Essay Writing Tips

Political theory, as a type and tradition of analysis, requires reading and writing skills.  As a student of political theory, you will need to read source material, consider ideas, and write both synthetic description and creative opinion.  There is no specific form for doing this, but in college-level political theory classes you will often be asked to respond to essay assignments of 4-10 pages.

The following are a set of evolving pointers for writing this kind of persuasive essay, informed by my work as a Teaching Assistant in political theory and urban studies.  I hope this is helpful.

Essay Writing Tips:

1. General

Plagiarism:  It seems impossible, but I still catch, on average, 2 students per quarter plagiarizing.  I realize that the material covered is often difficult and readings may be time consuming, but this is college, you are an adult, and you (or someone close to you) are paying a significant sum of money to have this privilege, please don’t cheapen it for yourself.  It sounds trite, but in the end you’re only cheating yourself.

At the same time, you are also taking an enormous risk with serious academic consequences, not only for your grade in this class, but for your career in college and potentially beyond.  Be smart, plan ahead, and if you’re confused come see the professor or teaching assistants.

Again, plagiarism is a big deal and a huge risk, and it wastes the time of everyone involved.  Just don’t!

Special Requests:  I am more upset with a wasted sheet of paper than I am with an essay which is half a paragraph too long or short.  Please don’t waste!  If you have one reference, include it in your footnotes with a full citation or place it directly at the end of your essay, it doesn’t need an entire wasted page for one line of text.  The same goes for cover pages and huge headers or other aesthetic efforts.  Put your name and question number you’re responding to in the header, put a title on, and get to it.

Most of the people grading your papers have been college students of some sort for around a decade at least, we know how to waste space, we can tell when margins are too big or small, and we notice font sizes.  You’re better off editing for space or just leaving it as is.

Final warning: I search on Wikipedia and other big online sources and read them before I grade.  You would be surprised how easy it is to tell who is working from the primary text and who is working from SparkNotes or the scattered essays all over the internet.   Don’t waste time, read the original document!

2. Essay Structure

The intro paragraph:  Consistently, in my experience, the most problematic part of college-level essays is the first paragraph.  This is the space for you to address the prompt, set out a clear thesis, and, very briefly, to lay out the structure of your argument (i.e. tell me how you will prove your thesis, usually ordered by the themes of your following support paragraphs).  This is not the place for summaries or support; you want to get to your point as clearly as possible, and begin your support paragraphs, where detail, citations, and analysis are needed to support your point.  Don’t start defending your theory here, it makes for clutter and repetition.

There is no need to open an essay with sweeping, overgeneral language.  Focus on the problem presented in the prompt–there is no need to tell me how the dinosaurs went extinct because they couldn’t sort out the public/private distinction.  Avoid using ‘never’ and ‘always’, for the same reason.  Chances are that there is someone that disagrees with that sort of unconditional statement, and that it is probably unnecessary for your point in any case.

You cannot get an A without a thesis!  Many times, it will be hard for you to get under a B with one!  This is the single most important part of your essay.  Without it, the grader has no criteria by which to grade a persuasive essay.  Without a thesis, you are not writing an essay, you are likely making a summary of sorts.  Take the time, make sure this is clear and obvious.

If your thesis changes in the course of writing your paper, go back and change your thesis!  I often do this in my writing, where I will write and realize that I’ve really been trying to write about something else entirely.  It’s not important that you finish with what you started with, but rather that what you write at the beginning matches your conclusion.  Coherence is much more important.

Long paragraphs: If you find that you are writing paragraphs that are over a page long, chances are you have multiple points or you are summarizing.  If you have multiple points, you need to break up the paragraph and support each with text.  If it’s not important enough to cite, don’t include it, you are likely cluttering your writing.  The same goes for summaries.  If you find yourself writing over a page trying to describe a single point this should signal to you that you need to cut the fat and be more efficient with your language.  Likely the grader has read the source you are describing, you do not need to summarize the plot in its entirety.

Quotes: Quotes cannot be on their own in a sentence.  You need to be doing the analysis, supported by the quote, not the other way around.  This means including some sort of introduction or interpretation in the same sentence.  The reader will not make the argument for you.  If you find yourself writing paragraphs that are more quote than analysis this should signal to you that you need to cut down your quotes into the part that matters or extend the commentary to make sure your voice doesn’t get lost.  Be specific about where it is your opinion and where the author’s.  This can create a lot of confusion.

Don’t attempt to cite random passages or try to use quotes as a summary.  The point of the citation is to back up part of your argument, you should only cite when you feel you need to prove something, not as a background filler.

3. Writing Tips:

Define Terms: It sounds simple, but if you define your terms you avoid a lot of confusion.  Political theory is obsessed with language, which requires students to be direct, careful, and explanatory.  Laying out what you specifically mean by a term is invaluable, in this regard.

Anachronism: This just means ‘out of time’.  Essentially, it means you cannot use a term which did not exist in the historical epoch to describe the actions taken in that time.  This sounds confusing, but think of it like: you cannot call Louis XIV a Nazi.  This doesn’t make any sense, since Nazis didn’t exist.  You could make an argument that National Socialism and Absolutism were similar in certain ways, but applying the category of Nazi to someone centuries before the concepts of Nationalism or Socialism existed doesn’t make sense.

Edit! Honestly, this is so critical and people don’t do it.  Give yourself one extra day before the due date to look over your paper, read it aloud, or have a peer review it.  By eliminating small errors like grammatical mistakes or confusing language your essay gets much, much better and so much clearer.

If you aren’t sure about something, don’t waste the time trying to trick the TA into thinking you understand it.  Either look it up or leave it out.  Otherwise one of two things happens: 1. You’re overly cautious about something obvious; 2. you’re too confident about something obviously controversial.  Both make it obvious you haven’t read.

Conclusion: Finish as strong as you started.  Summarize how your support proved your thesis, and conclude by repeating your point (thesis).