Mapping an Essay
Well, its happened to you yet again. You have to write an essay.
Here are some ways to make the process less difficult:
Start early, finish early! The worst writing happens in the dead of night,
in the zone of panic. Thats when evil spirits overtake printers
and computers inexplicably crash. No need to be so hard on yourself.
Save yourself a lot of wasted writing and make life interesting
define your thesis before you start writing.
- Find a quiet place.
- Get comfortable.
- Think about something that seems unusual or strange about the text.
Decide (provisionally) on a topic.
- List specifics from the essay that relate to that topic.
- Play with the list. Group and order.
- Flip back through the essay, underline passages that you might use.
- Refine your topic.
- Think of something surprising to say about that topic (it might
, but actually
- That decided, ask yourself, "So what?" The answer is your
- Map out the argument. that will best back up that thesis. That means
listing the main points that youll be making and the specifics that
youll use to back them up. You could regard this as an outline
but dont spend a lot of time making it formal. Its just
to help you keep on track.
- How should the argument flow? That depends on you and your
thesis. An effective way to start is by actually arguing against yourself.
Spend a paragraph substantiating the "it might seem that" side.
Then demolish that superficial reading with a step-by-step proof of what
is "actually" the case.
Ok, ladies & gentlemen start your computers! Youve done
most of the hard part: thinking. Now its a matter of presentation.
Your main concern from now on is laying out your points as clearly and
vividly as you can for your friend, the reader.
All of the writing advice I gave you earlier
applies. But what are the specific ingredients of essays?
All essays should have three sections:
Dont make it a mystery, front-load the argument! Get right into
the topic; dont waste space circling around the topic or clearing
your throat. The introduction is a map for your reader it should
clearly state the thesis, and give a summary of how youll be defending
The body of the paper should proceed step by step. Use paragraphs to order
your points; make sure theyre not too short or too long. Use the
opening of paragraphs to connect a new step to what happened in the previous
paragraph; dont be shy about pointing out the flow to your reader.
Use quotesas proof, not as filler or description. Label quotes as
you go, either by page number or, in the case of poems, by line number.
Punctuate as follows: "Quoting in the middle of a sentence,"
(p. #) or "quoting at the end" (p. #).
As youre filling out the body, keep in mind all that general advice
we went over on the first week. Specifics convince. Cloudy abstractions
do not. Watch out for exhausted and undefined words like "society,"
"nature," "culture," or "people". Keep the
focus on the text itself. Stay in the present tense. Weave back and forth
from well-chosen pieces of specific evidence to general assessment of
the pattern they uncover.
This is where you loosen up. Dont disappoint in the conclusion by
repeating yourself. Instead, use this space as a platform to push your
idea one step further. The best conclusions often read like beginnings
of new papers.