Student Series: Keys to Writing a Phenomenal A+ English Paper
Welcome to the Student Series! The Student Series is designed to advise current or future students on all aspects of post-secondary life, from how to live healthily, to how to connect with your school and peers, to how to write a phenomenal paper. I consider myself somewhat of an expert on this topic; I was a university student for six years, and for two of those years I was a paid teaching assistant who graded all manner of assignments and exams. I have a Bachelor of Arts (Honours) Degree in English Language and Literature and World Language Studies from Queen’s University, and I have a Master’s of English and Creative Writing from the University of Toronto. I have been the recipient of the Queen’s Excellence Scholarship, the Maureen Morgan English Scholarship, and the Avie Bennett Emerging Writer’s Award. I hope that gives you a little insight (and some confidence) into my qualifications to write on such subjects.
Now that you’ve learned a little about me and why I’m here, let’s move on to the topic at hand…
Keys to Writing a Phenomenal A+ University English Paper
The introduction is easily the most important part of an essay. The introduction sets up your entire project and most professors will tell you they have a good idea of the grade they will assign from that beginning paragraph alone. As a teaching assistant who has graded hundreds of papers, I have to agree. Having a clean, clear, specific, and informative introduction not only gets your paper going on the right foot but also gives the reader an indication of both the direction and quality of the following paragraphs.
Think of your introduction as a map. You are giving your reader the general route your essay will take. All of the major points you will make in your essay should be mentioned in your introduction. In high school, we are sometimes taught to start our introduction with a “hook” – an interesting sentence, perhaps a relevant quotation or statistic, that grabs the reader’s interest and “hooks” them into reading the rest. By the time you get to university, however, you will find that most professors aren’t interested in these kinds of flourishes – they want clarity and concision. You’d do better to begin straightaway with your topic. For example, in my fourth year of university, I wrote an A+ paper entitled “Balancing Act: Power in Both the Male and Female Gazes in John Keats’ ‘On The Eve of St Agnes’." The thrust of that paper was that the poem’s central theme was that of the gaze, and that in this way the poem upsets normal balances of power as the two main characters observe each other in different ways. My first sentence? “John Keats’ poem ‘On the Eve of St Agnes’ is preoccupied with secret gazing in the night.” There is no “hook” here, just a clear opening into the topic at hand.
The rest of your introduction should follow just as clear and direct a path. List your main points or arguments without circuitousness or flowery language. Your introduction should funnel down from the broad first sentence, narrowing into the specific points you will later expand upon, ending with a rich and detailed thesis statement.
Your thesis is the main argument of your essay, and it is boiled down to its most essential parts in your introduction’s thesis statement. The thesis statement contains the entire essay’s argument in a small, brilliantly wrapped up package. For example, here is my Keats essay’s thesis:
“Despite the fact that there appears to be an unbalanced system of power in favour of Porphyro’s dominating male gaze, the tradition of the St Agnes’ Eve vision has actually allowed Madeline her own form of secret access to Porphyro; she is not the victimized the object of the male gaze but rather engages with it, performing her own version by seeking out Porphyro within her own mind.”
This sentence is the last sentence of my introductory paragraph and it ties up all the previous points into a succinct argument. Another thing to remember is that a strong thesis MUST be controversial – this is paramount. Someone must be able to argue AGAINST your thesis. If your thesis cannot be argued against, if it is too obvious or elementary, you will not be as successful as you may wish to be with your paper. You are arguing for a position, not arguing a fact. A thesis stating that the sky is blue is not a strong thesis.
Your Body Paragraphs
The body of your essay elucidates the points made in your introduction. A good introduction lays out the plans for the project as a whole, and a good body follows those plans closely. In general, the body of your essay should proceed in the order laid out in your introduction. For example, if in your introduction you state that you will examine A, B, and C, don’t go on to analyze C, B, then A. Everything you do should facilitate easy, comfortable reading. If your professor knows what to expect and knows how to follow your writing, they will be much more favourably inclined towards your paper as a whole.
Another thing we are sometimes taught in high school that is not necessarily applicable in university is the idea of the five paragraph essay: introduction, body 1, body 2, body 3, conclusion. Once you get to university you should be moving beyond this format. This format does not allow for the kind of detailed, in depth analysis and explanation you need to be doing. You main points of argument will likely require multiple paragraphs within them to be fully communicated. For example, instead of the five paragraph structure, you may have something like this:
Point 1: Paragraph 1
Point 1: Paragraph 2
Point 1: Paragraph 3
Point 2:Paragraph 1
Point 2: Paragraph 2
Point 2: Paragraph 3
Point 2: Paragraph 4
You can have two main points you elaborate on in your essay, or you can have three, or four, or more, depending on the length of the paper (most university English papers will have somewhere between two and four.) You don’t need to be constrained by specific formulas you’ve been taught to follow in the past. As long as your essay moves competently and comfortably through a strong, organized argument, you will be successful.
You conclusion should nicely tie together your entire essay. Here, you recap what you’ve written, and forcefully reiterate your thesis. Interestingly, most students write far stronger conclusions than they do introductions. I have had more than one professor suggest that, once you’ve written your conclusion, you should move it up and use it as your introduction, then write a new conclusion. Throughout my time grading papers I have seen a number of students who could have benefitted from this technique. By the time you’re finished enough of your essay to write your conclusion, your argument and writing is usually much clearer than it was when you first started.
Some other things to remember for a strong conclusion: a conclusion is not the place to introduce new information or use extensive quotations. It should simply be a summary and reiteration of everything you have just said, in your own words.
Other Essay-Writing Tips
Avoid the passive voice.
Avoiding the passive voice is key in most academic writing. While the passive voice is perfectly acceptable in less formal writing and creative writing, academic writing demands the active voice. An example to learn the difference:
The active voice is needed to write a strong essay.
A strong essay needs the active voice.
Follow the necessary style guides.
If you’re writing an essay in MLA format, follow it. If you’re writing an essay in APA format, follow that instead. Find out what your professor requires and follow those guidelines carefully – they will instruct you on everything from quotation integration to proper citations. A quick note – English papers are almost always written in MLA format.
Be original. Be BOLD.
As aforementioned, a strong essay requires a thesis that is unique and controversial. Your essay should pursue an idea that is new, interesting, and worth looking at. If it has been dissected dozens of times by other writers, perhaps you need to find a new topic, or at least a very fresh approach.
Cut everything unnecessary.
The key to strong, convincing language is to use as little of it as possible. Don’t bog your work down with unnecessary words. You may think that flowery language or wordiness reads impressively, but it doesn’t. I once had a professor tell the class that “your sentences should only be as complicated as your thoughts.” (He then went on to say that, as grad students, our thoughts should be very, very complicated, which of course confused everyone in the room!) In general, though, just remember that there’s a difference between complicated and convoluted. If you can convey a very complicated idea or argument in clear, readable language, you will have written a very strong paper.
Avoid pointless phrases.
This point ties into the one above regarding cutting unnecessary words and phrases. One good example of this is using “in conclusion” at the beginning of your concluding paragraph. This phrase is pointless, we know you’ve reached your conclusion, you don’t need to tell us! Things like this only muddy your writing and keep you from being as straight to the point as possible.
Academic writing is extremely formal, far more formal than, for example, this piece you’re reading now. Avoid (at least in general) using personal pronouns, colloquialisms, excessive abbreviations or contractions, exclamation marks, and any other informal linguistic quirks you may be prone to.