A Short Handbook for writing essays in the Humanities and Social Sciences

A Short Handbook for writing essays in the Humanities and Social Sciences

Salvatore Allosso and Dan Allosso



Getting Started Writing

Anxiety is the writer’s first obstacle.  We often wonder, “what can I write that hasn’t already been written by someone else, and probably much better?” As you can see, we (the two authors of this handbook) are already on the way to overcoming this anxiety simply by writing a section heading and two sentences (now three). However, we’re still anxious about doing a good job and making this a useful tool that you’ll benefit from reading.

Our first paragraph above makes assertions and asks for development. This is what first paragraphs are often for. We’ll get to paragraphs soon enough. For now, we’ll expand on those assertions by making some observations that will move us forward.



Sounds simple enough, doesn’t it? Then why state the obvious? Because new writers often forget, and because some writing manuals assume you know things that you don’t, since their authors have known them for so long. This handbook will take you step-by-step through the process of writing essays for an upper-level high school class or a college course. We have English and History classes in mind, because one of us is a History teacher and the other taught English. The advice we’re offering is intended to be relatively basic and direct, because most of your college writing should be basic and direct.

Remember, this is utilitarian writing, not poetry or the great American novel. You’re probably reading this because you have to. Either it’s been assigned or you’ve realized you need some help developing these skills (good for you!). Even so, if we want to hold your interest, we (your authors) need to get to the point. Nothing turns away readers as quickly as feeling that their time is being wasted. Therefore, just like you, we need to decide how best to use the time and space we’re given for this task. What words to use? What tone to set? How to organize the writing so that it makes sense and gets the job done; and so the reader feels the least possible amount of pain – or maybe even has some fun? These are all questions we’re asking ourselves as we outline, draft, and revise this handbook. These are the questions the handbook will help you ask and answer about your own writing.



Analyzing Texts, Taking Notes


He who understands also loves, notices, sees…the more knowledge is inherent in a thing, the greater the love.  (Paracelsus 1493-1541)


First of all, what is a text? For our purposes, a text is any statement you run into in this class. Anything you read, of course. But a lecture is also often a text. Even a discussion can be, if people have prepared their arguments. You should be thinking about texts, analyzing them all the time. Don’t passively accept what you’re told or what you read. Ask questions, compare what you’re reading or hearing with things you’ve heard before, things you’ve read, things you believe. And write your thoughts down – because they will be the foundations of your essays.

Analyzing a text is the same as analyzing anything else: you take it apart so you can see what it’s supposed to do and how it does its job. Author W.H. Auden demystified both literature and criticism when he said, “Here is a verbal contraption. How does it work?”

By now you’ve probably learned in an English class how authors use plot, imagery, symbolism, and allusion to express ideas and values in literature. We often forget that authors of nonfiction do this too, using pretty much the same set of language tools. This is how reporters write the news. Historians tell stories. Even physicists, when they leave equations behind and try to describe their discoveries to the rest of us in plain English, find themselves using analogies, metaphors, and the other language tools we all use. We’re really doing two related things in this handbook: showing you how to analyze someone else’s writing and showing you how to write yourself. Writing an interpretive essay uses a subset of these language tools, so as you’re learning to recognize how authors do it, remember that you’re going to be doing it too.

When you take lecture notes, you’re beginning the writing process. Yes, you’re recording information that might be on the exam. But you are also hearing an argument – the lecturer isn’t just reciting some random set of facts. Most lectures are built around a central question or idea. If the lecturer doesn’t come right out and tell you what that is (clue: does the syllabus have lecture titles?  Are they in the form of questions?), try to figure it out. If it doesn’t come to you in class, review your notes later and try to boil the lecture’s theme down to a sentence or two. If you’re really stumped, ask.

You’ll want to take notes when you read, too. We are going to show you how writers work: how they generally organize arguments, how they generally use setting and point of view to create atmosphere and mood; how they generally present narrators and characters to engage problems, etc. These are valuable clues to help you determine what a text might “mean” – in general. Your task is to analyze them in the specific context of the text you are reading and interpret how they make that contraption work. You might find once you get used to it, that such active reading doesn’t diminish, but actually increases the pleasure of reading.

Your reading notes should explore both the “facts” in the text (who did what, when, where, how, and, if indicated, why?) and what they might suggest. But don’t be too surprised if “facts” and “interpretations” are sometimes hard to distinguish. Discussions will go more smoothly and productively if you’ve already read the assignment and have begun a dialogue with the text before you come to class. If you’ve underlined interesting passages and written questions and comments in the margins of your book and if you’ve jotted down your thoughts about the reading, then you’ll be coming to class as an active member of an exploratory party and not as a passive fellow traveler. This will prevent the discussion leader from having to give you yet another lecture and will improve your understanding of the material and your participation grade. And there’s a reason why we discuss this material in groups, rather than each pondering it on our own. We’re all looking for the “truth” of our subject. As Franz Kafka noted in his diary, “one person cannot express the truth, but a host of perspectives might come close to this goal.”

So what should you write down, when you’re taking notes on a reading? Begin with anything at all that you’re not sure about, that you don’t understand, that you’d like explained. Start with basic questions that clarify facts, then move on to interpretations. Compare the reading with other readings you’ve done, or with lecture and discussion notes. Add questions that reflect your interests and concerns – they’re usually the issues that lead to good discussions and essays.

Here are some questions, divided between fiction and nonfiction. Use what fits:

For Fiction (mostly)



For Non-fiction (mostly)



On Arguments

Humans have been writing and reading for thousands of years, so it shouldn’t surprise you that people have been trying to work out the details of these processes for a long time. The most famous writer on writing was Aristotle (384-322 BCE), who was a student of Plato in Athens and later a teacher of Alexander the Great in Macedon. Aristotle analyzed statements and identified some characteristics of argument that we still use today.

Aristotle found that logic was a main ingredient of many (but not all) arguments. You might recognize the logical sequence: All rabbits are mammals; Spots is a rabbit; therefore Spots is a mammal. Aristotle called this a syllogism and recognized it as the most powerful type of argument. You can see how it’s impossible to argue with the conclusion once you’ve accepted the premises. If you can organize an argument this way, moving from agreed-on premises to an irrefutable conclusion, you’re likely to convince a lot of people.

Of course, most of the time we don’t have the advantage of being able to argue from premises that are incontrovertible facts. Sometimes our job is to show our readers new facts in order to lead them to our conclusion. Other times, what we’re really arguing about is the truth of our premises. We live in a world of uncertainty, after all. So many of our arguments are based on premises that are tentative, leading to probable rather than absolute conclusions. Sometimes we go to great lengths to pretend our premises are sound and our conclusions irrefutable. More on that later.

This may all seem ridiculously abstract. We don’t spend much time these days, taking apart the way we think and looking at the parts. But stick with it – it’s important. When a political leader makes a claim such as “Markets should be unregulated,” or “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal”, there’s usually a trail of argument behind it. If you want to understand (or challenge) the claim, the best place to look is at the premises that lead to the conclusion.

The form of argument we’ve been looking at above is called deduction. It builds from accepted facts to a specific conclusion. There are two other forms you should know. Induction goes more or less in the opposite direction. Induction starts with observations or evidence (like data in a scientific experiment) and ends with a general conclusion. Since in the real world we never have a chance to look at all the data, these conclusions are, strictly speaking, tentative. But in life we often take inductive ideas as facts. We know what’s going to happen when we throw a ball, not because we’ve studied physics and calculus, but because we’ve done it before and experienced the results. Even so, careful scientists still talk about the theory of evolution. They don’t do this because they aren’t convinced that evolution is correct, but because there’s always the possibility that new evidence will be found that will require them to adjust the theory. The point is, inductive reasoning is supposed to follow where the data leads it.

Aristotle identified a third form of argument that may surprise you: narrative. Historian Hayden White defined history as a verbal artifact that we use to “combine a certain amount of data, theoretical concepts for explaining these data, and a narrative structure for their presentation.” Stories and anecdotes persuade us because we identify with the people and situations of the story. A good story can even sometimes take the place of data (induction) or even agreed-on facts (deduction) in an argument. The most powerful stories can reach past the logical appeal to reason, bringing the emotions of the audience into play. Fear, pride, contentment, resentment, love, and moral outrage are all powerful elements of argument, so it’s important to be able to recognize whether a writer is appealing to reason or to emotion. And then to ask why.



