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by Adam Kissel
The First Sentence
The first sentence matters most. It is where readers are won and lost. In this sentence you can persuade readers that you and your essay are worth their attention. Even a captive reader (such as someone who is required to grade your essay) decides early on how much effort to put into reading your work. Furthermore, the first sentence often sets up some of the key words or themes of the essay. Many non-captive readers are patient enough to read the whole first paragraph, so it often works out if you save your thesis and some key words and themes for later in the paragraph. But you should start getting the reader attuned to your frame of mind as early as possible. In fact, by the first sentence it is almost too late: the title of your essay has already determined whether or not you have the attention of potential readers. The point is that most writers should spend a lot more time on the title and the first sentence than they do. Too often, the title and the first sentence are holdovers from the first draft, several hours or days--even weeks--before the essay has been completed. In that time, the essay often has evolved beyond its original shape. Once a "final" draft of your essay is complete, if you have time to edit nothing else, at least go back and make sure that the opening truly reflects the direction of your essay. Let's examine for a moment this opening from a classic author: "Among the novel objects that attracted my attention during my stay in the United States, nothing struck me more forcibly than the general equality of conditions." -Alexis de Tocqueville, Democracy in America (1) "novel objects": the writer has something new to show us; (2) "attracted my attention": these new things are worth the attention of smart observers; (3) "during my stay": he has firsthand knowledge of these new things; (4) "in the United States": anyone interested in the U.S. should be paying attention; (5) "nothing struck me more forcibly": something is so striking that he wants to share it with us; (6) "general equality of conditions": this is a constant topic throughout the book. Try out Tocqueville's pattern for practice. For example: "Among the many flashy costumes that update the lifestyles of the characters in The Taming of the Shrew for contemporary audiences at the Shakespeare Theater, no costume is more striking than the biker garb that Petruchio wears to his own wedding."
The thesis statement can serve as a miniature outline of the essay. (2) "the image of democracy itself": America is just an example of a broader pattern. it is also about something. unusual. important. hopefully. and its passions. By this point. (3) "its inclinations . Here. it is essential that you announce plans that seem worthwhile to the reader. This is because the reader is expecting you to relate (1) what the topic is and (2) what you are going to say about it . its passions": these four themes specify what the first sentence only alluded to--they either outline or are central to the argument of the book. I sought the image of democracy itself. with its inclinations. your reader will lose interest and might think that you are not daring enough. or you can use the rest of the introduction to serve as a general outline. the point may be simply to enjoy the subject. (1) Usually the overall topic is clear from the rest of the introduction (see below). in order to learn what we have to fear or to hope from its progress. its character. and then try the same pattern with a theme of your own choosing. which occurs at or near the end. but that theme is diffused throughout the essay." (1) "I saw more than America": in fact the topic is even more striking than America itself. its prejudices.. Some kinds of essays do not need a thesis statement to point out the subject--they may have a central theme. upending conventional wisdom. But if your thesis is controversial. or in any way promises that the trip will be worthwhile. (4) "in order to learn": here is the significance of the book--we should be paying attention to the rise of democracy around the world. provable if given the right evidence. (5) "what we have to fear or to hope": there may be things to fear or things to hope for-should we be fearful or hopeful? This book will show us what Tocqueville learned. startlingly precise. or so common that it looks like you are just going through the motions of writing an essay that anybody could write. The reader should be ready for you to announce your plans (see "Take Your Reader on a Trip" under "What Makes a Good Essay?").For further practice. The Thesis While an essay is an activity between the writer and the reader. check out another classic to see how the first sentence strikes you as a reader. easily proven. But almost every successful academic essay does have a thesis statement. . you are likely to keep your reader's attention. A thesis normally helps the reader understand what in particular you are trying to communicate. (2) The introduction normally sets up the thesis statement. calling for action. hardly debatable. The thesis then can be a little more specific. you have caught the reader's interest in one way or another. Here's Tocqueville's thesis: "I confess that in America I saw more than America. Some kinds of essays have a subject but not an argument. If your thesis is obvious to any reader. it can name the key topics you will discuss. Let's continue with our example to practice constructing a thesis..
