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So you have an essay due tomorrow…

And you want me to tell you how to get it done and make a decent grade.  Bad news: I’m not sure I can.  Good news: I will still attempt to help you.  But before we start on the technicalities of writing a decent paper (and really, decent is all you can hope for at this point) let me implore you to NEVER wait this late again.  Your life and the life of the person grading the essay will improve immeasurably if you stop putting off writing until the last minute.

It is too late for that now, however, so how do we proceed?  Well here is the foolproof plan–ready?  Open a blank document on your computer or a blank page of your notebook and start writing.  I mean that.  Just start.  You don’t need more coffee, a quieter space, a better love life, a cleaner desk, or to do more research.  Start typing.  Well, finish reading this and then start typing.

But how do I start, you ask?  I assume your professor gave you a prompt sheet or assignment description of some sort.  Look at it.  What is the paper asking of you?  Most college essays fall into one of three categories: analytical, synthetic, or comprehensive.

If all else fails, turn the question of the prompt into a sentence, and then keep going with your draft.  However (and this is VERY important), do not leave that prompt sentence in the final copy!  I’m going to say that again.  Do not leave that sentence there.  Cut it.  It’s a fine springboard, but restating the prompt sounds amateurish and silly.  And we can’t have that, can we?

Moving on.  See my other posts on What a Good Thesis Looks Like and Ten Ways Not to Suck at Writing.

You can do this, but the paper won’t write itself.  Why are you still here?  Write already!

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Three Basic Essay Types

OR…the answer to the question, “What the f*%@k am I supposed to say in this paper?” Well, while I am a professor who teaches writing, I am not YOUR professor, so I can’t tell you that exactly.  But I can give you some guidelines to translate your professor’s horrible academese so you can get the hell on with your life.

My Plan
Female hand holding a pen and writing a plan in a planner

Most college essays fall into one of three categories: analytical, synthetic, or comprehensive.  Now–sip coffee or energy drink of choice and listen up!

Of these three categories, the analytical category is by far the most common. For an analytical paper, the professor is asking you to analyze (how’s that for clarity, Chief?)–that is to make a claim about–a text or texts  you have read for the course, and then show with textual evidence (both direct quotations and indirect references) that your claim (or thesis) has merit.  These are the most common type of essays assigned in first-year writing courses.  Key words you may see in such a prompt:  analyze (derp), unpack (an oldie but a goodie), thesis-driven, determine, argue, discuss, prove, demonstrate, illustrate

In a synthetic essay, the professor wants you to take several (or more!) sources and draw a conclusion about what all of these texts mean, taken together.  Your claim should present that meaning in a sentence that is broad enough to apply to all the texts you are bringing together, and focused enough to keep the paper coherent.  If you are writing a research essay of a shorter (5-10 pages) length, you are probably looking at this type of paper. Key words for such a prompt: combine, bring together, synthesize (see what I did there), use primary and secondary sources, explain, relate, thesis-driven, discuss, demonstrate, show, connect

A comprehensive essay, while it can begin with a claim, is more of a report to show research, comprehension of major course concepts, and to apply those concepts to the larger world.  These are usually seminar papers or the only paper required in the course, and they often require ten or more pages.  I see such assignments more often in poli sci, religion, anthropology, intro psych, intro sociology, and upper-level English seminars, not so much in introductory English courses.  Key words for such a prompt: research, combine, demonstrate, key concepts, lecture, classwork, report, data, research question, and depending on the subject, required subheads.  Often, especially in science and theoretical courses, you will be required to divide the work by subheadings to indicate history, data, applications, etc.

Do you know what type of paper you are dealing with?  Yes?  Good.  Now write.

How Not to Suck at Writing

In which I give you some simple rules for writing college essays that do not suck.

pexels-photo success

I have, in the past, presented similar rules to my students as The Ten Commandments of College Writing, but as this is the Irreverent Writing Guide, that title seems too, well, reverent.  So here are your less-reverent rules for not sucking.

