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What makes a good essay? How can a student make a good grade? Good essays require hard work, patience, and rewriting. They also require excellent organizational skills and the ability to be specific, precise, and concise. A good writer follows the rules of grammar and proofreads his or her paper for errors. Good writers also learn the most troubling kinds of errors that plague most average papers, and they work hard to eliminate them from the paper’s final draft. Outstanding essays writers pay attention to organization, MLA (or the assigned documentation) format, sentence construction, and the elements of good communication.
The above sentence was the “thesis statement” for this paper. Although not all papers have a stated thesis, all papers do have a specific idea around which they are built. All of the paragraphs under that idea support and explain it. The traditional five-paragraph format requires a writer to spell out the specific concept or idea around which the paper is based (the thesis), and then to write paragraphs that support and demonstrate that thesis.
The opening sentence of this essay was a “grabber,” or “hook,” by which the writer attracts the reader’s attention and lures that reader into the essay.
Good hooks include rhetorical questions (questions without a specific answer), quotations, stories (anecdotes), statistics, descriptions of a scene, and various other types of information designed to bring a reader into the essay. Using a story or drawing a scene is a particularly effective for grabbing a reader’s attention.
The writer must make sure that the story or grabber relates to the rest of the paper. This may be effectively accomplished through the use of transitional sentences between the hook and the thesis. Remember, the thesis is the central idea in the paper and is therefore the most important idea, around which everything else is based A writer uses “topic sentences” at the beginning of each paragraph. The topic sentence tells the reader what the paragraph will be about this paragraph is about organization), and the sentences beneath support and explain that topic sentence, just as, in turn, the topic sentence supports and explains the paper’s thesis. The introductory paragraph introduces the subject by using a broad idea, and then it narrows itself into a specific thesis. The paragraphs in the body of the paper support the thesis and show specific examples, supporting evidence, illustrations, relevant quotations, and other information important to the paper.
The final section of each paragraph should bridge between the central idea in that paragraph and the next idea to be discussed. The concluding section of the paper draws together the paper’s general argument and either summarizes what the paper says or calls the reader to action. The organization relates to the importance of MLA formatting, for a paper cannot be well organized without the writer’s paying careful attention to MLA guidelines. “MLA” stands for the “Modern Language Association,” which put together a series of guidelines for writers to follow in order to achieve uniformity in referencing and format. When a writer uses “quotations,” then the use of “exact words” are put into quotation “marks,” while “paraphrased” concepts (concepts a writer reads and puts into his or her own words) do not require “quotation marks.”
However, paraphrasing is also a kind of quoting, and at the beginning of a paraphrase (or at the end) the writer must tell where the original concept was found (LeMaster 2). If the student uses more than one work by the same author, then the student should differentiate between the two works (LeMaster, “An Essay… “). There are two styles of citing sources. The first style, as found in David J. LeMaster’s book, This is a Book about Papers, is to name the author and the book in the sentence “prior to using the direct quotation” (412). The second method of quoting is to use “a direct quotation without a lead-in,” and then to “cite that quotation” afterward (Smith and Jones 232). Either method is acceptable, but a writer must cite all references, whether the writer is using direct quotations, paraphrases, or summaries.
It should be noted here that Abraham Jonessmithrobinson, a professor at the University of LeMasterism, writes “the more outside sources a writer uses, the more informed and prepared that writer appears.” For that reason, no writer should ever think of taking work that belongs to another writer and claiming that work is the writer’s own. When making reference within the paper, essay titles, such as, “An Online Lesson for Teachers,” should be in quotation marks, while the titles of books, such as, A Book Such as This, are underlined. It is a good idea to identify the professor or thinker and that professor’s credentials in the text prior to the quotation. A long quotation, also called a “blocked quotation,” is a direct quotation that lasts three or more typed lines. Blocked quotations should stand out as blocks (thus the name) and should be indented 1 inch or 10 spaces (numbers one through ten are spelled out, while 11 through infinity are numerals–unless giving measurements, which requires numerals).
