Asheville Latin Seminars Writing Guide

 

            Below is an eclectic—and eccentric—guide to writing the essay. Some of this information is common to any grammar or writing guide. Some points I have swiped from other writers. (I do give them credit). A few ideas come from my own experience with writing. If put into practice, these points should make you a stronger essayist.

 

            I have divided this information into six parts: mechanics, topic and thesis, organization, style, grammar and syntax, and editing.

 

            Mechanics

            Mechanics refers to the physical structure of the essay. For my classes—other professors and editors will demand their own design—please do the following:

  • Use a Times New Roman font and a font size of 12.

  • In the upper right corner of your paper, put the name of the class, the class day, and the date.

  • On the first page, scroll 1/3 of the way down before writing. All other pages begin at the top of the page.

  • If you have titled the essay, use the same font and print size as in the rest of the paper.

  • Indent paragraphs 4—6 spaces.

  • Double-space your work. (This means double-spacing the lines).

  • Do not skip spaces between paragraphs.

  • Put your name at the end of the work. Unless instructed otherwise, use the pseudonym assigned in class. This placement and deception allows me to read your paper objectively.

 

Topic and Thesis

  • Understand the prompt before you begin your essay. Whether answering a question in class or a prompt on an AP examination, always read the prompt twice to understand the meaning. You may write like an angel, but if you fail to answer the question, you will find your halo dented and your wings clipped.

  • Create a thesis. This is vital. Your thesis—what you intend to prove or disprove—will guide you and the reader through the essay. This thesis will probably come near the end of the first paragraph and should make the reader say: “Prove it.”

 

Here is a sample prompt: “In the movie Gladiator, the Roman general Maximus says to his troops: ‘What we do in life echoes in eternity.’ In a well-written essay, agree or disagree with the general’s statement.”

 

Read this prompt twice. Decide whether you agree with the general’s statement. Assuming that you agree with him, you must somewhere in the first paragraph tell the reader of your agreement. THIS IS YOUR THESIS.

  • On paper, sketch out an outline with points supporting your thesis. Depending     on the time available to you, this outline may be short and simple, or much more complex. Typically, your essay will feature an opening paragraph that grabs the reader’s attention (called “a hook”), followed by the supporting paragraphs of the body, with each paragraph containing a topic sentence. The concluding paragraph should restate the thesis in different words and should also carry the reader a little beyond the original thesis.

  • Here is a sample of a moderately long outline:

  • Introduction

  • Maximus quotation

  • Many people live as if their decisions counted for little.

  • THESIS: Despite those pop-philosophers who believe that “all we are is dust in the wind,” Maximus is correct. Our decisions do matter and affect our lives and the lives of countless others.

  • First paragraph of body: topic sentence: Major decisions have long-term effects. Supporting evidence: decision to have a family/Lee’s battlefield actions at Gettysburg/ my father’s decision to move to Boonville, NC, when I was five.

  • Second paragraph: Even trivial decisions and actions affect others. Supporting evidence/the importance of small purchases for corporations/ramifications of money given to a homeless woman for cigarettes/Jack trading a milking cow for a handful of beans

  • Third paragraph of body: Some faiths and philosophies support the idea of eternity and personal actions. Evidence: Greco-Roman beliefs/Christian beliefs

  • Conclusion: reiterate the thesis and then carry the reader a step beyond the original argument. Example of the last sentence of this essay: “If we believe that ‘what we do in life echoes in eternity,’ then we may regard our own decisions more carefully and become aware of their consequences.”

Style

            Below are some guidelines that will strengthen your writing.

 

  • Generally avoid the use of “you” in essays. Too often “you” sounds as if the writer is commanding, or preaching to, the reader, as in “Hawthorne will confuse you in the third paragraph.” Use “you” when writing guidelines such as this one, but for now avoid its usage in your essays.

  • Avoid using “I feel” or “I think.” Your name is on the essay; the reader knows what you feel or think. In addition, these words weaken your arguments. Compare these two statements: “I think Chapel Hill will win the ACC” and “Chapel Hill will win the ACC.” Indeed, in most academic essays, it’s best to avoid “I” altogether. Use “I” sparingly in personal essays.

  • Try to avoid repeating the same word too often on a page, unless the word is germane to the topic.

  • Refer to authors and historical figures by their last names. With the exception of a first citation, Jane Austen should be cited as “Austen,” not “Jane,” just as “George Washington” should not be called “George.”