Discovering a Topic, Preparing for Discussion

Everyone mines every book for the things that are useful to him, especially [books that are] rich and complex. (Italo Calvino)


The texts you’ll need to work with at this level of your education are probably givens. In English they are often the “classics,” books that informed readers consider the most significant of their time. In History we also have texts (primary and secondary) that are central to our understanding of an event or a period. The process of becoming a classic is interesting and involves both the innumerable readings the texts have undergone and the ongoing construction of our common culture. But that’s not really the point we’re exploring here. The particular texts you’re responsible for in a given class were chosen out of a universe of possible texts because they fit together and because, as a group, they lead somewhere. When you figure out how they fit together and where they lead, you’ll be well on your way to understanding the overall theme of the course – which, remember, is also a text!

Another thing about “classics.” Whether we respond positively or negatively to them, we can’t ignore their influence. When we off-handedly characterize something as being “Quixotic” or “Kafkaesque”; when our newspapers and popular magazines talk about “Progressives” or the “Frontier”; when political cartoons, rap music, and even Sunday comics depend on our familiarity with Beowulf and Odysseus and Malcolm X and Viet Nam in order to get their point, then we would be wise to become familiar with these concepts, characters, and events.

So we have our texts: a set of assigned readings, lectures and discussions. Let’s think of them as a challenge. How are we going to make these texts meaningful to ourselves? This is a basic question in life. Every day we deal with things not under our control. Poet Robert Frost once claimed that every one of his poems was “one of these adaptations that I’ve made. I’ve taken whatever you give me and made it what I want it to be.” You’ve already begun responding to this challenge by taking notes on what you’ve read and heard. Even if your discussion and essay assignment is very directed – “Discuss the relationship between Quixote and Sancho Panza in Don Quixote” or “Compare John Muir’s attitude toward wilderness with Gifford Pinchot’s based on their writing about the Hetch Hetchy controversy” –  there’s always a way to make an aspect of the topic your own.

If, on the other hand, you have to discover your own topic, you’re faced with a different challenge – but that’s still no reason for panic or “writer’s block,” since you’ve already begun the process. Your notes are writing, and they’re the source of what you’ll contribute to discussion. Some passages you marked in your text or notes you wrote in your notebook will hopefully be the main facts and ideas you were looking for, and other highlights and comments will represent your personal reactions to the text. That’s why everybody’s notes are a little different. When you think about and expand on these personal reactions, you’ll discover the beginnings of your individual interpretation of the texts.

Follow these clues one at a time. Some will go nowhere. They’ll turn out to be uninteresting or inappropriate for the assignment, or there won’t be enough material to support an argument. But some will be interesting, appropriate, and supportable. Bring them to discussion. Write about them. What your instructor wants – what all your readers will appreciate – is evidence of your thoughtful response to the text.


Remember: a good discussion/essay topic comes out of your response to the text.  It deals with a basic question that isn’t easily answered but that isn’t so large that it can’t possibly be answered. Focus. A good topic, formulated in a few words, could become the title of your essay and engage your reader immediately. If it’s not meaningful to you, it’s highly unlikely that you’ll make it meaningful to your reader.


By now you should be beginning to see how these tasks – taking notes, preparing for discussions, formulating an essay topic – all build on one another. We, your authors, have been students ourselves. We know from experience there is rarely time to go back and redo things. But if you put some effort into these steps as you go through them, your notes will generate discussion ideas, discussions will help you focus on the most promising interpretations, and you’ll be on your way to a solid paper. The worst thing is to be facing a due-date with no idea how you’re going to fill five pages. If you work at each of these steps, that won’t be a problem.  The essay topic, and probably a lot of the essay itself, will jump out of your notes at you.

So think of discussion as a more tentative, less formal way to try out ideas and interpretations that might lead to an essay. When you write notes for discussion, they’re for you. The ideas can be half formed: questions you don’t yet have answers to. Bouncing them off the group will help you develop your ideas, and will tell you which ones are most interesting to others.


Settling on a Manageable Topic


At some point you may be asked to turn in a tentative essay topic. Or to pick a topic from a set the instructor provides. In either case you should keep in mind that:



Remember: you are only going to be asked to write a short interpretive essay. Not to resolve for all time how James Joyce’s Ulysses changed the nature of the hero in modern novels or to trace all the influences of the French Revolution on the development of American nationalism. The scope of your project will naturally narrow, as you focus on what interests you – that’s a good thing.


An Example (from literature)

Suppose that when you were reading The Odyssey, you found you were interested in Homer’s portrayal of women. You marked some passages, wrote comments in the margins of your text, and brought them up in class. After clearing up the “facts” – who did what, when, how, and why? – maybe you still want to know: Why did I respond the way I did? What was Homer doing?

“Is there enough material to build an interpretation?” you ask yourself.  More specifically: Who are the characters Kirke, Kalypso, Nausikaa, Penelope, Helen, Klytaimnestra, Eurykleia, Arete? Do they have anything in common? Differences? How does Odysseus seem to view them? How do they respond to him? How does this affect Odysseus? How does their interaction relate to the world depicted in the text? How do they function in relation to the larger theme? Does any pattern emerge?

Now that you’ve read, thought about, and discussed something that interests you, you’re ready to pursue a general and still unshaped topic that is appropriate and certainly has enough material to investigate more closely and develop: “Homer’s Portrayal of Women in The Odyssey.” This is probably not yet a manageable topic for a short paper, but it’s already better than a more general topic like “The Odyssey.” As you focus you might narrow your topic to a comparison of faithful wives to unfaithful wives, or of wives to mistresses, or of those women who provide security and continuity to those who offer adventure and experience.  You might find that these categories are unsatisfactory to you. Good! Develop your own perceptions of how these characters function in the text.


Another Example (from history)

Suppose you were given an assignment: Compare Booker T. Washington’s approach to race relations in his 1895 “Atlanta Exposition Speech” with W.E.B. DuBois’s approach in The Souls of Black Folk (1903). You read the two texts and discover that DuBois is highly critical of Washington, and Souls is his counterargument to Washington’s position.

But as you read DuBois’s criticism of Washington and go back to the “Atlanta Exposition Speech” to see if that’s really what Washington said, you find yourself feeling one way or another about the debate. Maybe you feel DuBois misrepresented Washington’s position. Maybe you feel Washington was a realist and DuBois was an idealist. Maybe you agree with DuBois that Washington was an appeaser. Maybe (best case) you’re aware from your reading and discussion that people have reacted in all these ways to the texts. Now you’ve got the basis of an essay that can look at both texts, discuss the variety of reactions to them, and then – if you choose to – stake out your own. Even though your topic was assigned to you, with a little thought you can take it in a direction that interests you and that will allow you to build your own interpretation.

The important point in both examples is that once you’ve read the text carefully and taken good notes, you can begin the process of making it your text by bringing your experience and imagination to bear on a central idea – a topic – that especially interests you. Your notes will lead you back to the areas that caught your attention as you took them. Most of the time you’ll find your topic there. You can test out and refine that topic in discussion, and see how others respond to it. As you work with it, you may find that there’s something in particular you want to say about this topic. That something will be the basis of your thesis, which we’ll discuss next.



