Crash Course in Writing Effective Essays

Herman Rapaport

Wake Forest University - Department of English


This guide represents the views of the author alone. It is not a statement of departmental policy and does not necessarily accord with the views of colleagues who may have different ideas on various different matters. However, this guide does represent many dominant views in the profession of English with respect to composition and can be taken as a useful approach to writing in a university context. Its purpose is basic advice and guidance. Essentially this is the essence of what most composition books have to offer.



The purpose of an essay should be for you to articulate your thoughts in such a way that you learn something you otherwise couldn’t. In other words, the essay requires you to direct your thoughts in a logical and progressive fashion whose result is the discovery of meanings, relations, and processes that would otherwise remain inaccessible. Therefore the first rule of essay writing is that if you haven’t learned anything major as a result of your labors, your reader won’t either. And if you’ve learned absolutely nothing new, well, you’ve clearly failed the assignment. (That’s the acid test.)

Essays come in various forms. Description, definition, classification, argument, and comparison-contrast are some of the more typical. There are many fine books on writing that can teach you these forms, and I suggest you explore Barnes & Noble to find one that suits you. By studying such a “how to” book, you shouldn’t have to invent the wheel every time an assignment is due. This saves frustration, time, and will result in much better marks.

Judging from the many papers I’ve seen students write, it’s clear that not a few students are under the impression that an essay is supposed to be either a response or a summary of something. Or both. This is a pity, because the response and summary approaches are the weakest options that one could select, given that they are pre-critical approaches.

Consider that a summary is just a recounting of content, a literal paraphrase. That speaks to comprehension, but doesn’t speak to the capacity of anyone to have really understood the inferential meanings of what was written. Response is a matter of advancing opinions that are pre-analytical: not tied to a systematic argument or analysis. The summary and the response are encouraged in the lower schools where matters of comprehension (can the student literally read the text?) and opinion (can the student articulate his or her responses?) are considered fundamental. But given that you’re in a university, realize that the criteria are now different, since what faculty at a university are looking for is the capacity for critical thinking, which is demonstrated in terms of using analytical skills.

In German, the word for analysis is Auseinandersetzung, which literally means, among other things, something close to “taking the pieces of something apart and putting them next to one another.” This involves disassembly and posure [Setzung]: the taking apart of the object of study (e.g. the text), as well as its reassembly in a form that exposes its meanings, relations, and processes. Now the point to bear in mind is that this reassembly does not respect the original composition of the entity, but is a recomposition of it in a critical/analytical form. Your essay, it turns out, is this recomposition.

Let’s go back to the matter of summary. A summary simply repeats the original composition (form, sequence, manner of presentation, plot) in its original order. Nothing has been taken apart; everything has just been repeated. This is clearly non-analytical and inappropriate for the work we want to do at a university.

Response is actually quite similar to summary in that a response paper merely depicts the reactions of the author and does not engage in self-examination, empirical testing of the opinions against the text, or a logical interpretation of the text in which it is reconstructed and recomposed.

Neither summary nor response are self-reflexive. This is a failing in that self-reflexivity is a fundamental skill that belongs to critical thinking. Self-reflexivity asks not what is being said or thought, but why is such and such being said and thought? Self-reflexivity calls for critical self-examination as well as for critical examination of the object of study.

Related to these remarks on summary and response is the fact that a key developmental task for undergraduate writers is making the transition from descriptive to conceptual writing. Everyone can recount the plot of a story, but not everyone can conceptualize a plot. When Aristotle discovered rising and falling action in tragedy, he began conceptualizing the form that a plot has. One can observe the features of a character such as Pip in Great Expectations, but can one conceptualize what kind of character he is relative to other characters in the novel and what significance this has? The art of conceptualization is fundamental to satisfying the expectation that students ought to be capable of writing analytical papers. Analysis is not possible in the absence of conceptualization. Key is the transition from writing about what something looks like to writing about what something really is. Here one moves from description to definition. Always strive to define the terms, the order, and the relations you observe. Then draw principles from them, if you can. This is an advanced sort of skill that applies to logicians, I suppose, but it should be on our minds, in any case. What "constants" can we derive from what we are analysing?


Not surprising is that the most common essay mode used in English courses is the argument paper. In an argument the author has come to some analytical conclusion that he or she will argue or prove in the course of the essay. For this conclusion to be valid, it has to be based on conceptual, analytical thinking, not rhetorical grand standing or opinion mongering. An argument paper only works to the extent that the points are logically being developed in a progressive manner.

