A Few (Strong) Suggestions on Essay Writing

(rev. September 12, 2007)

1. Read the question!

If you are given an essay question, then believe it or not, all I want you to do is answer it.

Judging from the essays I end up grading, many of you do find it hard to believe. You think I must really be interested in something else — a secret theme hidden between the lines, or how the readings have made you feel, or how much you are learning in general from the class, or how important you think the reading is. So you tell me about all kinds of things that have little or nothing to do with answering the stated question.

Please don't. All I am looking for is right there in the question. There is no secret message you need to discover and include that will you earn you a better grade. There is no nice thing you can say to me or about my class or the readings or your own feelings that will give you extra credit. These other things may have mattered to other teachers in other times of your life, and I may want to hear them on another occasion. But they do not matter here and now. All that matters here and now is your answer to the question. Capiche?

So before you begin writing anything, get very familiar with that question. Read it very carefully, like a lawyer would. Read it aloud.

As you read the question, look for technical terms that may need explaining. It may not always be obvious that a word is a technical term (e.g., "person," "nature"), so make sure you're not missing something important. Technical terms are rarely defined properly in popular dictionaries, so use a theological dictionary.

A day or so before the due date, I always get questions from students that are alarmingly ill-informed about basic course concepts. If I have posed a question about Christological heresies, I get e-mails that ask me, "What's a Christological heresy?" Now it is better to ask these than to write a response without knowing, so please ask if you really don't know. But if you really don't know, then you probably haven't been paying close enough attention to class or the readings. I sometimes ask questions in a confusing way, but I do not purposefully ask obscure questions.

2. Stake out a position!

If you are posing a question or crafting a thesis (e.g., in a research paper or book report), make it a substantial one.

Do not be content with a topic that can be reduced to a phrase (e.g., "I am writing on 'creationism and evolution'"). Instead, pursue a thesis that must be in the form of one or more sentences (e.g., "I am claiming that creationism is incompatible with evolution, but both are compatible with the doctrine of creation"). This will help you test whether the assignment is interesting, manageable, and provable.

Whoever is posing the question, make yours a substantial answer. Structure your essay to develop that answer in the most straightforward way. Make sure your answer covers all the question's specific points and consults all the required sources. I give half-credit for half-answers, no credit for answers to questions I did not pose, and no credit for visceral reactions.

Of course, arguing rather than just talking or asserting demands that you understand logic and rhetoric. For a brief and accessible guide to examining and constructing arguments, I recommend Weston Williams, A Rulebook for Arguments.

3. Say something!

The world is full of people saying nothing under the guise of saying something. Consider this description of Jesus. Mercifully, it comes not from a student, but from the packaging of the Jesus Action Figure I received as a birthday gift. It says that Jesus

was executed at a young age as a common criminal. Since then, he has been the topic of many heated theological debates. Although he is understood in many different ways, everyone seems to agree that he was a remarkable man.

I cannot think of a better argument against universal literacy than this paragraph. You would think that with such a "remarkable" character to write about, the copy writer would not have written something so utterly unremarkable. What a waste of words!

I read many statements like these in the essays of students — people who are too worried about being wrong to dare to be right. Like weeds, these pseudo-claims choke out real answers. They not only fail to raise a grade, they lower it. It is better to write nothing at all than to write nothing posing as something.

Nevertheless, let those of you who are addicted to such rhetoric take comfort: You have a bright future in public relations or politics. (Ministry too, in some churches, but not if I can help it.)

4. Think it through!

Before you write, get your general answer straight.

Do not just start writing. Instead, outline your argument on one single-spaced page. Use complete sentences, not just phrases. Let the specific structure of the question structure your answer. If mine is a two-part question asking you how A sheds light on B and C, then perhaps the clearest response will be an introduction, then a section on how A sheds light on B, then a section on how A sheds light on C. Poorly structured answers almost always indicate a failure to understand the question or the sources.

This outlining stage is so helpful that I sometimes assign exercises for submission as "prose outlines." The results are almost always clearer and better disciplined than supposedly "finished" essays. This shows me that most students must be forced to structure their writing logically in order to write logically. That is a discouraging sign.

As you gain familiarity with your own argument in outline, you will be more and more ready to turn it into traditional paragraphs. How do you know when you are ready? Well, pretend a parent asked you what you were writing about over the phone. If you cannot answer with a clear, one-minute-long answer in everyday language, you are not yet ready to write.

Do not go onto the next step until you are ready to write.