" The Introduction Paragraph(s) In a short essay. It is not a bad idea to write a quick setup of the problem and your solution as you understand it so far. no costume is more striking than the biker garb that Petruchio wears to his own wedding. If you are getting stuck. Note that you often will have to specify vague terms that you used earlier. provocative. This is because under the pressure of coming up with things to say in a normal conversation. but it does the same things that a one-paragraph introduction does: the introduction to an academic essay (1) introduces the topic. See "What Makes a Good Essay?" for advice on choosing your goals. his upending of formalwear. challenges us to acknowledge the fragility of our most carefully scripted experiences. you need a topic. the introduction is an entire chapter. Once your essay gets beyond about 10 paragraphs. he shows everyone that enjoyment of the wedding depends on him. you have space for only a one-paragraph introduction. but it's so easy for one thing to break up the whole experience. Note that as you write. or at least the general subject area. accomplishing these goals begins as early as the title of the essay. and then return to the introduction as the last section you carefully write. (2) sets up the argument of the thesis. This version will be enough to launch the paper until you are ready to revise. In Tocqueville's book. When Petruchio matches her beautiful dress with black leather instead of a tuxedo. It might be hard to appreciate Renaissance formalwear. he draws the surprise of everyone. but everyone can understand the white dress worn by Katherine on her wedding day. Consider the title a significant part of your introduction. the argument. Petruchio uses this attention to show everyone that he is controlling the fate of Katherine. He wanted to show everybody that he could wear anything he wanted--that he was in control. Let's use Tocqueville's model: "Among the many flashy costumes that update the lifestyles of the characters in The Taming of the Shrew for contemporary audiences at the Shakespeare Theater." Once you have narrated some ideas and put them down on paper. write the rest of the essay. when Petruchio came to his wedding as a biker. Then. turn the conversational style into a more formal academic style. Take this possible conversation starter as an example: "I loved how everybody at that performance of The Taming of the Shrew wore modern clothes. and on the kinds of paths on which you can lead your readers. Just to get started. Not only that. of weddings. and (3) points forward to the rest of the essay.Our version: "Indeed the biker garb of Petruchio does more than strike fear into the wedding party. In fact. instructive. of weddings. of the solemnity of a religious service. That got me thinking how we always like to make every detail perfect at a wedding. In fact the biker garb of Petruchio does more than strike fear into the wedding party. you can consider a two-paragraph introduction. or moving topics. you will naturally move toward the more interesting. on key actions you can choose to perform in your essay. your idea of the topic. of the . It really made me feel that the story could have happened in my old neighborhood. delightful. I could really see how he was trying to make a point. his upending of formalwear. strike up a conversation with someone about the material you are considering writing about. Often a topic will come out of that conversation. and the essay structure are likely to evolve.
your reader should be able to understand what you are doing and why you are doing it. Sometimes you may not quite know what you will write three paragraphs ahead until you get there. It also seems valuable to explain the wedding scene in contextÃ¢Â "why are they getting married. In an academic essay. don't worry if you get some of the paragraphs out of order. If your paragraph has more than eight . If you have multiple goals. One Point Per Paragraph A paragraph is a unit. and suggest the implications for situations when we try to control the circumstances but cannot control someone who is an independent spirit. readers might be interested to join you in working through the challenge presented in the last sentence. or in general moving. responding to counter-evidence. you probably should be writing multiple paragraphs. elaborate on the point. In an outline like this. most or all paragraphs instruct. delighting. It is usually best to put the point at the beginning or the end. or instructing the reader. providing a set of evidence. as well as what he wears. Another common problem in many essays occurs within a paragraph: you may start writing about one point and jump ahead to the next point. That might be ok. You might get halfway through the essay and have a completely different direction. prove the point. you should move on to the next paragraph. Then we can compare the wedding to other formal occasions.solemnity of a religious service. Whether or not you have an outline. Don't Forget the Point When you don't have an outline ahead of time. consider broadening or narrowing the goal. and what is at stake for them? This context will help us explain the fear of the wedding party. or (c) change the point in a way that permits you to use the material. "What am I doing in this paragraph?" You might be proving a point. so long as you fix the problem: you can (a) throw out the irrelevant material. and when it is done. presenting a theme. if the point comes at the end. what should we be doing? It seems important to describe the biker outfit. (b) make it relevant by relating it back to the point. challenges us to acknowledge the fragility of our most carefully scripted experiences. Then we can turn to Petruchio and infer his motives from what he says and does. If it takes fewer than three sentences or more than eight sentences to accomplish your goal. Make the point clear in the paragraph. prepare the reader to accept the point. what is at stake? Why should the reader read the essay? In the example above." By the end of the introduction. It does something specific. In other words. It is not unusual to rearrange the paragraphs as you write. if they trust that you have thought enough about the challenge to lead them through it. In our example above. You should be able to answer the question. Use the rest of the paragraph to focus attention on the point. you can still be successful by writing as you go. explaining a phenomenon. one of the greatest pitfalls to avoid is straying from the point. Can you imagine how some of these paragraphs might go? Consider how each one accomplishes a distinct goal. or.