To write an argument paper, you’ll need a notebook for writing down all the ideas you have about the question that the instructor has asked you to write about. Spend no more than twenty minutes at a time in attempting to get as many responses down as you can. (This is the precritical stage.) While you do this, attempt to work logically from one point to another. At first this won’t work out very well. But upon subsequent tries you’ll have more success. (This is the transition from precritical to critical.) While walking, doing dishes, or something like that, try to imagine how the first paragraph of a paper on your topic might read. Start dictating sentence one, go on to sentence two, etc. The more you do this, the easier this will become. Later, when you actually write your paper, you will already have a backlog of thoughts and patterns in your subconscious to draw from. This makes composition more spontaneous and less painful; most important, it speeds up the writing process by making composition more automatic. And this is what you want, because the more automatic the writing is, the more pleasurable it becomes and the better your brain can invent new and interesting ideas. The key here is having the project on your mind at times other than when you are sitting down to write. Above all, let your unconscious work on the paper. In other words, think about the project before going to sleep. The results may surprise you.

Before you start to write the essay, see if you’re feeling creative. Are the ideas naturally coming to you? Or are you all frustrated and out of sorts? If you pay attention to your thoughts and moods, you’ll figure out when the time is right for writing. It’s usually when you have a desire to think hard about the topic, or are “getting into it,” or feel anxious about getting to the project. To write productively, you’ll need a quiet place that won’t be interrupted/invaded by someone else. Turn off the phones. Be “incommunicado.” This is what writers like most – writing as total withdrawal from the world. But there are other approaches. You can work productively in extremely noisy places like restaurants where the background noise helps overcome the loneliness of being all alone in a room with nothing to say. I myself love to write in restaurants, though not all the time.

When you get close to starting, outline the project. Don’t use numbers or letters as in a formal outline. Just write out the major points you want to make and see if they progress logically. Look at the list and see if it makes sense. Is this something you’re going to feel okay about? Remember that the most logical sequence will make the most sense to you and your reader. And remember that logic is the basis for validity in an argument. (Go ask my colleagues in philosophy, if you don’t believe me.) If the argument isn’t logical, it isn’t valid. But more importantly, perhaps, if it isn’t logical, it won’t feel right mentally and will be hard to work with in terms of the writing. Logic is a great aid to composition, because it makes ideas fall naturally into line.

In a two thousand word essay (about eight pages of double spaced print) you only have space for three major topics in the body of the paper. Think about this. If you spend two pages per topic and one page for the introduction and one for the conclusion, that’s eight pages. Now imagine that your subject is about counterpoint in poetry. What are the three main topics going to be? Let me suggest these: 1) metrical counterpoint, 2) figural counterpoint, and 3) thematic counterpoint. Notice that we’re progressing from smaller units of meaning to larger units of meaning (small metrical units; somewhat larger figural entities like metaphors and symbols; to broader structures like theme which envelop and tie together the whole work). We’re also moving from the most abstract (meter) to the most content oriented material (theme) with figure as a middle point between the two.

What does this teach us? That an argument of a paper works best when a subject is divided into topics that have a natural architecture: abstract to concrete, small to large, easy to difficult, simple to complex. The first and last topic should be in opposition or high contrast, while the middle term is a median or middle plateau that ties the two extremes together. The basic form of such a triad would be “low, middle, high.” Consider these: “modes of production, modes of distribution, modes of consumption” [Marx]; “id, ego, superego” [Freud]; “signifier, signified, referent” [de Saussure]; Hell, Purgatory, Paradise [Dante].

Triadic architecture is really the one you should master first, before going on to the more difficult structure of twos. Jacques Lacan, for example, likes to work in duple structure (subjection/subversion; self/other; ideal ego/ego ideal). The difficulty here is that you’re forced to write in a dialectical mode wherein you go back and forth in a way that at some point requires an inversion of the polarities, if you expect to make any dialectical headway. When Marx contrasts ground rent (Medieval) to profit made from manufacturing (Industrial Revolution), he has to show how the second turns everything else in society and the economic order on its head. Hegel, who invented this method, has to do the same for his account of the Master/Slave relation: the slave, who seems to be in the disadvantaged position, is, at the end of the day, actually the Master. But in order to show this, everything has to be inverted, sort of like pulling at a glove so that it turns inside out.

A four part body will work, particularly if it is the result of the classification of a topic. See, for example, Jacques Lacan's Seminar 17 in which he discusses four discourses: of the Master, the Hysteric, the University, and the Analyst. Each discourse is composed of the same four mathemes that are structured in terms of a logical formula whose syntax is common to each discourse. All that changes is how the mathemes are positioned. This control of a four part analysis is quite virtuosic and shows what can be done by someone with genius.

Bear in mind that uneven structures generate tension in a way that an even four part structure may not. That's why you'll generally see one act, three act, or five act plays. Symphonies, which often have four movements, put a lot of stress on resolution in a way that is not quite the case for plays and essays. Plus Symphonies (sonatas, string quartets, etc.) emphasize the independence of those four movements in a way that's quite different from literary or essayistic texts that are generally concerned much more with linearity and linkage. Lastly, you’ll notice that academic books often structure their chapters in threes or fives, plus an introduction. But there are other possibilities, among them, the “open series” (cf. Theodor Adorno’s Minima Moralia, Walter Benjamin’s Arcades, Jacques Derrida's "Envois" from The Post Card, etc.).

