The current chapter focuses on essays, pieces of persuasive writing developed around defined topics. This genre’s persuasiveness rests in large part on its logical structure, inclusion of quality evidentiary support, and consistent design, as explained herein; hence, essay writing calls for planning, researching, synthesizing, and revising. Although essays are generally considered a form of academic rather than technical writing, the division is not absolute, and the prevalence of essay assignments in both writing and other university-level courses merits our focus on them here.
While reading this chapter, keep in mind that college essays typically require use of a formal writing style, although the specifics may vary depending on the particular assignment and area of study. For an overview of formal writing guidelines, see the George Mason University Writing Center’s (2017) handout entitled “Reducing Informality in Academic Writing” (https://writingcenter.gmu.edu/guides/reducing-informality-in-academic-writing).
Essays can be divided into two broad types: expository and argumentative essays. To define these categories using information adapted from Student Academic Success Services, Queen’s University (2018b, para. 13), expository essays explain—they teach, illustrate, or clarify a subject for a reader—while argumentative essays make claims and seek to convince a reader to accept a position or point of view.
Focusing an Essay
For an essay topic to be manageable, its focus must be narrow enough so that it can be addressed adequately within the word or page count available; however, the topic should not be so narrow so as to impede your research efforts. When deciding on a topic, conduct initial research using library or internet resources to get a sense of current scholarship in the area, as well as points of agreement and contention, which may lead you to a focused direction for research. To pinpoint your particular interest in a topic, you might also consider using listing, mind mapping, outlining, freewriting, looping, or questioning, the brainstorming strategies described in the “Maintaining a Productive Writing Schedule” chapter of this textbook. Talking with your instructor or a librarian about a topic may also help you decide a paper’s focus.
What other methods could you use to narrow the focus of an essay?
Figure 1, a multi-page handout adapted from the Writing and Communication Centre, University of Waterloo (n.d.a, pp. 2-3), illustrates the process of narrowing an essay topic.
A well-written paper depends on a strong topic that is focused and specific. To get there, you need to develop some topic ideas, choose the best one, and narrow that topic further.
Developing A Topic
Researching your subject, brainstorming ideas, and sharing your ideas with others are three steps that can help you develop a strong topic.
Do your research
Doing preliminary research will help you to discover what people who work on the topic are interested in or concerned about.
There are countless ways to brainstorm ideas for a topic; below are three common approaches.
- Freewriting: Jot down ideas without revising or proofreading
- Questioning: Write down questions you have about your topic without revising or proofreading
- Mapping: Starting with a main topic, write down subtopics that come to mind, drawing links that show how the different subtopics relate.
Talk about your ideas
Talking to others helps you to understand your ideas from a reader’s perspective. It can help you refine the topic or even move in a new direction.
Narrowing Your Topic
Narrowing your topic makes your work more manageable and your paper more likely to succeed. A good paper takes a smaller portion of a larger issue or problem and investigates that part in depth. Narrowing your topic allows you to choose a problem that is specific enough to research with vigour. Below is an example of the process:
Move from abstract to concrete
A manageable topic is concrete. As we narrow the scope of a topic, the subject matter moves from abstract concepts to ideas that are more precise. Let’s use bicycles, again, as our example.
Main topic: Bicycles
Subtopics: Design, Safety, Health impacts, Charity drives, Bicycle usage, Bicycles and education, Reuse, Infrastructure, Environmental impacts, Policies, Bicycles and urban development, Bicycles and commercial products, Bicycle culture
Although bicycles are concrete “things,” the word bicycles could mean different things to different people. These ideas, such as design, bicycle culture, or infrastructure, are subtopics of “bicycles.”
Add specific details
As you narrow in on one subtopic, the number of subtopics decreases:
Revised main topic: Bicycles and policies
- safety standards for bicycle design
- safety gear policies
- urban development policies and bike lanes
- road policies and cyclists
Tip: Is it narrow enough? In our last example, notice that when you begin to narrow a large topic, the initial subtopics that come up are still broad, general ideas. The more you narrow, the more specific your descriptions become. You can use the traditional journalistic questions (Who, What, Where, When, Why) to help you move towards more specific topics:
- road building policies?
- building zone policies?
- other infrastructure?
- metropolitan areas?
- medium-sized cities?
- small cities?
- construction companies?
- planning committees?
Using these questions to target the subject matter, we might narrow the topic, bicycle lanes and urban development, even further to the following: policies related to bike lanes in mid-sized metropolitan areas.