Creating a Thesis

My task…is, by the power of the written word, to make you hear, to make you feel – it is, before all, to make you see. (Joseph Conrad)



You’ve probably been told by writing teachers that if the topic is the main idea, then the thesis is the main idea statement.  You develop your topic, which was a word or a phrase (your subject), into a sentence (your subject plus a predicate, or what you have to say about it). But that’s not enough if you want the satisfaction of creating a fine thing, or if you want to present your reader with an essay worth reading. You’re past the “But I have nothing to say” stage – you’ve already begun the writing process by taking notes, and you’ve reviewed those notes to discover your interests. You’ve explored possible topics in discussion and settled on a manageable topic.  Now you must move from your open-ended first reading of your texts to a more deliberate rereading of particular passages. These closer readings of passages relevant to your topic will suggest interpretations that need to be developed. It’s important at the outset to dismiss anything as a possible thesis that is either factual or self-evident. Nothing obvious needs arguing, so a paper that argues the obvious has no purpose. You don’t want your reader to respond, “So what?” to an essay you’ve just gone to a lot of trouble to write. You can prevent this by anticipating your reader’s responses and asking yourself questions such as:



Remember: a focused thesis statement connects your more general main idea with your specific development of it – in which you’ll use concrete illustrations, observations, quotations, analysis, and interpretation. Thus, the topic sentences of your supporting paragraphs will be contained, explicitly or implicitly, in the all-important thesis sentence(s).


Settling on a Workable Thesis, you should keep in mind that:



The process of rereading your texts with your topic in mind and organizing your evidence helps you move from your initial, open-ended exploration to creating a thesis and ultimately supporting arguments. This stage is often called “brainstorming” or “freewriting” or “prewriting.” Like preparing notes to bring to discussion, it’s an informal, personal part of the writing process. Often you’ll be the only person to see these notes – they probably won’t be graded. Do them anyway.  Like your initial note-taking, this is an important step. The work you do here will prevent you having to grope for ideas and evidence when you’re outlining and writing. And like taking notes, this is also writing. You improve at anything by practicing it – this is another chance to practice writing.


An Example (from history)

Let’s suppose one of your textbooks is James Loewen’s Lies My Teacher Told Me, for a course that deals with our changing ideas about history over time. In Chapter 6, which is titled “John Brown and Abraham Lincoln: the invisibility of antiracism in American history textbooks,” Loewen says that history has mostly portrayed violent white abolitionist John Brown as insane, “narrowly ignorant,” and “a religious fanatic.” In contrast, Loewen says, “Consider Nat Turner, who in 1831 led the most important slave revolt since the United States became a nation. John Brown and Nat Turner both killed whites in cold blood…but unlike Brown, Turner is portrayed as…something of a hero.”

You begin wondering, what is the difference between John Brown and Nat Turner?  Loewen cites his sources, so you can look at them to see how the ways the two men are portrayed differs and how these portrayals have changed over time. You take your questions to discussion and your peers and instructor find them interesting. Your topic, “Why is Nat Turner a Hero and John Brown a Villain?” will probably be controversial, but after bringing your questions to discussion and finding that your peers and instructor are interested in the direction you’re taking this, you begin looking at some other texts that mention Brown or Turner (if you’re really lucky, you find some that compare them). Your closer reading reveals that many histories portray John Brown as ignorant, even though the record shows he was a highly educated man who had traveled in sophisticated social circles before Harpers Ferry. You read more and begin to form an interpretation: that maybe history can forgive Nat Turner for his killings because he was an escaped slave acting in a manner expected of his peer group, while John Brown was considered a traitor to his white, educated peer group. There are other possible interpretations, but you decide to test the thesis that “John Brown is vilified by history because Brown’s certainty that Christianity and slavery were incompatible was an intolerable challenge to the smug rationalizations of other whites in 19th century America.”

This will be a controversial thesis to explore – you’ve already run into many histories that implicitly or explicitly deny this interpretation. The upside is that you’ll have the full attention of your reader. As you continue your research, you may find there were other factors leading to history’s rejection of Brown, or that not all histories rejected him. You’ll have an opportunity to refine your thesis – it’s not carved in stone – but for now it’s a good source of direction for your project.


Another Example (from literature)

Suppose you decide to pursue “Homer’s Portrayal of Women in The Odyssey.”  Class discussion reflected on the emphasis on “family values” in recent news coverage of politicians looking for issues near election time. You were stimulated by what they had to say. Or maybe you were offended by the superficiality of the “soundbites” – after all, you’ve just read Odysseus telling Agamemnon in Book Eleven that “empty words are evil.” So you want to take a closer look at families in the text. You reread relevant passages, highlighting the relationships of Odysseus-Penelope-Telemakhos on one side, and Agamemnon-Klytaimnestra-Orestes on the other.

You plan to contrast the “functional” families in The Odyssey with the “dysfunctional” ones, focusing on the role that the wives play. You know you won’t use those terms in your final draft, as they’re both jargon and clichés, but they will get you started. It would be too obvious merely to point out that Penelope and Klytaimnestra represent “good guys” versus “bad guys.” That’s a “So what?” paper.  As you reread, you notice that Penelope is not such a one-dimensional character; neither is Klytaimnestra. You sense that Odysseus’s wife’s “fidelity” is motivated by causes more complicated than conventional, and Agamemnon’s wife’s “infidelity” is grounded in his sacrifice of her daughter for his brother’s honor. Now you’re interpreting and you know someone will disagree, so you prepare an argument.  Your (tentative) thesis statement is: “Although some have proposed that The Odyssey was presented as an educational model prescribing rules and roles for generations of Greeks, a close look at the characters of Penelope and Klytaimnestra suggests that Homer was as much a probing psychologist as a patronizing pedagogue.” Okay, the alliteration might be a bit too much – but you’ll worry about that in a later draft; this is a good start. This thesis is a bit too general: ultimately you’ll have to be more specific as to which psychological aspects of these characters Homer probes. But it will serve to focus your “brainstorming” and help you develop your argument.


Remember: you can (and often do) change both your attitude and your plan as you explore the text and your responses to it. As that happens, you refine or revise your thesis. Your original statement is meant to function as your guide; it directs your writing, but it serves your purposes.




Ordering Evidence, Building an Argument

The only true praise is thought. The only thing that can back-bone an essay is thought. (Robert Frost)



When you’re given a writing assignment in an English or History class, you’re being called on to interpret, evaluate, appreciate, condemn, praise – but, above all, to think. An essay, in that sense, is just like being called on in class. You’re being asked to say something thoughtful about the topic at hand. So just as you would in a face-to-face conversation, you’ll want to stick to the point and offer your response in a way that is understandable and that puts your ideas in the best possible light. If you try to keep the same guidelines in mind for your writing that you use instinctively when you’re talking, then your paper will read like a genuine human discussion rather than like an empty political TV commercial. Your readers will appreciate this very much!

By now you’ve (hopefully!) taken notes, reviewed them to find what interests you, identified a topic, and developed it into a tentative thesis. You’ve begun rereading specific areas of your texts or researching other sources for ideas that relate to your thesis. So the time has come to start building these ideas into an argument.

You may recall in our brief look at the different types of arguments, that there are appeals to emotion and appeals to reason. The type of writing we’re talking about here may make an occasional reference to emotion (especially if you’re writing about a controversial issue), but the argument should be logical.

The two forms of logical arguments you’ll probably end up using, depending on the material and the assignment, will be deductive and inductive. A deductive argument might begin with evidence from texts or from previous interpretations, and lead to a specific conclusion in a format like this: “if A is true, and B is true, then C ought to be true.” In the real world A and B are almost never absolutes that no one is going to challenge, so your conclusion is always going to be tentative. An inductive argument would begin with specific data and try to generalize from them, to a conclusion about the broader world. Its conclusion would also be tentative, but that’s no reason not to argue your point strongly and with conviction.

As you read and research, your goal is to find the building blocks of your argument: factual data, prior interpretations you can comment on, etc. As you prepare to write, you’ll want to organize your argument into a series of points that develop your thesis and that build on each other to support your conclusion. Ernest Hemingway once said that good prose is architecture, not interior decorating. By that we guess he meant that it is constructed, composed on a solid foundation – it’s graceful, but not primarily designed to be pretty. Since we’re using an architectural metaphor, we might also want to remember architect Louis Sullivan’s advice: “form follows function.” The mechanical structure that supports your ideas does not necessarily have to be apparent to the reader. But it has to be there. Its purpose is to help shape your argument so that the reader can understand and follow it. Without it, your reader would quickly become lost, wandering through a random pile of “Oh, by the way” points that lead nowhere.

