Essay Writing Guidelines and Tips


An academic, critical essay represents an argument: the author is trying to advance and defend a unique interpretation or idea. The thesis is the most direct statement of this argument, and so the thesis statement is in effect the most important part of an essay. Imagine someone telling you that they want to take you for a ride in their boat: you might reasonably want to know (1) the destination as well as (2) the reason for going. If the skipper doesn’t give you this information, you might not want to hop aboard. The essay represents just such a journey, and your reader wants to know where you’re going and why.

The “destination” is probably the easier part of the problem: the skipper can readily answer, “Alaska,” and you might say, “Great, I’ve always wanted to go and besides my classes all bore me to tears. Let’s go.” Without this minimal knowledge you might not get in the boat at all, regardless of how boring those classes are. Consider how frustrating it is arguing with someone who refuses to make his or her position clear, or who seems to keep changing views in the course of an argument, and you’ll see why laying out a trajectory for your argument is essential.

Explaining why you should sail to Alaska at this moment is the trickier part. The best way to develop and hone a thesis is to ask why: why this subject is worth pursuing, why the author you’re studying has done or included this or that element, why your reader should care. Say you’re interested in the fact that Captain Ahab never seems to sleep in the novel Moby-Dick. That is a fine starting point, a subject area, a tangible notion of something in the novel worth analyzing. Now ask yourself a series of questions: why does Ahab never sleep? To what purpose does Melville tell or show us that Ahab does not sleep? Why is this quality of Ahab’s remarkable? Wrestle with these questions until you come upon firm answers you feel that you can defend.

Pointing out that, for example, the heroine of Jane Austen’s novel Emma is named Emma is obviously not a thesis – there’s no argument there, just a statement of fact (and not a very interesting fact, at that). On the other hand, a discussion of why Austen’s novel is named after its central character could make for a very profitable argument.

Happily, there’s no limit to the number of possible arguments about any given work of literature, just as there’s no end to the list of different interpretations made by different readers. Remember this fact, and let your imagination be freed by it. At the same time, bear in mind the limitations imposed by the assignment at hand. Your thesis has to be defensible, and this means that your argument has to be based upon careful reading (to claim that a 1978 TV commercial for shampoo is an incredibly subtle allegory about the divorce debate in late nineteenth-century Ireland is a novel thesis, but it is very unlikely that you can demonstrate its validity) and concisely framed within the assigned length (trying to tackle eight poems, or outline the full history of the Spanish Civil War in a three-page assignment is not a viable idea). Seek a good balance between what you want to discuss and what you can argue. Three golden words for the essayist: FOCUS, CLARITY, and CONCISION.


The title of your essay is yours to invent. Creativity and humour are welcome, but remember that the best title is specific to your subject/argument. “Erotic Love in Forster’s Where Angels Fear to Tread” is a much more effective title than simply “Love” (the reader would not guess from this title that your paper concerns Forster’s novel) or “Where Angels Fear to Tread” (which is the title of Forster’s novel, and is thus already taken). Nor should your title be a dull paraphrase of your thesis or a repetition of the essay question. Your title won’t be marked, but give some thought to an original title for your work.

General Points on Style

1. Watch those subject-verb agreements.
The five men who cleaned us out at the poker table is certainly friendly.

2. Dangling modifiers tend to obscure your meaning.
With a lion’s body and the head of a man, Yeats makes a terrifying image of the twentieth century.

3. Avoid clichés and hyperbole.
William Shakespeare is perhaps the greatest writer of all time. His play
Hamlet is not only highly entertaining but extremely interesting.

4. Don’t mix metaphors.
The hero is struck by her answer as though by a brick, in the sense that the brick represents indifference and its great speed is like the hero’s pulsing heart.

5. Split infinitives can break up your ideas.
Hamlet cannot decide whether to brazenly and viciously kill his stepfather or to calmly, coolly, with relaxed breathing patterns, join a therapy group with Ophelia.

6. Formal essays should not use colloquial language, slang, or inappropriate jargon.
The author’s take on the African scene is not very cool, but she knows what’s what.

7. Master the use of the apostrophe: learn where to use it and when not.
When the brother’s tried to take that ball I told them it was your’s but they didnt listen.

8. Run-on sentences are wearying and weaken or blur your point.
The author’s use of this character and theme in the fifth, eighth, and nineteenth chapters is puzzling and in the sixth chapter the character is absent but the theme is not, pointing to a division between the theme and the character which may not be obvious in chapter two and especially the last half of chapter ten, in which the character pretends to be someone who has not been to the mountains at all.

Always make time for proofreading and editing. Ask yourself whether each sentence moves the argument forward – if not, it may be useless and should be discarded. A valuable piece of advice: read your essay aloud. In doing so, you will hear mistakes and problems that you may not be able to see (especially after hours of glaring at a computer screen).

Finally, a bored writer invariably produces a boring essay. Write about what interests you! – if you’re not excited about your subject, why should anyone else be?

Specific Points on Style

This alphabetically-ordered index of words is meant to be quick reference for specific writing suggestions (i.e., pointers about common problems or errors), and it is by no means comprehensive. Some simple golden rules to remember:

• Clarity and precision are the most important qualities to strive for in writing an essay. Big or fancy words don’t impress anybody if they’re the wrong words for the job.

