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Writing an Academic Essay

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Unlike an ACT or SAT essay, there is no single format that will automatically guarantee you a higher grade on an academic essay. Unless your teacher has provided you with a specific template to use, there are many approaches that are equally correct. That having been said, there are still some guidelines that you should follow regardless of the essay format that you choose to use. We’ve explored some of these in our lessons on research papers, but today we’re going to deal more in depth with the building blocks of a solid academic essay.

Forget about “Five Paragraphs”

The five paragraph essay structure is one of the more unfortunate “rules” that students are taught early in school. The premise is sound: Make your introduction, conclusion, and body paragraphs proportional in length. In practice, however, I’ve seen students rigidly stick to this format, creating essays with incredibly long body paragraphs that are difficult to read. Instead, try to think of your essay as a series of discrete but interlocking sections that flow naturally from one to the next. Each section should be as many or as few paragraphs as you need to accomplish your goal

Put Your Strongest Evidence First

When writing an academic essay you are trying to persuade your reader or otherwise make a point. You should not be trying to build suspense like you would with a narrative essay. To that end, the strongest evidence for your case should go first. “Front load” your essay by putting your best point immediately after your introduction. Make the best evidence that you have for that point the first thing you address within that section. If you’re unsure about this approach, consider how you’d feel if you read a journal article that began with its weakest evidence. Would you feel compelled to finish reading it, or would you be more likely to move on to one that immediately makes a strong argument for its case?

The Elements of a Solid Introduction

An excellent tactic for beginning an introduction is to use a “hook” to immediately grab the attention of your readers. This should be something like a shocking statistic or a memorable anecdote that relates to the topic of your essay. Basically, you want your readers to say, “I want to hear more about this!” Next you should contextualize your argument, also known as setting the stage. Talk a bit about the general history of the topic, provide relevant background details, and explain where your essay fits into the bigger picture. Gradually narrow your focus until you reach your thesis statement.

Your thesis statement can take many forms. You can opt for a list of points you will prove or simply state your position. Regardless of its format, your thesis should answer one simple question: What am I trying to achieve by writing this?

Using citations effectively

A citation should be evidence that supports a point you are trying to prove, not the point itself. Each citation you include should have several sentences explaining why you included it, what it means, and how it supports your position. Don’t ever assume that a citation is self-explanatory. Taking for granted that a reader is on the same page as you regarding a citation will absolutely cost you points on a high school or college academic essay.

Counterpoints and Comparison/Contrast

Before moving on to your conclusion, ask yourself if there is anything else that you should add. Are there valid counter-arguments to your position that you need to address? Are there apparent discrepancies between points and/or sources that warrant a further explanation?

Don’t be afraid to bring up potential weaknesses of or limitations to your thesis. Answering your critics is one of the most “academic” things you can do while writing an essay. After all, if you’ve thought of a counter-argument it’s entirely possible that your teacher has as well. Address any points of contention and show you why they don’t weaken or are irrelevant to your thesis. Tackle them head on. If you can’t, it is possible that you need to revise or rethink part of your essay.

Conclusion: Bringing it All Together

Your conclusion should be all about bringing the separate points that you’ve been discussing together and tying them into your thesis. Restate the core of your introduction and your body paragraphs without repeating them verbatim. Your conclusion is also an appropriate place to offer commentary that might disrupt the flow of your essay if it were placed earlier. Just remember that any commentary or opinion that you do offer must be consistent with and supported by the evidence that you’ve presented.

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