Blocked quotations are long; only use a blocked quotation if the information in the quotation is important to your topic. If possible, it is better to “mix” and “blend” quotations by using “a mixture of exact words [. . . ] and ideas that have been left out.” If you leave something out of the quotation, then ellipses (used in the line above) are necessary. Ellipses signal to the reader that something has been taken out of the quotation. Do not change the context of the quotation by taking out words. This is a blocked quotation. Notice that there is not quotation marks on the left or on the right. This is because the “blocked section” does the job for a quotation mark. If the author of the quotation uses direct quotation marks, then use quotation marks to set off those words. The end of the quotation is different than a regular quotation.
In a regular quotation, the writer closes the quotation with quotation marks, opens parenthesis, and then gives the author and page, closes parenthesis, and then uses punctuation, thus: “Quotation” (Author). In a blocked quotation, however, the end of the quotation looks like this. (LeMaster 110) If possible, a blocked quotation not begin at the end of a page (like this one did), nor should not bleed over into the next line. There should be at least three lines of text at the top a new page prior to a blocked quotation. A writer uses a blocked quotation when the quotation is absolutely relevant to the paper, and a shorter quotation will not be effective. One common problem for students is putting together the Works Cited page (it is not called a “Bibliography” in MLA). There is good information concerning how to put this page together on pages 631-655 of your text. Some students use Easybib.com as an aid; however, Easybib.com is prone to errors (for instance, it does not indent the second line of a citation), so students should always double-check the information Easybib.com provides against the MLA Handbook.
Some students cite web pages by simply giving the website address. This is not the proper method of documentation. Websites have names. For instance, Easybib.com is the name of a website. If the student uses an essay on CNN’s website, then the name of the article should be given. If there is an author, that should be given in the text. For instance, if the student uses an article, “How the Croc Hunter Died” by Jacob Miller on CNN’s website, then the student would cite it as (Miller). If the article is not credited to a writer, the student should cite it by the article’s title (preferably in the text). If neither the article name nor the author’s name are available, the student should cite the title of the cite (CNN.com). The rest of the relevant information (including web address, when it was accessed, and when it was originally published on the Internet) go in the Works Cited list. The relevant information is listed in your textbook (Kennedy, et. al., 651-652).
Many students make the mistake of creating a “header” in Word for the heading on the first page. This causes the heading to be repeated on all subsequent pages. A heading is created as soon as the student opens a new Word document. The student should type his or her name, the professor’s name, the class name, and the date. These four lines (like the rest of the paper) should be double-spaced. At the beginning of page 2, the student should go to “View,” select “Header and Footer,” go to the farthest tab (usually 5), type the student’s last name, hit space, and then select the “#” icon (insert page number). If given the option, the student should tell Word not to show this header on the first page of the document. Students often type papers as quickly as possible and then turn in the first draft. This practice is the major cause of failing a paper. First, students must learn that the first and second, and third) draft is simply an attempt to get thoughts down on paper.
Many teachers (including Dr. LeMaster) encourage free-writing exercises in which students write whatever comes to mind without worrying about errors. This is a wonderful exercise; however, the difficult part of writing takes place after these kinds of exercises are completed. Students must learn the art of proofreading for grammatical errors. Although there are many types of errors and all students should proofread their papers over and over there are three major errors that are important to spot. First, comma errors come in various shapes and sizes, but two types are most common: comma splices and run-on sentences. A comma splice is a sentence that uses a comma to put together two separate (independent) ideas without using a coordinating conjunction (FANBOYS is the acronym; For, And, Nor, But Or, Yet, So).
Although we often begin sentences with these words when we speak aloud, it is not grammatically correct on paper. Many times a pause may be achieved by the use of a dash–a sudden, abrupt change of thought–or a semicolon. Common coordinating and subordinating conjunctions and their proper usages are found in your book (Kennedy, et al., H-73). Formal writing requires writers to learn the difference between what a sentence sounds like versus the way it looks on paper. The second common comma error is not using a comma at all and fusing two sentences together without a mark of punctuation. Both of these errors are addressed on Purdue University’s excellent site, The Online Writing Lab. Students can also practice comma exercises at Bedfordstmartins.com on “Exercise Central.” Other common errors for student writers are shifting tenses, subject/verb agreement, and failing to use the right word at the right time. The easiest way to check for tense shifts and subject/verb agreement errors is to read the paper aloud to someone else, and then to read the paper backward (sentence by sentence from the end). Once a writer has spent time with a text, the writer knows what he or she wants the text to say, and the text will sound natural to that writer; however, reading the text aloud to someone else often demonstrates the places where the text is vague or fails to communicate.
