The word essay nearly makes me want to go to sleep. We wrote them ad infinitum in school and I can say confidently that 100% of them were dead boring.
Perhaps it’s the topics we were given or the school setting in general, but actually essays needn’t be boring. Read some of the essays by David Sedaris or Arundhati Roy or Barbara Kingsolver (as well as many other fabulous essayists) and you’ll see essays can be as captivating as any other reading. First you need to know the basics, then you need to shine them up a bit with a bit of flair and improvisation. Learn how to write an essay that pulls your reader in and doesn’t let her go, but first the basics.
The Five Paragraph Structure
We all learned the five paragraph structure in school, but just in case, let’s review it.
1. First Paragraph: Introduction
Here you introduce your main argument, or main topic. The first sentence is very important; it should grab your reader. Some things you might use include:
• A funny or touching anecdote
• A famous person
• Reference to a historical event that links to your topic
• A surprising statement
2-4. Three body paragraphs
Each of these paragraphs should contain one point that supports your main argument. Then the point should be elaborated on. To increase flow, try to hook your paragraphs to the previous one. You might do this by carrying a theme throughout. Perhaps you decide your essay theme is about what is seen. Then use seeing, sight, eyes, etc. to link the paragraphs in a creative and interesting way.
5. The Conclusion
The conclusion should echo your introduction but not word for word. You should restate your argument and the points that support it. Make a final statement to allow your reader to know the argument has been made. This paragraph should be bold and powerful.
Making the Writing Shine
1. Use active voice
Active voice is writing sentences where the subject of the sentences is the actor. Look at these two sentences:
He rode the bike.
The bike is the one that he rode.
The first one is active voice. It is clear, direct writing that gives your sentences energy. After you finish your essay, go through and check for sentences in passive voice. Change them to active voice. Occasionally you might want to use passive voice but know why you’re using it. For example, you might use it in a way so as not to blame a particular person, i.e. A mistake was committed during the investigations.
2. In your introductory paragraph do NOT do the following:
• Write- “In this essay I’m going to write about….”
• Give a word’s definition as in if the topic of the essay is humanity, do not write – “In Webster’s Dictionary humanity is defined as….”
• Waste time meandering, get to your point
3. Stick to the theme.
4. If you’re writing an essay for a contest, follow the rules explicitly. They are not suggestions, they are rules. 300 words mean 300 words, you can write less but not one word more.
5. Decide what is going to make you essay stand out. You must have something that makes it stand out from the others. Maybe it is poignant. Perhaps it is very funny. Maybe you make up a new word. For example if your essay is about the way Batswana idolise their cattle your might coin a word in your essay like “cattleoration” a sort of adoration of cattle. Something must make your essay better than the rest and special for the judges to take notice.
6. When deciding on a topic for your essay, brainstorm first. It is likely the first idea you get, is also the first idea the 200 or so other people entering the contest get as well. Be creative, think out of that tight little box.
7. Check for flow and organisation. Edit, edit, edit…
8. Check for grammar and spelling. Do not use SMS language. Capitalise I.
9. Do not use big words where short, concise ones will do. Big, bulky, show-off words only show the reader your insecurity.
10. After finishing, leave it to sit for some time, at least a week if possible. Then go back to it and edit it one last time before sending it off.