I said earlier that an essay is the recomposition of the object of study. What this means, simply, from a compositional perspective, is that an essay should not prop its structure upon the structure of the work that is being studied. Many essays begin with a few generalizations and then dive into a “process reading” of a poem, novel, or film. This is almost always indicated by the sentence that begins with that dreaded preposition “in.” “In Thomas Hardy’s Return of the Native we experience the festivities of the bonfire…” What follows is the blow by blow description of the novel with some commentary thrown in. Every time I see the sentence that begins “In such and such’s novel…,” I get the impression of being at a horse race, “…and they’re off; it’s Sea Biscuit at the quarter turn ahead by a nose, followed by Golden Glove….” The race track metaphor is appropriate, because I can sense the security of running around a track that is prepared in advance: the plot or natural order of the novel. This means the writer doesn’t have to compose the order, he or she only has to follow what has already been mapped out in advance by the novelist. Once the writer has done all the turns and jumped all the hurdles (I’m thinking of horses again) the tired nags come to the finish line, their tongues hanging out of their mouths. If I’m being satirical, it’s because this is NOT what is supposed to happen in your essays.

Well, what are you supposed to do? You’re supposed to make up an order of your own that is different from that of the book. You should be working with an argument that directs what gets cited and when. You should be using only those parts of the book that fit the requirements of your argument. Do not let the book’s order determine your paper, because then the book you’re studying is writing your paper for you, which is a sign of passivity and uncritical thinking. Of course, there are times when the order of the work will coincide with the order of your presentation, but this should only occur for a limited time and for very good strategic reasons. Don’t prop an entire analysis upon the structure of the object.

Consider that by disassembling the object of study (the text) and recomposing it to fit your argument, you are exposing a logic that the natural order or surface features of the object cannot or do not literally reveal. In short, there is a difference between appearance and reality, and it is your mission to get at the reality, not the mere surface structure.


When writing an essay, it is best to leave the introductory page for last. Of course, writing a paper without a beginning can be disorienting, so prepare to write the introductory page twice, once for you and another time for your audience. Keep in mind that a fairly usual revision ratio is about 5 to 10 pages per page of finished text. If you think that’s extreme, it’s because you’ve never really gotten down to work, which requires much more time and discipline than you might imagine.

Since I'm on the topic of revision, the point of it is not only to proof-read, but to improve the composition in terms of gaining clarity. Perhaps even more important is that revisions produce deeper insights. A revision largely exists in order to push the ideas ahead into uncharted territories. This is done by working through implications and alternative possibilities, something that happens when you repeat the process word for word. As a rule, bear in mind that the more literal and commonplace the insight, the less value it has, because anyone can think it. Usually the sign of a good insight is that it forces you to realign or rewrite the whole paper. This is very good, though it has the downside of creating considerable work. Although you may want to avoid this, don’t. Writing is a labor intensive activity that unfolds one stage (re-vision) at a time. Keep in mind that what distinguishes an A from a B is not some magical je ne sais quoi, but the particularity and illumination of the insights. A paper that gets an A is a paper that is teaching the teacher. It can only do that if the writing is clear and the insights genuinely insightful.

That said, revision is something you should be doing to some extent every time you sit down to write, once you get some initial pages drafted. You can't be obsessive about revising, because you'll never finish, but every time you come back to work on the essay, tinker with that first paragraph, and move on sentence by sentence. What isn't being said here? What could be added that's better than what I've got? How can I get these two sentences to connect more logically? Is that the best word for the idea I have in mind? Can a reader follow what I'm saying? What's the logic of the argument? What precisely am I arguing here?

Once you do those revisions you'll be back into the frame of mind with which you were writing earlier. That is, revision gets you back to the place where you left off. This way of approaching revision differs, of course, from the idea that an essay should proceed by way of distinct separate drafts that are each composed from beginning to end, though there may come a time when that's needed. I myself only do that if I think the whole piece is seriously flawed and needs a complete tear down and reconstruction, or if I want to try out entirely different subject matter. But this is radical and very time consuming, because essentially I'm starting over.

The Introductory Paragraph

For a two thousand word paper, this paragraph should be about three quarters of a page long. Ideally it has a good opening sentence, a thesis sentence, and an agenda.

