What's a Good Essay?

What's a Good Essay?
by Adam Kissel
Introduction
Other writing guides usually fail to emphasize a simple point: a great piece of writing is a meaningful activity between the writer and the reader. An essay is not simply a beautiful piece of finished prose. It is an ordered set of paragraphs that does something for the reader. A great essay is an action with a purpose.
Sometimes the choice is not yours: you might be required to show a single reader that you understand one thing in particular. But most of the time, even when you have strict guidelines to follow, you have a lot of choices. The main actions you can take are
(1) to instruct or teach the reader something;
(2) to delight the reader, or to give the reader something to appreciate or enjoy;
(3) to move the reader, which means to inspire the reader to feel a certain way or to go out and do something.
A good essay accomplishes one or more of these goals. A bad essay, even when it has a perfect structure, excellent spelling, and impeccable grammar, does not accomplish any of these goals. Great essays often but not always accomplish all three.
The advice in these pages is unique to GradeSaver. Here is where you will learn how to write a good essay. Every page reminds you to do something for the reader.
If you need to come up with an essay topic for a particular assignment, don't worry. Advice is here. And even if you don't really want to do something for the reader, you can find a topic that you like enough to share.
Always Follow the Directions
Before you start working on your topic or your specific interactions with the reader, make sure you understand the requirements for your essay. It might amaze you how many essays fail to follow simple directions. These directions normally come from your reader. Your reader will like you and have more patience with you if you follow the directions, not if you don't.
The directions include everything from the recommended number of pages or words to the manner, place, and time at which you should submit your essay.
Moreover, if you have been given a "prompt" or a specific essay topic, do not write about something else. Note that readers search for plagiarism more vigorously when they notice that an essay does not really answer the question or follow the prompt.
Remember that an essay is an action. A prompt often gives you a specific activity to complete. Look for the key verb in the prompt. If you do not know what the verb means, numerous web sites provide insight about how to interpret verbs such as analyze, comment, compare, define, describe, discuss, explain, identify, list, prove, summarize, and so on.
Note that if there is no prompt, you can use one of these key verbs to launch your essay. Can you think of something beautiful worth commenting on, something difficult or unusual that is worth explaining, something complicated that you should summarize, etc.?
How to Instruct the Reader
Most admission essays, academic essays, and scholarship essays are designed to teach something to the reader. In truth, if you are writing an essay that involves class material and your teacher is the reader, your teacher may already know what you have to teach. So, you will write as though you really are saying something new. Who knows--maybe for your teacher, it really is!
Admission and scholarship essays normally instruct the reader first of all about you, whether directly or indirectly. Even when your topic is about something else, such as your favorite role model or the best way to eat spaghetti while blindfolded, you are teaching your reader about yourself: this is what I find interesting or valuable; this is how I solve problems; this is why I would be a great member of your community.
When you write to instruct, think about what is worth knowing about your subject. Then, (1) instruct the reader why this point is worth knowing, and (2) make the point.
(1) Will your reader be impressed if you compare the novel's hero to a tree? Well, it depends: are trees or forests important in the novel? Does anyone in the novel get transformed into an inanimate object? Does the character act in a "wooden" manner? In other words, if you can make a good case for the knowledge being important in its context, your reader will be interested to learn what you have to teach.
(2) You have had good teachers and bad teachers, right? There are many good ways to write an essay that instructs. You can choose to lead the reader through a chain of thoughts, provide the reader with a bunch of data that illustrates or proves a general point, explain to the reader how a particular detail fits in the big picture, compare various sets of facts so that your reader understands what's what, tell the reader a story about something worth knowing, and so on. See "Take Your Reader on a Trip" for more ideas.
How to Delight the Reader
Admission, scholarship, and academic essays, as well as some kinds of professional writing, often involve pleasing the reader.
In admission and scholarship essays it is vital to please your readers about you. From the first sentence, your readers should feel that you are a person who is worth getting to know better. Give them every chance to enjoy what is best about you. By the end of the essay, your readers should feel glad that they came across such a wonderful person as yourself--they should want to give you whatever you have applied to get.
To please these "institutional" readers, you should (1) get to know the institution and what it values, (2) determine which aspects of yourself best match those values, and (3) demonstrate those values in the essay. Those values are demonstrated both directly and indirectly in your essay.
For example, readers from (1) a scientific institution that values people with a very specific scientific interest will enjoy reading (2) an account of a particular experiment you conducted or wish you could conduct, if at the same time you (3) show how enjoyable the experience was or would be. You would be demonstrating the genuine interest that the institution is looking for.
In academic essays you normally delight readers by helping them appreciate something that is beautiful, good, or true. Note that if you genuinely believe something is beautiful, good, or true, you can rely on your own taste to find reasons why. Why waste energy on an essay about something that doesn't stir you up in any way? Readers won't be interested unless you are.