As the handout illustrates, deciding upon a suitably narrow essay topic is a process that may require several attempts to complete. Regardless, devoting time to this initial planning process is a wise investment since a defined essay topic will usefully guide a paper’s development.
Structuring an Essay
Essays, like letters and memos, follow an introduction, body, and conclusion structure, although these sections may also be subdivided. The sections need to be fully developed to coherently deliver an essay’s central message to readers. They also need to be proportionate to an essay’s overall length: for instance, a brief essay requires a brief introduction and conclusion, whereas an extended essay can accommodate a longer introduction and conclusion. In general, budget 10 percent of the paper’s word count for the introduction, 80 percent for the body, and 10 percent for the conclusion.
Composing an Introduction Section
An essay introduction establishes context for the reader by commencing discussion of the document’s central message, around which all the other content will coalesce, and by revealing how the essay will unfold. To be more specific, the introduction delimits the scope and purpose of the essay so that readers understand its direction, range of coverage, and intent.
The context-setting information provided at the beginning of an introduction might include definitions of key terms that will be used throughout the rest of the paper, a summation of how something works, essential background on the topic to be addressed in the piece, or articulation of circumstances pertinent to a problem—perhaps a concise discussion of historical events surrounding the topic, previous research conducted in the area, or treatment of the topic in the news. A writer has considerable leeway when deciding how to articulate context-setting information, and inventiveness in this section can help draw readers into the essay. Schall (2014, para. 7), for instance, describes how narration, storytelling in other words, can be used to stimulate reader interest in an essay. The following examples, adapted from Schall (para. 7), present the initial lines from two essay openings, one focused on the “generic nature of America’s highway exit ramp services” and the other on shape constancy in relationship to human visual perception, to demonstrate the interest that narration can inspire.
- The observation struck me slowly, a growing sense of déjà vu. I was driving the endless miles of Interstate 70 crossing Kansas when I began to notice that the exits all looked the same. → Notice how the writer uses I to communicate his/her experience.
- Our eyes often receive pictures of the world that are contrary to physical reality: a pencil in a glass of water miraculously bends and railroad tracks converge in the distance. → Notice how writer omits I but is nevertheless reflective about the subject matter.
Regardless of the flavor of context-setting information you provide in an essay, the information should help readers connect with the text’s central message. Therefore, avoid beginning an essay with an overly general statement, such as “People argue about many controversial topics,” that could apply to any number of papers. This kind of nondescript material wastes readers’ time.
An essay’s central message is delivered in its thesis statement, a sentence, sometimes more, that articulates the theme of the paper and the writer’s view on it. The thesis thus explains the paper’s controlling idea by specifying what the writer has to say about a particular topic and by clarifying what will and will not be covered. The thesis statement is typically placed at or near the end of the introduction to initiate the reader’s progression into the rest of the paper. Schall (para. 8) explains that a well-written thesis statement should be inexorably tied to the essay it accompanies, carefully constructed, and revealingly focused: “concretely announce the most important elements of your topic and suggest your fundamental approach—even point [readers] toward the paper’s conclusion if you can.” The following two thesis statement examples, adapted from Schall (para. 9), fit this description.
- This paper reviews the problem of Pennsylvania’s dwindling landfill space, evaluates the success of recycling as a solution to this problem, and challenges the assumption that Pennsylvania will run out of landfill space by the year 2024.
- As this paper will show, the fundamental problem behind the Arab-Israeli conflict is the lack of a workable solution to the third stage of partition, which greatly hinders negotiations for peace.
Notice that each example indicates the paper’s unifying theme and the writer’s viewpoint on the matter.
Developing an effective thesis statement for an essay requires work on a writer’s part. Try using these steps, adapted from the Writing and Communication Centre, University of Waterloo (n.d.c, “Building Effective Thesis Statements”), when building a thesis statement to make the task more straightforward.
- Read the assignment directions carefully so you are clear about the expectations.
- Conduct preliminary research to gather and organize information about your topic.
- Construct a tentative thesis statement. These questions may help you focus your research into a tentative thesis.
- What is new about this topic?
- What is important about this topic?
- What is interesting about this topic?
- What have others missed in their discussions about this topic?
- Conduct additional research once you have narrowed your focus in order to find evidence to support your thesis. As you research, your understanding of the topic may further develop and evolve.
- Refine your thesis statement so it clearly expresses your angle or position.
As this list points out, an effective thesis statement typically develops over time and with concerted effort.