There are a lot of ways to organize your argument. People have used – and some still use – index cards very effectively, even on multi-volume book projects. Other people use the outlining capabilities of applications like Word, or the note card-like interfaces of tools such as Scrivener. Still others are completely satisfied with a pen and a yellow legal pad. However you choose to do it, the object of this part of the game is to arrange your points into an argument that fits them and supports your thesis.

It might help at this point to begin a rough outline. Your main points will become the topic sentences that will control your middle paragraphs. They’re contained in, or at least implied by, your thesis statement. They will give coherence to your argument by connecting with each other as well as with the thesis sentence in your first paragraph and with the concluding sentence in your last paragraph. So you could start by writing these controlling ideas down in a preliminary outline. Do this if it feels comfortable to you.

If you feel you just want to get on with the writing, another possibility might be to write your rough draft first, and then try to outline it. Either way an outline, no matter how sketchy, helps to ensure that your essay is going somewhere and not just bouncing around or spinning in circles. Remember you are still going to reread, reconsider, add, subtract, rearrange, revise. At this point everything is tentative. A logical outline could be just the control you need to turn a rough draft into an essay that’s a model of clarity and readability. This is expository, analytical writing; your reader is not looking for baroque flourishes (we return to the architecture metaphor once again!). Whether you develop your argument by defining, describing, exemplifying, classifying, comparing, or contrasting, your reader is looking for insights.


Remember: you have a reader for whom you must define your terms, expose your premises, and state your purposes. Doing this clarifies the scope and course of your argument for both of you.



Even when you make a logical argument that appeals to your reader’s reason rather than to emotion, your essay’s success is often not simply a question of your argument being either “right” or “wrong.” Your argument will be more valid and persuasive if developed cogently and communicated effectively. Just as you look for author biases in texts, your reader naturally assumes that your interpretations cannot be completely impartial or “objective.” However, they can and should be interesting and plausible if expressed in a clear and readable manner. That’s what “good prose” is. But remember: this is the goal of your final draft, so don’t expect it to happen all at once. Work toward it.

Settling on a useful structure, you should keep in mind that



The shape you give your “building” depends ultimately on you, the builder. But don’t forget that architects design structures for other people: your reader has to find a home in it as well. The basic model that has worked pretty well in high school and college classes looks like this:




Abandoning the architecture metaphor for a moment, you could also think of this essay structure as a journey.  You and your reader meet in the introduction, you go out together and have an adventure in the body paragraphs, and then you come back and reflect on what it meant in the conclusion.

Of course this is not the only way to structure an essay. Different goals lead to different journeys; to different buildings, if we return to architecture. If you’re building a different building and it’s working – that is, if your readers find your writing interesting and effective – then by all means stick to it and build on it, improving it all the time. Your readers and instructor will give you the necessary feedback. Whatever you’re building, it will ultimately need to communicate your thoughts to your audience. Organization helps, so your instructor will be looking for (judging, grading) criteria such as: logical sequence; theme keeps moving; good paragraph structure; smooth transitions; main ideas given proper emphasis; all generalizations supported; all paragraphs come out of the thesis and lead to the conclusion.



Coherent Paragraphs

Get it down. Take chances. It may be bad, but it’s the only way you can do anything really good. (William Faulkner)


You wouldn’t hand in a lot of sticks and boards bunched together and call it a table. It’s no better to hand in a detached bundle of statements starting nowhere in particular, training along and then fading out – and call it a theme. (Dorothy Canfield Fisher)



When you think about it, there’s no contradiction in the advice of these two American writers. You should respond with genuine feeling and without inhibition to what stimulates you in our case, a set of texts. But feeling isn’t enough. When Gustave Flaubert asked “Has a drinking song ever been written by a drunken man?” he meant a coherent song. Between “getting it down” and “handing it in” good writers show respect for their readers by organizing their material into recognizable patterns. An important benefit of this is that by distancing yourself from your ideas and putting them in order for your reader, you are forced to shape your own nebulous feelings into clear thoughts.

This brings us to the well-known (but apparently not well enough known) paragraph: the basic unit of composition. The traditional and still useful rule that a paragraph must have unity, coherence, andemphasis only means that it must make sense, that the sentences should fit together smoothly, and that not all the sentences function in the same way.

When you see that its purpose is to support your thesis by developing and connecting your ideas meaningfully, then paragraph structure should appeal to your common sense. As a point of emphasis a topic sentence – whether you choose to put it at the beginning, middle, or end – allows you to control your writing and guide your reader by expressing the main idea of the paragraph. Remember, you’re not writing a mystery novel. There will be relatively few instances in this type of essay when you’ll want to surprise your reader.

Must every paragraph have a topic sentence? Not necessarily: if the main idea is obvious, then a topic sentence may be omitted. But even if it is only implied by your paragraph, you and your reader should be able to state easily the main idea. Whether explicit or implicit, the topic sentence of each of your paragraphs should come out of your thesis statement and lead to your conclusion. Like the paragraph, the whole essay should have unity, coherence, and emphasis. Try this: next time you read an essay, underline only the topic sentences of each paragraph; then reread only what you’ve underlined. In many cases you’ll see that the underlined sentences make up a coherent paragraph all by themselves (this is an easy way to write an abstract, incidentally). That’s because most topic sentences are more specific than the thesis statement that generates them, but still more general than the supporting sentences in the paragraphs that illustrate them. Thus they are transitions between the writer’s promise to the reader and the keeping of that promise.


Remember: no matter how important your message might be, it must also be understandable. Structure it for your reader!



Examples: Opening Paragraphs

From a student essay discussing Kafka’s The Metamorphosis:

When Nietzsche declared that “God is dead,” he did so with an air of optimism. No longer could man be led about on the tight leash of religion; a man liberated could strive for the status of Overman. But what happens if a man refuses to let go of his “dead” God and remains too fearful to evolve into an Overman? Rejecting the concept of the Christian God means renouncing the scapegoat for the sins of man and accepting responsibility for one’s own actions. In The Metamorphosis Gregor Samsa plays the god-like role of financial provider for his family. However, when his transformation renders him useless in this role, the rest of Samsa’s family undergoes a change of its own: Kafka uses the metamorphoses of both Gregor and his family to illustrate a modern crisis.


Some comments on the structure:  Two provocative introductory sentences, then a transition question and a response that presents the central idea of the essay. Next, introduction of the text and characters under discussion. Finally, the topic sentence of the paragraph, which, as the thesis statement, promises an interpretation. A paragraph such as this engages the reader’s interest right away and makes the reader look forward to the rest of the essay.


From a student essay on the question, “What Do Historians of Childhood Do?”

In his 1982 book The Disappearance of Childhood, Neil Postman argues that the concept of childhood is a recent invention of literate society, enabled by the invention of moveable-type printing. Postman says as a result of television, literate adulthood and preliterate childhood are both vanishing. While Postman’s indictment of TV-culture is provocative, he ignores race, class, ideology, and economic circumstance as factors in the experience of both children and adults. Worse, he ignores history, making sweeping generalizations such as the claim that the pre-modern Greeks had no concept of children. These claims are contradicted by the appearance of children in classical Greek literature and in the Christian Gospels, written in Greek, which admonish their readers to “be as children.” A more useful and much more interesting observation might be that the idea of childhood and the experience of young people has changed significantly since ancient times, and continues to change.


Some comments on the structure:  Like the previous example, this essay begins with a statement from a text (this time with a paraphrase rather than a quotation) and builds towards a thesis statement. In this case the build-up, where the writer disagrees with one of the class texts, is stronger than the thesis. The writer has not stated exactly what he will argue, aside from saying he finds at least some of the ideas of childhood advanced in the course materials unsatisfactory. Keeping the reader in suspense may add to the interest of the essay, but in a short paper it might also waste valuable time and leave the reader unsure whether the writer has really thought things through.


