You know what I've noticed? Everybody is all quick to jump at telling people how to write fiction, but nobody ever talks about non-fiction: the essay. Probably because, for most people, essays are nasty things with teeth that the English teacher assigns when she's in a bad mood. This is a shame! As anybody could tell from looking at my profile, I'm kind of a fan of writing essays. Not an expert, not by a long shot, but I do enjoy doing it, and hopefully I can offer some helpful advice.
Enter this essay. An informal two-part series on how to write essays: for school, and for FictionPress. Have fun! (I know I will!)
The School Essay: How to Do Better than the Nerd You Sit Next To
A few weeks ago, my English teacher stood in front of the class and told us that we would be writing and essay on the book we'd just finished, The Great Gatsby. After everyone finished groaning, he said, "This will probably be the hardest essay you've ever written." If you're an English teacher, I would suggest not saying that to your class of high school juniors. It doesn't go well.
There's no need to be afraid of school essays! Here are a few tips that English teachers never tell you about how to make essays more enjoyable, both for you and for her.
1) Creativity is not limited to creative writing assignments. You can be creative with essays, too! Nothing spices up an essay like a great metaphor. Since we're on the subject of my Gatsby paper, I'll be using that for examples.
"Gatsby is of better character than any of the other characters in Ftizgerald's story because he is so devoted to his ideal – the rest of them flit from one fancy to another, then leave again when they get bored." Or, "Then he steps back, out of his imagination into the real world."
They don't have to be blatant. They don't have to be super contrived, like relating blueberries to the gamemakers in The Hunger Games. The most important part is to keep appealing to your audience's senses - you can still paint pictures, you can still describe smells, even if it's not a narrative about Jack and Jill in the forest. Just remember all the advice you hear about creative writing, and you're good to go.
2) Don't use the word "you." I know I sound like a hypocrite right now, because I'm referring to you as "you" every time I turn around. However, this is an informal essay, very much unlike the one you'll be turn into your English teacher in a couple weeks. Generally, teachers will tell you that you can replace "you" with "one." I disagree. Obviously, you can, but I think it makes an essay sound amateurish - that's not the effect you're going for. This paragraph would sound something like the following:
"One can often replace the word 'you' with the word 'one.' However, doing this often makes one sound amateurish, which is generally not the task that one is trying to accomplish."
It sounds weird, doesn't it? It sounds like you made the last minute switch from "you" to "one" ten minutes before the bus came - which is pretty much exactly what I did (except I'm not waiting for any buses). The better thing to do, if you ask me, is just to rework your sentences so that the word "you" doesn't even have to come up!
"People often say that the word 'one' can replace the word 'you' in a formal essay. However, this is not always the best choice, because it tends to make the essay feel amateurish, which is generally not the goal when writing an essay."
Without practice, doing things like this can often result in the passive voice. The first sentence of that last paragraph would then be, "People often say that the word 'you' can be replaced by the word 'one.'" Clearly, though, if you think about it for a minute, such things can be avoided (tsk. I just used the passive voice). Since "you" often seems like it would make an essay more personable, you can avoid eliminating direct connection with the reader by asking rhetorical questions, or questions that you may answer with your own commentary or a quote from something/someone.
Also note that you can sometimes refer to yourself as "we" when referencing how "we" as readers might respond to specific happenings in a book.
3) Most school essays will require that you quote something - a book, a play, an outside source, whatever. You can look up the proper MLA format for quotes, but there's something much more slippery to grasp when it comes to using quotes effectively. Consider this quote from my Gatsby essay.
"Keats rockets off into another world as he narrates the story of these people: the "mad pursuit" (9) of the "fair youth" (15) after his "still unravish'd bride" (1), and the "all breathing human passion" (28) that he has for her."
Note how I include just one or two words of a line of Keats's poem Ode on a Grecian Urn mixed in with my own interpretations. Build your sentences around specific phrases of quotes. The more smoothly you integrate your quotes, the more pleasurable it is for your teacher to read. This mostly takes practice, and a lot of fiddling around on Microsoft Word.
"He is trying to relive the past, and although we would generally argue that chasing the past is as ignorant as it is impossible, Gatsby is very ready and willing to retort, "Can't repeat the past? Why of course you can!" (Fitzgerald 110)."
Teachers refer to this as "introducing your quotes." That never really got explained to me very well, though, so I'm trying to explain it better here. Like I said, the more you practice integrating quotes, the more smoothly it will flow. Just remember that, if you're doing little snippets like when I referenced the poem, not to take little things out of context to serve your own purposes. As my teacher says, "A text without a context is a pretext for a proof-text." Make sure to keep in line with what the author actually meant when he wrote those words.
4) People say structure is an important, but I feel like it's one of those things like, "Only two people on the trampoline at once" (which, as far as I know, nobody pay attention to). Well, it is important. Best part is, it's not difficult. The only thing you have to do is write a really good thesis, and then it's smooth sailing from there.
My humanities teacher says that a good thesis states an opinion and gives a hint of an outline. If your thesis doesn't fit into this category, you've got a bad thesis. Form an opinion and stick it in your thesis. Then figure out three reasons WHY you think that, and state them in the same sentence with your claim. Now you can start writing your paper.
At the beginning of every paragraph, I'd check back and read the thesis again. At the end of every paragraph, I'd check back and read the thesis again. It helps make the whole essay feel very cohesive and linear, which is always a bonus.
5) The conclusion is not a restatement of the thesis. Teachers like to tell you it is, but it shouldn't be, unless you're aiming for a super boring closing paragraph that leaves the reader with a bad taste in his mouth. I hate it when teachers say, "It's a restatement of the thesis." A conclusion should be a quick reminder of the things your reader has read, both in the intro and body paragraphs. Conclusions should be short - shorter than intros.
And then, after you've spent a very short amount of time reminding everyone what they've read (because your essay will be so good that it'll be hard to remember all the great points you made), whip back around and say, "Now that we've decided this, we should change this about our lives." Readers like to know why the things you say are relevant to them. We're just selfish like that. An essay about The Great Gatsby is fine, but an essay that ends with, "Here is how The Great Gatsby should influence the way we live," is a winner. Teachers call these "universal statements," and their power must never be underestimated.
Hopefully this essay has been helpful! These are some tricks of the trade I use that my teachers rarely bring up when lecturing on how to write and format an essay. The second half of this tutorial will cover writing essays specifically for our favorite website, FictionPress. Thanks for reading!