13 March 2011

The Versatility of the Short Essay

This year, I have been teaching university writing courses, two levels of business and professional writing and a course in writing for the sciences. An approach I have used in these courses is that all writing in English is based upon the successful writing of short essays. In this blog post, I want to describe a simple step-by-step method for writing such short essays.

The first step I teach in constructing a short essay is to formulate a thesis for the essay and topic sentences for the body. The thesis statement in an essay is the entire communication reduced to a single sentence. When the essay takes a stand or attempts to persuade readers, the thesis statement is as simple as the topic plus the author's opinion on the topic. But when the essence of the communication is more explanatory or procedural, the thesis statement usually describes the overall goal for the communication. For example, in this present essay, I began writing by composing the following thesis:
I want to describe a simple step-by-step method for writing essays.
Then, I wrote a sentence to describe each step in the process.
The first step I teach in constructing a short essay is to formulate a thesis and topic sentences for the body.
The second step is to develop paragraphs based upon the topic sentences for the body.
The third step is to write introduction and conclusion paragraphs.
The fourth step is to consider the style of expression throughout the essay.
The final step is to edit the overall essay for grammar, punctuation, spelling, and other mechanical errors.
These sentences become topic sentences in their respective paragraphs in the body of the essay.

After the thesis and topic sentences have been drafted, the second step is to develop paragraphs based upon the topic sentences for the body. Additional explanation or descriptions can be added to the topic sentences in each paragraph as needed. Examples can also be set forth. The main goal in each paragraph is a feeling of 'completeness' in the discussion of the topic advanced in the first sentence. At this point, the body of the essay is complete in draft form.

The third step is to write introduction and conclusion paragraphs for the essay. I find that students respond well to the notion that the introduction begins with a statement of the general topic discussed in the essay and narrows that discussion, usually through a 'middle sentence', to the thesis statement, which ends the introduction. While the goal of the introduction is to end with the thesis statement, the goal of the conclusion is to begin with the thesis and to consider implications or acknowledge limitations of the discussion about to be concluded. With the completion of the conclusion, a first draft of the final essay should be complete. From this point on, the work focuses upon editing tasks, making the essay as good as it can be.

The fourth step in the essay writing process is to consider the style of expression throughout the essay. Often in the composition of an essay, writers will shift the tone, formality, or other stylistic elements of writing. Such matters can only come to light when authors look at their work as a connected and complete whole. Additionally, writers need to check to verify that each sentence in each paragraph contributes clearly to the topic set for the paragraph. Finally, writers need to introduce transitional expressions, words and phrases that help readers to move from sentence to sentence and paragraph to paragraph in the essay.

The final step is to edit the overall essay for grammar, punctuation, spelling, and other mechanical errors. A very good final exercise for authors to engage in is to read the finished written text out loud, slowly and word for word, looking for mistakes. While many students struggle significantly with such issues in their writing, even experienced writers must expend effort to correct errors in their work. Such errors detract from the overall dignity of the writing, even when they do not result in genuine miscommunication.


By following these steps, students can write a clear and simple essay without too much effort or writing experience. This simple method of essay writing is not the only productive way to write an essay, but it is one that is easy to learn and to practice. Once students have mastered this procedure (and become bored with it), they should find that their writing abilities will allow them to branch out to other, more sophisticated strategies and structures in their writing.

2 comments:

  1. Thanks, Dr. Radney, for this timely summary of how to write an essay. It is much more concise that the textbook I am using. Tomorrow an outline is due and now I have a better grasp of what I am aiming for and how to hit the target.

    ReplyDelete
  2. A good writer has to have a good mind to see things that aren't there, things that are different from his or her reality, but also able to convince the readers that those things are true or relatively true.

    Thesis Help

    ReplyDelete