All writing should be fresh and specific; writing is about communication. Dr. Ken Davis, formerly of Texas Tech University, taught this concept with a simple maxim: “Always write so clearly nobody can misunderstand what you’re trying to say.” Although this sentence is simplistic, the idea is direct and important. Choose an audience and write for that audience. Many students write a rough draft the night before and then turn that draft in as a final paper. This is the easiest way to fail Freshman Composition I. The tricks that worked in high school will not work in college, and sooner or later, a student must learn how to be a student. The general philosophy is that a student should have at least three hours of study and preparation time at home each week for every class. The easiest way to accomplish this is to divide the day into blocks, and to do the same thing every day.
Students should write for five to ten minutes each day and learn how to commit thoughts to paper. Remember, writing is rewriting, and the writing process is just that–a process. That means that a paper isn’t put together in a matter of an hour. If an assignment is given at the start of the week, the student should work for a few minutes to an hour each day until the assignment is due. Some professors print drafts and then carry the printed draft around for a number of days, editing whenever the opportunity arises. This is an excellent practice, and students should imitate it. Perhaps the most common type of error in writing is incorrect pronoun usage. Many students use vague pronouns. For instance, if a student writes, “It is vitally important for him to understand it, and will only make a good grade if he does it right,” the reader is left to wonder who both “he” and “it” are. Other students fall into a trap that is common in spoken English, which is to use a plural pronoun with a singular subject. For instance, the sentence, “everyone should rewrite their papers,” is incorrect, because the subject “everyone” is singular, and the pronoun “their” is plural. The correct wording is “everyone should rewrite his or her paper.”
A helpful discussion of pronouns is found in the textbook (Kennedy et al., H-36-H-46). Finally, students must learn that longer isn’t necessarily better. Journalists are given a word limit–an article for a newspaper or Internet cite is usually limited to a few hundred words. This means that journalists must use exactly the right word, and they must keep the essay alive and active or the reader will give up on the essay and go to another one. Although old Miss Swampdweller in grade school might have measured the essays and given an “A” to the longest, it doesn’t work that way in college. In fact, most college professors are aware that students “pad” work to make the work longer, and often, if the professor thinks that the work is going in circles and doesn’t directly address the question at hand, the professor will flunk long work. Think of it like a movie; most people enjoy movies that are short and action-packed, that establish a sense of conflict early, with clearly defined characters (no muddy language or going round and round to get to a point), with specific actions, and with high stakes (the major character has a purpose and will die, lose, etc., if that purpose isn’t fulfilled). An essay is built around similar ideas.
A paper must have a specific, identifiable purpose. The sentences must be active and specific. The paper must use strong, vivid language and descriptions. When a writer goes in too many directions, or if the writing becomes unfocused, the reader, like a moviegoer, will stop paying attention. Finally, some students write entire essays and fail to document any outside sources. Depending on the assignment, this can cause a student to lose major points on the final grade, or even to fail the assignment completely. Using outside sources shows the professor that the student did outside research. Any ideas that are not originally the student’s ideas should be cited. Students should be wary of the use of encyclopedias. Such entries are good sources of basic information (for instance, an encyclopedia shows how many people are in the world or tells what year an event happened), but they are not primary sources for a research paper. Furthermore, students should be careful to ensure the authenticity of the source, and they should also look at the background of the editor(s).
An outstanding, peer-reviewed publication like The Oxford English Dictionary (which gives etymologies of words) is edited by a specific group led by a prestigious professor. An online source like Wikipedia is open to editorial comments and adjustments by anyone with a computer. The purpose of this short essay is to address common problems for students in putting together college essays. A college essay is not the same as a high school essay, and many of the tricks students learned to save time in high school can cost a student in college. Even though an idea or a sentence might seem clear to a writer, if it is unclear to the reader, then it has no (or the wrong) meaning. Students must pay attention to communication, organization, and basic rules of structure, grammar, and style. The ability to write is not acquired overnight, nor is it easy. Students must learn that writing is a process that requires a great deal of trial and error, and they must not fall into laziness or sloppiness. It is only by approaching a paper as a process that a student will be able to fully realize and appreciate his or her full potential.
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