For once the family is united. an academic essay differs from a looser narrative essay in that the paragraphs normally do not merge into one another organically. some writers like to use the last sentence of a paragraph to introduce the topic of the next paragraph. they have the chance for some peace. since you are the one who carefully thought about your topic. may be important to you. Human readers think in a similar way. That model seldom works in an academic essay. Let's try out the paragraph about what is at stake for the wedding party. either in the main text or in a footnote. computer graders look for the integration of your key terms throughout the essay. that there can be several layers of evidence. But readers don't want you simply to tell them what you believe or what you learned.' Even though they only had a week to plan. and that you can look for key quotations in a later step: "Katherine's family thought she was never going to get married because of her bad temper. and stay focused on the goal of each paragraph. her own sister even says hopefully. this would mean that they would be stuck with her forever. let's keep to a conversational style." Quote Your Sources Wisely Your readers often can figure out how much work you put into the essay by looking at your sources: (1) how many? (2) do you seem to understand what you read? (3) do you quote only the relevant passages? (4) do all your quotations come from the same page--or from throughout the book? (1) Try to get one or two sources into each paragraph. they want you to show them so they can learn it too. but sometimes you are expected to do original research to ground your claims. in order to score it for consistency and unity. The fact that you believe something very sincerely. you should analyze it in terms of the point of the paragraph. split the paragraph in two. Be strict about the rule of one point per paragraph. . the musicians are playing. In fact. What counts as good evidence depends on the subject area and the level of writing that you are trying to achieve. Finally. they clearly want the wedding to be perfect: the women wear beautiful dresses. quoting the original words is essential. as well as the thesis sentence. Sometimes information in a textbook is good enough. One standard that applies across disciplines lies in the difference between telling and showing. When you present evidence. For the first draft. Put such a sentence in the paragraph where it belongs. try to use some of the same words as the words you use in the sentence that has the point. and it seems like the future of the whole family depends on the ceremony going according to plan. Note that the point comes at the end. and there are flowers everywhere.sentences. Now that she is engaged to Petruchio. In literature essays and essays that use historical documents or interviews. you probably strayed ahead. In their society. In other words. 'xxx. That is. What Counts As Evidence? Readers of academic essays want you to support your ideas with evidence.
