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The Basics of Effective Essay Writing

by Becton Loveless

As you progress through school, you’ll be required to write essays. And the farther along in school you get, the more complex and demanding the essays will become. It’s important that you learn early on how to write effective essays that communicate clearly and accomplish specific objectives.

An essay is a written composition where you express a specific idea and then support it with facts, statements, analysis and explanations. The basic format for an essay is known as the five paragraph essay – but an essay may have as many paragraphs as needed. A five paragraph essay contains five paragraphs. However, the essay itself consists of three sections: an introduction, a body and a conclusion.

Below we’ll explore the basics of writing an essay.

Select a Topic

When you first start writing essays in school, it’s not uncommon to have a topic assigned to you. However, as you progress in grade level, you’ll increasingly be given the opportunity to choose the topic of your essays. When selecting a topic for your essay, you’ll want to make sure your topic supports the type of paper you’re expected to write. If you’re expected to produce a paper that is a general overview, then a general topic will suffice. However, if you’re expected to write a specific analysis, then you’re topic should be fairly specific.

For example, lets assume the objective of your essay is to write an overview. Then the topic “RUSSIA” would be suitable. However, if the objective or your essay is to write a specific analysis, then “RUSSIA” would be far too general a topic. You’ll need to narrow down your topic to something like “Russian Politics: Past, Present and Future” or “Racial Diversity in the Former USSR”.

If you’re expected to choose your own topic, then the first step is to define the purpose of your essay. Is your purpose to persuade? To explain how to accomplish something? Or to education about a person, place, thing or idea? The topic you choose needs to support the purpose of your essay.

The purpose of your essay is defined by the type of paper you’re writing. There are three basic types of essay papers:

  • Analytical – An analytical essay paper breaks down an idea or issue into its its key components. It evaluates the issue or idea by presenting analysis of the breakdown and/or components to the the reader.
  • Expository – Also known as explanatory essays, expositories provide explanations of something.
  • Argumentative – These type of essays, also known as persuasive essays, make a specific claim about a topic and then provide evidence and arguments to support the claim. The claim set forth in argumentative (persuasive) essays may be an opinion, an evaluation, an interpretation, cause-effect statement or a policy proposal. The purpose of argumentative essays is to convince or persuade the reader that a claim is valid.

Once you have defined the purpose of your essay, it’s time to brainstorm. Don’t choose just one topic right of the bat. Take some time to consider, contrast and weight your options. Get out a piece of paper and make a list of all the different topics that fit the purpose of your essay. Once they’re all down on paper, start by eliminating those topics that are difficult or not as relevant as others topics. Also, get rid of those topics that are too challenging or that you’re just not that interested in. Pretty soon you will have whittled your list down to just a few topics and then you can make a final choice.

Organize Your Ideas Using a Diagram or Outline

Some students get scared to start writing. They want to make sure they have all their thoughts organized in their head before they put anything down on paper. Creating a diagram or outline allows you to put pen to paper and start organizing your ideas. Don’t worry or agonize over organization at this point, just create a moderately organized format for your information.

Whether you use a diagram or outline doesn’t really matter. Some people prefer and work better with the flowing structure of a diagram. Others like the rigid and logical structure of an outline. Don’t fret, once you get started, you can always change formats if the format you chose isn’t working out for you.

Diagram

The following are useful steps for developing a diagram to organize ideas for your essay.

  • Get started by drawing a circle in the middle of a paper just big enough to write in.
  • Inside your circle, write your essay topic.
  • Now draw three or four lines out from your circle.
  • At the end of each of lines, draw another circle just slightly smaller than the circle in the middle of the page.
  • In each smaller circle, write a main idea about your topic, or point you want to make. If this is persuasive (argumentative) essay, then write down your arguments. If the object of the essay is to explain a process (expository), then write down a step in each circle. If your essay is intended to be informative or explain (analytical), write the major categories into which information can be divided.
  • Now draw three more lines out from each circle containing a main idea.
  • At the end of each of these lines, draw another circle.
  • Finally, in each of these circles write down facts or information that help support the main idea.

Outline

The following are useful steps for developing an outline to organize ideas for your essay.

  • Take a page of paper and write your topic at the top.
  • Now, down the left side of the page, under the topic, write Roman numerals I, II, and III, sequentially.
  • Next to each Roman numeral, write the main points, or ideas, about your essay topic. If this is persuasive essay, write your arguments. If this an essay to inform, write the major categories into which information will be divided. If the purpose of your essay is to explain a process, write down each step of the process.
  • Next, under each Roman numeral, write A, B, and C down the left hand side of the page.
  • Finally, next to each letter, under each Roman numeral, write the information and/or facts that support the main point or idea.

Develop a Thesis Statement

Once you have an idea for the basic structure of your essay, and what information you’re going to present in your essay, it’s time to develop your thesis statement. A thesis statement states or outlines what you intend to prove in your essay. A good thesis statement should be clear, concise, specific, and takes a position.

The word “thesis” just sounds intimidating to most students, but a thesis is actually quite simple. A thesis statement (1) tells the reader what the essay is about and (2) what points you’ll be making. If you’ve already selected an essay topic, and developed an outline or diagram, you now can decide what points you want to communicate through your essay.

