THE ESSAY A Brief, But Nevertheless Overwhelming and Hopelessly Vain Attempt to Tell You Everything You Need to Know in Order to Write a Successful Essay
WHAT IS AN ESSAY? An essay is a text (usually written) that argues for a writer’s understanding, as developed from a set of direct experiences; its goal is do communicate a new idea. An essay argues for its understanding by presenting BOTH specific examples of the writer’s experiences, AND the writer’s specific thoughts about those experiences.
COMPOSITION “Any succession of equal things is agreeable; but to compose is to arrange unequal things.” ----John Ruskin, The Seven Lamps of Architecture
COMPLEXITY An Essay Proceeds from 4 Assumptions That all human experience is complex; and that the complexity of experience derives from the fact that it is multifaceted and perpetually interconnected—i.e., that there is no such thing as an “isolated experience”; and therefore that an understanding of some complex of experiences must be particular to the individual, and can never be self-evident; and finally that any particular understanding that is not clearly self-evident must be argued for, if it is to be considered truthful.
ARGUMENT Argument is the attempt to persuade both oneself and one’s readers of the validity of one’s understanding of a complex of specific experiences In order to be persuasive, the attempt must make every effort to anticipate and take into consideration other possible views of the same, or any similar experiences A vigorous and resourceful persuasive effort is the only reliable measure of a thinker’s commitment to a particular understanding
ANALYSIS Given that the whole of experience can never be fully understood, the first step in achieving a partial understanding must be to focus on specific parts of the experience Analysis is the rendering of experience into elements: choosing events from a narrative, quotes from a book, details from an image, features from an artifact, etc.
EVIDENCE Evidence is the name given to the specific elements of experience analyzed by a writer from the whole of his or her experience. Evidence can be made of any thing, but academic essays most often generate evidence from a writer’s experience of verbal or graphic texts (quotes or images). However: analysis is only the first step; analyzed material must be treated as evidence, if it is to become evidence.
CONTEXT Although analysis is necessary, it causes a problem: when you remove a part of a thing from the whole, you lose part of its meaning. Context is necessary to add back the meaning that would otherwise be lost to the reader. Analyzed material without context is not evidence.
INTERPRETATION Interpretation is the name given to any specific understanding that a writer develops as a result of thinking about evidence. Essay-level understanding develops from careful combination and interaction of the writer’s specific interpretive understandings. However: thoughts that do NOT arise from a direct and specific consideration of evidence do NOT qualify as interpretation, and therefore are of NO USE in an essay.
NON-INTERPRETATION General knowledge: facts you just happen to recall, without specific reference to any evidence or authority. These are NEVER evidence, and should be used sparingly, if ever. Personal opinion: religious, moral, and political beliefs; cultural, ethnic, educational, and social preferences; tastes (for food, sex, entertainment, etc.); NEVER use in an essay.
REFLECTION Reflection is essential to essay-writing. It is where the individual interpretations of evidence join and begin to become parts of an idea. The links between interpretations are comparative; this is where what Ruskin calls “the arrangement of unequal things” begins. No paragraph in the middle of an essay should fail to do at least some reflective work.
CLAIMS For the purposes of an essay, a claim is a statement of interpretive truth. A claim is NOT a statement of fact. A claim is NOT a question. A claim must be arguable. A claim that merely permits argument is barely adequate. A good claim provokes argument, testing the writer’s persuasive powers to the limit.
COUNTERCLAIMS A counterclaim is a statement of interpretive truth that differs from a previously-proposed claim. A claim that generates no counterclaims is, by definition, not arguable. A counterclaim need not be directly or absolutely opposed to the claim; the difference may be slight and/or oblique; but it must be clear, and a reader should easily be able to recognize its claim to truth, once it has been stated.
THESIS An argument for an understanding of a complex of experiences must make several claims regarding the meaning of the evidence upon which argument is based. These claims must be interconnected if the argument is to be coherent; and therefore they may all be considered to be related to one central claim that serves to bind them together. This “central claim” is sometimes called a thesis. An essay thesis must be complex, if the argument it represents is complex; it must, of course, be arguable; and it must derive from and pertain to all the evidence included in the essay. The thesis need not be stated in the opening paragraph of the essay, but the writer must readily be able to say what it is, if asked, at any point after completion of the initial draft.
SYNTHESIS Scholarly arguments typically work according to the rules of dialectic, in which the arguer moves back and forth between claim and counterclaim. In dialectic arguments, arguers not only do not ignore counterclaims; they seek to learn from them, and change their claims to reflect the truth posed by the counterclaims they consider. The point in an argument at which claim and counterclaim have been reconciled, so as to be demonstrably and simultaneously true, is the moment of synthesis; this is the end of the essay.
ISSUE An argument must be “about” some disagreement; scholarly arguments must be about the dialectic disagreement between claim and counterclaim. Claims and counterclaims, since they must be closely related, typically share many of the same facts, and even assumptions. The issue is the point at which claim and counterclaim cease to share, and begin their disagreement.
PRE-DRAFTING Identify an Area of Experience for Investigation Observe: Look Carefully at the Selected Material Formulate a Question Develop an Issue Re-Observe; Analyze Arrange Material from Analysis Do NOT formulate a thesis Do NOT write a formal outline
DRAFTING 1 Start with some bit of analyzed material (most interesting, most provocative, etc.). Provide context, interpretation, secondary analysis. Reflect upon the possible significance of the interpretation, etc. Based upon reflection, choose another bit of analyzed material, and repeat process. Continue until either (a) no more analyzed material to work with, or (b) you’re ready to state a thesis
REVISION 1A Focus: Read the draft, looking carefully at the claims in each paragraph; try to develop a preliminary central claim. Enrich: Based on the focus, look for some new (i.e., not considered for Draft 1) material that is related to the preliminary thesis. Review: (Different from Read) Go over the draft, marking changes that will improve the coherence of the draft, based on the newly-developed preliminary central claim.
REVISION 1B Proofread: Run a spell & grammar check on the document file; double-check (use a print dictionary) any questionable suggested changes (don’t accept changes blindly). Ask for Feedback: Get a friend to read a clean copy of Draft 1. Insist that he/she tell you where you haven’t been clear.
DRAFTING 2 Working from your marked copy of Draft 1, begin with a blank page, and type a new draft (ideal), or open the file of Draft 1, and make the necessary changes (acceptable, if you are careful). Do not change automatically; THINK. Keep the preliminary thesis in mind as you go through the reflective parts of each paragraph; seek to bring the reflection into line with the thesis. Remember that mere addition and subtraction does not count as substantive revision. Substantive revision requires change.
REVISION 2A Focus: Read to test the preliminary thesis; if it needs to change, or if the paper needs to change to accommodate it, so note. Enrich: Continue to look for new material, based on your refined focus. Review: As before; but this time also consult the handouts, “Tips & Traps” and “Kinds of Carelessness”; take your time here.
REVISION 2B Proofread: Again, as before. If you haven’t already, read the draft to yourself, aloud. Polish; this is your chance to impress. Ask for Feedback: Find a different friend to read your work; impress upon this person the importance of the role he or she is playing in the success of this project. Drafting 3: As before; your work here will decide whether the draft becomes an essay.
FORMAT Academic essays must document the sources of the evidence they use; in this class, you must follow the MLA rules for documentation. All essay drafts submitted for publication must conform to certain rules governing presentation; in this class, drafts that you publish to the Blackboard must follow the MLA rules for research papers (except where noted). Drafts that fail to conform will be penalized, and those that fail egregiously may be rejected outright.