Opening sentences should not be tautologies (self-evident truths). Many students err in this, because they model their writing on what they’ve picked up in adverts and the business world, generally. In that realm, the tautology sets up the customer for a sales pitch. “Wouldn’t you like to be in Hawaii right now?” Well, who wouldn’t? Then comes the pitch. “Well, you can, and for only pennies a day.” That’s business. But you’re in academia. So avoid tautologies like, “The novel was very popular in England during the nineteenth century,” or, “Virginia Woolf’s writings have received many feminist analyses.” Since almost everyone obviously knows these things, it’s redundant to state them. Moreover, whereas tautologies establish common ground in advertising, they alienate readers in academe, because they insult the reader’s intelligence. In terms of marking papers, they alert the faculty member that the student is somewhat naïve and that this isn’t likely to be a very promising paper.

Well, what might be a good opening sentence? Here is Simone de Beauvoir’s famous opening to a chapter in The Second Sex: “One is not born, but rather becomes, a woman.” This opening sentence isn’t exactly a tautology, as the sentence immediately after it shows: “No biological, psychological, or economic fate determines the figure that the human female presents in society; it is civilization as a whole that produces this creature, intermediate between male and eunuch, which is described as feminine.” This is already the thesis of de Beauvoir’s essay. It’s her thesis that woman isn’t essentially (naturally) anything, but that woman is culturally determined by civilization as a whole. Well, what does she mean? How can she prove it? What are the consequences of this if this is so? It’s these questions that determine the trajectory of her inquiry.

Once the thesis has been sounded, the author needs an agenda. De Beauvoir has one, but it’s implicit, not explicit. Had she wanted to, however, she could have included a framing sentence like, “I wish to examine how one becomes a woman in terms of childhood, adolescence, and adulthood in order to show how there is from the beginning a conflict between woman’s autonomous existence and her objective self, her ‘being-the-other.’” The agenda, you will notice, sets up an order of discussion that is natural (a tripartite order) in that it progresses from child to adult. It provides an outline, schema, or overall conception that the reader can rely on for the sake of organizing the complex information that is to follow. And the agenda gives us a reason for why we’re going to be taken through the process reading that follows.

Now, why should you include an explicit agenda when de Beauvoir and other professional writers do not? Remember that in some courses your papers are being read among various other entries, and this means that the more help you can give the instructor in explicitly telling him or her what you’re doing, the easier it will be to grasp the paper and intelligently mark it. If the instructor has to stop and puzzle what on earth the student is doing, well, you can guess what’s going to happen to the mark. A thesis and an agenda provide clarity; they show how the paper is meant to fit together and pre-structure the whole for the reader. This is essential if you want to make a good impression on people who are marking many papers at a stretch. By the way, even in the business world, people want to know up front what they’re getting into. No one has the time to figure out a murky paper.

The thesis and agenda sentences usually come at the end of the first paragraph. (De Beauvoir’s opening was a bit idiosyncratic in that regard, but look at the example of a Milton paper intro. below in the Appendix.) This means that the opening sentence introduces the main topic; you develop a context within which the topic becomes of interest; and then you focus in on your specific argument or thesis and end with a programmatic agenda that tells us how your analysis is going to proceed. This way we get a snapshot of the whole and all we have to do as graders is take pleasure on how cleverly you’ve developed the main thought. If this is done reasonably well, it should get you in the B+ range. If it’s done brilliantly, an A is in order. Remember that compared to the muddled paper your neighbor may be handing in, you have an immense advantage if your paper sets up a clear argument, execution, and conclusion.

Middle Section

I’ve already discussed how this is supposed to be set up. Essentially, the middle section develops several topics in logical order before arriving at a conclusion section. It’s useful to know that each paragraph in this section needs to have a very definite purpose or function. Look at each paragraph and ask what it’s accomplishing. Play “weakest link.” Find those sentences and paragraphs that don’t earn their keep and get rid of them or strengthen them. Usually the problem is structural. The sentences or paragraphs are straying from the topic, or they’re repeating something you’ve already proven. (Yes, the mind is a funny thing: it repeats or loses the thread a lot.) Last, use topic sentences. These are sentences that frame the discussion of the paragraph and to which everything in the paragraph is to be subordinated. “This is, indeed, why jealousy can be insatiable.” This could work as a topic sentence that is transitioning from jealousy in general to a specific aspect of it, insatiability. Perhaps this is meant to bolster an argument about the force of jealousy. The point is that insatiability is a “key word” to which everything in the paragraph will have to relate. Remember, topic sentences contain “key words” or topics to which everything must be subordinated.

Conclusion Section

Ideally a conclusion shows that in demonstrating your thesis you have opened up an analytical can of worms. In other words, you haven’t just narcissistically proven yourself to be correct, but have shown that you have discovered something that is relevant for further considerations you don’t have time to get into, but could mention in closing. Ideally, you would show the validity of your argument plus its applicability to something else of greater significance than what you have proven. If you look at major essays by scientists and humanists, this is almost always the type of conclusion you’ll see.