A thesis statement has two key components. The first component is the topic, and the second is the point(s) of the essay. The following is an example of an expository (explanatory) thesis statement:

The life of a child raised in Pena Blanca is characterized by little playing, a lot of hard work and extreme poverty.

An example of an analytical thesis statement:

An analysis of the loan application process for citizens of third world countries reveals one major obstacle: applicants must already have money in order to qualify for a loan.

An example of an argumentative (persuasive) thesis statement:

Instead of sending tax money overseas to buoy struggling governments and economies, U.S. residents should be offered tax incentives for donating to companies that provide micro loans directly to the citizens of third world countries.

Once you’re done developing a thesis statement that supports the type of essay your writing and the purpose of the essay, you’re ready to get started on your introduction.

Introduction

The introduction is the first paragraph of the essay. It introduces the reader to the idea that the essay will address. It is also intended to capture the reader’s attention and interest. The first sentence of the introduction paragraph should be as captivating and interesting as possible. The sentences that follow should clarify your opening statement. Conclude the introduction paragraph with your thesis statement.

Body

The body of your essay is where you explain, describe or argue the topic you’ve chosen. Each of the main ideas you included in your outline or diagram will become of the body paragraphs. If you wrote down four main ideas in your outline or diagram, then you’ll have four body paragraphs.

Each paragraph will address one main idea that supports the thesis statement. The first paragraph of the body should put forth your strongest argument to support your thesis. Start the paragraph out by stating the supporting idea. Then follow up with additional sentences that contain supporting information, facts, evidence or examples – as shown in your diagram or outline. The concluding sentence should sum up what you’ve discussed in the paragraph.

The second body paragraph will follow the same format as the first body paragraph. This paragraph should put forth your second strongest argument supporting your thesis statement. Likewise, the third and fourth body paragraphs, like the first and second, will contain your third and fourth strongest arguments supporting your thesis statement. Again, the last sentence of both the third and fourth paragraphs should sum up what you’ve discussed in each paragraph and indicate to the reader that the paragraph contains the final supporting argument.

Conclusion

The final paragraph of the essay provides the conclusion. This paragraph should should restate your thesis statement using slightly different wording than employed in your introduction. The paragraph should summarize the arguments presented in the body of the essay. The last sentence in the conclusion paragraph should communicate that your essay has come to and end. Your concluding paragraph should communicate to the reader that you’re confident that you’ve proven the idea as set forth in your thesis statement.

Having the ability to write effective essays will become increasingly important as you progress through high school and into college. If you’ll internalize the format presented above, you’ll develop the ability to write clear and compelling essays.

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Write My Essay, Please!

Richard Gunderman

These days, students can hire online companies to do all their coursework, from papers to final exams. Is this ethical, or even legal?

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A colleague tells the following story. A student in an undergraduate course recently submitted a truly first-rate term paper. In form, it was extremely well crafted, exhibiting a level of writing far beyond the typical undergraduate. In substance, it did a superb job of analyzing the text and offered a number of trenchant insights. It was clearly A-level work. There was only one problem: It markedly exceeded the quality of any other assignment the student had submitted all semester.

The instructor suspected foul play. She used several plagiarism-detection programs to determine if the student had cut and pasted text from another source, but each of these searches turned up nothing. So she decided to confront the student. She asked him point blank, “Did you write this, or did someone else write it for you?” The student immediately confessed. He had purchased the custom-written paper from an online essay-writing service.

The teacher believed this conduct represented a serious breach of academic ethics. The student had submitted an essay written by someone else as his own. He had not indicated that he hadn’t written it. He hadn’t given any credit to the essay’s true author, whose name he did not know. And he was prepared to accept credit for both the essay and the course, despite the fact that he had not done the required work. The instructor severely admonished the student and gave him an F for the assignment.

But the roots of this problem go far deeper than an isolated case of ghostwriting. Essay writing has become a cottage industry premised on systematic flaunting of the most basic aims of higher education. The very fact that such services exist reflects a deep and widespread misunderstanding of why colleges and universities ask students to write essays in the first place.

These services have names such as WriteMyEssay.com , College-paper.org , and Essayontime.com . Bestessays.com claims that “70% of Students use Essay Writing service at least once [sic]” and boasts that all its writers have M.A. and Ph.D. degrees. Some of these Web sites offer testimonials from satisfied customers. One crows that he received a B+ on a ghostwritten history essay he submitted at a prestigious Ivy League institution. Another marvels at the scholarly standards and dedication of the essay writers, one of whom actually made two unsolicited revisions “absolutely free.” Another customer pledges, “I will use your essay writing service again, and leave the essay writing to the professionals.”

Such claims raise troubling questions. First, is the use of these services a form of plagiarism? Not exactly, because plagiarism implies stealing someone else’s work and calling it one’s own. In this case, assuming the essay-writing services are actually providing brand-new essays, no one else’s work is being stolen without consent. It is being purchased. Nevertheless, the work is being used without attribution, and the students are claiming credit for work they never did. In short, the students are cheating, not learning.

