BY JODY HAGAMAN AND JENNI STAHLMANN
It doesn’t matter if they have to write a rhetorical analysis of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s famous “I Have a Dream Speech” or an exposition on the causes of the French Revolution or a defense of gun control, this one simple template can set your student on the path to writing a winning essay every time.
But first, let’s clear something up. An essay is not a report. A report simply gives the facts. A book report would include the book’s title, it’s author, a description of the main characters and a brief outline of the plot. That’s a report. An essay always makes an assertion or draws a conclusion. An essay bears the fingerprint of its author — it offers a glimpse into the mind of the writer.
Students often make a mistake in understanding this distinction. When asked to write an essay answering the question “Who is Jonathan Swift?” many students will submit a biographical report in lieu of an essay. They will likely tell you about when and where he was born. Perhaps they will include information about his childhood, his education, his career, and his personal life. They are likely to talk about the writings that made him famous, but all of this adds up to a report, not an essay.
When an essay question asks a student to define something or someone, for example, it is asking the student to think critically about that which characterizes the person or thing — it’s nature or essence. A true essayist would approach our sample question above by taking a stance and then backing it up with evidence. In the case of Jonathan Swift, a student might say that he was the father of satire, a master expositor, wildly hilarious and cunningly critical of the political and philosophical ecosystem of his day. In the course of defending this definition of Swift, the student would need to include biographical and historical information, but only as it supports this definition.
Every essay must open with an introduction. The first line of the introduction is what we call the opening hook. It’s job is two-fold: to hook the reader, enticing him or her to keep reading, and to set the tone of the essay. If the hook is outrageous and humorous and startling, the rest of the essay should also be lively and creative. If the hook has a strong academic tone, the rest of the paper should follow. A hook makes a promise of what to expect, and the paper must deliver.
Following the hook, the introduction should include pertinent background information and perhaps define some important terms. If an essay question asks a student to contrast (find the differences between) the Jamestown and Plymouth settlements, the introduction is a perfect place to talk about the very different motivations and goals for these two communities. The writer may want to also define the term “separatist” or distinguish between the two very different geographical locations. The type of information included in the introduction will be determined by the assertion that the paper is making. The background information or definitions the writer chooses will set the stage for the coming thesis statement.
The thesis statement is the exclamation point at the end of the introduction. It has two jobs to do. First, it must directly answer the essay question. Next, it outlines the body of the paper. A thesis statement is a single assertion that provides a direct answer to the essay question and offers a list of supporting points. Most papers will require at least three points to support the assertion. These three points are summarized in the thesis statement and listed in the order in which they will be discussed in the paper.
For example, if an essay question said, “Discuss the different natural resources that made North America appealing to settlers from foreign lands,” a potential thesis statement might be, “There were many natural resources that made North America appealing to settlers from foreign lands, but the vast forests of timber, fertile soil, and the planet’s largest seams of gold were three of the most prominent.” In this essay, the three body paragraphs would follow the outline laid out in the thesis statement. First the body of the essay would tackle the vast forests of timber, then it would examine North America’s fertile soil and why that was appealing to settlers, and last it would discuss how the seams of gold contributed to immigration in North America.
While the body of an essay follows the outline laid out in the thesis statement, each point has a structure of its own. First, a new point must start off with some sort of transition that creates a smooth shift from either the introduction or a previous body point. Next, it must have a topic sentence — a single statement that summarizes the point — followed by data to support it. Data can include expert opinions, research findings, examples from literature that demonstrate the point, facts, historical information, etc.
Once the student has offered supporting data, it’s time to put their fingerprint on the essay in the form of commentary or interpretation. Without this, the work is not their own; it’s simply a compilation of the ideas and opinions of others. Every body point in every essay should include some of the student’s own thoughts and interpretations of the data and how the data supports the point (and ultimately, how the argument supports the thesis).
When one point has been presented, backed by data and interpreted by the student, it’s time to transition to the next point. Many teachers and articles will say that students should move from the strongest argument to the weakest, but we believe that whenever possible, every point should be equally strong.
Just as the introduction ended with the thesis statement, the conclusion begins with a rewording of the thesis statement. Rewording means using entirely different words to convey the same idea.
Here is an example thesis statement: Perhaps the greatest testament of the strength of the human spirit can be seen in its ability to overcome great obstacles, and nowhere is this more vividly illustrated than in the annals of literature through survival stories such as The Island of the Blue Dolphins, Hatchet, and The Martian. To kick off the conclusion you could reword that thesis like this: Survival stories such as The Island of the Blue Dolphins, Hatchet, and The Martian are a testament of the strength of the human spirit as seen in its ability to overcome great obstacles.
Once you have reworded the thesis, it’s often appropriate to circle back and take the reader on a brief tour of where you have been by summarizing the key points and reminding the reader of the great conclusion that you have drawn in the course of the essay. A conclusion might also give a wider context, discussing the implications of the writer’s findings for the reader, society, or the future.
To end the conclusion (and the essay), the writer should use what we call a closing clincher. It’s a final thought that either presents a call to action, asking the reader to respond to what they have read in some practical way or offers a new or inspiring thought to ponder.
Regardless of whether it’s a five paragraph essay or a ten page research project, this template can help students write a winning paper every time. It’s scaleable in many ways, allowing for any length paper but also relevant for any student from middle school through graduate school.
Jenni and Jody are Mr. D Live teachers who teach a self-paced Advanced Writing Course and Study Skills Course.