detail or
something else that seems connected to your question. Then play off of
this quotation/detail attempting to answer the question until you’re
ready to move to another quotation or a plot event. Examine each
quotation and plot detail in a sequence, devoting separate paragraphs
to each, constantly trying to answer the question. You might expand or
qualify or alter your question as you move through. You might (probably
will) do the same thing to your thesis which becomes a kind of evolving
thesis. Keep writing until you satisfy yourself with your answer or
grow completely exhausted. Conclude.
3. Do not include the topic ideas you plan to deal with in your thesis.
It makes your paper too much like a mathematical formula. But do
provide the reader with a sequence of topic ideas during the course of
your essay. You must have a reason for organizing your paper in the way
you do. A topic idea can be explicitly stated in a sentence or two, or
it can be implied, but if implied, it should be easily understood by
the reader. A good way of thinking about topic ideas might be to
consider them signposts on the journey your essay takes.
4. Write an introduction that captures the reader’s attention either by
beginning with a startling quote (from the story you’re examining or
elsewhere) or fact or idea; or by writing fluent, entertaining prose
that eases the reader into your thesis and essay; or by offering
necessary background information; or just begin with the thesis itself.
Obviously, there are many ways to begin an essay. Look at how authors
begin the essays you read for class.
5. Mention the author and title of the work you are writing about ASAP—either in the title or early in the first paragraph.
6. Build your paragraphs with specific evidence primarily from the
text (quotations, paraphrases, plot details, words, phrases,
images, implications) and your own explanation of how that evidence
supports and develops that evidence. Don’t just say the evidence
supports your ideas. Show the reader how the evidence supports your
ideas. In fact, don’t just write directly about the evidence, but
frequently use the evidence as a springboard to think further about
your idea, to lead you into more depth. More profundity.
7. Remember a paragraph usually only deals with one idea or one
example. When you shift ideas or examples, consider creating a new
8. Don’t just offer evidence and then explain how it supports your
idea. Or present your idea and then offer the evidence. Vary how you
present your evidence. For instance, try to weave your evidence into
your own sentences so that you’re constantly arguing, constantly
pondering your topic. Learn to use brief quoted phrases, even single
quoted words from the text in your own sentences.
9. Don’t put any quotation in its own separate sentence. At least say
the author states or describes. Try to explain what the quotation means
or at least begin to explain what the quotation means in the same
sentence that you put the quotation in. Avoid phrases, if you can, like
“This means” or “This shows”. Always explain how the quotation connects
to your argument, unless that connection is absolutely clear.
10. Write a conclusion that doesn’t just summarize what you have said,
although you might want to do that, especially in long papers. If you
choose to summarize in a short paper, keep it brief and use different
words from the ones you have used in your thesis the body of your
essay. The best way to end a paper is by saying something important
about your topic like answering the question “so what?’ or explaining
to the reader what you think the significance of your essay has been.
Consider writing your conclusion as a call to action.
11. Proofread the entire paper. If you’re short on time, at least
proofread the first paragraph. If there are numerous mistakes in the
first paragraph (and all throughout your paper) you will prevent the
reader from understanding what you are trying to say. She will think
you do not care about your essay and she won’t care either. If you have
the time, a good way to proofread an essay is to look at the last
paragraph first, then the next-to-last, and so on, until you arrive at
the first paragraph. This well help you focus on grammatical and
12. Write as if you are thinking. The illusion of the mind in the
process of thinking. In other words, let the reader accompany you on
your journey toward some kind of conclusion. Let her follow the twists
and turns, the forward, backward, and sideways movements of your mind.
Write to excite and please and thrill and instruct and amaze your
13. Organize the paragraphs in the body of your essay in a sequence.
Any kind of sequence. Causal, chronological, least important to most
important, etc. But a sequence.
14. Try to organize your essay so that it moves forward toward some
conclusion. If you digress, try to explain why your digression adds to
the reader’s understanding of the topic. If your digression is actually
a digression that doesn’t belong in your essay, but you feel you have
to include it for some reason or other, please tag the beginning with
the word “digression” and the end with “end of digression” in order to
let me know that you are aware of violating the unity of your essay.