• A good dictionary is a writer’s (and a reader’s) best friend, but a thesaurus is only useful if it’s used in conjunction with the dictionary.

• A thesis is a claim that can be contested. A statement of fact does not make for a thesis (“this poem is eighteen lines long”), nor does an observation (“this poem is funny”): you need to suggest the significance of the fact or the observation (why is it eighteen lines long? why and how is it funny?)

This is not to be confused with effect. Check the dictionary.

This is a slippery and sometimes ambiguous word that can blur questions of causality. Consider this sentence: “As Oliver walked in the door, Linda swallowed the poison.” Did Linda take the poison at the moment that Oliver walked in the door, or did she take it because he walked in the door? The reader can’t tell, and while there are times in prose fiction or poetry when this uncertainty can have its devious uses, in a critical argument it’s a liability. I’ve noticed that students almost fanatically avoid “because” and can only suppose they do so to avoid making a firm commitment. This is a mistake. The essay as a genre is all about definite, defended assertions.

“Being” is a gerund and not an active verb, yet students often (and strangely) use it in essays as a verb (among other things), which they would never do in speech. Nobody would say “the baby being cute” for “the baby is cute.” 99% of the time “being” is a useless and troublesome word. It should not begin a sentence: “Being depressed, Hamlet talks to himself a good deal” should be “Because he is depressed, Hamlet talks to himself a good deal” or (if you don’t mean to posit a causal connection, but just want a description of how Hamlet does what he does) “Hamlet, depressed, talks to himself a good deal.”

dangling modifiers
Modifying phrases need to be clearly and directly attached to their subject. Those that aren’t can cause confusion (and are also sometimes inadvertently funny). Consider this sentence: “Wearing a flowery bonnet, Gwendolyn walked to the zoo to see the new elephant.” The first four words are a descriptive phrase modifying the word that follows the comma: Gwendolyn. Watch what happens if we move things around: “Gwendolyn walked to the zoo to see the new elephant, wearing a flowery bonnet.” Now it’s unclear whether perhaps the elephant is wearing the new bonnet, though readers can still probably guess the right meaning. But this is even worse: “To see the new elephant, wearing a flowery bonnet, Gwendolyn walked to the zoo.”

This is not to be confused with affect. Check the dictionary.

This verb is often employed in student essays in sentences like this: “The rhyming of ‘goat’ with ‘gloat’ enhances the meaning of the poem.” Note that this statement says nothing about the poem at all: it refers to “the meaning of the poem” without explaining or even hinting what that meaning is, and the verb “enhances” is a kind of accessory to the crime. Exactly what does “enhances” mean here? It’s entirely abstract so long as “the meaning of the poem” remains obscure. It also implies an improvement or adjustment of some kind, but without our knowing just what’s been improved and how, “enhanced” leaves us scratching our heads.

essence, essential, and essentially
One of the most common (and confusing) filler words is “essentially.” Consider the difference between saying “The woman is confused” and “The woman is essentially confused.” The former is a straightforward description of the woman’s state at a certain point in time, while the latter seems to suggest that the woman’s confusion is part of her essence, whatever that may mean. It is both presumptuous and extremely judgmental to make pronouncements about the “essences” of others (“he is essentially a stupid fellow” is even nastier than “he is a stupid fellow”). Such rhetorical gestures can become offensive to groups as well as to individuals: essentialism is the name we give to the assumption that, for example, “the essence of Chinese men” (which sounds like a weird perfume) is a given constant that can be talked about. Something that is “essential” is something that is not only important but necessary and integral, “of the essence.” Be very careful with these terms and concepts.

I and we
Can first-person pronouns be used in an academic essay? The answer to this question may vary depending on the instructor to whom it is posed, or the kind of course or essay at issue. For the purposes of essays in this course, a writer is free to refer to him- or herself. However, students should carefully consider whether and to what extent doing so is necessary, relevant, or useful. Don’t let a critical study of, say, a 19th-century novel turn into a personal statement about yourself because “I” is the subject of most sentences.

This word appears to be very popular these days with journalists, politicians, advertisers, and many others, but its use is frequently inane. Think about the difference between my saying “I watched to see what effect my words would have on her” and ““I watched to see what impact my words would have on her.” Both phrases are grammatically all right, but the second phrase implies a violence that’s not in the first (a meteorite striking the earth makes an impact). “Impactful” is not a word, though I’ve seen students write things like “the poem is highly impactful”: how can something be full of impact? “Impactive” is another non-word, and “impact” used as a verb is generally a lousy idea. Before you use “impact,” ask yourself: do I mean effect? (And see “effect,” above.)

This is not to be confused with infer. The text or speaker may imply, but it is the reader or listener who infers.

