FORMAT FOR THE ESSAYS


When you pick up your favorite magazine, what is it that makes you keep on reading some articles and to quickly turn the page on others?

The truth is that it is difficult to write about something new. It seems like everything has been said about everything. And yet... there are those interesting articles. I suggest that what makes them interesting is that the writer has found a specific, personal slant on the topic. Consequently, when you read it you think: "I knew all of that, but I never thought about it that way." Where does that specific "take," "slant," or "perspective," come from? From a personal reaction to an issue, topic, theme, problem, etc.

An essay (essai in French means "attempt") is your attempt to take the pieces of knowledge that you have collected through your readings, lectures, discussion, notes, everyday life, etc. and to screen them through your own personal experience and re-arrange them in your own, creative way. Of course if your essay is on a particular book, you want to present your position with respect to the author, his thesis, arguments, ideas. Do you agree?, disagree?, why?, for example?, what else could have worked?

A good essay has a good introduction that serves as a map for the reader to know what is coming up ahead. It has clearly presented points, arguments, theses, concepts, ideas, which are then explained in such a way that the reader can follow your steps. Each paragraph has a major point which is presented with closely linked sentences which move from the general to the specific, or the specific to the general, or it has examples, illustrations, quotes, metaphores, etc. It ends with a closing paragraph that either concludes what has been presented or reviews the journey that the reader was expected to take. The first step is to write a first draft without worrying about grammar, structure or anything else; write until you have said everything you need to say. Once you have exhausted your writer-self, then put on your editor's hat and polish your draft: cluster, outline, cut and paste, read aloud, have others read your draft, etc. It is imperative to separate the writing-self from the editing-self.

A good essay shows that the writer has put energy into reflecting on the topic and into presenting her or his finding in a coherent manner. It also shows that the writer has put energy into finding out where she or he stands with respect to the question at hand. A good essay is the product of constant observation, questioning, commenting and reflection which leads to a particular position. Most importantly, these intellectual practices lead to the most important characteristic of a good essay: your own "voice". That is when it is obvious that you have something to say and that it is you who speaks.

Now let us look at what is not a good essay. It is crystal clear when a writer throws words together just to complete the assignment and expects his or her reader to figure out what s/he really meant to say. Do not try to figure out what the professor(s) want to hear so that you can put that in you essay. There may be faculty members who want that, but if there are, they are not in Hutchins. Do not write a summary of the books or of the lectures. We do not want to re-read the books; we want to read what you have to say about them. We want to hear your voice, not the voice of the author or the speakers.