From an essay on Crime and Punishment:

“Freedom depends upon the real…It is as impossible to exercise freedom in an unreal world as it is to jump while you are falling” (Colin Wilson, The Outsider, p. 39). Even without God, modern man is still tempted to create unreal worlds. In Feodor Dostoevsky’s Crime and Punishment Raskolnikov conceives the fantastic theory of the “overman.” After committing murder in an attempt to satisfy his theory, Raskolnikov falls into a delirious, death-like state; then, Lazarus-like, he is raised from the “dead.” His “resurrection” is not, as some critics suggest, a consequence of his love for Sonya and Sonya’s God. Rather, his salvation results from the freedom he gains when he chooses to live without illusions.


Comments: Once more, a stimulating opening. Between the first and last sentences, which frame the paragraph (the last one, as well as being the thesis sentence, is the specific application of the general first sentence), the writer makes her transition to the central idea and introduces the text and character she wishes to discuss. The reader is given enough information to know what to expect. It promises to be an interesting essay.

Each of the writers above chooses to open with a quotation or reference that helps to focus the reader’s attention and reveal the point of view from which a specific interpretation will be made. Movement from the general to the specific is very common in introductory thesis paragraphs, but it is not obligatory. You can begin with your thesis statement as the first sentence; start with a question; or use the entire opening paragraph to set the scene and provide background, then present your thesis in the second paragraph. Make choices and even create new options, so long as your sentences move to create a dominant impression on the reader.


Remember: your first paragraph presents both your topic and your attitude, to potentially sympathetic readers. Create the impression right away that both deserve serious attention. You want your readers to feel like companions, not captives, on your journey of exploration. Take the lead; be clear; be interesting.



Examples: Middle Paragraphs


From a student essay comparing P’u Sung-ling’s (17th century) The Cricket Boy and Franz Kafka’s (20th century) The Metamorphosis, two stories that deal with a son’s relationship to his family. (The writer’s thesis: according to these authors, one must connect in meaningful ways with other human beings in order to achieve what Virginia Woolf calls “health,” “truth,” and “happiness.”)

The most obvious similarity between Kiti and Gregor is that they both take the forms of insects; however, their and their families’ reactions to the changes account for the essential difference between the characters. Whereas Kiti thinks a cricket represents “all that [is] good and strong and beautiful in the world (Cricket Boy, p. 2), Gregor is repulsed by his insect body and “closes his eyes so as not to have to see his squirming legs” (Metamorphosis, p, 3). Their situations also affect their families differently.  Kiti’s experience serves as a catalyst that brings his family closer together: “For the first time, his father had become human, and he loved his father then” (CB, p. 2). Gregor’s transformation, on the other hand, succeeds in further alienating him from his family: his parents “could not bring themselves to come in to him” (M, p. 31). While Kiti and his parents develop a bond based on understanding and mutual respect, Gregor becomes not only emotionally estranged from his family, but also physically separated from them.


Some comments on the structure:  The writer is clearly on her way, with specific examples from the texts, to supporting her argument concerning the need for self-respect and communication. Notice that she uses transitions such as “however,” “whereas,” “also,” “on the other hand,” while,” and “not only…, but also…” to connect her thoughts and make her sentences cohere. Transitional words and phrases are the “glue” both within and between paragraphs: they help writers stick to the point, and also allow readers to stay on the path the writer intends.




Only connect! (E.M. Forster)



Writers use transitional words and expressions as markers to guide readers on their exploratory journey. They can express relationships very explicitly, which is often exactly what is needed. However, experienced writers can also build more subtle bridges between ideas, hinting at relationships with implicit transitions. These relationships may change from vague impressions to a very concrete statement, as the argument develops, allowing the reader to “discover” the writer’s conclusion as the essay builds to its final paragraph.


Examples of explicit transitional expressions



If you find that you are overusing explicit connectors and your transitions are beginning to feel mechanical (How many times have you used “furthermore” or “however”?  How many “other hands” do you have?), you can improve the flow of your writing either by changing up the transitional expressions, or by shifting toward more implicit transitions. One technique is, in the first sentence of the new paragraph, refer (either explicitly or implicitly) to material in the preceding paragraph. For example:


When Alcibiades does give his speech, we see that his example is Socrates himself.

While this interpretation still seems reasonable, I was surprised at the difficulty of uncovering useable data in the records of past societies.

This sometimes sickening detail that Dante uses to draw the reader emotionally into the Inferno also stimulates the reader to think about what he or she feels.

The Greek system is much more relaxed; obeisance and respect for the gods is not required, although in most cases it seems to make life easier.


Each of these implicit transition sentences builds on the previous paragraph and calls for support in the new paragraph. Even more subtle (that is, more difficult) would be to make the last sentence of the paragraph indicate the direction the next paragraph will take. If you try this, be careful you do not at the same time change the subject. You do not want to introduce a new idea at the end of a paragraph, and destroy its unity. Since it suggests a change in direction, we see this device used most commonly with thesis sentences at the end of introductory paragraphs, or in transitional paragraphs like the example above.

Other examples of hinges writers use to make connections include pronouns referring back to nouns in the previous paragraphs and synonyms to avoid repetition and overuse of pronouns. A good rule is not to overuse any device.


Remember: in general, your transitions should not draw attention to themselves and distract your reader; they should help your argument flow as smoothly and logically as possible.



Concluding Paragraphs


From a student essay on Crime and Punishment:

Raskolnikov finally finds a new life:

Indeed he [is] not consciously reasoning at all; he [can] only feel.  Life [has] taken the place of logic and something quite different must be worked out in his mind. (Epi. II, p. 464)

Thus he ends his suffering by abandoning intelligence and reasoning.  Jean-Jacques Rousseau said that “above all the logic of the head is the feeling of the heart.” Ultimately, Raskolnikov transcends the “logic of the head” by discovering love and freedom.


Some comments on the structure: The paragraph works well as a conclusion because you can tell immediately that the writer has said all that she wants to say about the subject. She uses a quotation from another source, to “rub up against” Dostoevsky, expanding the dialogue between the text, the writer, and the reader by adding another voice. The answer to the “so what?” question is implied in the last sentence: love and freedom are values we all can share. Note that although this is a different conclusion from that of the earlier essay discussing Crime and Punishment, both interpretations are interesting and valid because both writers supported their arguments with careful readings of the text.


From a History essay analyzing the influence of Philippe Ariès’s book Centuries of Childhood on later historians:

In the end, Centuries of Childhood did not establish a conceptual framework for children’s history. Nor did the rival philosophies of history create a new paradigm for children’s history. Ariès identified a subject of study. He was a prospector who uncovered a rich vein of material. Subsequent miners should use whatever tools and techniques are best suited to getting the ore out of the ground. Historians should stop fighting over theories and get to work uncovering the lives of children and families. This will involve, as Jordanova suggested, self-awareness and sensitivity. But it should not be sidetracked by ideological debates. As Cunningham observed, the stakes for modern children and families are high. To make children’s history useful for the present, historians of children and families need to put aside their differences and get back to work.


Some comments on the structure:  As in the previous example, the writer includes the perspectives of other commentators. This is especially common in essays on secondary sources in history, because “historiography” is often imagined as an ongoing conversation about primary and important secondary texts. The “so what” statement is more explicit this time, relating the study of children in the past to improving the lives of children and families today. The importance of connecting with the needs of today is problematic (many historians would criticize this as “presentism”); so the writer includes a supporting perspective from a sympathetic commentator.


From an essay in which the writer compares and contrasts the character she is examining with a character from another work:

Like Ophelia, Gretchen has moments of confusion and despair, but she decides to give in to her feelings and take responsibility for them. By having Gretchen freely stay behind to face her execution, Goethe casts aside any similarities that his character shares with Shakespeare’s Ophelia. Along with the empowering freedom of Gretchen’s striving comes the struggle to act rightly. But if no objective absolutes exist, according to Goethe’s God, on what basis can Gretchen make her decisions in order to be saved? She comes to the realization that the only absolutes exist within herself. Goethe’s God saves her, not for being a penitent Christian, but for staying true to these self-imposed absolutes.


Some comments on the structure:  Another strong conclusion. The writer’s interpretation could be contested, but she has argued it well and convincingly throughout the essay and concluded strongly. Incidentally, note also that by specifying “Goethe’s God” in her interpretation she avoids any distracting discussion of religion and keeps her writing focused on literary analysis. We don’t argue the nature of “God” in an essay about literature; only the nature of the “God” in the text.