5. Introduce your answer!

As eyes are a window to the soul, so your introduction is a window to your argument. So, once you are ready to write, start with an introductory summary that condenses your whole argument (not just the question or the premises of your answer) into three sentences or so. That one-minute answer you might give in the previous step is generally the kind of introduction I want to see.

Do not just repeat the question! Do not just state the premises of your answer! Do not just list the readings you will draw on! Instead, condense your overall argument and state it plainly.

If you do not do this, I will grade you down. The whole introduction should be no more than half of a page. Use your introduction to guide the entire essay and keep you from being distracted. It will help both of us to see where you're planning to go and why it's important. Remember: I am your primary audience for these assignments. Make sure I understand what you're doing!

A pet peeve: Many writers lead with a cute but tangential introduction intended to lure the reader into the essay's real argument. This practice afflicts sermons, papers, in-class presentations, and final exam essays, and is equally annoying everywhere. It wastes space and time, misleads your reader, and distracts both writer and reader from your actual objective. Keep your introduction integral to your argument, regardless of how others have trained you to write. Catchy is fine; cute is irritating; tangential is out.

(The same goes for conclusions. Often these are unnecessary. Unless it would genuinely contribute to the argument, I recommend you forego a conclusion.)

I am serious about introductions. When I grade student essays, I can generally tell what grade the whole essay deserves just by reading the introduction. It takes only one paragraph to tell me

... whether a writer really has something to say or is just bluffing. The former gets to the point. The latter clutters and obfuscates.

... whether a writer is confident or afraid. The former writes clearly and incisively. The latter makes elementary mistakes or overcompensates by using (and often misusing) sophisticated sounding words.

... whether a writer has even bothered really to understand the question, or just prefers to write something that vaguely points in its general direction. The former leads me briefly but decisively into the heart of an essay that does what I intended. The latter misleads me, distracts me, or just tries to entertain me.

... whether a writer has answered the question well, or just addressed it casually. The former penetrates beyond the surface and returns with a finding that is both precise and insightful. The latter relies on generalities and banalities.

... whether a writer realizes the course materials are integral, or imagines them to be supplementary. The former appeals to texts explicitly and allusively in ways that reveal a command of the material that goes beyond just what will be mentioned later. The latter uses course materials either slightly, randomly (in the hope of getting something right), narrowly (having read only one small part and hoping to fool me), as filler, or as a sourcebook for gratuitous quotations.

... whether a writer thinks I want to be informed or just amused. The former reveals the structure of his or her overall argument. The latter offers merely emotional impressions, diverting anecdotes, or empty rhetoric.

... whether a writer ever bothers to appreciate the work as a whole (either before or after writing it), or just strings thoughts together and expects me to follow along. The former writes an introduction that is both comprehensive and brief. The latter writes a lead that never gives me "the big picture," probably because there isn't one.

When I am reading your essays, I am usually reading them in stacks, so my patience level is pretty low already. If you waste your introduction — and frankly many of you do, even years after I bagan warning you not to — you are fighting an uphill battle for the rest of the paper. On the other hand, if you use your introduction well, you awaken me and make me a fan. When I look into your essay's eyes, let me see intelligent life.

6. Use the right words!

As you write, go for precision of language. Use just the right words to capture the nuances of what you or your source means. Lack of clarity buries many a worthy point. Define terms that are important to your argument, so I think they mean what you think they mean.

When I see vague language in your essays, I suspect that you don't really know what you're talking about. My suspicions are usually confirmed.

Precision is a matter not just of effectiveness, but of morality. George Orwell complained about abuses of English writing in a 1946 essay called "Politics and the English Language":

Political language – and with variations this is true of all political parties, from Conservatives to Anarchists – is designed to make lies sound truthful and murder respectable, and to give an appearance of solidity to pure wind.

Reading that essay makes me squirm, because in my own writing I am guilty of so much of what I am warning you against. It made Orwell uncomfortable too. "Look back through this essay," said Orwell, "and for certain you will find that I have again and again committed the very faults I am protesting against." So writing truthfully is also a matter of accountability, vigilance, and repentance.

7. Focus!

Don't waste space, especially in the short exercises I assign. Go for key points, not just incidental ones. If you deleted a particular sentence or paragraph, would it hurt your argument? Would it detract from your answer to the stated question? If not, delete it. All of it.

(Likewise, when you analyze the work of others, identify its weightiest points, not just peripheral ones. Edit out tangential and trivial points as you read. Fixing on and trashing them is poor academic sportsmanship. Condense arguments (yours and your sources') down to their essence. Find the heart of an argument and test its integrity there. Whether every detail is perfect is less important than whether the fundamental argument stands or falls.)