A thesis statement should fulfill the functions set out in its definition otherwise it will not guide the development of an essay. The following list, adapted from McKeever (n.d.c, paras. 12, 16, 17) and Sweetland Center for Writing, University of Michigan (2020a, para. 8), identifies markers of weak thesis statements.
- A simple observation (Example: NASA scientists regularly conduct experiments in space.) Although an observation may be true, it cannot initiate a lively and extended discussion of the multiple views surrounding a complex topic.
- A statement of fact (Example: Some people are opposed to stem cell research.) To determine whether a statement is a fact, ask if anyone could reasonably disagree with it. If everyone would agree that the statement is true, it is a fact, meaning that it is not open to interpretation or discussion.
- A broad generalization (Example: Politics requires working for the people.) It may seem that a broad thesis statement creates the possibility for numerous essay directions, but broad issues contain too many specific arguments within them, and making a broad claim leads to making a shallow argument.
- A question (Example: Why are self-service checkout machines popular in stores?) A thesis must be phrased as a statement, although you might decide to narrow the focus of an essay by devising a research question (a question that a research project seeks to answer). A thesis statement answers a research question in sentence form.
- A misleading statement (Example: This essay will prove that a person who is old enough to vote and serve in the armed forces should be allowed to drink alcohol too.) The word prove points to a fact, something that is indisputable, and a thesis cannot be a statement of fact. More troubling about the example, however, is that an essay cannot irrefutably prove something, so the statement is misleading.
- A statement that uses figurative language (Example: The runaway train of individualism must be controlled and not allowed to jump the tracks and obliterate innocent bystanders.) A thesis statement should enable a reader to clearly and immediately identify the focus of an essay. Figurative language, such as that used in the example, is wordy, vague, and quite frankly confusing, so avoid it.
- An unfocused statement (Example: I think the inconsistent penalties for drunk driving, even if enhanced, because of the impact of drinking and driving on families who lose their children, fathers, mothers, or other family members to death and/or disability, are not strict enough in the various states, allowing drunk drivers to go free although there is a high risk of offending again.) A thesis statement that contains multiple clauses and lists is confusing. Oftentimes, such statements also present details that should be discussed in body paragraphs. Remember that a focused thesis statement identifies and delimits the direction of an essay, as this revised example does: The United States needs a consistent, national law that strips drunk drivers of driving privileges for five years after their first offense. Notice that the revised example omits I think since the phrase is redundant; the writer’s view is implicit in the sentence. In general, avoid the phrases I think, I feel, and I believe since they add unnecessary words to an essay and give the appearance of uncertainty.
Prevent the thesis statement problems listed by focusing on a specific topic and articulating your view on that topic in a clear, concise, and unambiguous way. In addition, be prepared to revise the thesis statement as necessary during your essay’s development.
Depending on assignment specifications, disciplinary conventions, educational context, or authorial choice, a writer may integrate a route map, a brief outline of the specific topics the essay will cover and in what order, in the thesis statement or provide this information in a separate sentence or sentences at the end of the introduction. The order of topics in the route map should match the sequence in which they are addressed in the body of the essay; the route map thus serves as a skeleton outline of the essay by giving readers a sense of how the text will be organized.
The essay introduction structure described here takes the form of the inverted triangle presented in Figure 2, with the reader connecting with broad context-setting information before moving on to a more narrow discussion of the essay’s focus area and organizational structure provided in a thesis statement and route map.
Figure 2. Moving from general to specific information as an essay introduction proceeds
Figure 3, adapted from the Academic Writing Help Centre, Student Academic Success Service at the University of Ottawa (2016c, para. 10), shows the introduction elements at work in a sample paragraph.
Figure 3. An introduction with context-setting, a thesis statement, and a route map
If an introduction is clearly focused, comprehensibly organized, and grammatically and mechanically sound, it can inspire a reader’s interest in the remainder of the essay.
Composing a Body Section
The body of an essay expounds upon the central theme articulated in the text’s thesis statement until that theme is fully developed. The body section is divided into paragraphs, and each paragraph centers on one main point that unifies the content of the paragraph and is articulated through an explicit or implied topic sentence. A topic sentence encapsulates a paragraph’s focus, and in technical writing, explicit topic sentences typically appear at the beginnings of paragraphs to expediently deliver needed information to readers. Using this structure, everything that follows the topic sentence in a paragraph—examples, illustrations, explanations, quotations, paraphrases, summaries, reasons—supports the point made in the topic sentence. If a writer instead opts to use an implied topic sentence, he or she may discuss a source, viewpoint, question, or piece of evidence slowly in the paragraph, allowing the paragraph’s momentum to develop the text’s key takeaway. The reader is consequently responsible for inferring the paragraph’s topic sentence in this situation. Whether the topic sentence is explicit or implied, the reader should leave the paragraph with a clear understanding of its main point.