  • Select the right word. Choose words with care. (This is best done during the editing stage). To paraphrase Mark Twain, the difference between the right word and the wrong word is the difference between lightning and the lightning bug.

  • Use the delete key. Isaac Bashevis Singer once wrote, “The wastepaper basket is the writer’s best friend.” Make the delete key your friend. Put the trash in the trash.

  • Use active voice. “Auntie Em wore a black dress in the rain” is more direct and powerful than “A black dress was worn by Auntie Em in the rain.” (Note: in the passive voice, the subject doesn’t perform the action).

 

Grammar and Syntax

            Grammar, syntax, which is the arrangement of words in a sentence, and spelling are important. They tell the reader that you are a worthy guide. The guidelines cited below from Strunk and White’s Elements of Style offer an excellent springboard for composition.

 

Strunk and White Guidelines:

  • Form the possessive singular of nouns by adding ’s.

  • In a series of three or more terms with a single conjunction, use a comma after each term except the last.

  • Enclose parenthetic expressions between commas.

  • Place a comma before a conjunction introducing an independent clause.

  • Do not join independent clauses by a comma. (In class, we call this ‘comma splicing.’)

  • Do not break sentences in two. (Sentence fragments/incomplete sentences)

  • Use a colon after an independent clause to introduce a list of particulars, an appositive, amplification, or an illustrative quotation.

  • Use a dash to set off an abrupt break or an interruption, and to announce a long appositive or summary.

  • The number of the subject determines the number of the verb.

  • Use the proper case of pronoun.

  • A participial phrase at the beginning of a sentence must refer to a grammatical object.

  • Choose a suitable design and hold to it.

  • Make the paragraph the unit of composition.

  • Use the active voice.

  • Put statements in a positive form.

  • Use definite, specific, concrete language.

  • Omit needless words.

  • Avoid a succession of loose sentences.

  • Keep coordinate ideas in similar forms. (Parallel construction)

  • Keep related words together.

  • In summaries, keep to one tense.

  • Place the emphatic words of a sentence at the end.

 

In addition, try these tips.

  • Strong verbs and strong nouns add muscle and bone to your sentences.

  • Avoid ending sentences with weak words like “it” or with prepositions (when possible). These weaken your sentences. (See above).

  • Mix up your sentences, some long, some short, some simple, some compound. Too many short sentences give your prose a choppy effect. Write too many long sentences, and the reader may flounder while looking for your meaning.

 

Editing

            You have finished your essay. Before printing the final copy, take the following steps:

  • Read your essay. Did you follow the rules of mechanics? Do you have a thesis? Do your paragraphs have topic sentences? Is the paper organized? Are you missing words?

  • Now read the essay aloud. Reading aloud slows you down, allowing you to pay closer attention to your work.

  • Have someone else read the essay for errors.

  • Print the essay and read it again.

  • If necessary, make more corrections and then print the essay a final time.

  • If you are writing the essay by hand—these instructions do not include the 40-minute AP essays—you need to submit a copy that is 1) legible; 2) composed with few scratched out words; and 3) submitted on notebook paper that is neither torn nor wrinkled.

 

Special Notes for AP Students

            Here are a few important observations taken from “What AP Graders Really Want to See,” a paper aimed primarily at AP English Literature students.

  • Don’t use plot summary in your response. “Summary is death.”

  • Evidence, evidence, evidence!

  • Avoid long, flowery introductions on a 40-minute essay. Stick to a few sentences and get to your thesis.

  • Be critical and analytical.

  • Use a black pen. (M suggestion: use thin or medium point rather than heavy gel pens. The former makes your writing look neater).

  • Address the prompt. If you don’t address the prompt, you can kiss your score goodbye.

  • Try not to be too controversial, politically speaking.

  • “We don’t care about your love life, your opinions on Iraq or the US government, your ex-boyfriend or girlfriend, how you’re having a bad hair day, your unreasonable parents, or your lousy AP teacher…write about the literature.”

  • Avoid expressions like “in today’s society” and “paints a picture.”

 

Additions by Mr. Minick:

  • Don’t use obvious examples from history. Use someone, for example, besides Adolf Hitler as an example of evil.

  • Watch the clock. Write your starting time above the question in the prompt book.

  • If you finish early, take a brief break and then begin editing your work Do not waste your time drawing pictures in the prompt book, daydreaming, or napping.

  • Read some engaging piece of literature or some essay before coming to the test.