Remember: these basic units of composition we call paragraphs are used to introduce, support, and conclude your thesis. Remarkably, their use remains pretty much the same, whether you are writing a five-paragraph essay or a 350-page dissertation. If you use them skillfully, your reader should understand your position and be able to follow the progress of your ideas. If you are “going somewhere” with your argument, your transitions will appear natural and smooth. Your essay can have any number of paragraphs, so long as they connect with your thesis and with one another. Finally, since they allow you to deal with ideas sequentially, don’t try to juggle more than one point at a time. You’ll confuse both yourself and your readers. These common-sense guidelines promote the much-prized “unity, coherence, and emphasis” your readers will sense in good paragraphs. Good paragraphs yield good essays.




Effective Sentences

I see but one rule: to be clear. (Stendahl)


The main thing I try to do is write as clearly as I can. Because I have the greatest respect for the reader, and if he’s going to the trouble of reading what I’ve written – I’m a slow reader myself and I guess most people are – why, the least I can do is make it as easy as possible for him to find out what I’m trying to say, trying to get at. I rewrite a good deal to make it clear. (E.B. White)



In these passages, a twentieth-century essayist/editor uses three sentences to express what a nineteenth-century novelist/critic says in one. Which is the “better” piece of writing? The question is meaningless – or rather, it’s badly formulated. The common-sense question to ask about writing is: How well does it work? In order to answer that, we should first consider two other questions: What does it intend to do? To whom is it addressed? A writer’s purpose and audience quite naturally help to determine style, and we shouldn’t be surprised to find Stendahl’s writing often looking like the second example and White’s writing like the first – when appropriate. Given the purposes and audiences of each of these quotations, they both “work” equally well in their contexts.

If the rule for a paragraph is that it should have unity, coherence and emphasis, then the rule for a sentence is that it should make sense. Let’s look again at White’s middle sentence. It expresses a half dozen ideas: his respect for the reader; his gratitude for the reader’s “trouble”; his acknowledgement that he’s a “slow reader” himself; his assumption that “most people are”; his obligation to clarify his thoughts; and his confession that he might not be able to fully express himself anyway. White could have written all that in six separate, precise sentences – but he chose to use a more personal, colloquial manner in order to engage his reader; to show his reader that writing, as well as reading, is a careful, thoughtful process. If you understood that (or if you felt that while reading his sentence), then White succeeded in writing a truly effective sentence. Indeed, his sentence obeys the “rule” to be clear just as well as Stendahl’s short epigram. And as White suggests in his last sentence, that complicated middle one was probably rewritten “a good deal” before it appeared in its final form. Notice too, how White brackets the long sentence with two short, concise ones to vary the pace of his unfolding argument and avoid overwhelming his reader.

In light of these two very different examples of sentences that work, it might seem silly to try to identify the “ideal” sentence. But remember that we’re working on a particular type of writing project in these worksheets, so we can make some general assumptions about your audience and goals. We can say that generally, concrete nouns for your subject and active verbs introducing the predicate help your reader quickly grasp what you’re talking about and what you wish to say about your topic. These work better than abstract nouns and passive verbs. Generally, it’s more effective to modify your nouns and verbs with individual adjectives and adverbs rather than complicated phrases or clauses – simply because you don’t want unnecessary words to weaken good ideas.


Consider this first paragraph from a student essay:

What is a hero? Why do we admire certain people in our society? Since the beginning of time man has searched for someone to imitate and to use as a role model in his own life. In many ancient civilizations there is literature which centers on a hero of that time. But over time man has changed tremendously; or has he? No matter how advanced our civilization becomes, our heroes generally possess the same qualities and attributes. One of the oldest writings that modern man possesses, The Epic of Gilgamesh, is based on a hero and his adventures that he encounters during his lifetime.  Although The Epic of Gilgamesh was written over 5,000 years ago, the hero Gilgamesh would still be a hero today. The reason why one may consider Gilgamesh a modern day hero is because he is strong, sensitive, confident (yet humble), unselfish, and successful.


Some Comments:  This paragraph is not particularly effective. Yet there is nothing structurally, grammatically “wrong” with the sentences. The ideas it contains are not extremely complicated. So why is it so difficult to read? Is it just because irritatingly obvious unnecessary words and seemingly endless repetitions have weakened the ideas? Suppose we rewrite the paragraph without eliminating any of the necessary words and without changing any of the ideas the writer seems to have intended:

People have always searched for role models, and the literature of many ancient civilizations center on a hero. Do our “heroes” today possess the same general qualities? Written over 5,000 years ago, The Epic of Gilgamesh recounts the adventures of a man who would still be considered a hero because he is strong, sensitive, confident (yet humble), unselfish, and successful.


Okay, we’ve reduced it from nine sentences, 147 words to three sentences, 61 words by pruning deadwood – but honestly, that still hasn’t made us really excited to read the rest of the essay. To continue the “pruning” metaphor: writing a good essay is like developing a framework of branches (topic sentences) that will act as a skeleton on which foliage, flowers, and fruit (your thoughts, arguments, conclusions) can grow. A better shape can produce more fruit, and make that fruit easier to pick. But in the case above, will the effort be rewarded? Has the writer done enough of the groundwork to make this essay interesting and engaging?


Remember: in order to write well, you need to have something to say (That’s worksheets 1-3). Once you have something to say, you need to make the reader want to listen.


So how do sentences help us express worthwhile ideas in ways that will make people want to listen? Consider the main definition of “sentence” in The American Heritage Dictionary:

A grammatical unit that is syntactically independent and has a subject that is expressed or…understood and a predicate that contains at least one finite verb.

Being mechanically correct is certainly important – but it isn’t enough. The kind of writing your readers are expecting in high school and college essays should also have a point and a human voice. Maybe we should revive the obsolete definition of “sentence” mentioned in the same dictionary:

An opinion, especially one given formally after deliberation. [Middle English, opinion, from Old French, from Latin…sentire, to feel]

In addition to conveying information and proving your familiarity with the texts, effective sentences should show your engagement with the material – how you feel about the issue at hand. This does not mean you don’t have to offer a reasonable, logical argument. It means the reader needs to sense that you care about what you’re saying.


Remember: since the basic units of your composition are paragraphs, the purposes of your sentences are to introduce, develop, support, explain, illustrate, and emphasize the main ideas as interestingly and economically – thus effectively – as possible. “Given formally after deliberation” doesn’t have to mean impersonal and mechanical. In addition to giving ideas a human “voice” you should also express them with style.


For our purposes, style means no more than building your sentences by choosing and arranging your words so that they clearly present your ideas about your subject. In the next worksheet we’ll discuss the appropriateness of words themselves; for now let’s look at sentence structure. Your interesting ideas, honest feelings, and thoughtful responses need to be revealed and developed in an orderly way so as to hold your reader’s attention. Sentences that attract attention to themselves rather than your ideas because of their awkwardness distract and cause your reader to lose confidence in your argument.


Active vs. Passive Voice

Using passive verbs (verbs of being) rather than active verbs (verbs of doing) is one of the most common mistakes made by writers at all levels. The sentence you just read is a passive sentence – no one does anything. Sometimes passive statements of fact are appropriate. But writers at all levels overuse “is,” and we all need to write carefully and avoid this pitfall.

Why is active voice so important? What if we had ended the previous paragraph passively? We could have said, “The verb ‘is’ tends to be overused by writers. Passive voice is a problem that should be avoided by careful writers.” If we had done this, the reader might be left with the impression that what we’re really interested is verbs. And that’s not the case: what we’re really interested in is writing.

Maybe history offers a better example. How often have you read passages in history textbooks like “The Declaration of Independence was written in 1776,” or “There were riots after the execution of the prisoners”?  Do these sentences tell you the whole story? Did things just happen, or did somebody do something? In history, this is not just a question of style: it’s a serious issue of interpretation.  Overuse of the passive voice where things “just happen” denies people of agency and portrays a random world without cause and effect. It also insulates people from responsibility for their actions and short-circuits questions about motivation and differing points of view.