A conclusion should be at least three quarters of a page long for a two thousand word piece. It should be dense and fully packed. It should have a strong conclusion sentence, as well. If you’ve actually learned something major in writing the paper, the conclusion will fall together almost automatically. If your paper hasn’t really delivered the goods, you’ll know it in terms of how hard the conclusion will be to compose.


                                  Punctuation and Usage

Back in the seventeenth century there wasn’t much standardization. For example, both Shakespeare and Rembrandt spelled their own names variously (Shakespear, Shakespeare, Rembrant, Rembrandt, etc.). As the industry of printing books expanded, publishers edited manuscripts by way of standardizing punctuation for ease of reading. They realized that it would be more likely for a book to sell if readers could easily decipher where sentences began and ended, where phrases in the middle of sentences occurred, where quotations began and ended, and so forth. As the conventions of signaling this information became more and more standardized, it became an expectation that writers would adhere to these conventions so that printers wouldn’t have to start editing a manuscript from scratch. Eventually, it became an expectation that everyone adhere to these conventions, given that they were so ubiquitous.

Of course, sloppy punctuation, where it occurs, is not just a matter of breaking the conventions, but of not understanding how grammar works. When students use commas where periods ought to be used, they’re telling their professors that they don’t know what a sentence is. Equally problematic are pronoun reference errors (what does the “it” refer to?), apostrophe mistakes, dangling modifiers (“grunting and squealing the kids chased the pigs over the fence”), fused sentences (two sentences without a period between them), and the unintended sentence fragment. All of these mistakes tell teachers and future employers that “you ain’t learned nothin’ in school.” Of course, this isn’t really the case. But judging by appearances, you can easily get type-cast as an educated know-nothing if your prose is bad. Make sure you understand the basic usage errors and proofread for them before handing in work. Speaking of which: do get hold of the Chicago Manual of Style – 15 th Edition ( University of Chicago Press), which is the bible of proof-readers and look at chap. 5 on grammar. That section is probably the most easy and comprehensible guide there is and well worth the price of the book, though the Manual has much more that ought to be of use to you. (Unfortunately, there's no paperback edition, and it costs close to fifty dollars--Ouch! So get one used or check one out of the library. Reference Desk sections usually have one on hand.)

Even if you’re not a specialist in how to punctuate prose, I bet you’re aware that no punctuation mark is more elusive than the comma. So a few remarks on comma usage are in order.

Bear in mind that there are two styles for using the comma, closed and open. The open form uses as few commas as possible. The closed form uses many commas. Open form is cheaper and easier to typeset, and therefore newspapers and magazines prefer this style. But let’s see which makes the most sense and why.

ex. a. The novelist Joseph Conrad who was intent on finishing his work managed to finish Nostromo in a very short but anxiety ridden time.

ex. b. The novelist, Joseph Conrad, who was intent on finishing his work, managed to finish Nostromo in a very short, but anxiety ridden time.

Both examples are perfectly legitimate from the perspective of punctuation. But which is better? It is hard to tell on the basis of one sentence alone. So consider what you might think if you read five, ten, or fifty pages of relatively unpunctuated prose. Chances are you would find yourself doing more work as a reader than if you had to deal with all the commas. Why? Because when I don’t do the punctuation, you have to. In the context of reading a newspaper article, where all the sentences are short, this isn’t a problem. But in the context of academic prose, where sentences can get to be quite long, it would help to have some commas, indicating the grammatical function of the clauses. Without all the commas, we tend to get confused as to what is modifying what. This argues rather persuasively for closed style.

So where do those commas go? Commas usually set off introductory subordinate clauses. “If I were you, I wouldn’t do that.” “When the missile crisis started, no one knew exactly how to respond diplomatically.” “At around midnight, the revolution was over.” In the case of prepositional introductory phrases, there is discretion about whether the comma is inserted. And this is what confuses many people. Was my “At around midnight…” sentence okay? Shouldn’t it read, “At around midnight the revolution was over”? There’s a hidden hand at work in making this decision that is known as the restricted/non-restricted opposition. Restricted refers to a non-essential entity; non-restricted refers to an essential entity. If something is restricted, it is set off by itself, because it isn’t essential to the thought. If something is non-restricted, it is essential to the thought and cannot be discarded or set apart. If I put that comma after “midnight,” I’m saying the clause is restricted and not essential to the meaning. If I leave that comma out, the time of “midnight” becomes essential to the end of the revolution. Since the time was probably incidental, it should be set off with a comma. But you couldn’t do this in a case like, “During the month of October[,] the Communist Revolution was won.” After all, we’re talking about the October Revolution in which the month is closely tied to the idea of the Revolution itself. There the comma would be in error.

