Composition Guide

These guidelines for writing essays apply primarily to writing answers to essay questions
on literature. Most of the principles discussed, however, apply equally to essay answers
in other courses and to long essays, whether written for English courses or for courses in
other departments.
The Title
Although your instructor may not require a title for an essay written as an hour test, you
must have a title for an essay written out of class. The title must be inviting and
informative. Avoid dull and vague titles (An Analysis of The Iliad or Hamlet’s
Character). Instead use title which give your reader a clear idea of your subject (The Role
of the Gods in The Iliad or Hamlet as a Tragic Hero). A title should not be a complete
sentence, and it should not end with a period. You should, in fact, ordinarily avoid titles
which require question marks or exclamation marks. Do not underline your own title or
place it in quotation marks. If your title includes the title of a novel, play, or long poem,
that title within your own title should be underlined or in italics; if your title includes the
title of a short story or short poem, the title of the story or poem should be placed in
quotation marks.
The Introductory Paragraph
Your essay must begin with a good introductory paragraph. Such a paragraph must
consist of at least three, and usually more, closely related sentences which clearly
introduce your subject and which deal with the subject of the essay. You must avoid such
statements as “Virgil is one of the world’s greatest writers” (no short college essay could
possibly treat that subject, and most college students are not so well-read in world
literature as to be competent to make that statement, anyway) or “Shakespeare was born
in Stratford-upon-Avon in 1564″ (you aren’t going to be writing a biography of
Shakespeare, after all). Everything in your introduction must clearly introduce the subject
of the essay and not appear to be irrelevant to that subject. Include in these sentences
facts that are relevant to your subject or give a view which opposes your position plus
some evidence which you plan to develop fully later.
The introductory paragraph must also include the name of the author and the title of the
work on which you are writing. If, as may happen on the final examination, you are
writing on several works by several authors so that listing all of them may be
cumbersome, you may mention only the authors’ names in your introduction.
One of the sentences in your introduction must be a THESIS SENTENCE or THESIS
STATEMENT (i.e., the central purpose or the controlling idea or assertion in your essay,
a statement of what you intend to prove). The thesis sentence helps you decide what must
be included in your essay and what must be omitted. Unless an essay has a thesis, it has
no purpose for being. If you are unable to state your controlling idea in a single sentence,
you are not ready to write your essay.

The thesis statement is not an announcement that you are going to say something (“I am
going to write on the character of Odysseus in The Odyssey”). Nor is it a vague assertion
about a broad topic (“In his adventures Odysseus displays several important virtues”).
The problem in this last example is that the reader is not told what specific virtues you
have in mind. Your thesis must be a concrete statement in which you set forth an
assertion in a single, uncomplicated sentence (“Homer characterizes Odysseus as the
ideal Greek king”). Since most essays are written to support your opinion, it might be
helpful to think of the thesis as an arguable statement–one that someone may take
exception to or argue about. At the very least, the thesis must make a point that calls for
support.
Finally, the introductory paragraph must indicate the order of your argument to show how
and in what order you will present evidence to support your thesis. If the purpose of the
essay is to prove that Odysseus is a heroic figure, the thesis should simply read,
“Odysseus is clearly a heroic figure.” In another sentence you need to indicate the kinds
of evidence you intend to cite and the order in which that evidence is to be presented
(e.g., “Odysseus’s heroic qualities include courage, cunning, and loyalty to family”). If
your subject is an especially complicated one, you may not be able to indicate the order
in a single sentence, and you should not try to do so if that sentence becomes unduly
complicated. In such cases you should feel free to indicate the order of your essay in
several sentences.
In any case, readers of your essay must know by the time they finish reading your
introductory paragraph (1) the author and the title of the work on which you are writing,
(2) your thesis statement–i.e., the point that you are making, and (3) the way in which
you are going to organize the body of your essay. An introduction which does not make
these matters clear is inadequate.
Study the sample introductory paragraph below and the analysis of the introduction
which follows it.