Yes, the passive voice does sound more “authoritative” (or maybe pedantic) because we’ve grown up reading textbooks written this way. Maybe “Hamlet was written between 1599 and 1602” doesn’t sound that bad to you, but what if the passage read “Shakespeare wrote Hamlet between 1599 and 1602”? Now we can visualize a man sitting down to do something, and we naturally begin to wonder, what was going on around him?  Why did he write this play at that moment?  What was he trying to say?

Similarly, rather than saying “there were riots” as if they just happened like rain from a cloudless sky, we might say “outraged by the execution of their friends and neighbors, farmers and city union-members rioted and attacked symbols of the state.” This active construction opens the door to all kinds of possible questions about the situation and the parties involved. Of course, the active version requires the writer to know more information about the event than just the date when it “happened” (which may be why lazy textbook authors resist the active voice). And it requires the writer to take a stand (which may be why some students avoid it).

Hopefully you can see that in addition to making your writing much more interesting to read, using active verbs allows you to really explore your subject. By writing actively, you can change a string of flat, dead facts into a series of actions and reactions. That means, a series of choices. That means a series of questions that may open new and interesting avenues for exploration.


Common sentence problems

Confusing sentences distract the reader from the point you are trying to make. Here are examples of some of the most common mistakes, along with corrected sentences. You can catch most of these by reading your draft out loud and asking yourself (or a friend) if it makes sense.

The most common sentence problems are FRAGMENTS and RUN-ONS.


  1. “What am I going to do with my life?” A question everyone asks and can never answer.
    • Connect the fragment: “What am I going to do with my life is a question…


  1. Overall the English invasion was a complete success with some learning curves thrown in at the beginning, but for the most part, it was a complete and utter domination of the indigenous people.Separate the thoughts: simplify the sentence and drop the qualifiers to divide these ideas and emphasize the “but.” “The American colonies were a great success for the English, but they were an utter disaster for indigenous peoples.”


  1. Knowing that death terminates all his problems in life, as well as all his joys, Hamlet recognizes that “the dread of something after death – the undiscovered country, from whose bourn no traveler returns.”
    • Still a fragment: what’s the object of “recognizes”? What’s the predicate of “the dread of something after death”?


  1. They maintain a similar kind of distance verbally as well, the first words Odysseus and Penelope speak to each other are “strange woman” and “strange man,” respectively.
    • Separate the run-on. Three possibilities:
      • A) Two sentences: …verbally as well. The first words…
      • B) Comma and conjunction: …verbally as well, and the first…
      • C) Semi-colon: …verbally as well; the first words…


A related Subject-Predicate problem concerns REPETITION of the subject.


  1. It was not uncommon that different families would share certain abundant areas for everyone had equal right to the bounty. It was this idea of the native families that was probably what they were believing would be the case when deals were made with the English colonists.
    • Trim, then combine these thoughts: Native families commonly shared resources, and believed this sharing was protected in their contracts with colonists. (47 words to 16. And we got rid of the passive voice)


  1. For some of the pagans in Beowulf’s culture, they believed in creating their own destiny.
    • Don’t complexify a simple sentence. One subject, one predicate. Some pagans in Beowulf’s culture believed in creating their own destiny.


  1. Beowulf killed dragons. The fact that he killed dragons is what made him a hero. He achieved this status through the ability to overcome his fear.
    • Eliminate repetition & contradiction: Sentence 3 contradicts sentence 2. Maybe the writer meant: “Beowulf killed dragons, and became a hero by overcoming his fear.” (26 words to 11)


Many sentence problems in essays are due to a lack of PARALLEL STRUCTURE.


  1. Dante finds himself lost in a dark wood and then Virgil led him out.
    • Don’t mix tenses: either “finds—leads” or “found—led”


  1. They believed in having territories merely for the safety of their villages but the concept of owning the land itself for private gain didn’t seem to be an ideology.
    • Try not to change subjects: “They” are the subject of first part, “the concept” is the subject of second (and there’s that active-passive voice issue again). How about: “The natives held land to protect their villages, not for private gain.”


  1. The Anglo-Saxons like to drink, hang around the mead hall, and fighting.
    • Make parallel: Either “liked to drink, hang around…and fight” or “liked drinking, hanging…and fighting.”


  1. Unlike the Christian philosophy of mourning a loved one, the pagans sought out revenge.
    • Faulty comparison: Christian philosophy should be compared to pagan philosophy, or Christians to pagans.
    • Another way of thinking about it: Does my modifier clearly refer to what it is supposed to modify? “Unlike the Christian philosophy of mourning a loved one” does not modify “the pagans,” but it could modify “pagan philosophy.”


Without a clearly expressed SUBJECT and PREDICATE, your “sentence” merely confuses the reader.


  1. The static theme of Gilgamesh’s quest for immortality is tested when the hero’s only undefeatable conflict evolves into the sobering death of his beloved counterpart.


  1. For Scott, gender must necessarily be a highly-dynamic concept, for her ultimate goal is the deconstruction of existing categories of analysis so that new (or hitherto unconsidered) historiographic themes—such as sexuality, family, identity, and, of course, gender—can be incorporated into the analytic methodology.
    • Does the simple sentence buried here (gender must necessarily be a highly-dynamic concept) mean anything? The writer of this sentence was very unhappy he had to write a paper about Joan Scott’s book Gender and the Politics of History. It shows.


  1. This scene give rise to many areas throughout the play.
    • No specific predicate. Areas could mean anything. Do platforms spring up all over the stage? Such a vague predicate can only irritate your reader.




Appropriate Words

The artist does not draw what he sees but what he must make others see. (Edgar Degas)


Hemingway: I rewrote the ending to Farewell to Arms, the last page of it, 39 times before I was satisfied.

Interviewer: Was there some technical problem there? What was it that had you stumped?

Hemingway: Getting the words right.


Words, words, words. (Hamlet)


Making the reader see, “getting the words right,” or as Hamlet put it, holding “the mirror up to nature,” becomes increasingly difficult in a world facing accelerating change, clashing cultures, and serious questions about the nature of reality. Literature and History have led the humanities and social sciences in many of these challenges to old notions about language and meaning. But unless you’re asked to write an essay about postmodernism or the “linguistic turn,” your essays will probably not engage head-on with the cultural construction of language, identity, and reality. And even when you are asked to write on these subjects, your essay will still need to make sense to your readers.

The 1992 edition of The American Heritage Dictionary contained 16,000 new words that had not been in the first edition twenty-five years earlier. Its executive editor, Anne H. Soukhanov, said “the most important shift in English usage in 400 years [is] the pervasive change in words linked to gender.” In addition to the gender-oriented changes, the dictionary added “nerd,” “passive smoking,” “couch potato,” “Mirandize,” and “job-sharing,” as these new concepts demanded new vocabulary. Soukhanov recalled that 2,500 years ago Confucius had claimed it was impossible to know humans without understanding the power of words. We continue to re-create ourselves and our worlds with language.

Philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein claimed “The limits of my language mean the limits of my world.” While it may not always be necessary for you to expand your world in order to complete an essay assignment, it is important to choose appropriate words. Remember that in addition to trying to earn some respect for your argument, you are always trying to hold onto and focus your reader’s attention.


