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How to Write a Compelling English Essay

You will more than likely run into an essay like this at some point in your high school career. If you have yet to, rest assured, they’re coming! Sometimes they can be stressful just because of the huge word limit that comes attached with the assignment. You’re probably thinking that 1500 words is too much. In fact, it usually isn’t enough. Here’s how you can get started.

Getting Started

The first step towards any essay is understanding what you are talking about. If you are provided with a topic from your teacher, great! Move onto the next step. If not, keep reading.

Coming up with your own topic is sometimes harder if you have no interest in the book, but if you do enjoy what you’re reading, then this is much easier. Find few hot topics or themes in the book that really interest you and list them out. Now the task is, which one do you talk about in your essay?

Well, two things have to be considered: one, are they specific enough that you can talk about them without going over the word limit? And two, do you have enough to say about it that you won’t be drastically under the word limit? You’ll often be struck by an idea in a novel that you think is brilliant, but find out your argument lasts the whole of 50 words. Or you might find an extremely general topic that you find narrowing down impossible. You need to find a topic that is just the right size for your essay.

Let me give you an example. Here’s the situation: the book is the Three Little Pigs, and the word limit is 1000 words. Three things interest you: how it’s so unfair for the wolf, how the pigs are actually a symbol for American government, and how the third pig is too smart for his own good. 

The first topic is way to general for 1000 words. You could go on forever about the anatomy of predators, the way the food chain works and so on. The second and third topics are both strong choices, but with the third one, it might be harder to come up with multiple arguments. The second one it is!

Developing your Thesis

You’ve got your topic, now what? Turn it into a specific argument. You want to make an extremely specific thesis for your paper – the narrower, the better. If you argue that school is the greatest, you’ll go on for ages. But, if you argue that school is the greatest because of English class, then you’re onto something. Even better, school is the greatest because of the Shakespeare unit in English class…and so on. The more specific it is, the less chance someone has to push over you argument.

Remember that your thesis is the main argument of your essay, so it has to be waterproof. If you are able to say, “So what?” or “Why does that matter” to your thesis, it isn’t structure well enough yet. Consider the previous example.

Even in the 3rd example, you can still say, “Ok, so Shakespeare makes school great? Why?” We can go even further than this and say that: School is indispensable as the Shakespeare unit in English teaches students social networking skills.

Now at this point, you can talk about why networking is important in the introduction, and have this sentence follow after, as your thesis.

This will be the hardest part of your essay, but if you get a good thesis, the rest of your essay will practically write itself. Work at your thesis over and over. It might take 5 or 6 tries before you get something you like.

Finding Evidence

In English, it’s not really what your argument is, but more of how well you argue it (though the better the topic, the easier your arguments will be). What you’ll have to do now is try to find examples and points in the text where you think it might prove your topic.

As you’re reading through your text, try to highlight important scenes or quotations – this will prevent you from rereading whole sections of the book, trying to look for that specific quote. If you haven’t been taking notes, then it’ll be harder. Close your book first and think about your topic.

Where in the book do they even talk about your topic? Does the plot support your thesis? The characters? The language? Once you’ve determined what or who can help you in your book, then open it.

As an example, let’s say your thesis is that Romeo never really loved Juliet due to their immaturity. Think of the play – where do they act immature? Once you can answer that, you know where to find your evidence. See how a strong thesis can help with everything?

The amount of evidence you want to find depends on the length of your essay and how you want to structure it. The rule of three is always good to go by if you’re stuck, but clarify with your teacher if you’re lost.

Turning your Evidence into Paragraphs

Now that you have your list of proofs from the text that prove your thesis, we can move into the outline of the body paragraphs. It is good practice to follow a simple essay outline. There are tons of them out there, but the general format for body paragraphs is: point, proof, explanation, connect to thesis. Let’s discuss how we get your points from the proof.

Points and Proof

Each of your proofs will probably differ slightly from others. It is this difference that allows you to split them into separate paragraphs. Look at each of your proofs and try to summarize them in one or two words. There you go! That is now your point for the paragraph. Here’s a quick example:

  • Proof: Romeo pressures Lawrence into helping him elope.
  • Summarize: Romeo is putting others at risk for his gain
  • Point: Romeo is selfish.

So now your topic of the paragraph is Romeo being selfish, and your proof is that he uses Lawrence to elope.

Explanation and Correction

The explanation is relatively easy. All you have to do is explain how you came to the conclusion that your proof is proving your point. Look at the above example. You can explain that by saying:

“Since Romeo is using Friar Lawrence to help him make his escape, it causes the Friar to become an accessory to crime. There are potential consequences should he get caught, which is likely, as Romeo is from a high ranking family. The fact that Romeo puts the Friar in this position proves that he shows no concern for the welfare of his close friends.”

Just explain your train of thought. You want to make it easy for the reader to understand since you won’t be sitting next to your teacher as she marks it. The connection to thesis is the same – answer the question, “How does this prove your thesis” and that will serve as your connection.

Does it Make Sense?

So you’ve got your thesis, points, proofs, explanations, and connections to thesis. Read through them and make sure they are logically sound. If any point of your paragraphs are weak, it will drag your whole essay down. Remember, it’s hard to gain the trust of your reader, and easy to lose it.

Make sure you are always proving your point. Say your point (i.e. Frankenstein is evil), prove it with evidence (He abandons his creation), and EXPLAIN it (As with abandoning a newborn, you are essentially condemning it to death – thus Frankenstein guarantees his creature’s demise).

Fill in the Gaps

At this point, your essay has an excellent thesis, great arguments, and strong examples. Now all you have to do is fill in the blanks. Connect your thoughts with words – you have all the stops planned out, now you have to build the road that connects them.

This is where you can use some creative license and play around with the words. Don’t consult a thesaurus every other word. That is terrible practice. Only use a word if you know how to use it properly. It’s your essay, so make it your own.

This is also the place where teacher’s love to take off marks and write, “missing transitions,” or something of the like. Transition sentences should be used at the end of each paragraph. They serve to join the current paragraph with the next one. They don’t have to be very long, but should wrap up your current topic and introduce the next one smoothly.

Here’s an example with the current paragraph being about money, and the next one about relationships: “This proves that while money certainly helps, it does not always affect the relationships you share with others.”

Editing

You’re almost done! The last step is to edit your work. Don’t go and edit your work right away – with the essay fresh in your mind, you won’t catch your mistakes. You know your essay like the back of your hand, which in this case, is a bad thing. It’s smart to let someone else edit it instead, but most of the time, you’ll have to be the one to shoulder the burden.

Three questions to ask: Does the essay make any sense? If you have no idea what you’re reading, you’re in trouble. Figure out what each paragraph is talking about. You should be able to sum it up very concisely.

Second, are there problems with the fluency of your essay. You should read it out loud to find this out. If it reads smoothly, then 9 times out of 10, you’re set. Lastly, look for spelling and grammar mistakes. You know spell check is unreliable, so don’t trust it.

Final Thoughts

An essay is just a formalized version of the arguments you always have with your friends. If you are passionate about what you are arguing about, you will go and do research just to prove your friend wrong. Approach your essay in this sense. You are out to prove a point, and all the answers lie in the text. Keep your ideas simple and your sentences even simpler.

You have to assume that the person reading your essay has no idea who you are and what your thought process is like. So find something you are passionate about, and narrow it down to a simple thesis. Grab an essay outline and organize your arguments.

Make it your own and make sure you edit! Nothing is perfect, and you can be sure your essay isn’t either, but these steps will get it much closer.

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