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Essays!

With the school year upon most of us I know there is more than a few people who will be experiencing the sudden grip of terror upon hearing the following words:

"You need to write an essay on..."

Yeah, those words.

For some of us (myself included) the word isn't such a dirty word.  After all I blog almost every week and a blog is a sort of essay and editorial all rolled into one post.  You might say I'm an old hand at writing them now.  Funny, I didn't feel all that enthused about them when I was in school but now I write them for s**ts and giggles.

All giggles aside--despite the fact that I do write simply because I like to--writing an essay is a bit more involved than sitting down and starting to write.

STEP ONE: RESEARCH

The first step is to pick a subject, which will also set the format of the essay as well as the tone, and then research it.  Sounds simple enough, right?  Wrong.  Quite the opposite, actually.  On a side note, this is why I applaud each and every student that manages to put pen to paper (or fingers to keyboard) and actually submit an essay.  Late or within deadline--or even a bit short--the point is that you actually sat down and made it through.

Granted, the first bits of research can be as unstructured as you like.  Go to the library and wander through.  Randomly read stuff until something jumps up and demands you write about it.  Once you're at that point (I call this just finding a topic in the first place... easier said than done) you can finally get into something a bit more structured.

Essays are basically a convincing argument set down on paper.  It's like a rant but a very guided one with some distinct guideposts along the way.

While researching you should be settling into what your argument will attempt to convince the reader (usually your instructor or sometimes another student) to your side of the argument.  Sometimes it can be answer to another essay which creates a counter-argument.

All good in the grand scheme of things.

This leads to the next step.

STEP TWO:  PLANNING YOUR ESSAY.

When I went to school we were taught to write our essays in a very structured manner.  While some of us scoffed at the idea I embraced what my teachers were trying to teach me.  The reason is... it works.  You can twist the basics to suit you, much like a cupcake recipe, but take it too far and you don't have cupcakes any more but some sort of mess.

The same is true with an essay.

This is why having a plan helps not only finish up your final research to support your argument but also helps nail it down into something someone else can read and still make sense of.

Still with me?  Good.

Back on topic of how I was taught to structure one of these slippery papers.  All essays have a beginning, a middle and an ending.  Sounds a bit like a novel... and like a novel I'm oversimplifying things again.  Let's get into the nitty gritty;


  1. The Introduction:  A good introduction serves as a hook.  It's like the opening pages of a good novel or the opening scenes in a compelling movie or play.  A weak introduction will set you up for failure.  It also serves to introduce (see what I did there?) your topic and argument... or counter-argument if you went that route.  You don't need to get into real detail in the introduction... save that for the body.  All you should be doing here is getting your reader to keep their eyes on your words so that they read it all the way to the conclusion.
  2. The Body:  This is where most of your argument and information will be relayed to your reader.  Short essays can lean on one point, but the best ones follow the following "Deck of Cards"... I should point out that I didn't come up with this.  I remember, very dimly, somewhere way back when I was perhaps in early grade school being taught this.  Way back.  ... My age was in the single digits here or just barely into my teens.
    1. King:  Your second strongest point.  Kick them in the teeth, but not too hard.  You want them to take notice but you don't want your best point up front.
    2. Queen:  Third strongest point, or second weakest.  Follows up on the King and supports that point.
    3. Jack:  The weakest, or least meaningful point but it still has to be relevant to the entire essay, as well as back up the two bigger points, as well as lead into the next and final point.  This point is literally your "Jack of All Trades".
    4. Ace: Your strongest point to your argument.  This should be the kick to the teeth you were holding back and that which finally convinces your reader of the strength of your essay.
  3. Conclusion:  As it suggests this should wrap up your essay and leave the reader satisfied.  Did you finish addressing any points that you brought up?  Will you be following up with another essay?  This part should make the essay feel finished and, like a novel, if you plan to perhaps go back to your topic and build on it you can also build interest in that while you're at it.
  4. Bibliography:  Basically, this is your research and where you found the support for your points.
You don't want to jump into writing your essay right away even if you know the format.  The first thing you need to do is take that format as a guide and plan how your research led to those points in the first place.  You can, however, if something particularly brilliant comes to mind in wording, take note of it in the planning stages for use later.

STEP THREE:  DRAFTING YOUR ESSAY

The next step is taking your Coles Notes (just dated myself here) and drafting each piece of your essay and where the research fits in.  Don't worry about being too grammatically correct here.  Like the first draft of a novel this part is getting something onto the paper and making your points into complete sentences.

Edit as necessary and add all those flashes of brilliance in.  And then edit it all some more.  Finally, get someone else to edit it for you so that a second set of eyes can double check your grammar, sentence flow, formatting, as well as other things.

STEP FOUR:  FORMATTING FOR SUBMISSION

This last step before actually submitting it depends greatly on your educational institution.  Your school (whether it be grade school, high school, university or anything else in between!) will likely have their own set of formatting rules.

Follow them to the letter.

Take one, last, read through after you have done all this... including getting that helpful person to edit it again... and then...

STEP FIVE:  SUBMIT YOUR ESSAY

Well, I'm sure that feels better.  You just handed that in to your instructor.  Whoo!  Take a moment and breathe.

I'd hate to tell you this but you may as well learn to love the process.  There's more where that came from to write.  The good news is that it does get easier with practice and, at some point, you may even come to like it enough to seek out any excuse to write them.

"Really?" you ask.

Well, you just read one.

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