Learning to Write

Essay Basics

1. What is the purpose of an essay?
Answer: To explore a question in depth and achieve a better understanding of it. Ideally, the question will be one that you are genuinely interested in. The questions explored in essays are not factual questions with definite answers; they are open-ended questions with several possible answers. Often they begin with words like why and how.
2. An essay must have a beginning, middle, and end.
Beginning: introduction, or opening.
 Middle: body, or body paragraphs.
 End: conclusion, or closing.
3. What is the purpose of an introduction?
Answer: The crucial purpose is to state your thesis.
4. What is a thesis?
Answer: All of your major assertions plus your conclusion.
5. What is an assertion?
Answer: A statement claiming that something is true. A good assertion is arguable. That is, people will probably disagree about it. A simple statement of fact is not a good assertion for a body paragraph: facts may, however, be part of the evidence needed to support an assertion.
6. What is a body paragraph?

Answer: One assertion plus all the evidence and argument needed to explain and defend it. The assertion should be stated at the beginning of the paragraph. (This is why the first sentence of a body paragraph is sometimes called the topic sentence.)
7. How is one body paragraph related to another?
Answer: Each of your assertions is a link in a logical chain of argument leading to your conclusion. Your body paragraphs, therefore, need to be in an order that makes this chain of reasoning clear to the reader. The particular logical order will vary from essay to essay, but the reasons for putting your body paragraphs in a particular order should be very clear, first to you, and then to your readers.
8. What are transitions or linking phrases?

Answer: Transitions are words or phrases placed typically at the beginning of each body paragraph to help the reader follow your movement from what you have said in the previous paragraph to what you will say in the new one. Simplest perhaps would be “First, . . . . Second, . . . . Third . . . . “, etc. More sophisticated transitions reveal more complicated relationships between paragraphs with words like moreover, on the other hand, similarly, even worse, and many others.

Why is writing so difficult?

For many reasons. First, writing is not natural—like talking or walking—so it requires a special effort. It also requires careful attention to lots of annoying details like punctuation, grammar, and spelling. Many of the ‘rules’ for English punctuation, grammar, and spelling don’t make much sense. Moreover, writing requires you to do two conflicting things at the same time: think about what you are saying, and also think about how you are saying it. And so on. To put it briefly, writing well is one of the most difficult human skills.

Why is it so frustrating?

Because usually, improvement takes a long time. Even worse, improvement is not gradual. That is, if we made a graph of writing improvement it would NOT look like this:

Instead, a graph of writing improvement would look something like this:

The second graph helps to explain an almost universal experience: you work, and work, and work, but your results don’t improve. Why? Because you are on one of those long, flat portions of the line. If you let the frustration defeat you, then you give up trying and you never reach the next level. But if you remain patient and determined and keep working, you will eventually reach that point where everything you have been working on suddenly ‘clicks’ and you jump up to the next level.

So now you want to know . . .

How does one become a good writer?

It’s not so complicated, but it’s not so easy, either.

When you read, you learn what words and sentences look like when they are written. If you read very little, your understanding of what written words and sentences look like remains weak and uncertain. How is that word spelled? Should I put a comma here? What’s the right way to use a dash, or a semi-colon? Hundreds of such questions confront a writer, and it’s impossible to learn the answers to them by memorizing a grammar book. However, someone who reads a great deal learns to answer most of those questions correctly simply by seeing so many words spelled and so many sentences and paragraphs written correctly.So here’s the first key to success as a writer: good writers are voracious readers!

Pay attention.
Once you become an enthusiastic reader—when reading is a pleasure, not a chore—you can begin noticing how writers write. After all, if you enjoy reading, then you enjoy the results of someone else’s writing. At first, and for a long time perhaps, you may be content just to benefit from other people’s hard work. But if you’re lucky you will develop an interest in the craft of writing—how do they do that?—and want to try it yourself. You may discover that, although writing well is very difficult, the satisfaction of succeeding at it is very great.

You learn to walk by walking, and not giving up even though at first you fall down a lot. You learn to play the piano by playing the piano. You learn carpentry by doing carpentry. You learn to play football by playing football.

You learn to write by writing.

Find good writers, and copy what they do. Then find others who write very differently, and copy what they do. Practice, practice, practice. Seek out good coaches, and take their advice.

And as Winston Churchill almost said, never, never, never, never give up.

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