How To Write A Sophisticated Essay
In more sophisticated essays, the thesis is often implicit (suggested) rather than explicit (directly stated), and the reader may have to piece it together from various statements, the essay’s context, and clues provided by the writer throughout the essay, often in the form of rhetorical devices. Although more sophisticated essays are no formulaic, like the five-paragraph essay, they still have a clearly discernable structure, are well organized, exhibit unity and coherence, and support and develop one or more points using specific evidence.
If there is no “right” way to write an essay, one may wonder how it is possible to evaluate an essay. This is an issue that William Zinsser addresses in his own essay, “The Act of Writing: One Man’s Method,” which appears on pages 159-165 of Text Messages: The author compares himself as a writer to a bricklayer, implying that writing is in some ways like bricklaying: “I’m somewhat like a bricklayer. I build very slowly, not adding a new row until I feel that the foundation is solid enough to hold up the house” (160). This comparison shows how carefully the writer is in developing his essay and how seriously he takes his craft.
The questions, “worries,” desires, and imperative statements that Zinsser mentions indicate his criteria for writing:
I want. . . the design that my piece will have. . . . to have rhythm and pace that will invite the reader to keep reading (161).He says he edits several times, “mostly,” during later revisions, “cutting” unnecessary words (and sentences): “words were eliminated because I saw that they were unnecessary,” he says, advising other writers to
Learn to recognize what is clutter and to use the DELETE key to prune it out.He offers his readers examples of such “clutter”:
The useless proposition y=that gets appended to so many verbs (order up, free up), or the adverb whose meaning is already in the verb (blare loudly, clench tightly), or the adjective that tells us what we already know (smooth marble, green grass). . . . phrases in which the writer explains what he is about to explain (it might be pointed out, I’m tempted to say). . . . the sentence that essentially repeats what the previous sentence has said, or tells the reader something that is implicit, or adds a detail that is irrelevant (162).Another criterion for good writing that Zinsser identifies is clarity, which, he indicates, results from concise wording: “Writing is clear and strong to the extent that it has no superfluous parts” (162).
Good writing also pays attention to word choice. “Hundreds of others [words] were discarded because I later thought of a better word--one that caught more precisely or more vividly what I was trying to express. . . . --words that convey an exact shade of meaning” (162).
Another criterion for sophisticated writing is “unity,” Zinsser says, which requires consistent “tone” (the writer’s attitude toward his or her topic), consistent “point of view,” consistent use of “pronoun” and “tense,” and “transitions” (163). To “check your piece for unity,” he suggests, “go over it one more time from start to finish, preferably reading it aloud” (163).
He also advises other writers to “keep your sentences short” and to ‘see that every sentence contains only one thought” (163-164).
If there is no “right” way to write an essay, how it is possible to evaluate an essay? One way to do so is to think of writing as a competitive sport. Athletes may, to a large extent, train as they please, but they will either win or lose according to the rules (criteria) for their sport. Just as sports are played according to rules, writing is performed according to criteria by which its success or failure is evaluated. In “The Act of Writing: One Man’s Method,” Zinsser identifies several of the criteria by which he evaluates his own writing and recommends them for other writers to adopt and follow:
- Clarity (clearness)
- Continuity (interconnectedness of parts)
- Design that shows rhythm and pace
- Elimination of unnecessary words
- Adoption of more precise or vivid words in place of less precise or vivid ones
- Use of active instead of passive verbs
- Unity through the consistent use of tone, point of view, pronouns, tense and through the inclusion of transitions
- Use of short sentences, each of which contains only one thought
In “Don’t You Think It’s Time to Start Thinking” (pages 170-172 in Text Messages), Northrop Frye identifies several obstacles to good writing that should be avoided, including gobbledygook, jargon, cant, doublespeak, the vocabulary of groupthink, weasel words, “prejudices and clichés”. Of course, writers should also avoid sexist and racist terminology and should remember that illiteracy includes images and figures of speech and is not limited only to one’s use of words. The use of such “ready-made phrases” (171) and “verbal formulas that have no thought behind them” (172), Frye argues, leads to unthinking obedience, social conformity, manipulation of others, and social subjugation.
In “How to Write with Style” (pages 172-175 of Text Messages), Kurt Vonnegut offers some tips on more general topic, the “elements of literary style” (172). Vonnegut defines literary style as the writer’s personality as it comes through in his or her writing: “Writers,” he says, “reveal a lot about themselves to readers. We call these revelations, accidental and intentional, elements of literary style,” and these elements, he adds, “tell us what sort of person it is with whom we’re spending time.” Based upon the writer’s style, readers determine whether the writer seems “ignorant or informed, crazy or sane, stupid or bright, crooked or honest, humorless or playful” (172). Vonnegut then offers his tips for developing an attractive and positive writing style:
Find a subject you care about (173).
Do no ramble (173).
Simplicity of language is. . . reputable (173).
If a sentence, no matter how excellent, does not illuminate my subject in some new and useful way, scratch it out (173).
[Use a] writing style which is. . . natural (173).
Write accurately, always selecting the most effective words, and relating the words to one another unambiguously (174).
Vonnegut also urges other writers to punctuate correctly and to use traditional , standard grammar, declaring, “readers. . . want our pages to look very much like pages they have seen before” (174).
