How to plan an essay.
As I talked about here: http://historyoftheworldblog.com/write/ something you need if you want to write anything is a plan. Essays are written by students the world over for many years of their academic careers. Once we have finished with academia we are finished with the essay. Or are we?
An essay is often seen as just a formal assignment to prove your knowledge in academia but it is more than that. Essay writing involves a set of skills that we use throughout our lives even when not writing. We use them when we are trying to convince people of something or when explaining something. While the spoken word is not exactly the same as an essay the basic set of skills that people use to write an essay are used to form our arguments. Many careers involve writing, often to persuade others. This writing requires a structure and a basic essay structure can be used. So what goes into an essay? What is this simple structure?
Essentially an essay has three main parts:
- The Introduction
- The body of the essay
- The Conclusion
This is where you introduce the topic. Quite obvious really, but what do you include in this introduction? Well, you want to say what you are going to talk about. You want to avoid going into too much detail. This section should be around one tenth to one fifth of your essay. A few example lengths are below:
- 100-200 words in a 1000 word essay
- 150-300 words in a 1500 word essay
- 200-400 words in a 2000 word essay
- 500-1000 words in a 5000-word essay
You get the idea. It is better to be at the shorter end of this. One fifth of your essay as the absolute maximum and for larger essays this can be shorter. In the above example of a 5000-word essay you should be around the 500-word mark but a 250-word introduction can be good enough if it is punchy and your topic is very specific.
What to put into the introduction is largely governed by your topic but there are some simple rules to follow.
Very few references.
While everything in an essay should be supported with evidence you shouldn’t be putting forward your specific referenced points this early. The reader wants to know the topic not be hit with a bunch of information that they have to tease a structure from. There are exceptions to the avoiding references rule. These are references to broad topics, a very specific quote, or a line from a book or article that the whole essay rests on.
You could start with a quote from a historical source. Quotation dictionaries and quotation sites (such as http://www.quotationspage.com/) are good to find these although it is best to try and track down the original document and reference that. Not only will that reference show the reader that you can follow an idea to its source but shows you have read around the subject.
Perhaps you are writing about a topic of debate in your field and have two particularly snide quotes you want to use to see if you can draw the original author’s works together. In this case, you would be writing a compare and contrast essay.
Example: The Grierson and Metcalf debate about Anglo-Saxon coinage got quite catty http://www.jstor.org/stable/2592042?seq=1#page_scan_tab_contents . Incidentally, that opening paragraph hits right to the point with quotes. One is used to highlight the point which the article is arguing against.
The point with these references is either to draw the reader in or give a point of view from a respected (or not) author. Following this with a question of ‘are they right?’ can be a good opening pointer. An opening quote such as:
Chester Bowles (1901 – 1986)
Could be followed by a line such as. Is Bowles correct in his assessment?
Once you have that quote and reference you need somewhere to go with it.
Explicitly state what the essay is about in no uncertain terms.
Well, you have your quote (or not depending on your topic) and you have asked the readers if the person quoted is correct. Now, what do you say? You have to tell them both why the quote is relevant and tell them what you are blathering on about.
The Bowles quote shown above could be the opener to a discussion of modern democratic systems and their change (or not) into oligarchies. This is where you tell people what your main points are. You don’t want to elaborate too much as you are going to talk about it below.
Aside: The phrase ‘as I shall explain below’ or ‘as I shall talk about below’ should be avoided in a formal essay and also in general when writing an introduction. The whole introduction is one big ‘As I shall explain below’. If you need to use the phrase itself you are doing something wrong.
You will see at the top of this article I have an introduction. In that introduction, I say what the topic is I then define its reason for being. For our quote above the following example might be used:
Example: The Government of nations is often undertaken by those wealthy families and elites who have the resources to become politicians. In this essay we shall explore whether the government is important for a nation and also if politicians are the best people to being running our current system.
In the example above I have shown that I know who currently governs nations. In this part of the paper it is ok to put in a sweeping statement or two. It will set the tone and also give you something to tear apart later. Just try not to be too obnoxious. As you can see I use a qualifier of ‘often’. This shows that it is not a universal thing and shows the reader that I haven’t already decided the outcome of the paper.
I have also defined the nature of the essay at hand. It is an exploration of ideas. We are trying to make a decision about who should be running our nations. The two important areas of discussion are also revealed. The first is quite an expansive topic. The topic of whether the human race actually needs government. This is quite a deep topic that will intrigue the reader and also sets you up to show an opinion as well as the sources. The second topic is the politicians. Are they who we think they are? If they are what we think they are (or not) should politicians be running the nations?