8. Use your own words!

For density, pithiness, and clarity, don't quote; cite. I'm not all that impressed when I read someone else's words of wisdom in your essay. It is the quality of your education I am evaluating, not theirs.

The longer a quotation, the better off you are simply referring to it rather than reproducing it. Put material in your own words so

  • I know you understand it,
  • you use space more efficiently, and
  • it serves exactly your purposes (rather than the author's).

If you cite well, you won't need much (or any) space to tie the source into your argument, and your writing will flow powerfully. On the other hand, if you quote at length, you will lead me to think you are padding your paper and dodging the difficult work of interpretation.

In short papers concentrating on only one or two sources, footnotes waste space. Instead, include brief references in your text like this: (132) or (Work 132) for books, and (Work 12/1/2002) for lectures. If you do footnote, I prefer footnotes to endnotes; readers are more likely to read them.

9. Always cite your sources!

Of course, when you rely on someone else's work (even mine) for an idea, a phrase, or a passage of any greater length, you know the rules: Cite the source! Citing sources allows you and me to refer to them later. Moreover, failing to cite sources is called plagiarism. In brief, it is generally defined as passing off another's work as one's own, whether or not you do it intentionally.

The faculty have adopted the following statement on plagiarism:

To plagiarize is to present someone else's work — his or her words, line of thought, or organizational structure — as our own. This occurs when sources are not cited properly, or when permission is not obtained from the original author to use his or her work. By not acknowledging the sources that are used in our work, we are wrongfully taking material that is not our own. Plagiarism is thus an insidious and disruptive form of dishonesty. It violates relationships with known classmates and professors, and it violates the legal rights of people we may never meet. -"Plagiarism Policy" (http://www.westmont.edu/_academics/pages/provost/curriculum/plagiarism/)

Do you see how I set that paragraph apart and acknowledge the writer? If I had not done so, I would have led you to believe I had written it myself. In our culture, such misrepresentation would have constituted both theft (in that I am violating the writer and owner by appropriating his words as my own) and fraud (in that I would have misled you readers).

In my profession, doing such a thing would cost me my academic credibility, and probably my job as well.

If you have any doubt about whether something should be cited, I expect you either to cite it, or to check with me beforehand. After your work is turned in, I will accept no excuse. If you engage in academic dishonesty in any part of an assignment, you will fail the entire course.

Plagiarism is a mortal sin, and a deed you'll regret for the rest of your life. Especially if you get away with it.

10. Draw on all the relevant course materials!

What should you cite? Above all, the course materials. The point of most assignments is to get you back into the course materials. I want to see evidence that you are interacting deeply with the texts and lecture material along the lines of the stated question. If I don't see it, your grade will suffer. In fact, it may suffer, be buried, and not rise on the third day.

Secondary research is less important, often not important at all. While research papers are important projects in a college education, I assign few of them. I would rather take on the task of helping you discover how to read a few books in depth than how to scan a library shelf.

By the way, for now, unless I say otherwise, you can add "Internet research" to your list of oxymorons ("jumbo shrimp," "television journalism," "Pepsi Cola"). The library is where you will find peer-reviewed work that reputable scholars thought promising enough to publish, and your school thought important enough to purchase. The Internet is where you will find material offered for free whose quality you are not yet capable of judging. Avoid it unless you are sure it comes from reputable sources. You don't know where that stuff has been!

11. Write well!

Hopefully its easy for you, to quickly spot all 8 mistakes which were in this sentense.

If not, get to work on your style, pronto. I have required, conditionally required, and recommended books on grammar and style over the years. If you don't like my choices, you may prefer William Strunk Jr. and E.B. White, The Elements of Style (Macmillan, 4th ed., 1979). It is clear, brief, and affordable. Of course, some in the wired generation prefer hypertext, no matter how good or inexpensive the paper alternative. For you, I suggest working through Susan Snively's Writing Better: A Handbook for Amherst Students, or Dr. Ed Vavra's on-line grammar. The truly feeble will want to rent Schoolhouse Rock on DVD.

Do I "grade off" for poor grammar, spelling, or style? What a question! On your course evaluations, do you take into account how well your teachers communicate? I hope you do. An argument is poorer when presented poorly, and this is inevitably reflected in how it is received.

If your style is too poor even to qualify as college-level work, I will consider your submission unacceptable and just hand it back (or perhaps submit it to engrish.com). I'm your professor, not your pen pal.