Modern readers are often disturbed by the self-centeredness of Achilles, the hero
of Homer’s The Iliad. Achilles not only withdraws from battle and refuses to
support his Greek comrades because of injured pride, but he even hopes that the
Trojan enemies will defeat his fellow Greeks. Nevertheless, Homer means for us
to see Achilles as an admirable, heroic figure. Homer clearly saw him as the
greatest of the warriors at Troy because Achilles has the quality of excellence that
was sought after by all Mycenean heroes. To Homer this quality, commonly
known as arete, included excellence in all the ways a man could be excellent:
physical excellence, moral excellence, and intellectual excellence.
This paragraph contains all of the elements which a good introduction must have. It
includes the name of the author and the title of the work on which the essay is being
written (Homer’s The Iliad.) The five sentences in the introduction are clearly related.
The first notes that modern readers may not find Achilles to be very heroic (a position
which the essay itself will seek the refute). The second sentence gives some evidence to
support the modern view that Achilles is not very heroic. The next sentence, introduced
by that important word nevertheless, states the thesis–that despite what we moderns may
think, Homer intends for his readers to regard Achilles as a hero. The next sentence
explains briefly why Homer regarded Achilles as a hero–he possesses qualities of
excellence admired by Homer and his contemporaries. The final sentence is more specific
in listing the categories of excellence which the ancient Greeks prized, and the sentence
indicates the order in which these categories will be taken up in the body of the essay.
Based on the final sentence of the paragraph, the reader can expect to find one paragraph
which will deal with physical excellence, a second on moral excellence, and a final
paragraph on intellectual excellence.
The Body of the Essay
The introductory paragraph will be followed by developmental paragraphs which make
up the body of the essay. Many essay questions which you will be asked to answer lend
themselves to organization in three parts. In the sample introductory paragraph above, the
writer clearly intends to divide the body of the essay into three parts. Sometimes on hour
tests you may be given a subject which can best be divided into two developmental
paragraphs; sometimes you may prefer to organize in four or, especially on a final
examination, more than four paragraphs.
Each developmental paragraph must include a topic sentence, which is often the first
sentence in the paragraph. The topic sentence is to the paragraph what the thesis sentence
is to the essay as a whole–it is the controlling idea that determines what can be placed in
a paragraph and what cannot be placed in the paragraph. The topic sentence must be a
generalization, never a narrative detail. If you were writing on Odysseus as an ideal
Greek hero, your plan might be to emphasize such admirable qualities as Odysseus’
courage, his physical strength, and his devotion to his country. Your topic sentence for
the first developmental paragraph might read, “Examples of Odysseus’ courage are found
in nearly every book in which Odysseus appears.” The rest of your paragraph would cite
specific examples of his courage. You would not include in that paragraph examples of
his strength or of his devotion to his country. To do so would be to violate the concept of
unity.
Unity is achieved when a writer develops the topic sentence and does not deviate from it.
If you digress, you merely confuse your reader. The topic sentence can help you maintain
unity if you keep asking yourself if the example you are citing really is an example of
your topic sentence.
Problems with unity sometimes come about when the writer summarizes the plot of a
work excessively. Remember that an essay on literature is not a plot summary! You must
be able to summarize mentally the plot of a work so that you can draw illustrations from
your mental summary. You must not include in your essay details of plot summary which
merely lead up to an example but which do not themselves include an example. Study the
very poor paragraph below. The first sentence, which has been underlined, is the topic
sentence.

Orgon’s interest in Tartuffe is obviously excessive because it prevents Orgon from
taking an interest in anyone else. Upon returning home after a brief absence,
Orgon inquires into the health of the members of his household. Dorine, the maid,
reports that Orgon’s wife, Elmire, has been ill, and she describes the symptoms of
Elmire’s illness. But Orgon takes no interest in his wife’s condition and interrupts
Dorine to ask about Tartuffe. Each time Dorine mentions Elmire’s health, Orgon
interrupts to ask about Tartuffe. It is obvious that Orgon’s interest in Tartuffe is
excessive because it prevents him from taking as interest in the health of his wife.
