How to Write an Essay About Any Book in English Class: Part 1
I Hate Writing!
As a high school English teacher and online tutor, I’ve come to believe English literature is at the bottom of the «favorite subjects» list for most students. When prompted as to why, most will say point blank, «I hate writing.»
When it comes to the process of constructing an essay, English class is actually a lot like math. That is to say, there’s a formula, that when followed, is nearly always going to produce an essay that works. Following this formula is easy. Mastering this formula can take a student from a non-writer to an above-average writer. And it is truly as simple as following a few steps, filling in a few blanks, and completing paragraphs by counting sentences.
Writing a Theme Statement
So your teacher has informed you that a three page paper «On Romeo and Juliet» is due Friday. It is now Thursday night and you haven’t even begun. You have no idea where to start.
Writing an «A» essay, easily and quickly, is all about asking the right questions. If your teacher has given you a fairly broad assignment, like the one above, the first rule you need understand is that summaries will no longer cut it. Teachers and professors don’t want to see that you understand the plot of a story. That was your 4th grade teacher. High school and college is more about analyzing themes (big picture ideas from a story that are applicable to real life) and an author’s literary merit (as in, what kind of techniques are used to accomplish the goal).
When tackling a generic essay assignment, the best place to begin is to create a theme statement. This is a one sentence statement that explains something the author is trying to convey about life, the world, humanity, or something else, through the story. Asking and answering the right questions will guide you into writing a proper theme statement, which can then become a great thesis statement (you know, that magical sentence in your introduction that defines your entire essay).
Yeah, great, I get that. But how do I start?
Step 1: Ask the Right Questions
It is time to start thinking about literature as having meaning outside of the story itself. It is time to interact with a text in a more personal and worldly way. It is time to write an essay that does more than summarize. To get started, answer these questions based on the text you are studying:
- What theme subjects does the text discuss? Note, we’re not talking about plot here. We’re talking about themes. This means things like love, power, revenge, growing up, death, freedom, war, etc. Make a list.
- Which theme subject from #1 do I like, understand, and feel comfortable analyzing with this book? Pick one or two.
Step 2: Ask Some More Questions, Brainstorm Answers
I like to tell my students that if they spend the most time in the planning stages of writing an essay (thinking, brainstorming, organizing) then the rough draft will practically write itself. The best brainstorming is, again, sparked by asking and answering the right questions. The following questions, if answered using as much information from the book—and your brain—as possible, will lead you to a great theme statement which will be turned in to your essay’s thesis statement. Insert the theme subject(s) you chose in step one into the blank and answer these questions using evidence from the plot of the book:
- What are all the causes of [theme subject] in this story?
- What are all the effects of [theme subject] in this story?
- If you chose two subjects to work with, how do these two subjects interrelate?
- Based on the ideas generated in questions 1-3, what do you believe the author is trying to teach us, or say generally, about [theme subject] through this book?*
- Craft ideas in #4 using some key words and narrow down your answer to one sentence.
Question #4, above, is the most important question to answer well. If you can narrow down a universal idea based on the plot the of the book, you have effectively written a theme statement. But this is tricky. First, this idea needs to be somewhat broad. It must be applicable beyond the story (as in, a lesson, thought, or truth that applies to life) so it cannot contain direct references to plot details. However, this idea also needs to be specific enough that it isn’t something that could be said about absolutely any book on the planet. Finally, it must be proven using examples from the story. Confused?
Let’s go back to Romeo and Juliet for a second, and see how steps one and two are illustrated in the following example.
- What subjects are discussed and dealt with in Romeo and Juliet?
. love. relationships. fighting. suicide. defiance. family. death. grudges.
- Which of the above subjects do I want to discuss?
. fighting and family.
- What are the causes of fighting in the story?
. Capulets and Montagues hate each other from a long time family feud, a grudge that has never been settled
. many characters fight over petty insults.
. Montagues and Capulets fight out of a long time hatred of one another
- What are the effects of fighting in the story?
. decree from the Prince to harshly punish all public fights.
. Romeo and Juliet must hide their love for one another and marry in secret.
. Tybalt kills Mercutio. Romeo kills Tybalt. Romeo is banished. Juliet fakes her death. Romeo kills Paris then himself. Juliet kills herself when she sees Romeo is dead.
. LOTS of people die
- How are family and fighting related?
. two families who have a long time grudge against one another fight out of hatred
- Based on the above ideas, what do you think Shakespeare is trying to say about fighting and family through this play?
. it is a bad thing. lots of people will get hurt or die.
- Narrow down ideas using more effective vocabulary.
. Fighting between families almost always leads to destruction.
That final sentence in #5 is your theme statement. With a couple more steps, this theme statement can become a great thesis statement and an excellent essay.
How to Write an Essay
Throughout your academic career, you will often be asked to write essays. You may have to work on an assigned essay for class, enter an essay contest or write essays for college admissions. This article will show you how to write, and then revise, all types of essays. Then, we’ll explore how to write narrative, persuasive and expository essays. Read on to learn how to write essays like an expert!
Part One of Five:
Writing Your Essay Edit
Part Two of Five:
Revising Your Essay Edit
Part Three of Five:
Writing a Persuasive Essay Edit
Part Four of Five:
Writing an Expository Essay Edit
Part Five of Five:
Write a Narrative Essay Edit
Essay Help Edit
- Start with a great fact, story, or compelling idea, then grow from there. If you’re stuck, many writers save their intro until the end, once they know the actual direction and evidence in the rest of the essay.
