When you are writing the sentences of an essay, where do you begin?

  1.  with the hook?
  2. with the introduction?
  3. with the thesis or essay topic sentence?
  4. with the supporting topic sentences?
  5. with the conclusion?

The answer is with the thesis /  essay topic sentence.

3rd grader writing an essay.But too many students don’t start there.  They start with a topic—say Harry Potter books—and then focus on writing a hook to get someone to read their essay about Harry Potter books.  When they are writing their hook they have no idea about the precise topic of their essay, just that it has something to do with Harry Potter books.  Wrong approach!

To impress upon my students how primary the thesis is to an essay, I have them write it on their planner before they plan in detail.  Then when they begin to write sentences, I have them skip five or six lines on notebook paper (or on a computer) and write their thesis there, partway down the paper, leaving room to add an introduction later.

The thesis is the anchor of the whole paper.  I have students box that sentence in color for easy referral.

Next, I have the student write the body paragraph topic sentences. This time I ask students to skip ten or more spaces after each body paragraph.  Later they can come back and fill in those spaces with details.

We read over those topic sentences and check out each one against the thesis.  Does the topic sentence support the thesis?  If yes, keep it.  If no, toss it and write another topic sentence which does.

Next, students write the body paragraph sentences with all the details which back up the paragraph’s topic sentence and the thesis.

Now that they know what their essay is about they can go back and write the introduction and the conclusion.

Think of an essay as a wedding ceremony.  What is most important in the ceremony?  Is it the music as the bride walks down the aisle?  Is it the flowers?   Is it the witnesses?  The kiss?  Of course not.  It’s the vows.  The vows are just a few words.  “I take you, Harry, to be my husband.”  “I take you, Meghan, to be my wife.”  Those vows are followed by supporting details like “for better or for worse,” and “in sickness and in health.”

The vows are like the thesis.  “In good times and in bad” and the other details are like the body of the essay.  The music is like the introduction and conclusion.  And the bride’s beautiful dress is the hook.  You can have a wedding without the dress and the music, but you cannot have one without the vows.  The vows are where you begin, just as the thesis is where you begin an essay.

An essay is a planned, organized piece of writing with one overarching idea expressed in a topic sentence / thesis.  Until you know what that thesis is, it makes no sense to write any other sentences because every other sentence must support the thesis.

Where do you start writing an essay?

An essay always starts with a topic.  Your teacher might assign a topic based on what you are studying in school, such as evolution or Romeo and Juliet.

But then what?  Do you just start writing?  Not if you want a good essay!  No, you think about the topic, about what interests you.  Does Harry Potter’s relationship with his aunt, uncle and cousin interest you?  Does the paucity of strong female characters—just Hermione and Professor McGonagall—in the Harry Potter series interest you?  You need to narrow down the topic.  At this point, you may have written a list but no sentences.

So when do you start writing sentences?  You start with a working thesis or topic sentence for the whole essay.  Your thesis needs to be a statement, and it should be an opinion which you can back up with evidence.  “Harry Potter’s aunt and uncle were lousy parents for him.”  “Harry Potter books contain few strong female characters compared to strong male characters.”

Now what?  Now come up with two, three, or four supporting ideas for that thesis statement (three if your teacher demands a five-paragraph essay).  Write those supporting ideas as statements.  “Harry’s aunt and uncle were lousy parents because they forced him to live in a closet while Dudley had a big bedroom.”  “Harry’s aunt and uncle were lousy parents because they bought few toys for Harry and many for Dudley.”  “Harry’s aunt and uncle were lousy parents because they didn’t tell him the truth about his dead parents.”

Thesis written.  Supporting ideas written.  Now what?  Do you start your introduction?  No.  Now you search for evidence to back up your supporting ideas.  Under each supporting idea, use three or more bullets to identify evidence.  Use direct quotes or paraphrases.  Add page numbers or other citation information.  You want to have plenty of proof that your supporting ideas are true.  If you can’t find enough evidence, eliminate that supporting idea and write another for which you can find data.

Thesis written, supporting ideas written, evidence jotted down.  Now do you begin your introduction?  Yes.  Think how you can start out with either a hook or with general information about your thesis, narrowing your information with each introductory sentence you write.

For example, you could start by saying that Harry was raised by his aunt and uncle, a general fact.  Next you could say that his aunt and uncle have a son about Harry’s age, another general fact.  Now you say that Harry and Dudley are treated differently by Harry’s aunt and uncle, and that Harry is not treated well.  Do you see how you are going from general information—Harry is raised by an aunt and uncle—to more specific information—Harry is not treated well by his aunt and uncle.  Now you can add your thesis as the last sentence in this introductory paragraph.

Adding your body paragraphs should be easy.  You already wrote the first sentence of each body paragraph, and you listed evidence.  Turn the list into sentences and your body is done.

