Elements of a Good Essay

Author: Yale College Writing Center

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.

 

 

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