Writing in Response to an Essay Question

The essay questions posted in each unit are key in doing well in this course. Each unit's essay questions combined are designed as study guides to help you focus in on important issues and relationships that will be covered on exams. You will do well to fully and systematically address each of these questions at the completion of each unit and construct the most comprehensive study guide possible.

In an essay you address a particular question or issue. You are to consider the evidence that is relevant to the topic and tell me (the professor) what you think and why you think that way. Rather than merely answering the question, your task is to demonstrate to me that you have read and mastered the materials of the course, that you have integrated the material into your own thinking and words. I expect good writing, tight organization, and clear thought. Some tips on how to do it:

Step One: Do the Initial Reading

Before you start the assigned readings it is wise to look over the questions in the "Assignment" section of each unit. Try to keep the topics and issues in mind as you read through the course materials.

Step Two: The Essay Topic

It is important to be clear about the question or topic. If you are not sure what the topic is, or if the question just does not make sense, go back to the readings. If after the second time around you still do not understand it, send me an e-mail and ask for clarification.

Step Three: The Evidence

The next step is to decide what evidence is relevant to your topic. While the questions posed in your unit assignments can  be fully answered with reference to the assigned readings (texts and lectures), additional material can often be gained from materials listed on the "Resources" link to each unit, as well as materials you have access to in other classes, outside readings, and experiences. Not everything you read will be equally important. Ask yourself some questions as you go, such as “How is this relevant to the topic?”  “How does it fit in with my thinking on this issue to this point?” Make some notes, preferably in your own words. Look over the notes to see how much, or how little, you have. It is possible you will have too much; then you need to review the notes to decide what really matters. If you have too little, you may need to read the material again.

Step Four: Formulating your Thesis

The thesis is the position you take, it is your answer to the question.  Your entire paper needs to make a case for your thesis.  You tell me (the professor) what you think, and you show why that makes sense.

Step Five: The Outline

It is very difficult (though not impossible) to compose a good essay without writing an outline first. A standard outline for an essay question often looks something like this:

Paragraph 1: Introduction of topic, statement of thesis, very brief outline of what you will do.
Paragraphs 2-5: Statement of key ideas and evidence
Paragraphs 6-8: Your evaluation of the ideas and evidence
Paragraphs 9-11: Restatement of your position, and justification of it in light of the ideas and evidence.
Paragraph 12: Conclusion

Step Six: Writing and Rewriting (and Rewriting)

Once you have a good outline, start writing, one paragraph at a time. You will often have to revise the outline as you go along as good writing has a way of clarifying your thinking. When finished, put it aside for a time, and then go through it and rewrite portions of the essay where necessary.

Step Six: Check It/File It

Save it in Word or in a "Text" file (.txt). Before the first exam you are welcome to submit one of your answers to me for crtical comment (not a grade) to see if you are meeting my expectations. This is optional, if you decide to do it submit it through the Unit "Drop Box." After you have completed the assignment I recommend that you print it out and keep it within reach when you take your exam.

Some additional points to keep in mind

The paragraph is the basic unit of your essay. A paragraph should have at least three sentences, often four or five.  Each paragraph develops one key idea. No one-sentence paragraphs.  No paragraphs longer than one page. Pay attention to word selection, find the best possible word to express your meaning. Do not try to impress with big words, strive for clarity in expression ("Eschew Obfuscation."). Make sure that you check for spelling mistakes and errors in grammar and punctuation.
Writing is a skill, the more you do the easier it becomes. Master it the best you can.