Academic Writing: The Essay
Rationale: Throughout your high school and college career and across curricula, you will be required to write numerous essays and research papers. The essay you are about to write represents a model for many papers that will be assigned in the future.
Academic Voice: Most academic papers should be written in academic voice. Academic voice tends to suppress the natural voice of the author in an effort to focus the reader on the material instead of the author's persona. Therefore, you write academic papers in third person. If you write in first person (I, we, etc.), the reader tends to focus on the author. If you write in second person (you), the reader tends to focus on her/himself. I wrote this handout in second person because I am addressing you – telling you to do something. You want your reader to focus on the material about which you are writing; therefore, your paper must be written in third person (him, her, they, etc.). Other general rules for academic writing include:
1. Avoid weak language (maybe, possibly, might); act like you know what you are talking about (even if you do not).
2. Avoid contractions (can't, won't, etc.).
3. Avoid slang.
4. When writing about literature (literary analysis) use present tense.
5. State your opinion as fact.
6. Avoid rhetorical questions.
7. Never start a paper with, "This paper is going to be about…" or anything similar to that. Outside of being very lame, it makes me sick to my stomach.
Not all of these rules are set in stone. An occasion may arise where you have to stretch one.
The Principles of the Essay
The Thesis: The thesis is the central idea of the essay. If you were to ask yourself, "What is the main point of this paper?" or "What am I writing about?" your answer should resemble your thesis statement.
The Focus: An important feature of a good essay is that it is focused. You might want to ask yourself, "What specifically do I want to prove in this essay?" You do not want your thesis statement to be too general. For example:
Too general: "Mark Twain frequently uses symbolism in The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn to create meaning."
Revised: "Although a paradox, the physically confining raft symbolizes freedom in The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn.
Furthermore, your title should reflect the focus of your paper.
Coherence: Okay, prove it! Your paper should be concrete; that is, you support your thesis with facts and examples from the novel. Using the example above, you should strengthen your analysis with details and quotes from the novel supporting your contention. Huck states, "Other places do seem so clamped up and smothery, but a raft don't. You feel mighty free and easy and comfortable on a raft" (88). Note how I cite the page number.
Organization: The best method of organization is outlining. You will find that your paper is much easier to write if you use an outline as your guide. Your paper should contain:
1. Introductory paragraph including thesis statement;
2. Body paragraphs supporting and explaining your thesis statement;
3. Concluding paragraph restating your thesis and explaining the significance of your essay.
In other words, in the first part of your paper you state what you are going to say, in the second you state it, and in the third you restate what you just stated. Sounds ridiculous, huh? Well, that is the way it is done. Whether it is a simple essay, major research paper or a doctoral dissertation, most academic writing projects follow this model, so you might as well learn it now. Each body paragraph should have a topic sentence containing the point(s) the paragraph reveals. Your body paragraphs should be organized so that you make your most important point in your final body paragraph and your least significant point in your middle paragraph(s). Each paragraph should go from one example or fact to another, explaining how they are related. The paragraphs should be linked with transitional devices.
Vocabulary: You should use a sophisticated vocabulary directed to an academic audience. Be careful not to "over-Thesaurize" you paper – use big words improperly. Don't get me wrong. It is recommended that you use a Thesaurus to expand your vocabulary and avoid repetition of certain words; however, make sure you use the words correctly.
Mechanics: Your paper must be mechanically sound. Use spell check! Some great papers can be marred by grammatical and spelling errors. They can hinder the meaning of the paper. Have someone proofread your paper, and then edit it. Once you master mechanics, then you can focus on refining the ideas you are expressing in the paper.