Watch Out For



Sometimes writers deliberately use words that lack specific meanings (denotation), not out of carelessness but for their ability to create subjective, irrational responses in readers. Words have histories of their own, and many words are able to call on strong positive or negative associations. These connotations are often more important than the information the words provide. Habitual use of these words suggests either a high level of cluelessness (if the user isn’t aware the subject is controversial) or a deliberate attempt to push readers’ emotional buttons and sabotage reasonable discussion. Examples include:




Much (some people say all) language is metaphorical. We use metaphors (implied comparisons) to connect the unfamiliar to the familiar, so that readers can “see, hear, feel” abstract concepts as if they were well-known everyday things. For example, most science texts fifty years ago described atoms as little billiard balls, in spite of quantum mechanics which showed a hundred years ago that this metaphor was inaccurate. More recent science texts describe Einstein’s gravity (curvature of space-time) as a metaphorical “rubber sheet” that massive objects create depressions in, so that planets spin around massive stars the way pennies circle the big funnel at the museum. This is a really complicated metaphor when you think about it – it tries to explain a nearly unimaginable process in three-dimensional space using a two-dimensional metaphor, the rubber sheet. A few things to keep in mind about metaphors when reading and writing:



A Few More Things to Watch Out For




General Structure
How do I know what I think until I see what I say?  (E.M. Forster)


This is the time to make sure that your strongly-felt ideas become a solid essay. Just as wine must spend some time in the barrel, the bottle, and the glass before it’s ready to drink, you must put your ideas into structured paragraphs, clear sentences, and appropriate words to prepare them for your reader (Did you notice the metaphor and the parallelism there? Barrel->paragraph, bottle->sentences, glass->words). And, if Forster is right, to be sure you really understand them yourself.


Examine the shape of your essay:



Specific Details


I have never thought of myself as a good writer. Anyone who wants reassurance of that should read one of my first drafts. But I’m one of the world’s great rewriters…It is, however, this hard work that produces a style.  (James Michener)



Just as proportion in your overall structure will help your reader follow your argument more easily, attention to the details of sentences and words will win their respect and help insure they will seriously consider your argument. Revising and editing your writing—as many times as it takes—is the hard work that produces a style. Handbooks and manuals like this one or Strunk and White’s The Elements of Style can set you on the right path. But remember, Virgil could only get Dante through the Inferno; he couldn’t get him into Paradise. At some point you’ll have to leave your guide behind (after it has helped you avoid obvious errors) and make the positive creative choices that lead you to your own style.

But we’re still here with you, somewhere between the Inferno of the rough draft and the Purgatory of early revisions. So let’s clear up those obvious errors. Of course you should use a spell-checker. It will flag or automatically correct the obviously misspelled words, but you still need to proofread for word choice. The spell-checker won’t protect you from using the wrong word spelled correctly (using except when you mean accept, effect when you mean affect, discreet when you mean discrete, site when you mean cite, and even pubic when you mean public!).  Proofread carefully. When in doubt, check the dictionary.


Here are some of the problems we find in many student essays, and sometimes in our own early drafts, too:


Lack of agreement between subject and verbs

Faulty: He reminds Dante that each of the sinners have been justly judged.

Correct: each of the sinners has been


Faulty: Hamlet’s search for truth and understanding reveal his loss of faith.

Correct: Hamlet’s search…reveals


Faulty: The limits of language makes a profound impression on Descartes.

Correct: The limits of language make…


Lack of agreement between pronoun and antecedent

Faulty: A medieval chronicle usually included very violent events, but they rarely included graphic descriptions of violence.

Correct: chronicles…they or chronicle…it


Faulty: Nobody in Beowulf’s band helped their leader fight the dragon.

Correct: Nobody in Beowulf’s band helped his leader…


Incorrect pronoun case

Incorrect: Socrates and them often met in the marketplace to debate.

Correct: Socrates and they often met…


Incorrect: When Beowulf returned, the king gave he and his men rings and gold.

Correct: …the king gave him and his men…


Subject and object pronouns

Singular: He, she, and I (subjects) wrote about him, her, and me. (objects)

Plural: We and they (subjects) painted a portrait of us and them. (objects)


Use active verbs

Boring facts: King Charles was beheaded on January 30, 1649.

Better: Cromwell’s victorious Parliamentary forces executed King Charles in a public beheading on January 30, 1649.


Tortured, unclear interpretation: Raskolnikov’s salvation is credited to his love for Sonya, but his will to love is the more fundamental emotion that saves him.

Better: Raskolnikov’s will to love, more fundamental that his love for Sonya, saves him.


Confusing passive: The witch is killed by Beowulf by having her head cut off.

Better: Beowulf decapitates the witch.


Wordy and weak: Fire comes out of the dragon’s mouth.

Better: The dragon breathes fire.


Consider: [The Carmel River] rises in the mountains, and tumbles down a while, runs through the shadows, is dammed to make a lake, spills over the dam, crackles among round boulders, wanders lazily under sycamores, spills into pools where trout live, drops in against banks where crayfish live. (John Steinbeck)


Mixed tenses

Faulty: In his new existence Gregor Samsa finds a modicum of freedom and enjoyed climbing on the walls.

Correct: finds…enjoys or found…enjoyed.


Misplaced or dangling modifiers

Confusing: Being more than half a god, we would expect to see a Gilgamesh who has knowledge, compassion, and wisdom that is above and beyond that of normal men.

Clearer: We expect to see in Gilgamesh, who is two-thirds god, superior knowledge, compassion, and wisdom.


Dangling: Walking down to the second ledge, the voices of the damned arose.

Clearer: Walking down to the second ledge, Dante heard the voices of the damned.

Or, if the voices are more important: The voices of the damned rose as Dante approached the second ledge.


Split infinitive

Awkward: Jeff asked Francesca to carefully explain her presence there.

Better: Jeff asked Francesca to explain her presence there carefully.


Awkward: As an escaped slave, Harriet Jacobs had to tearfully watch her children from a hidden crawlspace in a nearby house.

Sometimes, although there may be someplace you could put the adverb that would “work” in the sentence, what’s really called for is a more complete, concrete description of the emotion you’re just brushing by with the adverb. 


Faulty predication

Incorrect: The book says that…

Even worse: It says that…

Correct: The narrator says that… or the author writes that…


Awkward: Poetic justice is when the punishment fits the crime.

Better: Poetic justice consists of the punishment fitting the crime.



Alcibiades crowns Socrates as a man “whose words bring him victory over all men at all times” (Symposium, p. 98).


Socrates points out: “Men are quite willing to have their feet or hands amputated if they believe…those parts diseased” (p 85).


Aeneas journeys to the underworld solely “to go to [his] dear father’s side and see him” (Aeneid, VI, 162).


According to the text:

In the original rough draft of the Declaration of Independence, Jefferson wrote, “we hold these truths to be sacred and undeniable,” but he changed to the familiar “we hold these truths to be self-evident” sometime before John Adams first saw the document.16





Faulty: Gilgamesh had no equal, he became arrogant and cruel.

More correct: Gilgamesh had no equal; he became arrogant and cruel.

Clearer: Because Gilgamesh had no equal, he became…


Miscellaneous common errors





Revision Checklist

Use this as a guide while revising and editing your essay. Check every item.

  1. _____Do I have an interesting introductory paragraph?
  2. _____Is my thesis clearly stated? Is it arguable?
  3. _____Does each of my middle paragraphs develop my thesis?
  4. _____Do I support my argument with enough specific material?
  5. _____Am I telling too much, and not showing enough
  6. _____Do I present more detail than is necessary?
  7. _____Have I introduced extraneous material?
  8. _____Am I retelling too much of the story?
  9. _____Do I anticipate and address relevant counterarguments?
  10. _____Does my conclusion follow from my thesis and argument?
  11. _____Have I defended my position?
  12. _____Did I oversimplify for the sake of closure?
  13. _____Do I have logical transitions between sentences and paragraphs?
  14. _____Do my transitions connect my ideas explicitly enough?
  15. _____Do they show that I am developing an argument, not just repeating?
  16. _____Do all my paragraphs have either explicit topic sentences or clearly implied main ideas that are connected to my thesis?
  17. _____Do all my sentences clearly support their paragraph’s main idea?
  18. _____Should I rearrange any sentences to better effect? Paragraphs?
  19. _____Can I vary the makeup of any sentences to avoid monotony?
  20. _____Can I cut out any sentences that I don’t need for my argument?
  21. _____Do I use any pretentious words, clichés, or jargon?
  22. _____Do I use any offensive language or inappropriate diction?
  23. _____Have I looked specifically for spelling, punctuation, and usage problems that have been pointed out to me in previous essays?
  24. _____Have I merely given a “reading” or have I presented an argument grounded in texts or evidence?
  25. _____Have I borrowed any ideas from others without crediting my sources? That is, have I accidentally plagiarized?



This is where you can add appendices or other back matter.