Now it is time to write the conclusion.   Two “go-to” conclusions that work well are a full circle conclusion–returning to something you said in your introduction–or future looking introduction–talking about the future of the topic.  For example, you could go full circle by saying that Harry’s aunt and uncle were lousy parents, but they provide a great deal of humor at the beginning of the Harry Potter books, hooking young readers.  Or you could look to the future by saying that Harry Potter would certainly raise his children differently from the way his aunt and uncle raised him, providing comfortable bedrooms and using closets for clothes, broom sticks and wands–and maybe for a photo of their great uncle, great aunt and cousin.

Use adult vocabulary for academic words

I was working with a high school freshman writing an essay.  He was baffled by his teacher’s directions to write a chicken foot and buckets.  So was I.  There was a drawing of a horizontal line with three diagonal “toes” going out from the end of the horizontal line.  This was the chicken foot.  There was another drawing of four cans with a space for a label at the top of each one.  These were the buckets.  But there was no identification of what these terms or diagrams meant.

Emails back and forth solved the problem.  The chicken foot was the thesis.  The horizontal line was the opinion and the three toes were the supporting ideas backing up the thesis.  The buckets were the details for each of the chicken’s toes, with an extra one  in case.

The more I thought about these terms, though, the more annoyed I became.  Why not use the terminology that the student will need to use in other high school English classes and in college classes?  Why not call a thesis a thesis and its supporting topic sentences supporting topic sentences?  Why not call evidence “evidence” or “citations”?

What my student’s teacher is doing is what so many parents do for babies learning to talk.  The parents say “night-night” instead of “sleep” or “bye-bye” instead of “we’re leaving.” But eventually the children need to learn the proper names for “sleep” and “leaving.”  Why introduce “baby” versions of the words?  Isn’t “sleep” just as easy to understand as “night-night”?

I know the teacher is well meaning.  And I know she explained “chicken foot” and “buckets” during class.  But my student didn’t understand, and looking up those words on the teacher handout didn’t help.  If the teacher had used the word “thesis,” he could have looked that word up and found plenty of explanation.  If she had used the words “topic sentences” or “supporting topic sentences,” he could have found those words and their meanings online.  If she had used the words “evidence” or “citations,” my student could have figured out what they meant and what he was expected to do.

Children eventually need to learn proper vocabulary for ideas, whether it is “identify” or “cite.”  Babying their vocabulary does no service to children; rather it confuses them and stalls their acquisition of adult vocabulary.

Ways to end an essay when you don’t know how to end an essay

“I can’t figure out how to end essays,” a high school freshman told me.  He wanted a formula, an approach that would work when he was stuck.

I suggested he keep in mind two approaches:  full-circle and looking-to-the-future.

Full-circle conclusions go back to the introduction, pick up a strand mentioned there, and continue with that strand.

Looking-to-the-future conclusions go beyond the time frame of the essay and suggest what will happen next, or what could have happened next.

For example, suppose an essay concerns the crucial help France gave the US during the American Revolution.  A full circle conclusion could repeat that idea and add that the US returned the favor by aiding France to win World Wars I and II.  A looking-to-the-future conclusion could have looked to the future of US-French relations in 1783 and questioned the US absence during the French Revolution.  Or a looking-to-the-future conclusion could look at French-American relations now, more than 230 years after the American Revolution, and mention how the US and France are still allies working together, this time to protect revolutionaries trying to overthrow a dictator in Syria.

Or, for example, suppose an essay proposes that it was the parents of Romeo and Juliet who are ultimately responsible for their son’s and daughter’s deaths.  A full-circle-conclusion could pick up the idea that Juliet’s mother was a “hands-off” mother, and question how much she would miss a daughter she had left to a nurse to raise.  A looking-to-the-future conclusion could mention that Juliet’s mother is about 27 years old, still young enough to bear another child and marry that child into the social elite of Verona as Juliet had been expected to do.

Full-circle conclusions and looking-to-the-future conclusions save a student time coming up with an approach to end an essay. And they do the job.  Win-win.

Which details to include?

The other day I returned home, opened the door and was startled to see my robot vacuum cleaner zigzagging across the  floor, its whiskers busily feeling for dust, the little creature ignoring me and going about its  business of vacuuming the floor.

What a perfect detail for a story, I thought.  So trivial, so unexpected, so easily noted and ignored like a microwave beeping.  Yet such a perfect detail to identify an early 21st century middle class tech-friendly household.

This led me to think:  What makes great detail in fiction?

Years ago I read that details naming and describing the setting of a story within the first few paragraphs help readers to orient themselves.  And if a character is involved, describing that character’s looks and emotional state right after the character is introduced also helps orient readers.

Take this example:  A frumpy grey-haired woman is pulled erect while hanging onto an overhead subway strap, eying with disdain a seated teen who ignores her and scrolls through his phone’s screen.

What do we learn about the setting?  The woman is on a crowded subway, so she must be in a city.  We don’t know the time of day or the season yet, but since the subway is crowded, we think it might be rush hour.  What do we learn about the woman?  We know she is well into middle age and is probably coming to or from work.  She is annoyed with the teen who won’t give up his seat.  All that from one sentence.

