How to Write the Basic Essay that Will Get You Through College

It has come to my attention that some American high schoolers do not know how to write the basic essay, otherwise known as the five paragraph essay. This is not a good thing since this type of essay and its variants are what your entire college career will be presented through. Kind of sad, ain't it? Since your teachers are either too incompetent or too busy dealing with your unruly classmates to adequately educate you, I will in one sitting present to you the five paragraph formula essay which takes them an entire semester to try to explain, from title to conclusion and everything in between.

There will be no notecards, no outlines and no bullshit. Essay writing is not difficult, it only takes a little sound theory and practice. If you're concerned about my credentials, I am not a certified teacher, but I do hold a Bachelor degree in English and American Literature and a Master degree in Creative Writing and had to tutor ignorant engineering students who didn't understand why a piddly little liberal arts major was telling them they would never be able to write a decent grant proposal. I can't teach you talent, but I can at least give you the basic formula and a few tricks of the trade to score you A's and B's and the jealousy of your illiterate peers.

We'll start with the title. Every essay needs one, but don't feel like you have to choose one immediately. It's not like a filename that you have to save the paper under. It also does not have to be snappy, jazzy or interesting, although depending on your audience that certainly helps. All the title does is tell your readers roughly what the essay is going to be about. Hopefully it will get them a little interested in the topic and make them take a look at what you're writing. If you're writing an assignment for class, keep the title a bit formal but don't be afraid to add an interesting spark to it. Your teacher has to read dozens of essays a day. Boring them from the title onward will not help your grade.

The first paragraph, known as the introduction, serves to grab the reader's attention. This grab is sometimes called the hook, 'cause you're hooking them in like fish. Fiction uses a hook in the first paragraph to get you to buy the book and read on, and it works somewhat the same way in an essay. You can do this several ways, with a metaphor, a case example, an anecdote, etc. Ultimately the introduction is building up to the most important sentence in your entire essay, the thesis sentence.

The thesis sentence is most often the last sentence in the introduction. It tells the reader what the essay is going to be about specifically. I underlined mine so you can see it clearly. You'll note that it's also a bit longer than the rest of the sentences in this essay. That's normal. Don't be afraid of long sentences as long as they're coherent and understandable. A thesis sentence takes awhile to put together, and I've sometimes rewritten a thesis sentence so that it will match my paper. Remember, I am a trained professional. Do not try this at home. I'm just saying this so you don't think that the moment a thesis is written, that's it's God's law in stone. If you find your research or paper drifting a little, you have to make a choice between bringing your essay back to its focus or changing the focus of your thesis. Sometimes it works, sometimes it means more research. That's just the way it is.

The thesis sentence will usually have more than one part. A sample would be like "Ninjas are way cooler than pirates because ninjas have a strict code of honor, assassination and spying are way cooler than theft on the open seas, and because they can shoot laser beams with their chi." This sentence presents three arguments, the honor thing, assassination/subterfuge and laser beam chi, and they are all contained under the "ninjas are better than pirates" main idea. You might choose not to state your arguments in the thesis sentence, choosing instead to outline a longer single idea, but in this case you might want to explain the basics of that idea in a second paragraph as an extension of your thesis sentence.

Now that you have the arguments put forward, you must defend them. After all, some people do not understand how these things make ninjas much cooler than pirates. Therefore, in each of the next paragraphs, you will explain why you've made these arguments. It's best to make each paragraph correspond with each argument, so that the first argument (the strict code of honor) will be the subject of the first paragraph, the second argument (assassination/subterfuge better than theft) will be the subject of the second paragraph, and so on.

The paragraphs where you defend your arguments are called the body of your essay. Each paragraph has its own structure. Consider it like a mini-essay. The first sentence will introduce the argument being considered and the rest of the paragraph will explain it. You can discuss why it is right, where the idea came from, if there is any criticism of the idea and what counterarguments there are to the criticism, etc., whatever you think is best. Don't worry about how long or short your paragraphs are (unless your teacher is an anal retard who counts sentences, in which case you have my sympathy.) All that matters is that your sentences are coherent and your paragraphs are as long as they need to be to adequately explain your idea. If that means you only need three sentences, hooray for you. If that means you need thirty sentences, then do it without whining.

If you've got a paragraph that's thirty sentences, however, it's a damn good idea to bust it up into smaller chunks. We don't like the block paragraph of doom in fiction and it's a hundred times worse in essays. Look through the paragraph for slight subject shifts or phrases like "for example" for easy places to hit enter and tab. For example, the second argument in the ninja vs. pirates essay is assassination/subterfuge. That section could probably be broken into two paragraphs, one for assassination, one for subterfuge.

Don't worry about busting a paragraph into chunks, and likewise don't worry about discussing minor or incidental subjects in relation to your main arguments. After breaking assassination into its own topic, more paragraphs could be devoted to the reasons for assassination and tools of the trade, finishing up with how they employed stealth and thus give the essay a nice logical flow into spying, which could also be broken down into disguises and political maneuvering.

The way you break your paragraphs and subjects apart is the way you stretch your paper out. It's a much more sound solution than trying to use the biggest font allowed with triple spacing and wide margins. Find a spot in your work where you can bring in another topic. In the ninja vs. pirate essay, the subject of honor can include revenge, suicide, and duty, which can also be broken into duty to the lord and duty to the family. You don't want to be obvious about stretching the paper to meet the requirements because believe me, from the tutor's point of view, most format tricks like wide margins are super obvious. But on occasion some tricks will actually make your paper better. If you've finished your paper but still need a few more lines, look through your biggest paragraphs and find easy spots to break them into two. This makes them easier to read and grasp. If you're really hard up, go through your quotations and see if you can't change that little two line quote into a big blockquote of four or more lines, which backs up your argument with a little more authority and gives the reader a break from your narrative. Don't quote too much, though. That's another really obvious trick.

