Wednesday, May 02, 2007

Writing Tip: What's the Point?

It's the final week of the Spring Semester, and I'm marking essays. My students are given a choice of topics and 30 minutes to wax brilliant. I thought I'd address one of the common problems I see in this column.*

An essay should leave the reader with one strong impression. If he reads and then asks, "What's the point?", the essay has failed. If you know this, you'll find it much easier to put an essay together quickly. You needn't address every aspect of a topic or fill your essay with lots of inconsequential facts and anecdotes. You simply need to make a point.

Start by making a quick outline, either mentally or on paper. (Paper is better. Always.) Try for five paragraphs:

Par. 1. What's the point? Use this paragraph to introduce your topic and make a strong point about it. For example, if my topic is winter, I can make the point that winter is inhospitable to life. I can't just ramble on about winter in this paragraph. It needs to get to the point quickly.

Par. 2-4. These paragraphs should support my point. They should not give facts about winter that don't pertain to my point, nor should they ask lots of rhetorical questions or detail my childhood relationship with winter. Rather, each paragraph should look at one aspect of winter that supports my point.

Winter is inhospitable because it's too cold for most creatures. (Look at the way birds fly south and rodents hibernate.) Winter is inhospitable because nothing grows, so there is no natural food source. (This is why people have canned, dried, and salted food since time immemorial.) Winter is inhospitable because it's dark. (People fall into depression.)

Par.5. Here I make my point again, phrased slightly differently, and sum up my argument. I want readers to leave with a strong impression: WINTER IS INHOSPITABLE!

An essay with a clear point will feel solid and unified, and accomplish the purposes for which it was sent.

Incidentally, aren't you glad it's SPRING?

* It's my blog, so I'll call it a column if I want to :).

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Blogger Ted Gossard said...

Yes, Rachel, I sure am glad it's Spring!

Thanks for the good writing tips on writing essays!

8:31 p.m.  

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