There are at least three problems with the paragraph. First of all, the first two sentences
which follow the topic sentence do not illustrate the topic sentence but merely lead up the
third sentence, which does illustrate the topic sentence. If fact, the first sentence
following the topic sentence seems to contradict the topic sentence. The two sentences
provide too much plot summary and–because they do not directly illustrate the topic–
violate the principles of unity; they are digressions. The two sentences which follow the
topic sentence should have been subordinated and made a part of the third sentence.
Second, the paragraph lacks adequate substance. The illustration is limited to a single
incident, and it is not treated vividly and fully. Finally, the last sentence of the paragraph
repeats the topic sentence. Remember that a paragraph should contain one generalization
(which must be stated in the topic sentence) and it must not be repeated. Every sentence
which follows the topic sentence must develop the topic sentence. You can easily test the
unity of your paragraph by looking critically at every sentence to see if each one does
indeed illustrate the topic sentence. Study the revised version below of the paragraph on
Tartuffe.
Orgon’s interest in Tartuffe is obviously excessive because it prevents Orgon from
taking an interest in anyone else. When, upon returning home after a brief
absence, Orgon inquires into the health of the members of his household and
learns from the maid, Dorine, that Orgon’s wife, Elmire, has been ill, Orgon
interrupts to ask about Tartuffe. When Dorine goes on to report that Elmire’s
headache was so severe that Elmire could not eat her dinner, Orgon again
interrupts to ask, “And Tartuffe?” Even when Dorine explains that Elmire had to
undergo bloodletting to cure her headache, Orgon shows no concern and again
inquires about Tartuffe’s health. Orgon later shows the same indifference toward
his daughter, Mariane, when he insists that she break off her engagement to
Valere, the man whom she loves, and marry Tartuffe instead. Finally, Orgon
shows his excessive admiration for Tartuffe when, upon becoming angry with his
son, Damis, Orgon disinherits Damis and names Tartuffe as his heir.
In the revision above, every sentence illustrates the topic sentence. Moreover, while one
incident is treated in some detail in three sentences, the two other examples from other
scenes in the play are briefly cited to show that the point made in the topic sentence is not
limited to an isolated situation. Note, too, that the paragraph illustrates proportion in that
the best example–the scenes dealing with Orgon’s return home–is treated in some detail
while the other two scenes are treated in a single sentence each. Go back now and read
the revision again, noting how every sentence that follows the topic sentence contains an
example of the point that the topic sentence makes. The paragraph is well unified.
Be careful to avoid the temptation to use the work on which you are writing as the means
to moralize. An interpretation of a work of literature should deal with the work and what
the author of the work is seeking to do. If you include your own moral, political, or social
views, you violate the unity of the paragraph just as surely as you would if you
summarize parts of the plot which have no bearing on the topic sentence.
Substance
A good developmental paragraph must have ample substance. Substance consists of the
specific examples from the work which you cite in support of your thesis sentence and of
the topic sentence of each paragraph. The revised version of the paragraph on Tartuffe
has sufficient substance to prove the point made in the topic sentence. There are, in fact,
five specific examples of Orgon’s indifference to the members of his family because of
his excessive interest in Tartuffe. Never have fewer than two very good examples in a
paragraph; usually you will need to have more than two examples in order to persuade
your reader that the assertions made in your thesis statement and in your topic sentence
are accurate and can be supported by persuasive evidence. If you cite but one example or
two weak ones, the reader will not be persuaded.
Good substance depends on more than the number of examples you cite. Your examples
must be fully developed so that your paragraph won’t read like a list or an outline.
Remember your readers. You should assume that they have read the work on which you
are writing, but you should not assume that they have read the work recently. It is
important, therefore, to develop your examples with enough detail so that your readers
can recall them. You should also include enough of the context so that readers can
remember roughly where the incident or speech to which you are referring occurs.