Aside: Note the use of the phrase ‘In this essay we shall explore’. While similar to the phrase ‘as I shall explain below’ it is subtly different. In this instance you are telling the reader you are going to explore the topic and setting parameters not simply saying ‘look below I wrote something’ which suggests the introduction is merely filler.
Define the parameters of the Essay.
As I mentioned above, the topic of whether there should or should not be a government is an expansive topic. This topic could fill a book. I say a book it would fill several and could be a lifetime’s work. This makes it a good topic as it is clearly an important subject and will have an extensive amount of literature. The issue is you only have a few thousand words. In fact, as one of two discussion points, it is going to be less than half of the essay. If the essay is 2500 words you will have 1000 words or less to do this justice. The simple fact is you won’t be able to. What should you do about it? Well, you should define its scope by setting the parameters of the essay. There are several ways in which this can be done. Some are:
- A set time frame.
- A single country as the focus.
- Specific topics within the discussion that will be covered.
There are more but they all essentially boil down to the three listed above. I shall expand on each in turn here.
A set time frame.
This is most commonly used when discussing history. It can be useful to set a bracket for a larger topic that may already have a time frame. An example would be the Roman Empire. The Roman Empire is in itself part of a longer narrative of the Roman people including the early mythological monarchic period, the following republic era and after the complete Empire the Eastern or Byzantine Empire. A time frame in this could be a particular century, a dynasty of emperors or a particular campaign such as the conquest of Britain. This will tell the reader that you are excluding everything outside of the brackets due to space and relevance not because you simply forgot or couldn’t be bothered.
A single country as a focus.
With the example from earlier a good country to focus on would be one’s own native country. Another suggestion would be the country of the person quoted, in this case, Chester Bowles, so the U.S.A. This does not mean you cannot talk about any other countries that you wish to but it gives focus. You would compare all other examples to that of the original. If you used the person you quoted it also means you can discuss why they said what they did and what the circumstances were without straying away from the point.
A specific topic in the discussion that will be covered.
This is a bit more ephemeral but has some good opportunities if you wish to make a particular point with your essay. For example, you could state you are going to look at what would happen if there was no government. While there aren’t many historical examples to draw on the discussion of no government is pretty well covered. That would be anarchy. It is a divisive topic so to discuss it with academic flair without spouting political propaganda would show that you can tackle a topic with academic rigour. While it is taking a point to the extreme this can be a useful method of essay writing. While it is frowned upon to use such a technique when debating, writing it in an essay can be done well. To show two extremes and then draw them together to form a conclusion shows you can consider a debate from both sides. Another specific topic that could be covered is an event. Similar to putting it in a time frame the actions surrounding an event can be used as an example. A compare and contrast of before the original quote used and after could lend credence to its validity or not. Essentially you are narrowing the topic down into something you wish to talk about.
Example: The quote suggests that government is both big and important. To define its importance we need to discuss what it would be like without a government to see what it gives us that is so important. To this end, I shall focus on Anarchism as a philosophy of no rulers and thus no government.
Use all three.
If you really want to drill down then you can use a combination of all three. If we were to do this and use the example above we might end up with something like this:
Example: The quote suggests that government is both big and important. To define its importance we need to discuss what it would be like without a government to see what it gives us that is so important. To this end I shall focus on Anarchism as a philosophy of no rulers and thus no government. This will be contrasted with the United States government between 1901 and 1986 as Chester Bowles comment is likely to be borne out of his lifetime experiences.
The above example narrows down exactly when and where you will focus your efforts. It also tells the reader the exact topics you will be comparing in half of your essay so they know exactly what they will be looking at.
Aside: The other half of the essay will be considering the politicians. If you wish to use the examples above try to define how you would set out the reason why and what exactly you will be discussing about politicians.
The last part of the introduction: The questions.
I find it helpful to ask questions at the end of my introduction. This is for the benefit of all parties. The reader will have a couple of questions that they will want answering. This is good as you have those questions that you can keep referring to while you are writing. Did you answer those questions? Is something you need to consider both when writing and editing your essay.
If you refer to the introduction of this particular piece you will see that I throw out a series of questions. I also do this throughout to engage the reader and also to focus the essay. A particular answer or reference may beg a question. Identify these as you write. In an academic essay, you may want to refrain from too many questions but they can be useful when putting together a first draft. Editing them out afterwards or smoothing them into the paragraph they are ending can also work. Think of them like bookmarks.
Example: To restate the original question: Is Bowles correct in his statement and if so to what extent?
Well, that is the end of part one. Part two will be coming soon so please sign up with your email address to get the next section.