Key Elements Of An Essay

Notice how each of these objects are objective correlatives for the writer’s family. Taken together, they create an essence image.

Quick: What essence image describes your family? Even if you have a non-traditional family–in fact, especially if you have a non-traditional family!–what image or objects represents your relationship?

Based on the image the writer uses, how would you describe her relationship with her family? Close? Warm? Intimate? Loving? Quiet? But think how much worse her essay would have been if she’d written: “I have a close, warm, intimate, loving, quiet relationship with my family.”

Terrible.

Instead, she describes an image of her family "huddled in front of the fireplace while drinking my brother’s hot cocoa and listening to the pitter patter of rain outside our window.” Three objects--fireplace, brother’s hot cocoa, sound of rain--and we get the whole picture of their relationship. We know all we need to know.

There’s another lesson here:

Principle #2: Engage the reader’s imagination using all five senses

This writer did. Did you notice?

  • Fireplace (feel)
  • Brother’s hot cocoa (taste, smell)
  • Pitter patter of rain (sound)
  • Biggest photograph (sight)

And there’s something else she did that’s really smart. Did you notice how clearly she set up the idea of the scrapbook at the beginning of the essay? Look at the last sentence of the second paragraph (bolded below):

Cutting the first photograph, I make sure to leave a quarter inch border. I then paste it onto a polka-dotted green paper with a glue stick. For a sophisticated touch, I use needle and thread to sew the papers together. Loads of snipping and pasting later, the clock reads three in the morning. I look down at the final product, a full spread of photographs and cut-out shapes. As usual, I feel an overwhelming sense of pride as I brush my fingers over the crisp papers and the glossy photographs. For me, the act of taking pieces of my life and putting them together on a page is my way of organizing remnants of my past to make something whole and complete.

The sentence in bold above is essentially her thesis. It explains the framework for the whole essay. She follows this sentence with:

This particular project is the most valuable scrapbook I have ever made: the scrapbook of my life.

Boom. Super clear. And we’re set-up for the rest of the essay. So here’s the third thing we can learn:

Principle #3: The set-up should be super clear

Even a personal statement can have a thesis. It’s important to remember that, though your ending can be somewhat ambiguous—something we’ll discuss more later—your set-up should give the reader a clear sense of where we’re headed. It doesn’t have to be obvious, and you can delay the thesis for a paragraph or two (as this writer does), but at some point in the first 100 words or so, we need to know we’re in good hands. We need to trust that this is going to be worth our time.

Principle #4: Show THEN Tell

Has your English teacher ever told you “Show, don’t tell?” That’s good advice, but for a college essay I believe it’s actually better to show THEN tell.

Why? Two reasons:

1.) Showing before telling gives your reader a chance to interpret the meaning of your images before you do. Why is this good? It provides a little suspense. Also, it engages the reader’s imagination. Take another look at the images in the second to last paragraph: my college diploma... a miniature map with numerous red stickers pinpointing locations all over the world... frames and borders without photographs... (Note that it's all "show.")

As we read, we wonder: what do all these objects mean? We have an idea, but we’re not certain. Then she TELLS us:

That second page is incomplete because I have no precise itinerary for my future. The red flags on the map represent the places I will travel to, possibly to teach English like I did in Cambodia or to do charity work with children like I did in Guatemala. As for the empty frames, I hope to fill them with the people I will meet: a family of my own and the families I desire to help, through a career I have yet to decide.

Ah. Now we get it. She’s connected the dots.

2.) Showing then telling gives you an opportunity to set-up your essay for what I believe to be the single most important element to any personal statement: insight.

Principle #5: Provide insight

What is insight? In simple terms, it’s a deeper intuitive understanding of a person or thing.

But here’s a more useful definition for your college essay: Insight is something that you’ve noticed about the world that others may have missed. Insight answers the question: So what? It's proof that you’re a close observer of the world. That you’re sensitive to details. That you’re smart.

And the author of this essay doesn’t just give insight at the end of her essay, she does it at the beginning too: she begins with a description of herself creating a scrapbook (show), then follows this with a clear explanation for why she has just described this (tell).

Final note: it’s important to use insight judiciously. Not throughout your whole essay; a couple times will do.

So what can you steal from this for your essay?

  • Principle #1: Use objects and images instead of adjectives
  • Principle #2: Engage the reader’s imagination using all five senses
  • Principle #3: The set-up should be super clear
  • Principle #4: Show THEN Tell
  • Principle #5: Provide insight

The Elements of a Good Essay

 

Introduction: For a five-page essay, this element should be kept to a minimum! Please do not write a “funnel introduction”; we do not have the space to waste on generalities. Think of the introduction merely as a way to launch elegantly into your thesis statement. It can help to look at your motive for the paper (see below) as a means to this end.

 

Thesis: This is the key insight that you intend to convey. A thesis should lay out an argument and set the stage for the exploration that will follow. An example: “Demodocus’s song and Odysseus’s response bring to the fore distinctions between personal memory and public memory, or history.”

 

Motive: There should be something in your essay that offers a challenge: frames an ambiguity, explores a difficulty, asks a question. The motive provides the answer to the question, “Why bother writing this essay?” Note that this means that the question your essay explores should not have an obvious answer. A good motive surprises us with something we had not thought of before. General examples of good motives include:

 

-The truth is different from what one would expect on first reading.

-There is an interesting complexity or ambiguity that has gone unnoticed.

-A standard reading of a work needs challenging.

-The text is especially hard to make sense of, and its logical argument needs sorting out.

-A question presents itself in the text to which there may be a hidden answer.

-Something that seems minor in the text actually turns out to be very important.

 

Key Terms: Every coherent argument rests on a few recurring key terms, oppositions, and distinctions. Make sure that your reader can figure out what they are, and make sure that you have chosen the right words to indicate them.

 

Body Paragraphs: These should consist of (1) a claim, (2) evidence, and (3) an analysis of your evidence. See also the next two elements for further remarks on how body paragraphs should progress.

 

Complication or Development: A strong essay makes various turns and divides into sub-topics. It should also gain complexity as it progresses. This process can be helped immensely by revision. Look at your own thoughts and see how you can add another level to them, what new questions your own comments raise. Then include that new level in your revised essay by answering some of your own questions. Development (or the lack thereof) often registers in the transitions between paragraphs: pay special attention to these.

 

Implication or Significance: One important type of complication is to draw out or briefly speculate upon the broader significance of what you have been arguing—the implication of your analysis of a given text for the author’s works in general, or for the genre, or for the period.   Such reflections can often make a strong conclusion.

 

Conclusion: This does not need to repeat your thesis, although it is a good idea for the conclusion to remind your reader of the overall themes of your essay by establishing the broader implications of your thesis. Take things one step beyond the work you have been dealing with, but make sure not to go too far astray, or to generalize too much. You want to be suggestive, not confusing or clichéd.

 

 

Do visit the Yale College Writing Center Website

“Diary Writing” is licensed under CC BY 2.0

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