show evidence that you understand it. Citing just one or two additional locations will put the reader more at ease. which is the most efficient way to signal that the ideas have come from someone other than yourself.) to omit parts of a quotation that are less relevant. It probably came from someone else. You won't get caught if you don't do it. follow the conventions in your field and in your class for proper citation of quotations within the text. Published essays tend to have longer sentences than academic essays written by students. Usually. it is even more important to include the page number. If you choose to paraphrase rather than to quote. (4) When all your quotations come from the same page of a book. and in the bibliography or list of works cited.. In every case. Here are five signs that you may have plagiarized. .) If you notice one of these signs. This sign mainly refers to a well-written sentence or paragraph in the midst of badly written sentences and paragraphs. but you might be tempted to quote someone else's material and present it as your own. Quotations are essential. your reader might imagine that you did not actually read the whole book. This sign also refers to vocabulary that shifts from basic words to advanced words from one section to the next. When the quotation includes words that exactly match the point that you are trying to prove with this evidence.. In every case. however. in order to cut down on the length of the quotation. Tell the reader why that quotation is important. The reader should be able to find your source easily. you are better off adding quotation marks. Suspicious sentences will send them straight to the Internet. but it is very easy to get caught. try to find the original source. previously published prose. (There are other signs too. Use brackets  to insert words that improve the flow of the quotation. you might find an eloquent sentence that has the ring of polished. If you cannot find it but it is essential to the essay. When you move from your rough draft to an edited draft. you can get away with minimal or no analysis (in the example paragraph above. (3) Avoid long quotations. and experienced readers know to look for them. (1) An uneven style. You also can replace several words with your own paraphrase inside brackets. Make use of ellipsis (. Whenever possible you should include the exact page number. (2) An especially long sentence in the midst of many short sentences. a whole sentence (or two) of analysis should follow the quotation. it is essential to put quotation marks around the words you quote or to set off the material as a block quotation. Finally. "hopefully" may be enough analysis of the quotation from Katherine's sister). It is very easy to do this. Five Ways to Get Caught Plagiarizing Plagiarism is especially tempting in academic essays.(2) Normally it is not enough to insert a quotation. Three or four unquoted words in a row can be enough for you to get charged with plagiarism. in footnotes or endnotes. it is best to add quotation marks and to note in the essay that you can no longer find the source.
This shows that you have thought carefully about the . the whole essay is suspect. Normally a transition occurs in the first sentence of the new paragraph. Words to Use. many plagiarizers get caught when they are asked to produce an electronic copy of their essay. Sometimes this is a matter of restructuring the essay. In this paragraph. or by a superscript number that used to refer to a footnote in an essay with no footnotes. but not the point that you advertised in the essay. the paragraph will be suspect. etc.(3) A paragraph or group of sentences that seem to be proving a point very well. (For instance. Furthermore. which look different on the screen from spaces that are typed directly. a paragraph is a discrete unit. start the next paragraph with "Second. Even so. point size. (5) Passages that use different formatting: font. (4) A level of sophistication or communication that exceeds the normal level for you and your peers. Remember that while the paragraphs all accomplish discrete purposes. Also. Most essays require a more interesting set of transitions from paragraph to paragraph--from point to point." Note that this structure can get boring rather quickly.) Other web sites can provide lists of transition words that connect one paragraph to another such as Nevertheless. copying and pasting material from web sites often produces a lot of "nonbreaking space" characters. the point was to advise you to connect paragraphs with transitions.. the point is to advise you how to do so. color.. in this paragraph. Moreover. but it is connected to other units through transitions. Yes. If you are in high school and you write a history essay that uses primary sources not discussed in class--without citing a secondary source--your reader will wonder how you possibly got the data. Words to Avoid If your essay responds to a prompt. If you are in an introductory humanities course and you already seem to know several critics' opinions of the text--in contrast to your performance in class--your reader will wonder how you became so well read so quickly. number of spaces after a period. But. if you advertise that a paragraph is about A but there are several sentences about B that seem to belong better in a different essay. Similarly. When an entire essay does not adequately address the assigned prompt. Make those relationships explicit for your reader. . The easiest way to connect paragraphs occurs when you have a list of topics to get through. and so on. you are well advised to use the words and ideas in the prompt frequently throughout the essay. Repeating a key word or idea from the previous paragraph is usually enough. You might be surprised how many plagiarists get caught by an entire paragraph being printed in gray instead of black. the reason they appear in a certain order is because of the particular relationships among those purposes. the word "connect" in the first sentence is another way of saying "make the relationships explicit. Transitions: Getting From Point to Point Too many writers let each paragraph stand on its own." In the previous paragraph. After the first paragraph. but sometimes it is plagiarism.