Quoting a key word, phrase, or larger element is an effective way to achieve good
substance.
Read the paragraph below. It illustrates what too often happens when substance is not
fully developed.
Zeus’ anthropomorphic nature is clearly seen on those occasions when Zeus
threatens physical violence to those who oppose him. At one point Zeus angrily
tells Hera that she can do nothing about his pledge to help Achilles and that the
other gods on Mt. Olympus are not strong enough to save her from his violence.
Later Hera is again threatened when Zeus realizes that Hector has been wounded
because of Hera. Zeus’s most violent threat is made to any god or goddess who
might consider opposing him by interfering in the course of the war. Such an
offender, he says, will be severely punished.
The paragraph has a clear topic sentence and three examples. But the examples are not
developed fully enough for someone who has not read The Iliad recently to be able to
remember the scenes described or to remember the context in which the threats were
made. The first example is introduced with the phrase “At one point.” That phrase is too
vague. Actually, the example is taken from the first book of The Iliad; it would be better
to write, “In Book I, Zeus angrily tells Hera. . . .” If you cannot remember which book (or
chapter in a novel or act of a play) your example comes from, at least give some details
about the context to help your reader recall the scene. The second example (“Later Hera
is again threatened when Zeus realizes that Hector has been wounded because of Hera”)
hardly counts as an example at all. We are not told with what violence she is threatened,
and we don’t really understand why Hera is responsible for Hector’s death. The reader of
your paper will naturally want to be reminded with what Hera is being threatened and
why she should be punished. It is the responsibility of the writer to provide answers to
such questions. The final example (“Zeus’s most violent threat . . .”) provides neither the
context in which the threat is ordered (a truce has been arranged between the Greeks and
Trojans) nor an explanation for what the writer of the paper means by “severely
punished.” Be specific. Be concrete. Remember that to be persuasive, you must make
clear to your reader that you know the details of the work. Don’t just tell your readers
something; show them what you mean with specific, concrete examples, details, and
explanations.
The paragraph below is a revision of the paragraph above. Study it carefully and notice
how it conveys much more information to the reader.
Zeus’s anthropomorphic nature is clearly seen on those occasions when Zeus
threatens violence to those who oppose him. When near the beginning of the epic
Hera learns that Zeus has promised Thetis that he will help Achilles and chides
Zeus for his promise, Zeus angrily tells Hera that all the gods on Mt. Olympus
will not be strong enough to save her from his wrath if she interferes with his will.
She is again threatened with his violence when Zeus discovers that, despite his
earlier warning, Hera has continued to interfere with in the war and that Hector
has been wounded because Hera diverted Zeus’s attention. Calling her
“mischiefmaker,” Zeus reminds Hera how he punished her on an earlier occasion
for disobeying him by hanging her by gold chains in the clouds with anvils
fastened to her feet, and he threatens to thrash her if she continues to oppose him.
Zeus’s most violent threat is made during a truce between the Greeks and Trojans.
That threat is addressed not only to Hera but also to any god or goddess who even
considers interfering in the course of the war: He promises to beat such offenders
severely or to hurl them into Hades.
The revised paragraph solves the more serious problems found in the original. Following
the topic sentence, the writer introduces the first example by telling us something fairly
specific about where that example comes from (“near the beginning of the epic”). That
phrase is certainly more helpful than the “At one point” of the original draft. And the
example itself is fuller; we are told that Zeus uttered his threat because Hera was angry
because of his promise to help Thetis’ son, Achilles. The second example is introduced
with a reminder of the context in which Zeus’s threat is made: Zeus has discovered that
Hera, ignoring his warning not to interfere, has diverted his attention with the result that
Hector has been wounded. Zeus’s violent nature is made even more vivid by Zeus’s
reminder of an earlier event in which he had punished Hera by hanging her in the clouds
with anvils tied to her feet and by his latest threat to thrash her unless she stops
interfering with the war. Compare the original (“Later Hera is again threatened when
Zeus realizes that Hector has been wounded because of Hera”) with the revision. The
revision is obviously more detailed and informative. The revision is an example of good
substance. The final example in the revision, too, is much more specific than the original.
