Monday, July 29, 2013

How to Write an Essay Part 1- Choosing a Topic

I am awesome. I mean just look at my hair. Classic.
After being in college for most of my adult life, or 7 of the last 10 years, I have learned one important skill: writing an essay. Not only writing an essay that just lets you pass but actually can knock the socks off a professor.  This is actually easier than you might think. Yes there is a formula and yes the essay is still totally BS. But good BS that makes you look like freaking awesome-sauce. Since this is such an important topic for many of you, I plan on breaking it down into two or more blog posts. The first being a break down on how to pick an essay topic that will allow the BS to just flow (appropriately) on the page. Let's get started.

*Note: I say professor here but if you are in high school or middle school, this process will still work for you.

Step 1: Take notes during class and mark topics that seem to excite the professor.

I am so sorry, but this is going to require you to go to class. At least some of the time. But I would suggest you do because professors will give you subtle hints as to what they want to see from you. For example, I took an American Lit class during undergrad. My professor was a nineteenth century American Lit guy (and I knew this) but the class was a survey class so we covered several centuries. We spent about half the semester talking about Emily Dickenson and Walt Whitman and about a week covering F. Scott Fitzgerald. But what did I choose for my final topic? Symbolism in The Great Gatsby. Face palm! I did alright on the paper, I passed with a B-, but had I followed this simple formula, I would have known to cater my paper to the professor grading it. A paper written in the exact same style about symbolism in nineteenth century poetry probably would have gotten me an A. So, take notes on what the professor talks about the most or does special lectures on because chances are that is what they love and will love to read about from you. Take a pen and write some crap down in a notebook or on your face or something. It will save you lazy bums a lot of trouble in the long run.

Step 2: Choose a few marked topics in your notes to do some further research.

Once the assignment has been given, look over your notes and choose a few topics that do not scare the beejeezus out of you. By that I mean a few topics that you could possibly have a friendly conversation about in public. Do not, I repeat, do not pick a topic that confuses you, that you know absolutely nothing about or has not thoroughly been covered in class. This goes back to step one, being present and alert in class gives you the best chance at choosing an appropriate essay topic. Now I know there are stories of college students never setting foot in a classroom and getting an A on the final. While there may be truth behind some of it, I can promise you they may have been able to get away with it freshman or sophomore year but after that, no. They now all work at a junk yard. All of them together. So, go to class, that is why you are there in the first place. Stupid is not cool.

Step 3: Go to the library or an online database and do a search of your topics.

Now this step is getting into the nitty-gritty of choosing your topic. Make sure you are using scholarly journals, articles, anthologies or encyclopedias. Most universities and libraries have databases full of articles you can search. No, Wikipedia does not count. What you are searching for in these databases are other scholarly articles that discuss your topics. Note and read the synopsis of as many as you think are relevant. You need to make sure there are several available for use. But you also want to make sure that your topic has not been beat to death by thousands of Ph. D's in the past 50 years, because I promise you will have nothing new or exciting to add to the conversation. This is why you chose several topics to research, toss this one out. Choosing an over saturated topic will make you look like a monkey. You know "monkey see, monkey do?"

Step 4: Read the syllabus or assignment rubric and compare your researched topics with the guidelines.

So, here is the scoop; you want to make sure you have at least one reference for every page or every 250 words. Do you have enough scholarly references not counting your textbook or a primary source like a novel or poem in original form ? If not, chuck that topic. The point of this step is to make sure that you have enough material to get you through the entire essay. So you don't have to stay up all night adjusting margins, font size and spacing just to make the required length. Not fun. And most professors can tell when you have done this anyway. You will also need to start thinking about possible thesis statements at this stage and if your resources can help you explain it. Thesis statements aren't totally necessary in this step but you may want to start thinking ahead. Look at you being prepared this time. Wink, wink.

Step 5: Make a brief outline with possible thesis statements for each topic.

By brief outline I mean super brief. Like list your intro with your thesis statements, then how many paragraphs of evidence you will have to support the statement and a conclusion. And no this is not a 5 point essay. I promise you will probably have/need more than 5 paragraphs. Worry about making your point, not fulfilling some crappy format that was beat into your brain in elementary school. An example of a thesis statement I recently used is as follows:

A deep analysis of these pieces individually reveals two commonalities: the portrayal of a heroic Christian protagonist and reminiscent pagan elements of theme, structure and perspective.

I then set out to prove this point with my evidence. If you are having trouble with a thesis statement go to the Purdue University Online Writing Lab here. Or you can link to it from my resources page as well. Know what you plan on talking about with each topic so you can make an informed decision. This makes the BS portions of your paper much easier to write and more believable for your professor to read.

Step 6: Ask your professor for advice on your topic choices.

I know this can seem a little bit of over kill, but if you really want to have a great topic and subsequently write a great paper, then you need to discuss the topic with your professor. Just stay a few moments after class or send an email and show him/her your topic outlines and thesis statements. Ask for advice. This is key because they will tell you where your outline is weak and what more you can do. Sometimes they even give you little hints on what they want you to write. Take notes people! They are practically telling you how to get an A on this essay, so make sure you listen. If you need clarification on some of their suggestions ask for it. I promise they want to help you. If they don't then they suck and you should go to your campus writing center or tutoring center. And give them a bad evaluation.

Step 7: Make your choice.

Thank heavens we are finally done. Make your stinking choice already! No seriously, look at all your notes and outlines and decide the single topic for which you are going to write your awesome essay. Choose the topic that seems the most interesting to you. The topic that you could write about and possibly enjoy it. Just know the more excited you are about a topic, the more interesting your writing will be. While this post may make this process seem long, it really isn't. This should just take a few hours max, if you know the formula. So, quit procrastinating and get it done. What are you still doing here? Go!

You're on your way! Today is your day! Go choose a topic for your essay! The next installment of this series on outlining your essay will be arriving soon. So stay tuned. And stay classy...

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Ta Ta For Now-

-Jami Lynn