See “imply” above.

man and mankind
Shockingly, the majority of human beings are female. Referring to the species as “man” or “mankind” is woefully outdated and not recommended.

negative and positive
These are colourless, imprecise, and very potentially abstract terms. When a student writes “this poem is very negative,” I have far less idea of what she means than I do when I read “this poem is very sad” or “this poem is hostile to sunshine” or “this poem makes the reader uncomfortable,” because all of these latter statements are definite, specific. “Positive” and “negative” are good answers to questions that have only two objectively determinable answers (“Do I have that terrible disease, doctor?” “The test came back negative”), but they are poor descriptors of intellectually and emotionally complex matters and situations (if you ask me how I feel after my grandmother has exploded, I will not say “kind of negative”). You have a greater emotional range of experience and, within your reach, a richer and more precise vocabulary than are found in these sterile terms. Please note that the misuse of these words makes the instructor want to hurl heavy objects with great force from the top of a tall building.

passive voice
There is nothing grammatically wrong with the passive voice, and in fact there are several instances when it can be appropriate and even elegant, but in general it ought to be avoided in a critical argument because it can occlude your logic. “Tea was poured” (passive: tea, the subject, has had something done to it) does not tell us as much as “Lady Foggydew poured the tea” (active: Lady F is the subject of the action and tea is the object).

Sometimes when students don’t want to identify what kind of text they’re studying, they will casually refer to it as a “piece” (as in “this piece by Emily Dickinson”). Piece of what? “Piece” implies that the text is a fragment or part of some unknown whole. If you’re discussing a poem, call it a poem.

real and reality
As a general rule, you should never employ in an argument terms that you are unable to define. “Real” and “reality” are going to take a long time to define, and odds are stacked against you doing so to anybody’s satisfaction. When we write about made-up situations, like the story of Dr. Frankenstein and his creature, it doesn’t make a lot of sense to write things like “Frankenstein thought he was not responsible, but in reality he was,” because there is no “in reality.” It would be a little like saying, “in reality, Darth Vader is only about four feet tall.” What’s “real” is always a matter of philosophical debate and this debate is very probably entirely irrelevant to the essay you’re currently writing. Just avoid these terms. Again: use only terms that are relevant and that you can safely define.

This one scores really high on the ick scale. “Relate” can be a transitive verb (“she then related her sad story”) or an intransitive verb (“he is related to the farmer” or, more colloquially, “they were able to relate with what he was saying”). Note that the latter usage requires a preposition (to, with). A story might be “relatable,” in the sense that it can be told or passed on to others, but that might well be the only meaningful way to use this inelegant word. When someone says to you, “Man, I can really relate,” you should ask: “Relate what?”

“Therefore” means “it logically follows that.” It works in statements like “Oprah is on the cover of every issue of her magazine, O. Therefore we may suspect that she is somewhat conceited” but not in ones like “Oprah was born in Mississippi, and therefore we can see that the economic status of African-Americans in Mississippi is quite good.” Use this word (and its synonym “thus,” which has its own features and rules of usage) with care.

“This” can be used as a pronoun, but like all pronouns, it must have a clear antecedent. Your discussion can become needlessly uncertain or confusing if you rely on “this” as a pronoun too much and your reader has to ask himself “this what?” The problem is easily avoided: if “this” could refer to more than one subject, you might as well be explicit and write “this character” or “this dilemma” or “this sandwich” (or whatever). Note also that the pronoun “it” often presents similarly troublesome obscurity if its antecedent is unclear.

Matters can get pretty abstract when “through” is used too loosely. Take a couple of examples: “The author achieves this irony through the mirror.” “Through the screwdriver, the boy fixed the bicycle.” In both cases, “through” is the wrong word, and a more precise, more tangible term is needed. Study carefully the merits of “with,” “by means of,” and “using.”

“Throughout” is not a synonym for “in.” Consider the difference between these two situations: your doctor informs you that there is cancer in your body, or your doctor informs you that there is cancer throughout your body. One of these reports is much worse than the other. It makes no sense to say “the zeppelin crashes throughout the novel,” if in fact the zeppelin crashes only once in the novel, on page 236.

See “therefore” above.

Two cautions about this word. First, don’t refer to something as unique unless you are entirely certain that it is (if you say that the rhyme scheme that Shakespeare uses in his sonnets is unique, for example, you are wrong – just because you don’t yourself know of any other examples doesn’t mean that they don’t exist). Second, calling something “very unique” or “quite unique” is like calling someone “slightly dead” or “more or less pregnant.” Either it’s unique or it isn’t, and those supplementary adjectives don’t make you seem that much more discriminating or thoughtful – quite the contrary.

Say this out loud to someone: “I have to utilize the washroom.” If you can’t do this without snickering (even just to yourself), then you shouldn’t be employing the word “utilize” in essays, either, because both you and your reader know how utterly ridiculous it sounds. Yes, “utilize” has more syllables and letters than “use,” but that does not make it more impressive and writing “utilize” rather than “use” does not fill your sentence with more sophistication and meaning.

Invoking the second person (“you”) in a critical essay is seldom a useful or effective rhetorical strategy. It makes assumptions about the essay’s reader which may not be true, or at which the reader may balk. Just as the critical study is not focally about the author (see “I and we,” above), nor is it about the study’s reader. You can discuss the reader of (for example) the poem under study, but again take care in what assumptions or general assertions you make (ask yourself whether your statements are defensible in all relevant cases