Further suggestions:

  • If your grammar or style needs work, have a friend or relative read your work to help you see where you're being unclear. Sometimes sentences I think make perfect sense turn out only to make sense to me. For help copy-editing, I recommend Claire Kehrwald Cook, Line by Line: How to Edit Your Own Writing.
  • Read and imitate well-written material. Textbooks rarely qualify; they often train us away from clear writing. But there are some lovely books, including lovely textbooks, that can help you learn what good writing feels like. Magazines such as The Atlantic can too. If you can write like these people write, your work will really sparkle. In fact, you can be a professional writer, which pays even more poorly than teaching.
  • Look for simple words that do the work of complex ones. Do not utilize them; just use them. English is full of Germanic words, which tend to be short, common, and at home in our tongue, and Greek and Latin words, which are imported into our language, usually complex, and thus more difficult to comprehend. Often you can substitute (or trade) a Germanic word for a Greek- or Latin-based word without sacrificing precision. Theology doesn't always make it easy to do this (the word itself comes from Latinized Greek words), and sometimes imported words really are better choices (I can't think of a better alternative to "sacrificing precision"), but do your best.
  • If it improves your writing, you can drop high-school rules like "Never write in the first person," "Never use contractions," and "Never begin a sentence (let alone a paragraph) with a conjunction." These rules are training wheels meant to develop good habits. When you are sure you are ready, you can take them off and ride on two wheels. If you are not yet ready, then leave them on. If you only think you are ready, then you're probably not.
  • Other rules were created by pedants, for pedants: "Never end a sentence in a preposition." "Never split infinitives." The Germanic structure of English lets you do these things, whether or not Hellenists and Latinists approve. What therefore God hath not joined together, let man put asunder.
    Whether you should sunder an infinitive or prepositional phrase depends on whether it would serve your writing (often it would not), and whether it will offend your audience. I won't automatically be offended. But be on your guard as you write in other contexts: Others in the academic and business worlds may disapprove.
  • Many rules aren't made to be broken. Use written English, not spoken English. No run-on sentences! No sentence fragments!
    (By the way, those aren't sentence fragments. E-mail me and tell me, or ask me, why not.)
  • Try not to mix metaphors. (For the meaning and significance of mixed metaphors, read this hilarious post on the imagery of The New York Times' Tom Friedman.)
  • Spell-check your paper, and number your pages. In the age of word-processing, you have no excuse!

12. Write just enough!

Respect the length requirements of the paper. If it says 3-4 pages, it means it.

Too short? Then the need for brevity will force you to think more clearly and make your case more effectively. It will help you in the long run.

Too long? Then go deeper. Don't just fill pages with drivel or stabs at what you hope I'm looking for. "Go deeper" is one of my most common comments on your essays. They are often shallow in ways that betray lack of understanding and scant interaction with the course materials.

For the few of you who have the opposite problem, here's a tip: On a standard pica typewriter — you can still find them in museums — a double-spaced page holds about 250 words. Proportionately spaced fonts on computers are much denser, so you're probably writing more than you would have written in school twenty years ago. Lucky you! Then there is Times Roman, a typeface developed by the London Times to save newsprint. Times is 20% denser than comparable typefaces. If you are obsessive-compulsive like me, you can write in Times to get even more of your precious thoughts on a page.

After that, use reasonable point sizes, margins, and spacing. I can tell the difference even better than you can. I used to work at a newspaper, where we used every trick in the book to make copy fit.

If you run short or long, it had better be really great stuff.

13. Consult me!

If you feel uneasy about the assignment, talk to the others in your small group. If you still feel uneasy, talk to me. Come to office hours. Run a draft by me or your peer reviewer early for a proofread and an informal grade. Run an outline by me to check its coherence and completeness. I want you to succeed at these assignments!

Of course, if you wait until the last minute to do my assignments, then you will be on your own.

14. Manage your learning!

Get enough sleep (six to seven hours per night). When you don't get enough sleep, you tend to forget what you had learned the day before.

When you are studying hard, take frequent, brief study breaks. When exercised, your brain gets fatigued like your muscles do, but it doesn't have the pain sensors to tell you to stop. If you don't stop, the toxins that aren't being rested away kill your brain cells, just like alcohol does.

Eat right and exercise. A recent study found exercise more effective in treating depression than anti-depressants!

Consider yourself an intellectual athlete. If you abuse your body, you will be as lousy a student as an athlete. I know it's cool to brag about how little you sleep and how poorly you eat, but it's cooler to do well in life.