Speaking of quotes, you may find it necessary to use quotations from books, movies, cartoons, interviews, etc. You may be horrified to learn that there are proper ways to cite quotations from nearly every medium known to man. When I was in the middle of my senior year in my English major, I could cite a passage from a book without looking up how to do so. However, I couldn't do so with every medium. Therefore, I bought an MLA Handbook which explains in detail how to cite everything from books to articles to graffiti scribbled on bathroom walls. If you're a college student, this kind of book is a good investment. If you're a high school student, your teacher will probably have a book you can look through. Some college majors have to use the APA style of citation. I never had to, so I have no idea what it is, but if you have to, odds are you already have sources lined up to help you so you don't need me.

After you've finished the body of your essay, you must write your conclusion. This is kind of like the introduction paragraph, but backwards. Now you will tell your reader what you just told them. It's not as pedantic as it sounds. You're not just rephrasing the first paragraph. You want to encapsulate your essay, maybe refer to examples you used, make some witty observations, whatever. The only hard and fast rule is that you don't use anything that you didn't bring up in your essay. If you're writing an essay on ninjas vs. pirates and you never once mentioned that the debate is part of an internet subculture, then don't bring it up in the conclusion.

Essays should not be painful to write. They're not the exercises in torture that you're usually saddled with in high school with all the busy work piled on top. In high school and some college introductory writing courses, they'll tell you to use outlines with set guidelines about the essay's structure. They usually give you something like this:

I. Topic

A. Heading #1

1. Subheading #1

a. point #1

b. point #2

2. Subheading #2

B. Heading #2

C. Heading #3

And then they tell you that you need to keep your essay structured so that if you have one subheading, you need a second subheading, that if you have one point, you need to have a second point. That's okay if you're just starting out and need to follow the guideline to keep your essay balanced. However, as you progress, you'll find that this outline is bullshit and can be jettisoned easily. What they aren't telling you is that essays are not mathematical formulas, they're an art and a skill that you can learn and change to suit your needs. They're part of the liberal arts, after all, and depend on personal taste and ability as much as the facts contained within. It's fine to start out with this outline, and some people swear by outlines, but many of you will be able to sit down with your research materials and hammer out an essay in one sitting, no outline, no note cards, and no rough draft.

I can only give you three more tricks for your essay, your sentence structure, your tone and your subject choice. You don't want to write sentences that sound alike. They become very repetitive and you'll end up putting your reader to sleep. You can have short sentences. You can have long sentences that meander a little bit. You can have really freaking long sentences with prepositional phrases and clauses separated by commas, introducing or commenting on the main part of the sentence. Whatever. It's like a jigsaw puzzle, the pieces are squiggly and odd but they match well.

As for your tone, keep in mind that your teacher/professor is reading dozens, hundreds, thousands of essays about similar topics day in, day out. They have to read for grammar, spelling, structure, coherence, and in some cases they have to fight your penmanship to figure out what the hell you wrote. Don't add boredom on top of it all. At the same time, don't get the idea that you're a comedian. You're not. The essay is not your personal comedy club. Any attempt at forced humor is going to fall flat and detract from your essay, but humor that comes out of the body of your essay should work fine. Dry humor seems to work best. In the ninja vs. pirates example, while discussing assassination, you could note that "stealth and swift work were the result of long hours of training and surveillance, elevated assassination to an artform, although one not appreciated by its recipients." Think BBC documentary or History channel humor.

Finally, when choosing your subject, don't choose the same crap that everyone is choosing. I don't care if your heart is set on the social crusade of the day, don't do it. The assignment may be to do a 12 page paper on any subject of your choice, and you have strong feelings about abortion. So do at least half your classmates, and probably five of them will do an abortion paper. It doesn't help your grade when you turn in the sixth paper on abortion, you've got quotes from the same places your classmates got their quotes from, and you all bore your teacher to tears and early retirement. If you can come up with a new angle on abortion (and good luck) then go ahead and forge onward.

Perhaps one of the best ways to choose a topic is to brainstorm for a few minutes about your choices. While thinking, you come up with things like current events, war, the death penalty, racism, you know, the usual stuff all high schoolers choose for their papers. Once you've brain stormed and got those topics down, make sure you don't choose any of them. Do something no one else will be writing about. If you've got an unnatural pet peeve or social cause, go for it. No one in my classes ever chose conformity or censorship for their papers/presentations, so I always had an easy choice, but if they had, I would've chosen something different. Fanfiction is a growing topic, but you also might not be the only one doing that subject anymore.

It's easy enough to find something to write about. Look through your room/house, find something that you don't think anyone else will be writing about (religious attacks on popular culture like Harry Potter, Finnish metal bands, histories of lesser known holidays) or find new angles on well-worn topics. Someone may be doing Christian attacks on Harry Potter, so take the opposite line and look at Islamic attacks on Harry Potter. If you really want to look at the death penalty, look at different execution styles through history and the world. Actually, in a short essay, you'd want to limit yourself to one part of the world. Whatever you do, choose something no one else was thinking of.

Now look up at this essay. It's got all the same basic parts as the five paragraph essay, but I've managed to stretch it out into a lot more than five paragraphs. As long as you keep focused on your topic and keep your ideas clear, you can alter the formula essay to suit your own needs. It will work for everything from basic high school work to upper level college work. The hardest part will be researching your topic and slipping quotes into your own work. It's not nearly the difficult work that your teachers like to make it out as, though, and once you've written a few and become a little practiced at it, you'll find yourself whipping out essay after essay with a fraction of your earlier effort. Which is good, since you'll have to whip out essay after essay just to stay afloat in college.