Writing Strategies

Key Terms in Writing   -  Kinds of Essays

All of the below-mentioned kinds of essays require the following elements: 


The writing process begins when you first open your class text and start reading and ends when you turn in the very final draft. Often the process can be broken down into parts: pre-writing, drafting, revision (which includes editing). The writing process, however, is much more recursive and complicated than the parts suggest. For instance, pre-writing, despite its name, includes reading; revision (re-seeing your ideas) happens throughout the writing process, and so on. It's important to understand your writing process. Oftentimes the weaknesses in an essay are caused by problems in the writer's writing process: usually writers move too quickly to the drafting stage and do not revise their work, substituting small editorial changes for revision. 


Key terms are words or phrases which mark important concepts. To some extent a key term names important concepts. All discourse communities have their key terms; all essays also have key terms. In an essay, key terms act like the main characters of a story, and like a story, a writer should not change the characters name without clearly describing the alteration. In an essay, too, key terms are the scaffolding of the essay's argument; without them, the essay will not be clear. In all contexts, it's important that you define your key terms because their meanings aren't always clear. 


Exploratory Writing is any writing that you do prior to the final draft, such as free writing, journal writing, note taking, brain storming, outlines, web making, in-class writing, "response" pieces, summaries, etc.. The best exploratory writing forces the writer to return to the primary text and re-see it. The goal of exploratory writing is, of course, exploration, and in the best exploratory writing, the writer must refuse to close off any avenue of investigation. 


A topic tells the reader what an essay is about. A topic must be declared in the title and/or opening paragraph. Often students confuse a thesis for a topic. 

TIP: Successful writers choose a topic early and think about it hard before putting "pen to paper." 
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Your thesis is the main and controlling idea of an essay which is both arguable and specific. [Note that your thesis can be more than one sentence.]  Arguable means that the idea can be discussed and debated. To test whether your idea is arguable, ask yourself if more than half the class would disagree with your thesis. If yes, then your idea is arguable. If your thesis is specific, this means that your thesis is text specific. In other words, if you can apply your thesis to many texts, your main idea is not specific enough. A thesis usually tells the reader how the evidence works or why the evidence is interesting. A thesis is declared in either the opening or closing paragraphs. In some essays, like a personal essay, the thesis is not stated; rather it is implied via an anecdote, an image, or metaphor. Most often, you do not know what your thesis will be until you've written a few drafts, and even then, your thesis is still developing. This developing thesis is called a working thesis. Other words for a thesis are conclusion, hypothesis, claim, main idea and promise. 

TIP: Your thesis is your main point. 



The ideas which develop out of and from your thesis and the evidence which backs up or "talks" to these ideas compose your argument.   These supporting ideas and evidence may also be called premises or points. The body of your essay contains the essay's argument. The body of an essay does not merely show or demonstrate evidence of a thesis; rather an essay breaks down a thesis into its component parts and/or expands upon a thesis. In addition, the body of an essay connects these ideas. Depending upon the kind of essay required, the argument format (or goals) change (see description of Kinds of Essays below). Make sure for instance that you know whether you need to write an inductive or deductive argument: deductive arguments prove; whereas inductive arguments persuade. In all essays, the argument develops (moves, progresses), and the conclusion of the essay does not merely repeat the thesis. Given the argument, the final paragraph must, because of the break down and/or expansion of the thesis, offer something new to the reader. The key to writing arguments, however, is the connections made between ideas and their evidence. Many writers merely list ideas and their evidence, rather than linking one to the next. In such essays, the order of the ideas or premises has no logical relationship. This is a problem if your goal is either to prove or to persuade. In most cases, you should try to avoid the classic high school, or five paragraph essay: opening paragraph that states a thesis, three paragraphs that offer evidence for the thesis, and a conclusion that repeats the thesis. This is a one idea essay, and it's too simplistic. College-level arguments include more than one idea. 

