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Essay Tips


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In Short / Referencing / Alternate Assessment
A Short Guide to Writing a Good Essay

Thesis: No matter what topic you choose, we're looking for an essay that (a) argues an interpretive thesis, (b) marshals and analyses textual evidence to support that thesis, and (c) does so in a logical and persuasive way with prose that is error-free and thoughtful. When we say “interpretive thesis,” we mean a thesis that doesn’t just make an observation about the text, but that also interprets that observation and argues for its importance in understanding or rethinking the text as a whole.

If you're writing a comparative essay, remember that pointing to two things and saying what they are and how they are similar or different does not make a good interpretive argument. Make sure you are not just describing the two texts and how they’re different, but developing an argument about their relationship to each other; they should end up mutually illuminated in a way that they couldn't have been by just standing on their own.

Research: We strongly recommend that your research takes in the secondary criticism about your chosen text, but also extends out into the broader field you're discussing – whether that be the Cold War, second wave feminism, psychoanalysis, the frontier, Jim Crow, postmodernism, and so on. In other words, think not just about the text itself, but also the concepts/contexts that will help you make an interesting argument about it. Remember that the syllabus has numerous secondary readings for each week under “Suggested Reading.” These suggested readings are your friend, though of course you should in no way feel limited by them. The goal of this assignment is for you to follow your interests and explore, so cast your net widely.

The best essays...

  • are bold and engaged, pushing beyond the obvious and the cliched
  • have at their heart a thesis statement that poses an argument or interpretation rather than an observation
  • consist of paragraphs built around a unified concept/point that in turn clearly relates to the ongoing argument
  • show how textual evidence supports their claims (i.e., showing is different than telling)
  • engage properly with the research and understand the arguments of the people they are quoting
  • bring in quotations from secondary sources to propel or develop their own argument, not just paraphrase what you've already said or stand in for your own thinking
  • are a pleasure to read: grammatically accurate, well punctuated, with concise, elegant, and clear prose that is able to handle complex ideas and terminology with deftness and confidence
  • look like proper scholarly work: are referenced accurately and consistently and presented neatly (a simple font, spaced lines, generous margins, numbered pages). There are full departmental guidelines about this here.

(by Mark Storey)

There are many sites that provide information on essay writing. A detailed, though perhaps too basic in some cases, example provided by the Harvard Writing Center can be accessed here .
Using electronic publications is becoming more and more common. Norms for proper referencing books and articles, which often have no pagination or use a different system from the print version can be challenging. Some style guides offer more clear advice than others. You may want to consult the relevant section of the MHRA styleLink opens in a new window guide, or look up a short guide to the MLA Handbook, such as the one provided by PurdueLink opens in a new window. No matter which standard you use, keep in mind that the purpose of scholarly referencing is to properly credit the authors cited and to document research so that others may easily find the sources used.