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Tips for Writing Class Essays

What’s the point of this assignment?

Class papers are opportunities to show your (a) knowledge of class material, (b) analytic and writing skills, and (c) perhaps your research skills if that is call for. That is, exercise the material so as to show your knowledge and skills. If you are writing about an important personal experience or meaningful case, don't forget this is an academic exercise to show your knowledge and analytic and writing abilities.

How do I organize an essay?

A good essay has:

What course material should I engage?

Find out how comprehensive the assignment should be. Otherwise, spend the majority of your attention on material that has been learned since the previous assignment. (Though being able to relate old and new material to one another is almost always a plus.) Also, look at future assignments to make sure you don’t get too far ahead.

I recommend writing down a list of about a dozen key concepts, theories, scholars, and arguments and then think about your topic (or experiences, case, or media) and make notes on applicability. After this, you should have plenty of material with which to write your essay. The challenge then will be to frame and present them skillfully.

What topic/case should I choose?

Remember the point of the assignment. So, regardless of how neat you think something is, make sure it gives you enough to work with! Open ended topics (e.g., a research paper or film analysis) can be challenging in that you need to choose a topic that has enough substance for you to engage the necessary concepts and make a cogent argument/analysis. This might mean focusing on a a few "texts" if necessary (e.g., instead of a single commercial, a couple commercials). Have a look at Choosing a Topic and choose wisely.

Do I have to engage X?

If you make choices about which authors, theories, or concepts to engage “show your work.” That is, explain your choices in the essay; this won’t help you if you digress too far, but if the instructor wonders “why didn’t she engage X?” and you preempt that with an explanation of how “Y” was more powerful: that’s great! This is what teachers mean when they ask students to be “analytical”: thinking in a deep and comparative way rather than simply playing buzzword bingo throughout an essay.

What can I assume about the reader?

Essays should demonstrate a close reading of the required texts, exhibit a method of critical analysis, and explain concepts and cite sources where appropriate. You are more likely to do this if you imagine you are writing the essay for someone who is smart but not yet familiar with the texts.

How do I ask for help?

The best way to ask for help is to think carefully about the questions above and use your tentative responses to those questions in your own request for help to the instructor.

Are there any other tips on writing essays?

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