  1. Write without the second person (you).  An essay is not a blog post, an e-mail to a friend, or an informal conversation.  Lose the “you.”  Writing in the second person sounds amateurish and informal and basically sends the message that you don’t give a f*@#k about what you are writing.  Which may be true, so go ahead with that if you want an F (or a C given the average grade inflation).
  2. Overwriting is for assholes.  Stop trying to sound smart and write thoughtfully instead. Try a little authenticity–it won’t kill you.  The worst writing is thoughtless, overblown prose that tries to mask the fact it is saying nothing with jargon-filled long sentences.  In other words, do not write like any academic journal article ever published. (I kid!  But only a little).
  3. Quotations are not self-evident. Do not overuse them or drop them in as if they explain themselves.  They don’t!  But you added that nice seven-line block quotation that moved you effortlessly to page three, and isn’t that nice?  No.  F*%@k off with that.  We all know what you are doing, and it ain’t writing. Skillfully cut and embed a few well-chosen quotations and then STOP.
  4. Write in the active voice.  Learn it.  Love it.  (It should not be learned by you or loved by you). The passive voice makes you sound like a loser who has no confidence in what you are writing.  I mean sure, if you want to write like a government weasel who says “Mistakes were made,” more power to you, but your grade will suck, and your professor will hate reading your work.
  5. Leave “the reader” out of your analysis.  If I never see another sentence like the one that follows (and I will, Lord help me, I will), I can die happy. “This discord can be seen by the reader in the numerous references to Hell made by the author.”  No.  That sentence is…No.  My comment is…NO.  Your grade is…F.  For explanation, see rule 6.
  6. Talk about the text and what it does.  Not about how a hypothetical reader might respond.  Anyway, we all know “the reader” is just you–you trying not to say “I.”  Stop it. That’s terrible. Here’s one neat trick that fixes that sentence above! “The numerous references to Hell the author makes show this discord.” The author and the text here are doing something.  Win.
  7. Make sure your pronouns agree.  Yes, I know that in conversation we all say, “Everybody must get off their asses.”  That’s wrong.  We are all wrong. “Everybody must get off his or her ass.”  Better!  I know.  It’s odd.  And the his/her thing gets awkward.  Wanna fix that?  Write in the plural when using pronouns.  Make it clear that “People should get off their asses,” and the problem goes away.  Ignore this little rule (over and over and over), and ensure that your professor wears out his or her red pen.  Even if he or she grades online, he or she will stab the computer with a red pen.  That computer does not deserve to die.
  8. For Heaven’s sake, punctuate.   “But I can’t remember all those comma rulz!” Stop whining.  Read that long-ass overwritten sentence out loud.  Did you stop to breathe anywhere?  You probably need a comma.  Are there two subjects, i.e. more than one person or thing doing or saying more than one person or thing?  You probably have two sentences there, and need a semicolon or a period.  Or! You need a comma and a conjunction as in the sentence prior to this one.  Don’t insert punctuation at random and hope you get it right.  This is not about rules; it’s about clarity.  If every damn sentence runs together, no one knows what you are saying.  Your reading audience suffers a migraine, and your grade suffers too.
  9. Have a clear thesis and get to it quickly. Your essay needs to proceed from a thesis statement.  A thesis statement makes a claim.  If your thesis is a fact, you have nowhere to go.  If your thesis doesn’t show up until the conclusion, this is a problem.  If you don’t know what you are proving, you will ramble.  Rambling is death. Bad thesis: ” This rule uses a lot of “if” clauses.” That’s a demonstrable fact.  Good thesis: “This rule’s overuse of “if” clauses renders the entire exercise ineffective as writing instruction.”  Generally speaking, for most college essays, get to the thesis by the end of the first or second paragraph. More on how to write a decent thesis in another post.
  10. Do not generalize instead of actually saying something. Never use the following phrases: “In society today…” “Since the beginning of recorded time…” “Throughout history…” “Since the founding of this country…” “All parents/students/people know that…”  Just typing those made me want to stab my computer.  Related–try not to use indefinite pronouns (everything, thing, something, anything, everyone, no one, etc) or to use the word “This” to refer to an entire concept that took you two sentences above to explain.  This (see?) is utterly annoying, unclear, and lazy. Be precise.  Be clear.  Be descriptive.

Now.  Go forth and cease to suck.  May the force be with you.