In “How to Say Nothing in Five Hundred Words” (pages 178-190 in Text Messages), Paul Roberts counsels other writers to avoid wordiness. They should not pad their writing with unnecessary words or sentences (or paragraphs). They should, instead, use specific evidence to support and develop their ideas. For example, “if you want the reader to believe that college football is bad for the players, you have to do more than say so. You have to display the evil” (183). A writer would probably include anecdotes (brief stories told to illustrate a point). In addition, he says, “Look at the work of any professional writer and notice how consistently he is moving from the generality, the abstract statement, to the concrete example, the facts and figures, the illustration” (183).
If a writer finds him- or herself under the required length lim(186-190)it for an essay, rather than padding what he or she has already written, Roberts argues, he or she should “dig up more real content” in order to further “illustrate” his or her essay’s topic (185). The writer may ask and answer questions about the topic in order to further identify and explore the topic’s implications.
The expository tools that writers use can themselves be ways of expanding an essay without padding its statements: analysis, argumentation, classification, comparison, contrast, definition, description, division, exemplification, fact, persuasion, process analysis (how to).
Roberts then lists some of the padding techniques to avoid:
- “Excessive timidity” (a writer, he suggests, should “decide what you want to say and say it as vigorously as possible, without apology and in plain words”)
- “Linguistic diffidence,” one form of which is the euphemism, which “always operates more or less in subjects that are touchy or taboo”
- “Polysyllables” instead of short words
- “Pat expressions,” which he defines as “tags” or “clichés” such as “the pure and simple truth,” “from where I sit,” “the time of his life,” “to the ends of the earth,” “in the twinkling of an eye,” “as sure as you’re born,” “over my dead body”
- “Colorful words” that “are calculated to produce a picture or induce an emotion” (in other words, purple prose or connotative language)
- “Colorless words,” which “are. . . of such general meaning that in a particular sentence they mean nothing,” such as “slang adjectives like cool”
- “Nouns of very general meaning, like circumstances, cases, instances, aspects, factors, relationships, attitudes, eventualities” (1860190).
So much is at stake in writing a conclusion. This is, after all, your last chance to persuade your readers to your point of view, to impress yourself upon them as a writer and thinker. And the impression you create in your conclusion will shape the impression that stays with your readers after they've finished the essay.
The end of an essay should therefore convey a sense of completeness and closure as well as a sense of the lingering possibilities of the topic, its larger meaning, its implications: the final paragraph should close the discussion without closing it off.
To establish a sense of closure, you might do one or more of the following:
- Conclude by linking the last paragraph to the first, perhaps by reiterating a word or phrase you used at the beginning.
- Conclude with a sentence composed mainly of one-syllable words. Simple language can help create an effect of understated drama.
- Conclude with a sentence that's compound or parallel in structure; such sentences can establish a sense of balance or order that may feel just right at the end of a complex discussion.
To close the discussion without closing it off, you might do one or more of the following:
- Conclude with a quotation from or reference to a primary or secondary source, one that amplifies your main point or puts it in a different perspective. A quotation from, say, the novel or poem you're writing about can add texture and specificity to your discussion; a critic or scholar can help confirm or complicate your final point. For example, you might conclude an essay on the idea of home in James Joyce's short story collection, Dubliners, with information about Joyce's own complex feelings towards Dublin, his home. Or you might end with a biographer's statement about Joyce's attitude toward Dublin, which could illuminate his characters' responses to the city. Just be cautious, especially about using secondary material: make sure that you get the last word.
- Conclude by setting your discussion into a different, perhaps larger, context. For example, you might end an essay on nineteenth-century muckraking journalism by linking it to a current news magazine program like 60 Minutes.
- Conclude by redefining one of the key terms of your argument. For example, an essay on Marx's treatment of the conflict between wage labor and capital might begin with Marx's claim that the "capitalist economy is . . . a gigantic enterprise ofdehumanization"; the essay might end by suggesting that Marxist analysis is itself dehumanizing because it construes everything in economic -- rather than moral or ethical-- terms.
- Conclude by considering the implications of your argument (or analysis or discussion). What does your argument imply, or involve, or suggest? For example, an essay on the novel Ambiguous Adventure, by the Senegalese writer Cheikh Hamidou Kane, might open with the idea that the protagonist's development suggests Kane's belief in the need to integrate Western materialism and Sufi spirituality in modern Senegal. The conclusion might make the new but related point that the novel on the whole suggests that such an integration is (or isn't) possible.
Finally, some advice on how not to end an essay:
- Don't simply summarize your essay. A brief summary of your argument may be useful, especially if your essay is long--more than ten pages or so. But shorter essays tend not to require a restatement of your main ideas.
- Avoid phrases like "in conclusion," "to conclude," "in summary," and "to sum up." These phrases can be useful--even welcome--in oral presentations. But readers can see, by the tell-tale compression of the pages, when an essay is about to end. You'll irritate your audience if you belabor the obvious.
- Resist the urge to apologize. If you've immersed yourself in your subject, you now know a good deal more about it than you can possibly include in a five- or ten- or 20-page essay. As a result, by the time you've finished writing, you may be having some doubts about what you've produced. (And if you haven't immersed yourself in your subject, you may be feeling even more doubtful about your essay as you approach the conclusion.) Repress those doubts. Don't undercut your authority by saying things like, "this is just one approach to the subject; there may be other, better approaches. . ."
Copyright 1998, Pat Bellanca, for the Writing Center at Harvard University