TIP: Your argument is your claim, what proves your thesis. You want to try to avoid ambiguity and trivial, irrelevant, or extravagant claims.
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All arguments include evidence. The type of evidence required (statistical data, graphs, empirical data, paraphrased textual evidence, quotations, analogies, anecdotes, etc.) is determined by the thesis, but all evidence requires introduction (a brief discussion on how the quotation fits into its original context and what the context is), summary (a brief discussion of what the quotation means; if the meaning is self evident, then a paraphrase will suffice), and interpretation (why you find the quotation interesting and how it links to your argument). All evidence must include source notes! Additionally, all evidence must be woven into your text -- and must make grammatical sense. All essays require that you introduce problematic evidence. Ideas in your essay develop from evidence, not vice-versa, and your argument overall will change as evidence is discovered and understood. Without strong evidence an essay turns into an opinion piece rather than a well structured argument. Evidence requires two links: when you introduce your evidence, you create a link in and to your evidence, and when you interpret the quotation, you create a link out and back to your argument. Evidence is much more effective when you weave it into your essay, rather than just "plopping" it into your essay without the proper links. 

TIP: Your evidence or data is what supports your argument, so that it does not sound like you are making ungrounded claims. Don't just make assertions without backing them up: if you present the evidence that led you to form your point of view, then your reader will not be as quick to dismiss your interpretation. Use evidence to support, refine, or extend your argument. 


Most essays must push their theses and arguments to their implication(s). This means asking the "so what?" question or to consider what's at stake, or what is lost or gained given the thesis and argument.


Kinds of Essays

A SUMMARY explains what a text is about (not what the plot is, but what the argument is). The thesis of a summary answers a what question, and the body of a summary demonstrates or shows the thesis. A summary is a kind of essay, but the essays listed below include summary in them. 

A CRITIQUE explains not only what a text is about (summary), but focuses on how the text works. The thesis of a critique answers both a what and how question, and the body of a critique first demonstrates the what, then analyzes the how. The critique's goal is to analyze the text's integrity: how does the text work? is the text logical? does its conclusion follow from its claims? does it add up? Like a summary, a critique is a kind of essay, but the essays listed below include critique in them. 

 An INTERPRETIVE ESSAY gives a text or texts meaning. This essay explains not only what a text is about (summary) and how it works (critique), but asks why the analysis is compelling. The thesis of an interpretive essay answers a what and how question, and the body of the essay weaves together the demonstration of the what and the analysis of the how. Many interpretive essays ask students to "close read" or analyze specific language in a text; others, however, might ask students to apply a theoretical, historical or cultural theory to the text and to interpret it given the theory or theories. The interpretive essay's goal, however, is to move beyond analysis (the how question) to interpretation (the why question). An interpretive essay, also, highlights implications, more so than a summary and a critique do, and answers the "so what?" question. So what if the text works this way? What's at stake? What idea can be lost or gained because of the interpretation? Like a summary and critique, an interpretive essay is a kind of essay, but the final two essays listed below include interpretation in them. 

 An INVENTIVE ESSAY does not merely summarize, critique or interpret one or two texts; rather an inventive essay responds to an issue, and requires that the writer has already summarized numerous texts, critiqued and interpreted them. An inventive essay requires that the writer understands much of the research on his/her topic -- has entered, in other words, the "discourse community", so that s/he can "invent" her/his own thesis. Before introducing the thesis, the writer must situate the reader in the conversation: what are the various claims made on this topic and who makes them? Once introduced, the thesis of an inventive argument positions itself within the conversation. The thesis of an inventive essay answers a what and either a how or why question, and the body of the essay weaves together the answers to the three questions. An inventive essay is, in other words, a combination of a summary, critique and interpretation essay, and adds on top of all that an "inventive" thesis (a thesis which makes a new claim about a topic or answers a persistent problem). The classic college research essay fits under the category of an inventive essay; however, do not forget that a research essay needs a thesis and that you should weave, not list, its evidence into the essay's argument. Without a thesis and woven argument, you merely write reports, or summaries of numerous pieces of evidence. This essay is rarely assigned at Muhlenberg College.

A PERSONAL ESSAY combines an interpretive and inventive essay together. A personal essay interprets the writer's experience, observations, and research (the essay's primary evidence) and also positions that experience in a conversation. A personal essay is not a story; although it may use fiction writing techniques, a personal essay contains an argument. This argument, however, is often buried -- implied by the evidence. Writers must then earn the right to state ideas by "showing" evidence of the idea first. Ideas must also evoke a tone, or emotion. To complicate matters, a personal essay does not need to state a thesis; rather a personal essay may imply one. Oftentimes, other kinds of research (library, interviews, etc.) are required. The personal essay is a very difficult essay to write well because it is subtle and seems to be a story. Always remember, however, that ideas control the organization of an essay -- not plot (what happened). There are many kinds of personal essays, such as the memoir, the travel essay, and the profile.