In the original version, the reader is told only that offenders “will be severely punished.”
In the revision, we are told that they will be punished by a severe beating or by being sent
to Hades.
Organizing the Developmental Paragraphs
Organization means orderly arrangement. In a well-organized paragraph the details used
to substantiate the topic sentence are presented in an orderly sequence of sentences. The
arrangement of sentences will largely depend upon the type of composition you are
writing.
Generally speaking, there are two kinds of order that may be used in the paragraph:
Natural Order and Logical Order. If you arrange your sentences in natural order, you are
following an order that seems to you to be inherent in the subject about which you are
writing. Paragraphs of description and narration often follow natural order. Writers of
descriptive paragraphs, for example, may present details seen from left to right or from
top to bottom. Writers of narrative paragraphs frequently present details in the order of
their occurrence; that is, they will use chronological order. Logical order is order which is
determined by the writer’s analysis of the subject. Such order is determined by the writer’s
reason. The writer must consciously will it, even force it upon the subject. It is not based
on an order (either spatial or chronological) that seems inherent in the subject.
Examine the paragraph on Zeus’s anthropomorphic nature. Notice that the arrangement
here is logical. The writer has violated chronological order in so as to be able to place
what seems to be the strongest bit of supporting evidence in the post prominent place in
the paragraph–the final sentence. That evidence (that Zeus threatens not only Hera but
also all the gods and goddesses) actually comes in Book Eight of The Iliad, long before
the threat made in Book Fifteen, which is used as the second example. The writer has
wisely cited the most effective example last. To have placed it earlier would have made
any examples which followed it seem anticlimactic. In the case of the revised paragraph
on Tartuffe earlier, chronological order was used because the first example cited–Orgon’s
return from a trip–deals with Orgon’s first appearance in the play. That example
establishes Orgon’s blind devotion to Tartuffe from the first time the audience sees
Orgon. Notice that in the model on Zeus’s anthropomorphic nature there is movement
from the general to the specific. The topic sentence, which is a generalization about one
aspect of Zeus’s anthropomorphic nature, is followed by three references to specific
examples of Zeus’s threats of violence in The Iliad.
Organizing the Essay
Just as the individual paragraphs which make up an essay must be carefully organized to
be persuasive, so, too, does the essay itself have to be organized in order to be coherent
and persuasive. You need to keep your thesis sentence in mind throughout and to
remember to select details from the plot to support that thesis but not to include anything
which does not directly support the thesis. You need to think about all of the evidence
which supports the thesis and to organize that evidence into logical categories. The
categories will form the individual developmental paragraphs. These categories should be
made clear to the reader in the introductory paragraph, and they will form the basis of the
topic sentences in the developmental paragraphs.
The outline below should help you understand the principles of organizing an essay.
Title
Introductory paragraph
Includes
1. name of author and title of work being written on
[when several works are involved, instructor may not
require all authors and titles]
2. thesis statement
3. two, three, or more ideas or categories which will
develop the thesis in the body paragraphs
Body of the Essay (three or more
paragraphs of documentation as
needed)
Topic sentence about one of the ideas or categories
mentioned in the introductory paragraph.
1. specific detail (speech or action that supports the
point)
2. specific detail (speech or action that supports the
point)
3. specific detail (speech or action that supports the
point)
4. continue with details as needed
Remember that the number of developmental paragraphs in your essay will depend on the
way in which you organize your material. Frequently the essay question will lend itself to
organizing into a four-paragraph essay (introductory paragraph plus three developmental
paragraphs); sometimes the most logical method will result in a three-paragraph essay
(introductory paragraph plus two very full developmental paragraphs). Consult your
professor about a concluding paragraph.