While we’re on the restricted/non-restricted bit, “which” and “that” obey this law, as well. Which introduces clauses that are restricted and set off by commas. That introduces non-restricted clauses. Compare, “The day that was to turn out badly for Tim couldn’t be salvaged” to “The day, which was to turn out badly for Tim, couldn’t be salvaged.” Tim is a major actor in the first example, a minor actor in the second. In recent decades publishers have tried to wipe out all uses of which, though which is slowly making a comeback. There’s a long and interesting history of that/which. (Writers of English haven’t been able to stabilize its use over the last four hundred years or so.)

Commas are also used to set off appositions. “The philosopher, Kierkegaard, was a melancholic.” Appositions are parenthetical and tell the reader what is being referred to in mid-stream. The clause using which in the previous paragraph is appositional. The reason for appositions is that you can embed subordinate details into a sentence. Frequently, appositions allow one to embed several complex ideas into one sentence structure. Experiment with appositions and mark off with commas.

The comma is used before coordinating conjunctions when they introduce independent clauses. “John ate honey, and Jill ate bitters.” Compare with, “John ate honey and Jill bitters.” There is no comma in the second instance. But bear in mind that there are many instances with the coordinating conjunction “but” where you will probably mark it off with a comma, even if it introduces a dependent clause. You saw me do it above, for example, in order to better define the logical importance of the sentence’s parts.

Commas separate parts of a list. When these parts become too long and involved, use semi-colons instead. Mind the use of commas when separating adjectives. “The dark brown horse” is one thing; “the dark, brown horse” is another. Or, “She had blue, beautiful eyes” versus “She had blue beautiful eyes.” I prefer there to be the version of the eyes being blue and also being beautiful, as opposed to being beautiful but also blue. The concrete term should carry the abstraction along with it, not the other way around. So who cares about these commas, anyway? Individually they are not earthshaking. But cumulatively they make the difference between a clearly articulated text and a hodgepodge. Not minding your commas is like not minding the termites. Eventually the roof will cave in.

                                     Style and Process

 1. The parts of a sentence or essay that have the most impact are, in the following order, the end, the beginning, and the middle.

2. Most of your sentences should be complex or compound or compound-complex in form.

3. The simple sentence is an intensifier. Use it as such.

4. The simple sentence carries the most impact when it comes at the end of a paragraph. It carries the second most impact when it comes at the beginning. It has no impact if it comes in the middle of a paragraph.

5. If you’re going to say something stupid, say it in the middle. Because no one particularly remembers what was said in the middle.

6. People naturally gravitate to one of the three following styles: 1) antithesis, 2) anaphora, 3) apposition. Find out which you favor and exploit it. Then practice the others for good balance.

Antithesis: “It was the best of times; it was the worst of times.”

Anaphora: “It was the best of times, the hardest of times, the greatest of times, and the worst of times.”

Apposition: “It was, as far as times were concerned, the best, if not the hardest, and the worst, if not the greatest.

7. Writing is like a painting with elements in the foreground and the background. Make sure readers can tell what is supposed to stand out from what isn’t. To do this, background and foreground vocabulary. Use everyday words for the background and special terms or key words for the foreground. Most of the vocabulary should be commonplace words. Save “sobriquet” and “detritus” for special occasions only.

8. Telling is better than showing. Readers need to be told what to think.

9. Showing is better than telling. Unsupported assertions aren't persuasive.

10. Avoid the words "it" and "thing." This will make your prose more efficient and combat wordyness.

11. Semi-colons can be avoided entirely, and whole books have been written without them. So that's one less mistake we have to worry about.

12. Avoid parentheses. These are garbage trucks for prose and usually indicate patches where a writer couldn't properly fit in the ideas.

13. "I" and "you" are generally unacceptable in formal analytical essays. That said, in recent years informal writing has become more and more common in academic prose. I'm okay with informal writing, but other instructors might have different expectations.

14. Don't wait until a week before an essay assignment is due to begin working on it. You should plan out essay projects well in advance and think about them. An essay shouldn't be a chore. Think of it as a creative process that you should find rewarding as you solve various problems that you're addressing in your research and writing. Above all, have fun with it. Challenge yourself to overcome the demands of the project.



    Models of a Proper Introduction to a Literary Analysis Paper


Freshman Student Paper on Steinbeck:

In Grapes of Wrath of 1939, George Steinbeck considers the economic and social difficulties faced by an Oklahoman family during the Great Depression. The novel includes a sharp critique of capitalist alienation, as the author condemns the injustice suffered when those who labor on the land, and who are most personally linked to it, find out that they have no legal right to remain there. While this critique of capitalist alienation is hard to miss, a closer examination of the text reveals various other forms of alienation that economic hardships and the deification of corporations creates. Steinbeck depicts a world in which family members are alienated from one another, critizens are at odds with their communities, and powerful men are separated from personal responsibity and their moral codes. Essentially these forms of alienation result from putting the pursuit of wealth ahead of caring for social relationships.