15. Try to come up with more than one interpretation of every passage
or detail or example you use. Don’t necessarily include all your
interpretations in your essay, but definitely try to see things in
multiple, even ambiguous and paradoxical ways. This will help you
arrive at the strongest interpretation and might lead you to a deeper
your interpretation of a passage or detail when you actually write
about it in your essay. A good way to do this is to keep asking why or
so what or how, etc.
16. Always question yourself. Never assume that your impressions are
completely correct. But at the same time, trust your intuition. Just be
sure to justify it.
17. Consider tone. Should you be humble, assured, aggressive, funny, serious, playful, etc.?
18. Ask several questions (other than the lead question) in your essay
and then try to answer them. Perhaps, not specifically, but in way that
leads to your reflecting in detail on the question. In other words,
don’t write your entire essay in statements. Mix some questions
in. This will pull your reader along giving her the idea that you are
thinking as you are writing.
19. Use hyphenated words somewhere in your essay. You may invent the
words if you wish. The hyphenated words may (and frequently should)
combine more than two words. Three or four-word hyphenated words can be
both fun and meaningful. I always give prizes to the student who
creates the most outrageous but still meaningful hyphenated word.
20. Mention the author’s name at least once every one or two
paragraphs. Remember the author created the work and the characters,
wrote the passages, etc. This will also remind you and the reader that
you are talking about a specific work written by a specific human being
maintain an objectivity toward the work itself that is sometimes lost
when you focus strictly on the characters.
21. Try only to use “this” as an adjective followed by a noun, never by
itself. Well, hardly ever and only if the reference is clear.
22. Address your reader directly at least once in your essay. You may
call me Bob, Mr. Dickerson, or some clever bit of profanity of your own invention.
23. Vary sentence lengths, beginnings, and structures. Do not begin two
sentences in a row with the same word or words. Do not write two simple
sentences in a row unless you’re doing it for effect. Try to write
sentences of different lengths and kinds. Write short ones, long ones,
in between ones. Write simple, compound, complex, compound complex. Mix
24. As said above, begin sentences differently. Start with a
subordinate clause, an adverb, an adverbial phrase, even a
conjunction—anything to shake up the customary subject-verb phrasing.
25. Try to write sentences that end not with an anticlimactic whimper,
but with a bang. Sentences that trail off don’t push the reader on.
Sentences that explode and that assert usually drive the reader on.
26. Use mostly who rather than that if you’re speaking of a person or
persons. Don’t confuse the words to, two, and too; or it’s and its
(it’s means it is and its is the possessive); or there, they’re, and
their; or woman (singular) and women (plural); or man (singular) or men
27. Never use always unless you mean always. Instead use almost all or most or many, etc.. Never use never. Well almost never.
28. Double-space your essay. Use correct margins. See the edited MLA
style sheet in the reader or look at the LA style sheet either online
or in a handbook.
29. Explain, rhapsodize, be clever, make connection to previous
sections, foreshadow, have fun, play, think, argue, astound, excite,
teach, show something new—you get the idea.
30. Surprise the reader at least once in your essay by seeming to
change directions, but then explain why you really didn’t change
directions or why it was important that you changed direction.
31. Make at least two references/connections to other literary works
you’ve read in this class or in another class. Identify the author of
the passage you’re using.
32. Refer to a historical event or current political event or something
to do with present day society or culture. Could be a joke. Probably
should be a joke.
33. Allude to a famous quote. Transform it. Combine it with your own
words. Examples: “This writer deserves far more than a penny for his
thoughts. Give him a nickel.” “The character definitely pursues
happiness, but seems to overlook life and liberty.” “It was the best of
times; it was the worst of times; frankly, it was the most boring of
times.” Since these are famous quotations, I don’t think you have to
cite the author.
34. Intentionally write at least one sentence fragment. Make that two.
Sentence fragments can be fun and they can enrich meaning through
emphasis. They can also undercut meaning. Don’t be afraid to use them.
You might let me know that you’re using one by writing fragment in the
margin next to your fragment.
35. Vary words. Try not to use the same word in one sentence unless
it’s an article like a, an, or the. Try not to use the same word in
36. Use strong, active verbs. If possible, use the verbs, is, have, become, and their various forms, sparingly.
37. Try to avoid the phrase “the fact that.”
38. If you want to mention a person, object, or thing after you have
mentioned another person or object or thing, do not use a pronoun, but
use the name of the person, object, or thing. Example: “Flannery
O’Connor frequently wrote about violence in her stories. For instance,
the grandmother is killed suddenly and horrifyingly. She is known for
her peacocks” (Wrong since “she” can refer to the grandmother).