Special Problems Regarding the Organization of an Essay
The organization of an essay should not pose any particular problems when you are
writing on such subjects as the anthropomorphic nature of Zeus, the qualities of an ideal
hero such as Achilles, or any other subject about a single figure. A problem may occur
when you write about more than one character or when you are writing about more than
one work, such as occurs if you are required to compare two or more characters or works
or to contrast several figures or works. You may be tempted to devote a single paragraph
to one figure, a second to another, and a third to still another; or, if you are writing an
essay on more than one work, you may be tempted to treat one work in one paragraph
and to treat another work in another paragraph. Such paragraphs rarely exhibit coherence.
All you do is to write what you have to say about one character (or work) before you
move on to write what you have to say about another character (or work). Although a
skilled writer, using enough transitions and references, may be successful in treating
figures or works separately, most writers fail because they lose the thread that should be
tying their analyses of characters or works together.
If you are called upon to deal with several characters or works in an essay, you should
find topics which will allow you to deal with several characters or works in the same
paragraph. If, for example, you were writing an essay comparing villains in Shakespeare’s
plays, you would first need to decide which villains you want to treat; you would then
need to decide what three or four qualities these villains have in common, and you would
use each quality as the basis for a topic sentence. In each paragraph, then, you would deal
with a particular quality and then treat each of the villains in such a way as to show how
each demonstrates that quality. Finally, you would have to think carefully about your
material in order to devise some logical pattern of development that would give the essay
coherence.
Let us say, for example, that you have decided to write on such Shakespearean villains as
King Richard in Richard III, Edmund in King Lear, and Iago in Othello. You would first
have to consider what these characters do and say in their respective plays in order to
determine what attitudes or qualities you see that these three have in common. You
would certainly notice that all three sense that they have been wronged, either by
circumstances beyond their control or by other people You might then begin a
developmental paragraph with the following topic sentence: “Each of the three believes
that he has been injured, either by nature or by some individual.” In the sentences that
follow, you would then cite and develop such examples as King Richard’s physical
deformity, Edmund’s illegitimacy, and Iago’s being unfairly passed over for promotion in
Othello’s army.
You might then move on to note that these three villains are extremely ambitious. You
might, therefore, begin another developmental paragraph by writing, “All three figures
are ambitious to improve their positions in society.” The sentences that follow that topic
sentence would explain what each figure seeks to achieve. You might then go on to
notice that none of these characters have any scruples at all about hurting others, and you
might then begin your next developmental paragraph by writing, “In their attempts to
achieve their goals, the three villains make clear that they are altogether unconcerned
about the suffering they may cause others.” That paragraph should illustrate how each
character is indifferent to those whom he injures.
You would no doubt develop and emphasize throughout your essay a logical pattern of
coherence: (1) their villainy begins within themselves with a belief that each is in some
way a victim; (2) because of this belief, they feel a need to prove themselves superior to
others; and finally (3) they are so committed to proving themselves that they are
indifferent to the harm they do to others. Some of the best writers make such patterns of
coherence clear in their introductory paragraphs.
Transition
A paragraph may have substance and unity and still not be completely effective if
transition within the paragraph and transitions between paragraphs are not properly
handled. Transition means passing over from one stage of development to another.
Transition involves logical movement and development within the paragraph and from
one paragraph to another. This movement and development are effective when sentences
lead naturally from one to another and when each sentence refers naturally to the
preceding one.
Often the close connection of thought in a paragraph will ensure proper transition. But
the writer must often use transitional devices in order to obtain effective transitions. In
the revised paragraph about the anthropomorphic nature of Zeus, smooth transition has
been achieved by repetition. The topic sentence announces that the subject of the
paragraph is Zeus’s violent nature and his tendency to make angry threats. The second
sentence contains the words “Zeus angrily tells Hera that all the gods on
Mt. Olympus will not be strong enough to save her from his wrath. . . .” The next
sentence begins, “She is again threatened with violence. . . .” The final example, which is
treated in the last two sentences of the paragraph, begins, “Zeus’s most violent threat. . . .”
Repetition of key words or phrases can be a very effective device. However, if overused,
repetition will become monotonous. When you repeat ideas, try to express them in
different words.