Delighting readers means (1) showing them the great thing and (2) showing how or why it is great. For example, if the costumes in a film seemed beautiful to you, help your readers imagine what they looked like, and draw their attention to the best parts. If you think a certain policy would be good for the nation, predict all the good results that will come to pass, and connect them to the policy. If you are amazed at the way an author of a mystery keeps the plot so exciting, recreate the suspense by quoting the most suspenseful passages, and point out what makes them so suspenseful. If you think a philosopher has really hit the nail on the head, explain the significance of the problem that the philosopher addresses and then show the reader what the philosopher has contributed toward a solution.
In professional writing, you might want your readers to feel pleased with your work so far, with their business relationship with you, or with a particular product or service. A resume is like an admission essay in that your readers should become pleased with you. An advertisement encourages readers to be pleased with a product or service. Note that the reader is unlikely to keep reading once the magic is gone; an essay for a class will be read out of duty, but an ad can simply be thrown away. A business letter might demonstrate that you and your company are great at solving difficult problems efficiently, or that your company continues to value its relationship with your readers' company. Many business letters delight readers by being short, formal, and to the point--especially when the readers value directness and efficiency.
How to Move the Reader
An essay moves readers by persuading them to feel a certain way (angry, satisfied, afraid, etc.) or by activating them to do something. It is much easier to persuade someone if you genuinely feel the same feeling, and it is much easier to activate someone if you are motivated to do it too.
If something is significant enough to make you angry or afraid, maybe you should write about it. But unless you are supposed to be writing about yourself, your readers normally don't want to know why you are moved. They want to know why they should be moved. If there's something out in the world to be afraid of, your readers will appreciate knowing about it. If someone has written something that they should be angry about, you might be doing them a favor by pointing it out.
The three steps in moving the reader to feel something are (1) if you are feeling an emotion, figure out why; (2) show your readers the situation or give them the experience that has caused the emotion, emphasizing the key details; and (3) if it's not already clear, explain why that emotion is justified.
For example, if the last scene of a play felt totally unsatisfying to you, and you feel unfulfilled, (1) why? Is it because there are so many loose ends? Because the villain doesn't get the proper punishment and the hero just lets him go? Or is it because the play was meant to be performed live, but all the energy was gone when you read it by yourself? (2) Suppose it was because of the loose ends. The thesis of your essay could be, for example, that the playwright created such a rambling plot that readers should find other ways to enjoy the play. (3) You can present plot lines from Act I and Act II that have no resolution in Act V. You might point out that if the play were a comedy, it would not matter so much, because the point is to laugh as one goes along--but this is supposed to be a serious play, and yet the author has let us down. At least, perhaps, we can appreciate the dialogue.
You also can tell that an essay is effective if it activates your readers to get up and do something about what you wrote. Often, if you move the reader's emotions, you can point the reader toward an action that can express, extinguish, or deepen the emotion.
For example, if you persuade a reader to appreciate the character development in a particular book, you can point the reader to other books with a similar pattern. Or if you persuade the reader to be angry at the implications of something an author wrote, you can point out that someone else has been making those implications real--maybe the reader should go out and stop it! Maybe something that an economist wrote 50 years ago has an important bearing on how your readers should vote on a referendum in the next election. Or perhaps a moral philosopher is right that a popular practice is actually harmful, and you can persuade your readers through reason and guilt to stop doing the harmful thing.
The point of a great essay intended to move the reader is that the reader actually moves in the right direction. Maybe the reader will stop reading halfway through the essay, get up, put on a coat, and do whatever it is you recommended. If you're right and it works out, you have an A, or a revolution, or you saved civilization. If your advice is bad and the reader figures it out, beware.
Take Your Reader on a Trip
These patterns help you structure an essay that effectively instructs, delights, and/or moves the reader.
The Cruise: If you have a lot of material to tell the reader, make sure you do it in some reasonable order. Do not ramble about uninteresting things, and stay focused. A cruise ship does not set out from England, go south and then east to Turkey, west to Florida, east to France, northwest to Greenland, etc. It follows a reasonable path from place to place. A cruise is also supposed to be delightful: there has to be something worth your reader's time at each stop.
The Elevator: Once you have a clear sense of the argument in your essay, make sure you keep the reader with you at every stage of the argument. A person normally rides an elevator in only one direction at a time. They also travel to every floor between the starting point and the destination. Don't skip an important step in your argument. Also, if your essay is designed to move the reader, don't let the emotion lag; let it build--or if the point of the essay is to show an angry reader why not to be angry, guide the reader down carefully to calmness. Don't jolt the reader into submission.