Instead, write “O’Connor is known for her peacocks” to make the
reference clear. The reader initially assumes that the pronoun refers
to the previously mentioned person, object, or thing.
39. Avoid dangling or misplaced modifiers. My favorite of all time was
when one of my female students wrote: “Standing in his bathing suit, I looked
up at him.” I mentioned that it might be cozy and exciting,
standing in that swimsuit with a man or the scene might suggest a fondness for cross-dressing. Be certain that all your
references are clear.
40. Try to include at least one objection to your opinion or one
qualification that might make you re-think your idea (even a minor
objection). Explain how it makes you rethink your idea or try to
disprove the objection. Deal with it in a sentence or several sentences
or paragraph or several paragraphs. This will let the reader know you
are thinking since she has probably already thought of this objection
and it will help you think about stories and life in ways that are not
41. Use at least two parenthetical expressions in your essay.
42. Use dashes to add explanation or emphasis or to qualify something
you’ve just said. Dashes can also separate parenthetical expressions.
43. Use at least two appositives. If you don’t know what an appositive
is, look up the term in a grammar handbook. Here is an example that
uses four appositives: Anne Sexton, genius poet, mad lover, tortured
soul, suicide, performed in a rock band at Golden Gate Park in front of
thousands of screaming fans who had never read a single line of her
44. Organize at least one paragraph or the entire essay around a
metaphor. Use at least two similes to clarify points. A simile is a
metaphor that uses like or as.
45. Imitate the style of the author you’re writing about in at least one paragraph.
46. Imitate the style of another author either in one paragraph or throughout the essay.
47. Try to write with a musical rhythm, with music as well as sense.
Consider the sounds of your words and phrases and sentences. Each of us
has our own rhythm within us. Call it voice if you want. Or call it
music. Or call it your beat.
48. Consider using the following words: consequently, literary,
opinion, suggests, denotes, depicts, implies, complex, simple, irony,
paradox, ambiguous, psychedelicize, although, however, and others of
your own choosing. Try to use at least three new words somewhere in
49. Write a clever title that fits your topic. Consider using a colon to write a two-part title.
50. Include an epigraph (a quotation after the title but before the
beginning of the essay), but make sure it relates to the topic.
Consider referring to it in your essay. It could be a famous
quotation or a not-so-famous one. Identify the creator of the quote and
identify her if she is not a household name. Shakespeare is a household
name. Believe it or not, Lady Gaga is not and should be
briefly identified as “androgynous chanteuse.”
51. Try to write one sentence that is over fifty or sixty words. On
second thought, try to write two. You need to be able to write long
complex sentences that are grammatically correct and make sense.
52. Write one sentence that is no more than five words. Or two such
sentences. Frequently following a very long sentence with a short one
that comments on that long sentence is an effective way to frame a
portion of your argument.
53. Use parenthetical citations correctly. See the handout on MLA citations.
54. Do a works cited at the end of your essay. Do it correctly. Do it MLA style.
55. Use at least one word incorrectly just to see if your teacher is paying attention.
56. Make the reader laugh with a joke or pun or humorous idiocy or bit of foolishness that connects to the topic. BE SILLY.
57. Take risks. And be brilliant. Absolutely brilliant. Do something different each time you write a new essay.
58. Read your essay out loud to yourself or to someone else. If you
read to your self, try to listen as if you were a different person
(conscious schizophrenia), an objective reader trying to understand
your work. Ask the people you read your essay to for their opinions,
but don’t necessarily use them. Make the final decisions about your
59. Read the written words of others. Read for content, style, and form. Reflect on how they say what they say.
60. Enjoy yourself and your reader will probably enjoy herself. Teach
yourself something as you write and the reader will probably also learn
something. Avoid tight-assed prose. Write playfully.
61. Break every rule if you feel like it, but be prepared to pay the
consequences. Dare to rebel, to risk danger, to be crazy, to find and
tell the truth, even to be clear, which is the most essential quality
of any writing. Follow up that clarity with passion and intelligence
and empathy, and you have yourself the beginnings of an extraordinary