Warning: Now entering Essay Alley, a two-month span of the academic year known for an increase in essay-related stress, anxiety, and all out no-good-not-niceness. Luckily, the unofficial U of T Essay Writing Dos and Don’ts is here to help. (Have essay advice? Share it #UofTessaytips).
In my second year I took the Innis College course, Writing English Essays. An intermediate, hands-on course, I learned many skills and techniques of persuasive writing. Most useful, however, was the T.A.’s suggestion that we all read The Elements of Style by William Strunk Jr. and E. B. White (the author of Charlotte’s Web). It’s a little guidebook to clear, concise, stylistic writing, and I would highly recommend it!
Now! The unofficial U of T Essay Writing Dos and Donts:
Do: Give it time.
I have written essays the night before they were due. And I’ve written essays weeks in advance. Which do you think resulted in a better essay? Allowing myself time to reconsider and re-contemplate my arguments has always proven beneficial. An essay is a presentation of our thinking in words, and our thinking is constantly changing and developing. We need time to get it clear.
Don’t: Summarize or list facts.
Sometimes a summary of events may feel necessary to situate your arguments. I always ask my T.A. or professor about this. Most say that summaries are a boring, unneeded waste of words. Listing facts may also seem beneficial because it fills space. But a list of facts is not a developed argument. To write a good essay we must try to show our thinking.
Do: Engage arguments.
This is easier than it sounds. Just about every subject has previously established arguments made by scholars and students in books, papers, and journals. Find these. Read them. Pick two or three that are pertinent to your thesis and discuss them. Agree or disagree. Explain why you think so-and-so’s point is invalid, and then argue for your own ideas!
Obvious! But also very serious. For academic, argumentative, critical writing there is no greater offence. Just imagine doing it in person: Some guy next to you says something brilliant, and when it’s your turn to speak you simply copy what he said, but you claim it’s your own idea. I don’t think so.
Do: Analyze the particular.
What do I mean? Find something small and work outwards. When I write an essay on a novel, I try to focus and build my arguments from particular passages that extend to broader themes within the book. For a history paper, I would centre my analysis on a particular event, person, or act, and draw outwards. Small is big. The particular argument informs the general assumption. Try it!
Don’t: Bribe your professor or T.A.
It just doesn’t work. Money, chocolate, theatre-tickets, a bottle of 50-year-old scotch—it’s all been tried. Unfortunately, the most effective gesture to receive that longed for A+ is a well-written essay.
Do: Pick an exciting title.
A professor of a friend of mine said that until students become famous, our best form of marketing is an exciting essay title. Wise words. I always check with my professors about title etiquette. Some are traditionalists.
Don’t: Lose sleep.
Handing in a late paper is not the end of the world. Nor is getting a B, or a C, or even a D. Sometimes we just get stumped and can’t think anymore. During third year, Essay Alley hit me hard and I had to ask my professor for an extension. If it’s necessary, DO IT. But ask earlier than later.
Do: Try to enjoy it.
When I’m stumped and scattered, I close my books and get out. I go see a friend. I talk about my stupid essay! And it helps. An essay is best when it’s written positively, when the mood is right.
So remember: we’re students, we’re trying, and we’re lucky to be here.
‘Til next time, U of T, stay diamond!