How to write an essay

The worst essay I ever read (from a grad student at an unnamed Ivy college) sought to explain why China developed after the West. The sole source of evidence (and about 80% of the text): a series of block quotations from the Encyclopedia Britannica.

Every essay I’ve read since then is a wild improvement, but for some, not by much.

Over at the Monkey Cage, Henry Farrell gives students a marvelous essay on how to write an argumentative paper. An excerpt:

Some excellent essayists can get away with apparently disorganized writing. It is usually a very bad idea to try to emulate them. Very often, apparently disorganized work is in fact highly organized. The author has merely kicked away the essay’s supports and scaffolding (e.g. an explicit introductory section and so on) as soon as it was strong enough to stand on its own. Sometimes, apparent disorganization is instead the product of a highly subtle mind, or of an elliptical writing style that approaches its topics indirectly rather than directly.

Unless you are very confident indeed (and have evidence in the form of past work, print publications etc to justify this confidence) I strongly recommend that you avoid overly clever and non-linear approaches to writing. They require a lot of practice (usually at the more traditional sorts of writing) before they can be carried off well, and when they are carried off badly, they are very bad indeed.

Genius may do as it will; mere intelligence and talent should be appropriately modest in their ambitions.

Students (grad students too) should read this essay closely, then read it again. I give tips to my students on writing, but Farrell’s are more and better (and better written).

Below the fold, from my undergrad African development course, the 10 tips I give my students for writing an essay (in their case, a book review). Hat tip to Drezner.

  1. Proofread! You should not have spelling or grammatical errors.
  2. Start with an outline. Don’t jump into writing. First organize your paper in one or two pages. Identify the main ideas in the book; choose distinct points/critiques to respond to those arguments; and methodically lay out your support in that outline. Think about the weak points: how can you gather evidence or ideas to strengthen your argument? Step back and look at your arguments: could you add another argument to strengthen the overall critique, or should you narrow your focus and develop a handful of arguments well? Go over your outline with your teaching assistant and get feedback.
  3. Briefly summarize your argument in the introduction. Without this statement/roadmap in the beginning, readers spend their time trying to figure out what exactly you are trying to argue. This is a short paper, so your summary of the argument should be brief: a paragraph or less.
  4. Organization, organization, organization! Present your ideas in a coherent and organized way. A thesis statement (see previous two points) is a good start, as is beginning with an outline. Try not to bounce back and forth between ideas or randomly bring in other authors’ ideas without explanation. Use headings or transition sentences to shift from one argument to the next. In a paper of this length, organization is key to making a concise and convincing argument.
  5. Engage directly with the author’s ideas. Don’t just expound upon your ideas regarding development; pay at least as much attention to the book’s specific arguments. The purpose of a book review is to provide critical analysis of the given author’s assumptions, theories, and proposals. Directly address these. Use quotations or page references to make reference to the author’s claims, or reference to opposing points of view. Your own comments and insight are meaningful when they are placed in the context of, or in comparison to, the book being reviewed.
  6. Engage with the central and important ideas. You can easily quibble with side points, or attack tangential issues. A good book review will tackle the core assumptions, theories, and proposals of the book.
  7. Be clear where you stand. It is ok to both agree and disagree with an author’s point (to sit on the fence). Be clear that is what you are doing. Don’t use adjectives on both sides of the issue such that you seem to contradict yourself in one paragraph.
  8. Use theory and evidence to support your claims. Don’t make assertions that are unsupported. You need to meet a higher burden of proof in your book reviews than in the short weekly papers. Evidence in support of (or against) a claim could include class readings, outside sources, and specific country examples. You can also argue for or against a point using theory—a logical point (or flaw), or the predictions of a theoretical model. If the theory evidence is weak, don’t hide that point, but use it to advocate for more investigation before deciding on a policy.
  9. Anticipate the response. When you raise a critique, anticipate and address the author’s response. This is a useful device for determining whether you critique is a strong and complete one.
  10. Read points 2, 4 and 8 again. They are that important.