- 5 — 7 sentences is an appropriate length for paragraphs in the body.
- Try to start with something intriguing and promising. Questions can be really effective for an introduction. Aim for an introduction that has an explicit relation to the topic/title of your essay, and avoid analyzing the topic in your first paragraph.
- It depends on what the topic is about. Normally all essays have an Introduction, paragraphs explaining the most important things about the theme (about 2 or 3), and a conclusion.
- You don’t have to conclude the body paragraph in any particular way. That’s what the conclusion paragraph is for.
- Know the topic well before hand. Though the essay question could vary widely, know the historical context of events related to the class. You will likely be given a document, or several, to respond to, so you will have some resources available. However it is necessary to know the historical context of the event the documents talk about, so you can interpret them correctly and provide contextualization in your essay. Contextualization is telling what led up to an event, and is often helpful to explain why things happened and understand the mindset of the time period.
- Research several sides of the topic and form an opinion. Introduce the various arguments about it, both for and against your view. Use some evidence in the body of your essay to support your own view, and/or explain the views submitted. Summarize the concepts, and statenwhy you believe what you believe.
- Unless your teacher says otherwise, use 12pt Times New Roman font and remember to double-space your essay. Some teachers will prefer 10pt font, but still request double-spacing.
- You can either tell a story about a moment in your life when you learned something valuable about yourself or just tell the story of your life from beginning to end.
- Read the proverb several times, looking at the tone, voice and intended audience. Dissect the proverb, thinking about the intended meaning, and historical context. Why was it important then and is it still important/applicable now? Write everything down and arrange it inside the structure of the essay in a way that flows and makes sense to you.
If you need to write an essay, start by gathering information from reputable sources, like books from the library or scholarly journals online. Take detailed notes, and keep track of which facts come from which sources. As you start to organize your notes, look for a central theme you would be interested in writing about, or a thesis. Organize your notes into an outline that supports and explains your thesis, then write the body of your essay based on the outline. Finish your paper with a strong conclusion that sums up your important points.
Writers Workshop: Writer Resources
Writing Tips: In-class Essay Exams
Below are some tips for taking in-class essay exams. See also tips for taking standardized essay exams.
Study Your Teacher
Different teachers stress different points. For example, one teacher of American History may stress social history, another economic history or the history of foreign policy. Most teachers are fair; they will test on what they stress in class. Check your notes.
Have faith in your own intelligence. Ask yourself what kind of questions you would ask over the given material. Chances are that at least some of your questions will appear on the test. If you can anticipate a test question, the test will appear familiar to you.
Do Not Panic
Anyone who has done nothing more than to sit in class and listen knows at least some of the material. Of course, you have also studied diligently. You are prepared. Remember that taking an essay exam well depends upon the wise budgeting of time.
Budget Your Time
Read the entire test before you begin to write. The last question may be weighed heavily and thus require more time. Ask yourself how much time you can afford to spend on each question. If you do not finish all the minor questions in the allotted time, go on to the major question. Come back to the smaller questions later.
Read Individual Questions Carefully
Has your teacher asked you to choose two of five questions? If you answer all the questions when you have a choice, you lose time and points. When you are faced with a choice, decide quickly and do not change your mind. Doing so takes time, and lost time means lost points.
Watch For Key Words
Does your instructor ask you to «discuss,» «compare,» «contrast,» «summarize,» «explain,» or «relate»? Note that some key words give you more freedom than do others. The words «contrast» and «summarize,» for instance, are very precise. You must obey these words by doing exactly what they say. However, the word «discuss» gives you some freedom. You might discuss a topic by summarizing, relating, explaining, or some combination thereof.
Answer the Major Question
An essay question is just what the name implies—an essay. You know that an essay should have a thesis or purpose statement; the answer you write for the essay question should also have a thesis to help you organize your thoughts and keep you from straying from your main point. A clear thesis will also make your answer easy for your instructor to follow.
Organize before you write. 1/10 to 1/5 of the time spent on a question should be spent in organization. If other students are writing furiously, they are probably writing without a purpose. Make a rough outline to keep you on track.
After outlining, write the essay, filling in the details. Be as specific as possible. Do not be satisfied with general statements such as, «Spallanzani advanced the science of microbe hunting.» How so? — by exposing superstitions. What superstitions? — he proved the Vegetative Force to be a myth by cleverly demonstrating that microbes must have parents. Generalities by themselves are boring. Details alone are just a grocery list. Use your details to support a general context, and then draw relevant conclusions.
Use a General Organizing Principle
When instructors ask you to discuss, they want you to show more than a knowledge of the facts. They want you to demonstrate a grasp of the relationships among the facts. They want to know if you see similarities, differences, or cause-effect relationships. For example, even though you write a wealth of facts, you might fail a history question involving the Crusades and the discovery of America if you miss the cause-effect relationship. Show that you know how the Crusades led to the discovery of America. Often, essay exams ask you to be able to discuss relevant details within a general framework. Know the big picture, and be able to discuss how details are interrelated within that big picture.
If you finish early, proofread the test to check facts, spelling, punctuation, and grammar. If you have left something out, put in a legible footnote that can easily be found.