The Academic Essay


You have just received a writing assignment from your professor. You are not sure what to think of it, and have no definite ideas about what to do. Is this a good time to visit the Writing Center? It most certainly is! Take some pressure off your visits by coming in early to have a pleasant chat about the assignment, the course material, and your interests, while the deadline is miles away. The tutor will be very happy to have an intellectual discussion and to learn what is happening in your academic life. But don’t come completely unprepared. Here is a list of preliminary activities (thinking stuff) you should do on your own.

Preliminary/Early Stages

Be ready to explain the assignment to the tutor. Look carefully at all instructions and requirements and make a list, ranking them in order of priority. For a newly started project, directions relating to content, themes, or topic selection should be at the top; requirements relating to length and research expectations should be next; formal requirements (margins, spacing, citation…) should be last.

Be ready to tell the tutor how you feel about the assignment. This step requires you to evaluate your current knowledge of the topic and estimate your ability to write the paper. How does the assignment fit in with class work and readings? Did you learn things in class that can help you start? Are you aware of gaps in your expertise that you will need to fill? Such gaps may relate to knowledge of facts, theoretical concepts you are expected to use, methods of analysis, and so forth.

Brainstorm. This step is particularly important when an assignment requires you to select a topic or case study yourself. After you have become familiar with the assignment and the associated material (class readings and notes from lectures), write down as many ideas for the topic as you can. Ideally, each idea should include quotes from texts (primary or secondary) that you may use in the essay. The quotes themselves may have triggered the idea, but make sure you link your thoughts to concrete topics or case studies. Bring your brainstorming to the Writing Center and discuss it with a tutor to figure out where to take it next.




Expanding Knowledge and Building Structure

So now you know what you want to write about, you have an idea, but you need the stuffing for the turkey, the helium for the balloon, the melody to go with the beat. This is where research is crucial. Find out what others have been writing about your case study, or general topic. Find out where you fit in that conversation. Then, it’s time to decide where the sources fit in your argument as you prepare an outline. Expanding knowledge and thinking about structure go hand in hand; think of Research and Outlining as different, though not separate tasks.

Research. Try looking for academic and non-academic sources on your topic; make note of your results and any difficulties you may have encountered (too many/too few hits). If you have already located and perused sources, identify passages (quotes) you think might be helpful in writing the paper. Annotate your sources by scribbling on a print-out: underline, circle, copy keywords, write notes on margin. Bring your annotated printouts to the Writing Center and discuss your choice of sources with the tutor. Are your choices valid? Do you need to make your searches more case-specific? Do you need a broader framework? Have you been seeking only confirmation, or have you collected a variety of conflicting/opposing views on your topic? The tutor can help with all that and set you on the righteous path!
A good place to start is the library portal:

Outline/Plan. While you will be doing some level of planning at all stages of the writing process, detailed preliminary outlines are best drafted after you have identified your primary sources and many (if not most) of your secondary sources. This is because you should try to include short quotes or details from both types of sources in your outline, usually at the bottom level (highest indentation). In this way, you are telling yourself what exactly you want to mention, discuss, analyze in your paper, and where. Bring your outline to the Writing Center and discuss it with a tutor.

You can use this general purpose model to start.




Writing the Essay

With most, if not all, your research done, sources annotated, ideas organized in an outline, it is time to write. But keep in mind that writing is a recursive process; it goes around like a wheel, two parallel wheels, actually, from research and outlining to writing, to more research, to revising the outline, to more writing/revising, back to research, as often as needed, until you pull the cart to its destination. To extend the metaphor, without research, one wheel will be dragging instead of turning; the same is true of too much research without writing

Draft and Revise. There is no reason to wait until you have a nearly finished a paper before you come to the Writing Center. Organize your work in blocks (large writing units), and when you feel you have nearly completed a block, bring it to the Writing Center and discuss it with a tutor. Be ready to tell the tutor what is in the block, what you tried to accomplish with it (ex. tell the plot of a film you are discussing, narrate historical background, analyze a scene, place, or event, define a concept you are using), what sources you are citing, and where it fits in your outline/plan.

You can also come in when the main body is nearly complete to discuss options for the conclusion and/or introduction (these are generally best written last). If this is the case, print out your paper, re-read it, and highlight the main points you are making in each block/section. Try to highlight, at most, one or two sentences per page. No examples or arguments, only claims. Can these claims be pulled together in a coherent conclusion that shows how they fit into one argument? Will that take one or two paragraphs to accomplish, or is more space needed? Keep in mind that the conclusion should not open new doors in your argument, in the form of new information, new examples, new subtopics.




Finalizing the Essay

Almost done? You can see the light at the end of the tunnel (and you are pretty confident it’s not an oncoming train)? Now is the time to polish.

Finalize. Do you have a nearly complete paper? Bring a printout to the writing center to go over its formal qualities. In drafting it, did you follow the required style? Commonly used styles are MLA, Chicago, APA, Harvard. If your instructor did not specify a style, you should apply one regardless. Stick to the one with which you are most familiar. If no directions are given, you should assume that the instructor expects you to know you have to apply a style consistently. You should pay particular attention to citing sources in-text, and to the Works Cited/Bibliography. Remember that a properly styled paper makes a much better impression on the reader.
For MLA, which is commonly used in the humanities, follow this link to the official Style Center.