Frequently words which have antecedents in preceding sentences or clauses can be used
effectively as transitional devices. These words may be personal or demonstrative
pronouns or adjectives that refer to nouns in preceding sentences or clauses. The words
this, that, these, and those are the demonstratives that may be used as either adjectives or
pronouns. The writer should be careful in using these words as pronouns. Each
demonstrative pronoun must have a single word as its antecedent and should never refer
vaguely to an action or an idea in a preceding sentence or clause.
There are several other expressions that can be used as transitional devices. These
expressions may be either words or phrases that call attention to a relationship between
the details in two or more sentences or which introduce another example within a
paragraph. Some words that are frequently used as transitional devices include also,
accordingly, afterwards, again, besides, consequently, furthermore, hence, however,
indeed, moreover, nevertheless, next, otherwise, still, and therefore. Phrases used as
transitions include as a result, at the same time, for instance, generally speaking, in
addition to, and on the other hand. Be extremely careful about using transitional devices.
Transitions should be natural and should never appear to be artificial. If you see a clear
relationship between details and if you are writing effective sentences, you will probably
achieve transition without making a conscious effort.
Style
In addition to substance, unity, organization, and transitions, a paragraph or essay must
be written in an effective style. Style is the manner in which ideas are expressed. Style
includes such matters as diction (i.e., word choice), syntax, and sentence variety. Words
should be chosen for their exactness; the sentences should be written in a natural,
unaffected syntax (word order); there should be a balance of sentence types (simple,
compound, complex, and compound-complex). The best of ideas can be spoiled by
inappropriate word choice, by artificial syntax, or by a series of simple sentences. You
should train yourself to hear the sentences which you are writing mentally and to ask
yourself how they would sound if they were read aloud. Avoid sentences that are
awkward, wordy, ambiguous, pretentious, or artificial.
Writing that is done for college tests and papers is relatively formal. Therefore, you
should avoid addressing the reader directly (“You can clearly see that Homer is a master
in describing the horrors of war”), and you must avoid colloquialisms, slang, and jargon.
Your writing should show that you have a good vocabulary and that you know how to use
language gracefully and effectively. Good writing does not try to impress; rather, it seeks
to communicate clearly. While it has some degree of sophistication, it is never pompous.
The style should be that of a college-level student and not that of an eighth grader. The
reader should sense that every word belongs in the paper–that each word contributes to
the development of the central idea. The choice and arrangement of words should always
reflect the writer’s maturity in handling the language.
Evaluation of the Essay
As soon as is humanly possible after you have turned in an essay or essay test, your
instructor will read it several times, mark it, put a grade on it, and return it to you to see.
The process may be painful to you, especially if you are unaccustomed to having your
writing evaluated by college standards. Please accept the comments of your instructor as
constructive criticism which is intended to help you do better in the future. Hard work
and practice on your part and on the part of your instructor should lead to results of which
you both will be proud.
Take notes on the matters that gave you problems and review them before the next test or
essay so that you can benefit from the previous comments of your instructor. If after
noting the comments on your paper, you still don’t understand what you need to do to
improve, see your instructor as soon as possible. The English faculty members assume
that college students who are serious about wanting to do good work are mature enough
to seek our help. We want to help all students do the best work they are capable of doing,
but we assume that students who sincerely want to learn will take the initiative to get
help. We also assume that students will use conference time with instructors
constructively. We are not particularly interested in knowing how much better you did in
high school writing classes; you are now being judged by college standards which are
naturally more demanding than the standards of most high schools. And if you had a bad
background in English in your high school, complaining about that background won’t
help you overcome your weaknesses. Dwelling on the past or making excuses will only
sap your energy and rob you of the time you need to improve. You have a chance to learn
good writing habits now. Forget about the past!
From the Presbyterian College Handbook of Grammar and Usage, third edition, 1991,
68-83. S. Allen King wrote the first edition in 1984. Members of the Presbyterian College
English Department revised it in1991.