15. Manage your time!

All the exercises and examinations in my classes have a way of creeping up on students. Once the written assignments begin in earnest, they keep coming. Students soon feel the crunch. First year students are shocked by its intensity.

The fifth week of the semester is the day your next credit card statement arrives after you haven't paid off last month's balance. Last month's interest charges are now reflected in this month's minimum payment, and you have a whole new month of charges on top of last month's balance. You are tempted to make the minimum payment rather than change the spending pattern – to go for the grade rather than the learning, to subordinate today's reading and class discussion to the most imminent due date, to write off tomorrow and do an all-nighter. Succumb to that temptation, and your semester begins its familiar spiral downward into servitude and bankruptcy.

However, if it is not too late in the semester to turn things around, you can take a long, hard look at your schedule, acknowledge the ways you have been squandering your time, and change the way you live. In other words, you can repent. And next semester, you can keep your balance paid off.

Temporal discipline is as difficult as fiscal discipline. I find it harder. Yet indiscipline is harder in the end.

One quarter in graduate school I was taking four courses (three in systematic theology), working twenty hours a week as a researcher and writer, and buying and selling a house. Moreover, I needed straight A's to get into a good doctoral program. So I did something unprecedented for me: I put due-dates and test dates for all my classes along with my work hours, home repairs, moving dates, escrow details, and extracurricular commitments on a semester-long calendar. I blocked out research, reading, and writing time in order to help me gauge when to work on each project. There were times when I found out I would have to budget three days for a paper and complete it seven days before its due date because a midterm or business trip was coming.

I advise you to do the same. That way you won't run out of time or get caught by last-minute problems. Moreover, budget time to think — to ponder the assignment, before, during, and after your writing. Here's a thought: You could even start as soon as it's assigned!

The course of a semester puts you under considerable time pressure, and your writing invariably suffers. To help you do your best work around these constraints, I recommend Sanford Kaye, Writing Under Pressure: The Quick Writing Process. It will yield dividends in your writing far beyond your college years.

16. No late papers!

That's how it works in the real world. Your business presentations and sermons can't be half an hour late, and neither can your papers. Papers are due at the moment I collect them (usually at the beginning of class). Unless I say otherwise on the assignment, I take off one grade level for late work. That means an A becomes an B, an B+ becomes a C+, a C becomes a D, and so on.

Want to tick me off? Come in breathless at the end of class and tell me you skipped it to finish the assignment.

Exceptions to the late policy? I group circumstances into three groups: Easily foreseeable ones (three papers due the same day, a sports tournament, a campus event, or a heavy week coming up at work), reasonably foreseeable ones (unexpected things you must still be prepared for, such as a crisis at work, an assignment that needs rewriting, or a computer problem), and truly unforeseeable ones (things no one can be prepared for, like illness, death or severe illness in the family, or your paper falling into the San Andreas fault). I will make exceptions only for truly unforeseeable circumstances, and only in advance of the due date. You'll thank me sooner or later. (Later if you procrastinate.)

If your paper isn't coming together and an extra day's improvement will outweigh the considerable penalty, you might want to take the extra day and get it right. And if your other responsibilities make you late, take the penalty. I have. It's only a grade, and life is full of trade-offs.

17. Back up your work!

Too many of my students have lost papers when their disks crashed, their computers failed, a worm downed the network, or they wrote over their files by mistake. It will happen to you! For your own good, I no longer normally give extensions for computer problems. Instead, I give advice:

  • When I ask you to write on Google Drive, do it. Then you're backed up.
  • If you can set up an automatic backup strategy (such as Time Machine for Mac OS), do it.
  • Hard copy is safe copy.
  • Hard drives fail too, especially if you are working on an old computer. You can back up a file remotely by emailing it to yourself. They'll be safe and accessible from some other computer should you need them.

18. Reread your work!

Finish your papers at least a day or two ahead of the due date. Then put them down and do something else that puts some distance between you and your work. Pick them up again closer to the due-date and reread them. You will find it easier to spot errors, tangents, obscure language, awkwardness, BS, and the rest of the stuff we readers can spot right away because we haven't been as close to the paper as you have.

When I see glaring errors in your work, I know you haven't done this. I suspect that instead you have just thrown something together and hoped (prayed?) I wouldn't notice or care. That doesn't help you.

19. Have fun!

I know it sounds freakish, especially after all these warnings, but I mean it. Language is a divine gift. Glorify God and enjoy him!