But suppose we replace the teen with an adult.  The woman “with a stifled smile, watches a fly perch on the head of a man in a crisp suit reading The Wall Street Journal.”  We’ve lost the emotion of annoyance but have introduced the woman’s sense of humor.  We’ve made it clearer that it is rush hour, and probably morning rush hour because the man’s suit is crisp.

Which details are important to the story?  Only the writer knows where this story is going, so only the writer knows which details are “telling,” that is leading readers to certain inferences without the writer naming them.  Most details should give greater depth of understanding to the reader.

But life is full of random, insignificant details, and some of those should be included too, like the fly on a man’s head or like a robotic vacuum cleaner zigzagging across a floor.

How do we write characters’ thoughts?

When we are writing about a character who is thinking, how do we write that character’s thoughts?

  • Do we write: Sophie drove up to the fast food window.  She thought, “Should I order the small or the medium fries?”  She pondered the consequences.

 

  • Or do we write: Sophie drove up to the fast food window.  She thought, should I order the small or the medium fries?  She pondered the consequences.

 

  • Or do we write:  Sophie drove up to the fast food window.  Should I order the small or the medium fries?  What will my weight be?

 

  • Or do we write: Sophie drove up to the fast food window.  Should I order the teeny-weeney barely-break-my-diet small fries or the back-to-size-14 medium fries?  What will the bathroom scales scream when I get home?  Oh you of little will power.

The first example is a combination of direct thought followed by indirect thought.  The direct thought is in quotation marks to set it off as thought.  This is an approach to showing thinking which was commonly used until the 20th century but which is rarely used today.

The second example is indirect thought.  This way of handling thought dominated the 20th century.  The thought is introduced by the words “She thought” or “She pondered,” but no quotation marks are used.

Another form of indirect thought is italics which were used by some 20th century writers and still are used by some contemporary writers.  With italics, there is no no misinterpreting which words are thoughts.  But increasingly, writers have dropped the italics.

The fourth example is also indirect thought, but all tags of thinking (she thought, she pondered) and all print markings (quotation marks, italics) are eliminated.  More so than in the other three forms, we hear the thoughts of the character only, not the writer.  Of course the writer has put those thoughts in the character’s head, but the thoughts are filtered through the personality of the character.

This last form is the most powerful because the writer is unobtrusive.  The writer is like a puppeteer without the strings.  He is still opening and closing Kermit’s mouth, but not with his hand–with an invisible wi-fi connection.  We, the readers, forget there is someone orchestrating this story.  We are aware only of the character and his or her thoughts filtered through his or her language and personality.

Compare this last approach to the one used by Mary Shelley in Frankenstein.  The monster tells his story to his creator, Victor, who in turn tells the story to the ship captain who in turn writes all this in letter form to his sister.  With so many filters, whose thoughts are we hearing directly?  Hard to say.

The approach without tags and print markings is more like hearing Hamlet on stage, alone, thinking aloud.  No apparent filters separate us from Hamlet’s thoughts.  Like a soliloquy, this kind of indirect thought is dramatic and—so far—as close as writers can come to eliminating their own presence in their narratives.

For more on how to write characters’ thoughts, read How Fiction Works by James Wood.

 

Do you use metaphors? How about similes?

I don’t use metaphors or similes when I write fiction.  I’ve been aware of this for a couple of years, and so made a resolution to incorporate more metaphors and similes into my writing, especially my fiction writing.  But I have had little success.

Now I know why.

When I insert a metaphor or simile into narration, it reminds readers that an author is writing what they are reading.  A metaphor or simile draws readers away from the story line to consider a comparison.  A metaphor or simile interrupts the flow of writing and takes readers out of the story to consider the meaning of or the aptness of the figure of speech.

And I don’t want that.What I want, as an author, is for my readers to become “one” with my story, to find my story so real, so compelling, that they “live” in the story, unaware of the real world around them.  Metaphors and similes force the reader to leave the story—momentarily, true—and enter the real world to think about the figure of speech.  The flow is broken.

Two exceptions exist. One is that it is okay to include a metaphor or simile in either the spoken words of a character or in his or her thoughts.  Once your smile to me was wine, a character could think as she looks across the table to her long-time husband.  Or a mother beset with children’s demands, a ringing phone, and a dog’s whine could say, “My life is like a soap opera.”  In these situations—thinking and speaking—metaphors and similes still interrupt the flow of the story if the reader needs to think about the comparisons.  But they can seem organic if a character uses them.

Another exception is when the figure of speech is a cliché that is readily understood and needs no consideration.  When a character says, “That water is as cold as ice,” or when another character thinks, I smell a rat, we needn’t think about the comparison because we have heard it many times before and readily understand it.

Of course some writers do use metaphors and similes successfully, especially when a story is told in the first person.  If you have read any of Raymond Chandler’s stories about his famous detective, Philip Marlowe, you have encountered hundreds of figures of speech because the character of Marlow thinks in similes and metaphors.  Those stories are told in first person point of view, so the figures of speech form part of the personality of the narrator.

How about you?  Do you use similes and metaphors?  Do you agree with me that these figures of speech interrupt the flow of narration?