The Space Shuttle: Maybe you're a broad thinker, not so good about keeping track of details. Soar over the details: take your readers with you on an amazing ride. Note that the scenery has to be good at this level, or else your readers will wonder why they came along. For example, maybe you don't have time to figure out what the status of women was in 18th-century England, but you do have some interesting ideas about the relations between men and women in general. Feature your general observations and dip down briefly, here and there, for examples.
The Piggy-Back Ride: If you have some important things to show the reader in a no-nonsense way, load the reader on your back: the reader looks at the same things that are important to you, and from nearly the same perspective. Note that not all readers want this kind of ride. But when you have all the facts, you are the authority; you decide what your reader ought to know or feel.
The Library: Good research essays are like guided trips to the library. Bring the reader a bunch of worthwhile, meaningful books, point out the key passages, and tie them together around the common subject of your research.
The Pilgrimage: When you want readers to really appreciate something worthwhile, lead them to all the best sites and point out what's marvelous. A poet's wonderful rhyme, for instance, connects the two main themes of the poem with perfect economy--and look! Here is the rhyme again in another poem about something else, evoking the first poem--and behold! See how the two poems actually form a series, leading us from one emotion to the next--and so on.
The War Zone: In the strong form of the "compare and contrast" essay, you take up the implications of the differences you found and put them in opposition to one another. Give both sides their due, and let them duke it out on the page. Maybe there are two contrasting ways to interpret something; so what? Tell your reader why the contrast is important.
If You Must, Send Them Down the Funnel: Many readers of this guide have learned how to write a standard five-paragraph essay in what teachers have called the "funnel" style. This skill is essential for standardized tests, where time is short and the point is to show that you can construct three meaningful paragraphs about the same topic. The funnel metaphor comes from the idea that your introduction makes some general observations and gradually narrows down to your three main points, one point to be discussed in each paragraph. Then the readers fall out of the funnel into ... well, instructors don't tell you what happens next. The conclusion is supposed to sum up and then provide one further idea that broadens back into the general point or extends somewhere else. Too often, readers feel like they have been dropped off nowhere. But for the computer grading your standardized test, that's ok. For a teacher who has to grade 50 essays quickly, that can be ok too.
Let GradeSaver help you break out of the acceptable but uninspired funnel style and edit your essay to excellence.
How to Make the Reader Like You
Remember that your essay does something for the reader. If your reader appreciates what you've done, your essay will be more successful. If your reader wanted to be instructed but not moved, you may get a response such as, "Don't write so dogmatically." If your reader was expecting a "persuasive" essay but you chose to delight the reader, your reader will be disappointed. This is another reason why following the directions is essential.
Readers like writers who seem to be engaging, interesting, funny or serious depending on the context, perceptive, studious, thoughtful, good at communicating, etc.
For admission and scholarship essays, readers like writers who have a variety of positive character traits and who demonstrate that they fit well among the values of the institution.
To show that you are interesting, choose an interesting topic. Normally this means choosing a topic that genuinely interests you and explaining why it is so interesting. The reader will be more likely to enjoy going on a "trip" with you.
To show that you are engaging, engage the reader by working on a worthwhile issue in your essay. Choose a topic with significant implications, one where the outcome matters. "Did Romeo love Juliet after all? Let's look at the evidence!"--even if you conclude that he did totally love her, shaking up the issue for a while is likely to keep the reader engaged.
If you choose to be funny and the context is appropriate, try out your jokes on a test audience (friend, family, roommate) before submitting the essay. Whenever possible, give yourself 24 hours without thinking about the jokes, and then return to them to see if they still seem funny and appropriate.
See the sections below for further advice.
How to Show That You Did the Reading
Show that you are studious by providing evidence that you completed the assigned reading or research. First, however, here are obvious signs that you did not do the reading: (1) you misspell an author's name, the title of a book, or the name of someone listed in a book; (2) you seem to have guessed what the book was about on the basis of the title and the first few chapters; (3) all of your quotations come from the same chapter or even the same page, or your quotations or main ideas come from ClassicNotes or another reading guide; (4) parts of your essay are plagiarized.
(1) Make sure that all proper names are spelled correctly.
(2) Read the book. If you have run out of time and cannot get an extension, look for a table of contents and an index. Learn what the book is about from these sources and from online reading guides such as ClassicNotes. You could choose a topic that involves the development of a theme throughout the book.
(3) Many books are online as etexts. Try to find suitable quotations from throughout the book by searching for a theme word in the book's index or table of contents or by using an etext.
(4) Do not plagiarize. You might be surprised how easy it is to get caught plagiarizing, and the consequences can be extreme.