The thesis is that while alienation from the land is a dominant form of alienation that Steinbeck chooses to highlight, there are various other types of alienation that require definition and analysis. The second to last sentence lists three types of alienation that will set the agenda for the paper. The topics on this agenda structure the body of the paper. The conclusion of the paper will argue that instead of being any one thing, alienation refers to a number of attacks by the capitalist system on how people are connected: to land, to family, to community, to morality.


Senior Paper on Milton's Paradise Lost.

     Milton’s elaboration of Genesis throughout the first ten books of Paradise Lost results in a psychological complexity of character that is hard to reconcile with the poem’s simplistic ending: the return to God. By the poem’s conclusion, the reader not only understands the decision of Adam and Eve to eat the apple, but empathizes with the tragic couple to such an extent that it becomes thinkable to imagine why they might not want to return to God after being expelled from Eden. Milton therefore has to confront the problem of resolving the disparity between accepting God's goodness and suspecting that something unfair has happened to Adam and Eve by way of an unjust God whose ”many Laws argue so many sins” (xii, 281). Not surprisingly, Adam asserts, “This yet I apprehend not” (281).  And, of course, the reader shares Adam’s confusion. Apparently, if the ending of the poem is to be convincing, Milton must create reparation in such a way that it can be accepted by Adam and Eve, who are by now psychologically mature, their eyes having been opened. We can see that Milton works on this problem by putting book nine, on the fall of Adam and Eve, in conversation with book twelve, which is on the exile of Adam and Eve. The relation between the two books is established in three major ways. (1) Structurally each book follows a similar trajectory that enacts a moment of fall and estrangement. (2) Descriptively there is an emphasis on shadows and darkness that not only establishes relations of mood between the two books, but that also establishes the state of mind that will characterize Adam and Eve’s relation to their sin. (3) Finally, thematic motifs in book twelve recall earlier books, book nine among them, and create a means of binding Adam and Eve back to God, even as they experience their distance from him.


The opening sentence is a rather specific insight that could only come about through a detailed examination of the text. In other words, the paper begins with a conclusion to substantial thinking that has occurred before the paper starts. This opening leads into the central thesis of the essay, which is that in order for the poem to be successful, it has to reconcile the alienation of Adam and Eve with their capacity to accept and love God. We can see Milton working this out in relating books 12 and 9. In other words, there is a very methodical process at work in the poem, relative to the thesis, that the student is going to expose. And that process can be divided into three parts (the agenda of the paper). Bear in mind that the thesis gets at a significant problem. Most writers wouldn't have been able to pull off the reconciliation with God as a plausible or satisfactory ending, and close analysis shows that Milton must have been quite aware of the fact that without a satisfactory reconciliation, the poem would have fallen apart. As it happens, some readers have not been convinced by the ending.



                               Sample Essay Openings

The Anecdotal Opener: anecdotes can prove an important point and are useful in setting the stage for exploring a particular topic. Here is an anecdote as told by Roman Jakobson and Stephen Rudy in an essay on poetry.

Paul Valery, both a poet and an inquisitive theoretician of poetry as an 'art of language,' recalls the story of the painter Degas, who loved to write poems, yet once complained to Mallarme that he felt unable to achieve what he wanted in poetry despite being 'full of ideas.' Mallarme's apt reply was: "It's not with ideas, my dear Degas, that one writes verse. It's with words." [Source: Roman Jakobson, Verbal Art, Verbal Sign, Verbal Time, Minnesota UP, 1985; p. 79]

The Quarrelling Opener begins by outlining a debate and is a good way to situate a field of inquiry; it builds upon previous research.

Although it has long been a staple of criticism that whatever is good in Pope's Windsor Forest is to be found in its lively descriptions of the natural scene, a parallel critical tradition claims, as one of its exponents puts it, that the poem fails in its intent to be descriptive because it is 'too conventional and formal' -- it must be read as primarily an exercise in style. [Source: Earl Wasserman, The Subtler Language. Hopkins UP, 1959; p. 45]

Opening in Medias Res. This approach starts by citing a passage from a text, as if to plunge directly into an explication. I'm citing the opening to my own essay on the performance artist Laurie Anderson.

'Hello. Excuse me. Can you tell me where I am?' A voice unsure about a turn made in a car at night is asking for directions. 'Hello. Excuse me,' the voice says, aware of its hollowness, its presistence. 'Hello . . .'   Searching for its whereabouts on a darkened nightclub stage, the voice of Laurie Anderson casts us deep into the precarious loneliness and awkwardness of postmodern space. It is here that saying 'hello' sounds life-threatening. . . [Between the Sign and the Gaze, Cornell UP, 1994; p. 268]

Problematization as Opening. Here the author begins by stating a problem or quandary.