Some demeaning words such as dumb can almost always be specified better by using a less demeaning. or sentences. and that you did not plagiarize. Experience must do the rest. As you read each book. and they can be fixed in the same day. reading a good style guide is a great way to start thinking about how to improve essays at the level of words. tempting as it may be. that an essay should sound "smooth" when it is read aloud. look for principles rather than a simple list of rules. choose the less controversial term. calling an adult female a "girl" is appropriate. unless you explicitly defend your judgment. Whenever there is a genuine question about what is appropriate. but this trend has been limited mainly to political conservatives. Context often makes all the difference. dumb. all. In some settings. terrible. and more and more readers are requiring that this norm be followed. and so on. But in reality. (3) "judgmental" words such as stupid. just about every rule (even spelling rules!) can be broken under the right circumstances. great. Note. to take the next step. (4) socially or culturally "unacceptable" words. (5) Recognize that your words can have ideological meanings that please or anger your readers: the rise of the term "Democrat Party" in place of "Democratic Party" might tempt you to write "Democrat Party" in an essay about politics. Awkward sentences will become painfully clear. This guideline includes almost all slang and almost all contractions. but in other settings it is inappropriate.prompt. awful. although they might be perfectly acceptable in certain contexts and in other kinds of essays: (1) "totalizing" words such as always. totally. These words are hard to defend. phrases. absolutely. what's up with. never. everyone. (2) "conversational" words and phrases such as you know. and so on. There are two general ways to improve your style. amazing. I feel that. Here are several words you should seldom use in academic essays. that you are addressing it directly. Even so. which is also quite effective. and so on. If there is no prompt. An easy beginning is the popular "Strunk and White" style guide. every. give your essay unity by continuing to use words that express the thesis. is to read your essay out loud or to listen while someone else reads it aloud. more precise word. I'm trying to. try the book by Joseph Williams called Style. An academic essay about something else is not the place to fight an unrelated social or political battle. The . however. The section "Five Ways to Turn Off the Reader" under "What Makes a Good Essay?" gives further advice. Writers of academic essays are often taught to write in "gender neutral" terms whenever there is no reason to write about males or females in particular. everywhere. so your use of the term will go over very differently with different readers. because your readers tend to be good at finding exceptions. It is easy to be pedantic and require that certain rules always be followed. The quick way. Style Tips Many writing guides provide endless quantities of style tips.
because a central function of the conclusion is to sum up the points of the essay. for practice: . That is better than nothing. for example. while non-captive readers have chosen to take the whole journey with you. (2) "it depends upon themselves": here is something we can do. like it or not. add the topic sentences from some of the key body paragraphs. the concluding section is expected to take a certain form that does much more than sum up the essay. like it or not. (3) "principle of equality": this is the central theme of the book. although it can have better results in the long run. Slightly better is to add a sentence or two to suggest something new for the reader: an implication to follow up. a challenge that must still be met. It is important to learn what standards apply to essays in your field. is to imitate the style of an accomplished writer. The Last Sentence The final sentence is your last chance to send off the reader with your message. as we did in imitating Tocqueville above. Let's examine Tocqueville's concluding sentence for a non-captive audience after hundreds of pages: "The nations of our time cannot prevent the conditions of men from becoming equal. They are tempted to skimp not only on editing but also on the conclusion. an essay that presents your research results often should include a section on the limitations of the research (such as ways that the research method could be improved. (4) notice the pleasing either/or structure of the last half of the sentence. and let the essay trail off.harder way. Let's now conclude the Petruchio essay in the same style. or cautions about the applicability of the research). In several fields. until you can write in that style naturally. an idea for further research. Reward both kinds of readers with a sendoff that is well constructed and leaves a good impression. This material can be extended into an entire paragraph or two when the essay is long enough. The Concluding Paragraph(s) Many writers run out of steam by the time they get to the end of a long writing session. to knowledge or barbarism. a recommendation for further reading. but it depends upon themselves whether the principle of equality is to lead them to servitude or freedom. Too many writers simply rewrite the thesis or the whole opening paragraph. Captive readers have had to read your whole essay. to prosperity or to wretchedness." (1) "cannot prevent": be aware that equality is coming. In social science fields. and so on.
let GradeSaver suggest a complete set of revisions for your essay. or if you are running out of time. and then edit it with a fresh eye." Finishing Touches Give yourself at least 24 hours after you think you have "finished" a draft. a friend. but at least we can advise planning over anarchy. make sure that you personally understand and agree with all revisions that you accept and submit as your own work. and tuxedos over leather. or GradeSaver. . Whether you get help from a roommate."We never can keep perfect control over the ceremonies that mean the most to us. prudence over haphazardness. If you want a professional perspective on your essay to help you raise your essay to excellence.
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