Beyond that, note that in general, novels have a plot, poems have a subject, social science texts, philosophical works, and works about the humanities have an argument, scientific and many social science texts have a finding, textbooks and technical writing have information, travel writing has observations, and political and business writings often have action items. Make sure you can state what the central points are of whatever you have read.
Note that if you try to put a large number of the book's central points into your essay, the essay will seem uncontrolled because it ranges so widely. You can show you did the reading by tracing just one or two topics through the course of the book.
How to Show That You Thought About the Reading
Good writers usually place the specific subject of the essay in relation to one or more of the central points of the book. Doing this shows that you are thoughtful.
Also, a thoughtful essay often challenges something that a quick reader of the book might think. For example, "The frequent jokes in the play lead many readers to think it is a comedy. But the jokes among the main characters hide a pervasive sadness that affects almost everything they do, which makes this play a tragedy."
How to Show That You Did Additional Reading
A great way to show that you are studious is to include sources that were not assigned. These should be appropriate to the level of analysis that you are expected to provide. See above on how to show that you actually read these other sources. And once again, follow the directions: some assignments require additional readings and ask you to use those readings in particular ways; other assignments require that all the ideas be your own, strongly recommending that you do not seek information elsewhere.
Remember that it is better to put quotation marks around a big block of text than to plagiarize and possibly get caught. If you must use a big block of text, break it into smaller pieces: "Smith says that 'xxx.' He adds, 'yyy.' To conclude this part of the argument, he points out that 'zzz.'" You also could add a few paraphrases along the way. Effective use of these techniques shows that you are analyzing the source as you go, rather than simply quoting it.
Note that sources must be cited properly (if your instructor or area of study requires a certain citation style) or at least consistently.
Other Ways to Make the Reader Like You
(1) Figure out what kinds of topics the reader values, and choose one of those topics. Spending time in class and reviewing your notes might help you learn what interests your instructor. If you have been given a list of topics to choose from, this list can help you determine the interests and the literary, political, or ideological perspective of the instructor. Quickly checking out your reader’s list of publications (from an online resume or an online library catalog) can help too.
(2) It normally helps to take a line of argument that the instructor would naturally be inclined to agree with. As you become better at making arguments and supporting them with good evidence, however, you can provide a carefully-reasoned defense of an alternative point of view. Of course you always have the right to take an alternative point of view, but in terms of grading and the reader’s perception of you as thoughtful, smart, or perceptive, you also have to be able to defend it successfully.
(3) For readers who are longtime instructors or who have 50 or more students, choose a topic that differs from the most common and obvious topics. Beware that the most obvious topics are sometimes the most interesting; don't choose an uninteresting topic just to be different.
(4) Proofread your essay carefully. Having an essay free of typos and grammar problems shows that you are prudent and careful. It also shows that you put extra effort into your essay. Most of all, it keeps the reader engaged rather than distracted. If you have any question about proper style or usage, either find the answer or seek another way to write the same thing.
Let GradeSaver help you proofread and edit your essay to perfection in grammar and elegance in style.
Five Ways to Turn Off the Reader
(1) Don't make claims that you cannot support. Beware of "totalizing" words such as "all," "always," "never," "every," and so on. Even if you can't think of an exception, your readers often can--or they will be distracted while they try to come up with exceptions.
(2) Don't talk down to the reader. Although in a business setting you might know more about your topic than your reader knows, in a classroom setting this is likely only if you have done significant extra research. Although a student essay normally should read as though the writer knows more than the reader, remember that this is just a healthy convention to help you learn to write better. Talking down often takes the form of an unnecessary definition, frequent repetition, or proving the obvious.
(3) Don't distract the reader from the actual essay. Distractions include the following: lots of exclamation points, more than just a few words in italics, words in boldface other than essay titles and section headings, unusual margins, titles or section headings in special fonts or greater than 14 points high, any stretching or compression of the text to fit a page minimum or maximum, and so on. Once in a while you can get away with an especially apt picture such as an editorial cartoon or a panel from a comic strip, but don't overdo it.
(4) Don't over-generalize, especially in the first sentence or paragraph of the essay. "Funnel" essays (see above) are most often guilty of this problem. You might be startled to learn how many essays begin like this: "Every society has people in it. One of those societies, England, has millions of people. One of the most populated cities in England, London, has a great diversity of people. This essay will describe the main ethnic groups of London." Readers are put off by openings with bland generalities. Likewise, they are put off by openings that provide a common proverb or a dictionary definition of a term.
(5) Don't write extremely long paragraphs. Readers tend to get annoyed at the prospect of having to wade through a big block of text. A paragraph that goes on for two thirds of a page looks daunting. Aim for eight sentences per paragraph as a reasonable maximum. And remember: one main point per paragraph, please.
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