© 2010 Steve Campsall
Here's how to write your best essay ever...
Whatever the essay you have been asked to write, the key to making it as effective as it can be is to write it as a wellstructured and well-supported argument. You will find that an ‘argument’ essay is easier to plan, more fulfilling to write and for your teacher (or the examiner)... a pleasure to mark (and that’s no bad thing!!). It’s important to get one thing out of the way at the outset: an essay question has no ‘right’ answer. You can breathe easy on that one. It’s just not like that. This is English and we leave those kinds of ‘right answers’ to the mathematicians and scientists. An English essay is not an ‘answer’ in that way at all, rather, it’s an informed opinion; but, like all opinions, it’ll require explanation, argument and support. It requires you to argue your case.
What’s the first thing you do when you set about starting an essay? Many people start by searching through the text on which their essay is based in the hope of finding suitable quotations to help ‘answer’ the essay question. Well, there’s no getting away from this basic process, but there are ways to make it altogether more efficient, useful and most importantly, more likely to earn a higher grade. More on this later.
The Argument Essay
The secret of a good essay? Write it as an argument for what you believe! What is there to argue about? Plenty! You’ll be arguing to support your point of view on the essay question - one that you’ve boldly stated in the opening lines of the essay! “This is what I believe and I’m going to show you why I believe it..!” This is a view you’ll have developed after careful reflection and consideration on what the essay question or title asks or states. The trick is to be able to condense this view down into a brief and succinct statement. This becomes what is called your thesis statement. Writing an essay as an argument makes it easier to keep the essay focused, clear and logical; not only that but what you write is much more likely to stay in line with the essay question. This means that you won’t lose marks through waffling, generalising or re-telling.
Essays are about opinions, not facts
It’s worth repeating that one of the most interesting aspects of English essays is that there can never be a straightforward ‘right’ answer. This doesn’t mean you can’t get things wrong through, for example, misinterpreting the text, but it does mean that the ‘answer’ to any essay will always be your opinion or point of view: essays deal in opinions, not facts. This is why your teacher is looking to read in your essay your views and why you have come to think in this particular way.
How do you arrive at an ‘overriding’ point of view? This is the hardest part of the essay, for sure. Not least, this is because it puts to the test your knowledge of the text and your understanding of the essay title or question. The good news is that when its done and done well, the remainder of the essay becomes so very much more straightforward to write. But it’s easier than might be imagined. Imagine for a moment that, instead of being asked to write your essay, you were asked to answer the same question in class. What would be expected of you? A thousand-word reply? Of course not. What would be wanted is for you to give a highly condensed answer - a kind of overall conclusion or ‘take’ on the essay question. You might begin this with something like, ‘From my understanding of the text, I think that...’. In the written essay, this ‘take’ on the question is central to making the essay an argument. You write it at the beginning of the essay and this becomes the single controlling idea that flows throughout the remaining paragraphs of the essay. It is the idea that holds the essay together, helping it flow with seeming logic and naturalness. More later. Because the ‘thesis statement’ is your ‘condensed answer’ to the essay question, it provides exactly the kind of...
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