Most essay-writing services evince little or no commitment to helping their customers understand their essay topics or hone their skills as thinkers and writers. They do not ask students to jot down preliminary ideas or submit rough drafts for editing and critique. They do not even encourage them to pose questions about the subject matter. Instead, the services do all the work for them, requesting only three things: the topic, the deadline, and the payment.

Second, how do these essays manage to slip past an instructor undetected? If most institutions knew their students were using essay-writing services, they would undoubtedly subject them to disciplinary proceedings. But the use of such services can be difficult to detect, unless the instructor makes the effort to compare the content and quality of each essay with other work the student has submitted over the course of a semester. But what if the entire semester’s work has been ghostwritten?

Another disturbing question concerns the writers who produce such essays. Why would someone who has earned a master’s degree or Ph.D. participate in such ethically an dubious activity? One answer may be that many academics find themselves in dead-end, part-time teaching positions that pay so poorly that they cannot make ends meet, and essay writing can be quite a lucrative business. For students who can wait up to 5 days, one service charges $20 per page, but for those who need the essay within 16 hours, the price quadruples to $80 per page. The “works cited” portion of essays can generate additional revenue. The same service provides one reference per page at no additional cost, but if students feel that they need more citations, the charge is $1 per source. Some struggling academics may also view ghostwriting as a form of vengeance on an educational system that saddled them with huge debts and few prospects for a viable academic career.

A far deeper question is this: Why aren’t the students who use these services crafting their own essays to begin with? Some may simply be short on time and juggling competing commitments. As the cost of college continues to escalate, more and more students need to hold down part-time or even full-time jobs. Some are balancing school with marriage, parenthood, and other family responsibilities. The sales pitch of the essay-writing services reassures students that they are learning what they need to know and merely “lack the time needed to get it down on paper.”

But more disturbingly, some students may question the very value of writing term papers. After all, they may ask, how many contemporary jobs really require such archaic forms of writing? And what is the point of doing research and formulating an argument when reams of information on virtually any topic are available at the click of a button on the Internet? Some may even doubt the relevance of the whole college experience.

Here is where the real problem lies. The idea of paying someone else to do your work for you has become increasingly commonplace in our broader culture, even in the realm of writing. It is well known that many actors, athletes, politicians, and businesspeople have contracted with uncredited ghostwriters to produce their memoirs for them. T here is no law against it.

At the same time, higher education has been transformed into an industry, another sphere of economic activity where goods and services are bought and sold. By this logic, a student who pays a fair market price for it has earned whatever grade it brings. In fact, many institutions of higher education market not the challenges provided by their course of study, but the ease with which busy students can complete it in the midst of other daily responsibilities. The shrewd shopper, it seems, invests the least time and effort necessary to get the goods.

But when students outsource their essays to third-party services, they are devaluing the very degree programs they pursue. They are making a mockery of the very idea of education by putting its trappings – assignments, grades, and degrees – ahead of real learning.. They’re cheating their instructors, who issue grades on the presumption that they represent a student’s actual work. They are also cheating their classmates who do invest the time and effort necessary to earn their own grades.

But ultimately, students who use essay-writing services are cheating no one more than themselves. They are depriving themselves of the opportunity to ask, “What new insights and perspectives might I gain in the process of writing this paper?” instead of “How can I check this box and get my credential?”

Some might argue that even students who use essay services are forced to learn something in order to graduate. After all, when they sit down to take exams, those who have absorbed nothing at all will be exposed. That may be true in a traditional classroom, but these days, more and more degree programs are moving online — and in response, more and more Internet-based test-taking services have sprung up. One version of “Take-my-exam.com” called AllHomework.net boasts, “Just let us know what the exam is about and we will find the right expert who will log in on your behalf, finish the exam within the time limit and get you a guaranteed grade for the exam itself.”

And why stop with exams? Why not follow this path to its logical conclusion? If the entire course is online, why shouldn’t students hire someone to enroll and complete all its requirements on their behalf? In fact, “Take-my-course.com” sites have already begun to appear. One site called My Math Genius promises to get customers a “guaranteed grade,” with experts who will complete all assignments and “ace your final and midterm.” And why should the trend toward vicarious performance stop with education? How long must we wait until some intrepid entrepreneur founds “”Do-my-job.com” or “Live-my-life.com?”

Meanwhile, the proliferation of essay-writing and exam-taking services is merely a symptom of a much deeper and more pervasive disorder. For that reason, the solution is not merely tougher laws and stiffer penalties. We need a series of probing discussions in classrooms all over the country, encouraging students to reflect on the real purpose of education: the new people and ideas a student encounters, and the enlightenment that comes when an assignment truly challenges a student’s heart and mind. Perhaps an essay assignment is in order?

We want to hear what you think about this article. Submit a letter to the editor or write to [email protected]

Richard Gunderman , MD, PhD, is a contributing writer for The Atlantic. He is a professor of radiology, pediatrics, medical education, philosophy, liberal arts, and philanthropy, and vice-chair of the Radiology Department, at Indiana University. Gunderman’s  most recent book is  X-Ray Vision .
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