An experience recurs in the study of Renaissance literature and culture: an image or text seems to invite, even to demand, a psychoanalytic approach and yet turns out to baffle or elude that approach. [Source: Stephen Greenblatt, Learning to Curse, Routledge, 1990; p. 131.]

The Factual Opener. This is usually a short sentence that states a fact or principle that announces the topic of the paper or leads into it. This is probably the most common approach.

The malcontent is a type as old as the hills, perhaps as old as writing itself. [Source: Walter Benjamin, "An Outsider Makes his Mark," in Selected Writings, vol. 2. Harvard UP, 2000.]

Some Reliable Critical Writing Models to Follow

Consult work by: Erich Auerbach, J. Hillis Miller, Cleanth Brooks,

Marjorie Perloff, Susan Sontag, George Steiner, Frank Kermode, Hugh

Kenner, Roger Shattuck, Edward Said, and (the art historians) Clement

Greenberg, Harold Rosenberg, Hilton Kramer, and T. J. Clark. Last, compare

Viriginia Woolf's style in The Common Reader to Paul de Man's style in

Allegories of Reading. In working out the strengths and weaknesses in

each, triangulate where you would like to stand in relation to each. You may

learn something about yourself if you do this exercise.


Text: ©Herman Rapaport, 2003, 2008, 2012.




















Planet Apostrophe

There are too many Georges in this room. [Plural.]

George's car broke down. [Possessive singular.]

George's and John's tennis rackets were missing. [Individual possession in which each possesses something of his own.]

George and John's holiday was ruined. [Joint possession.]

We saw the Georges' cat eat Milly's annoying canary. [Possessive plural for family name.]

Descartes's theory. Descartes' theory. [Possessive singular for word ending in s -- really no hard and fast rule upon which to use, but publishers prefer the first variant; Descarteses if we're talking about the whole family of people called Descartes. Looks ugly, doesn't it? Most of us do a work-around.]

It's going to rain. [Contraction for It is.]

The cat bit its head right off. [Pronoun.]

Avoid possessives for inanimate objects, i.e. "The machine's cogs were stuck due to a spanner." Revision: "The cogs of the machine were stuck due to a spanner." No possessive for ideas or concepts, either. Avoid: "Realism's problem is obvious."




Non sequitur: two thoughts that do not have any logical connection. "The bars are full because Mary ate a turnip."

Tautology: self-evident statement. "Water is wet." If you can imagine a reader responding with "duh," you've probably written a tautology.

Changing the Topic: switching horses in mid-stream. This commonly happens in introductions.

Laundry Listing: moving from one topic to another without any particular plot line or clear argument. This constitutes writing by free association (by whatever comes to mind).

Point No Counterpoint: making assertions without taking into account that their validity is limited and easily countered by opposing views.

Lack of Evidence: not taking the time to show proof for assertions that aren't self-evidently true.

Mistaking particular for universal: claiming that because something is true in one case it is true in all cases.

Assumption blindness: not being aware of what your argument or approach assumes to be the case and the limits those assumptions might have.



The Seven Deadly Sins

1. Run-on sentences.

2. Comma splices

3. Dangling participles

4. Pronoun reference errors

5. Verb/Noun disagreements

6. Sentence fragments

7. Apostrophe errors

Mind the Conjunctions

Coordinating Conjunctions:

and, but, for...

Think of these as logical operators.

And adds something.

But retracts or subtracts something.

For, because: give us a reason or result.

Conjunctive Adverbs:

moreover, furthermore... (aka and)

however (aka but)

therefore, consequently (aka for)

Conjunctive adverbs are intensifiers. They're more emphatic ways of saying and, but, and for. When they come at the beginning of sentences in order to make a strong logical connection, they have to be set off by a period or semi-colon and followed by a comma. "They condemned Jack Sparrow to the gallows; however, Jack was innocent."

In troubleshooting writing, it's very useful to track whether one has used enough conjunctive adverbs to help the reader out logically. Also, from a structural point of view, it's useful to note where these logical operators are located in the paragraphs. If you start out a sentence with "However," does this mark a new line of reasoning? If so, you might be at a paragraph break without quite realizing it. "Therefore" may also signal you ought to break into a new paragraph. But "furthermore" clearly doesn't suggest we ought to be breaking paragraphs quite yet. Getting the logical operators to line up with the structuring of the writing will help enormously in clarifying academic prose, especially when one is writing quite a lot of material (upwards of 2000 words).

Fault! Don't ever substitute "on the other hand" for "however," unless it's preceded by "on the one hand." Academics themselves often make this mistake (faulty parallelism).

Fault! Don't substitute "as well as" for "and," unless it's absolutely necessary to do so. "He liked baseball as well as football" is a comparison. He liked one just as much as the other. But writers frequently substitute "as well as" when they're just adding on information. "She went to the store as well as to the park" should be: "She went to the store and to the park."