Essays are the primary, if not the only, means by which students communicate their thoughts and analyses to professors. In some ways, essay-writing is a performative art. Similar to a one-night-only concert, you only get one shot (unless you have the rare instructor who permits multiple drafts before the final submission) to please the crowd—to show your professor your distinct and insightful ideas. The important opinions that you have concerning an article, book, debate, or even a piece of art must be channeled into a five-page document. Therefore, it is essential to make sure that what the author intends by writing a certain word or line corresponds exactly with what the reader interprets it to mean.
I oftentimes get carried away by my ideas and I try to fit all my complex ideas and reactions into a single essay. At times, the more I write, the more incomprehensible my essay becomes. This underscores how important it is to consider the audience. There are many different ways a reader can interpret a particular argument, sentence, or even a word. Consequently, it is crucial to make sure that whatever the reader deduces from our essays is exactly what we, the writers, want them to deduce. Ideas can thrive in our minds—but they shouldn’t be able to take on a life of their own once they are written on the page..
Have you ever thought that it would be so much easier to just talk to a professor and tell him or her what ideas are on your mind, instead of submitting a faceless essay that, once out of your hands, you have no way to explain or defend? It’s no accident that you are not welcome to loiter beside the professor’s desk, clarifying for him or her your intentions behind every line as they stuble through your work. Essay writing is indeed meant to instill an essential skill—quick and clear communication. Therefore, be prudent and precise in your own writing. Are your sentences convoluted? Do you use overly vague terms and words? Are your points in any way contradictory or disconnected?
One important element to consider is transitions. In my experience, transitions between arguments—whether between sentences or paragraph—are areas where the reader can most easily become lost. Yet, if done carefully, these moments of transition can be incredibly useful sign-posts for the reader, helping him or her to synthesize your most complex associations. Pay close attention to the sequencing of your sentences and how they link to one another. Sentence-connectors are usually useful for this, but only if used correctly; when you throw in a “therefore,” “conversely,” or “furthermore,” make sure it’s the appropriate word to link the previous sentence to the current one. As for transitions between paragraphs, it’s always good to have a line at the end of the paragraph giving the reader a sense of what the next paragraph will talk about and how the two issues relate. This brings the reader back on track and helps alert him or her to what they should be looking out for.
My advice to undergraduates: Start treating your essays as the only communication tool between your ideas and your professor. Unless you choose to litigate with the professor over your grade, you will not—and should not—have the opportunity to tell the professor what you intended by a certain word, line, or idea. This is your paper’s job. Thus, be precise in your writing and, when it’s time for submission, let the essay do the talking!
-By Han Hsien Liew ’12