Writing Core Humanities essays

Writing is a major component of the Core Humanities program. It is also an essential skill that will help you to succeed in other courses and in your life beyond college. People who can express themselves clearly in writing have definite advantages over those who cannot, so take advantage of the writing opportunities provided in each course to practice getting better at this.

To write well, you must first have a sound grasp of the rules of grammar, but this alone is not enough to ensure good writing. You also need to think about the way you organize your ideas, how you present your argument, how you incorporate evidence and how you move from one idea to another in your essay. The following guidelines will help you to produce clearly written, well-supported, persuasive essays and to hone your communication skills.

Start early. Unless you are incredibly brilliant, you will not be able to write a really good essay the night before it is due. Insightful, well-organized papers result from careful thinking, re-reading of texts and re-writing of rough drafts, all of which take time.

Decide on a thesis. Good essays are more than just collections of facts or quotations from the readings. They are written with a clear point in mind - something the author wants to say. If the assignment is in the form of a question, your thesis will be your answer to the question. Make sure you have an answer before you begin to write. Do not simply write down everything you know about a topic without addressing the question.

Make an outline. Once you have decided what you are going to say, think about how you are going to say it. What evidence will you use to support your thesis? How will you arrange the evidence? How will you make sure your reader sees the same connections between your evidence and argument that you see? Making an outline forces you to think in an organized manner and arrange your thoughts in a sequence that makes sense. You can always change the organization of your essay later if you think of a better way to arrange your material, but you should always draw up some kind of plan before you begin to write.

Pay attention to structure. The "classic" essay structure (introduction, body paragraphs and conclusion) is classic for a reason: it works. Your introduction should set out clearly and succinctly the thesis of your essay, each body paragraph should provide evidence and/or analysis relating to the main point, the conclusion should summarize (again, succinctly but in different words from the ones you use in your introduction) what you have said.

Use graceful transitions. Your essay should flow logically and coherently from one paragraph to the next. Start a new paragraph for each new idea and try to make the first line of each paragraph relate in some way to the point you made in the preceding one. This is called a transition, or how you get from one idea to another. Just like changing gears, accelerating, or braking in a car, your transitions should be smooth, so that the reader hardly notices them. Good transitions can turn an above-average paper into one that is really classy.

Acknowledge any words and ideas that are not your own. You must properly recognize other people's words by enclosing any phrases taken directly from another source in quotation marks and providing the source information (author's last name, followed by the page number) in parentheses at the end of the sentence in which the quotation appears [e.g.: (Casper and Davies, 49)]. Ideas taken from outside sources and paraphrased in your own words, as well as little-known facts and statistics, must be acknowledged in the same way as direct quotations. See the advice about avoiding plagiarism for more information about how to acknowledge and cite sources.

A first draft does not mean you are finished. Read over, correct and re-write your first draft to eliminate bad grammar and syntax, unclear sentences, clumsy transitions, typing errors and spelling mistakes. Keep in mind that the spelling and grammar-check functions on your computer, although useful for a first run through, are no substitute for reading your paper carefully yourself.

Keep to the page limit. Being able to express your ideas clearly and succinctly is a valuable skill and revising an over-long paper to keep within a defined limit helps you to get better at this. If your first draft exceeds the page limit, go back and cut out any unnecessary words or sentences. Finding ways to restate your ideas more directly usually results in a better paper.

Think you are done? Not quite. Proofread your paper again before you submit it to eliminate any new mistakes that might have crept in when you were revising it. It is often helpful to ask a friend or family member to read your paper before submitting it to make sure it all makes sense and to pick up any errors you may have missed.

Ask for help if you need it. Remember that your instructors are here to help you if you get stuck. If you are having trouble understanding the readings or lectures, email or make an appointment to see your discussion leader or professor. Your discussion section meeting each week is also a good time to ask any questions you have about the material.