To successfully communicate a paragraph’s main point and give readers a sense of the paragraph’s direction, a topic sentence must be specific. A topic sentence that simply announces the subject matter of a paragraph—“In this paragraph, I will discuss…”—does not fit this description, as the professionals at Student Academic Success Services, Queen’s University (2018a, para. 5) explain. To devise a precise alternative, think carefully about the paragraph’s key takeaway and how that point ties in with surrounding paragraphs and ultimately links back to the essay’s thesis statement; then try to articulate the key takeaway in one focused and unifying umbrella sentence underneath which all the other points in the paragraph fall.
In the process of developing an essay’s central theme through the inclusion of focused topic sentences and relevant and substantive follow-up sentences, the body section of an essay aims to be compelling: for example, an author might try to convince readers to adopt his or her position on an issue; to take a careful look at a text and how it is constructed; to contemplate the layers of complexity surrounding an area of investigation; or, more generally, to consider the well-informed nature of the essay and its fluid delivery of information. The body section thus involves persuasion. To address an essay’s central theme in a comprehensive and fair way, a writer who aims for maximum persuasiveness will speak to the multifaceted perspectives surrounding points of discussion rather than focusing exclusively on his or her own viewpoint. The latter signals bias in an argument, a situation to avoid in academic and technical writing.
Writers may employ certain patterns of development to present information in body paragraphs so that it is logical and compelling. The following list, adapted from Student Academic Success Services, Queen’s University (2018b, paras. 12, 17-21), describes a number of these patterns.
- Description: Conveys specific details about the look, taste, smell, sound, or feel of something.
- Illustration/Example: Illustrates a general concept with specific examples or uses an example as evidence to support a point.
- Spatial: Describes how something looks in relationship to how it occupies space (e.g., inside to outside, top to bottom, front to back, or left to right).
- Comparison/Contrast: Examines two or more things to determine their similarities and differences using clearly defined criteria.
- Cause/Effect: Examines the causes that have led to certain results.
- Evaluation: Measures something by examining it in relation to a given set of criteria; may discuss the thing’s strengths and weaknesses in light of this evaluation.
- Classification: Examines something by dividing it into categories or subtypes.
- Sequence/Process: Explains how something works in sequential or step-by-step fashion.
- Narration: Tells a story in chronological order.
- Definition: Explains the distinguishing features of something.
- Order of Importance: Places the most important information in a strategic place to affect reader perception.
Writers may combine these patterns when developing body paragraphs or use them separately; assignment directions may also specify the use of a particular pattern in an essay.
Figure 4, adapted from the Academic Writing Help Centre, Student Academic Success Service at the University of Ottawa (2016a, para. 11), demonstrates elements of persuasion at work—in this case a viewpoint (claim) supported with a reason and evidence—in an argumentative body paragraph.
What do you think of the paragraph? Apart from the argument elements identified in the paragraph, what else helps to make it persuasive?
Figure 4. A body paragraph containing a claim supported with a reason and evidence
While Figure 4 uses a quotation as evidence to support a claim, evidence in body paragraphs can take many forms: for example, summaries, paraphrases, tables, figures, equations, anecdotes, personal experiences, facts, statistics, and numerical and word field data.
Composing a Conclusion Section
A conclusion emphasizes an essay’s central message by reiterating its thesis (without repeating it word for word) and summarizing its key points. Because a conclusion brings an essay to a cohesive end, it should not discuss new information; instead, it should follow on logically from content already covered. A conclusion’s very definition—“an articulated conviction arrived at on the basis of the evidence you have presented” (Schall, 2014, para. 15)—points to its unifying function. The following conclusion sample, adapted from Schall (para. 16) and excerpted from the paper “Exercise in the Prevention and Treatment of Osteoporosis in Women,” reflects directly on the paper’s hypothesis, stated in the introduction, and presents a logical realization of the paper’s goals.
The majority of evidence presented in this paper supports the hypothesis that exercise positively affects bone mineral density in both premenopausal and postmenopausal women. Importantly, exercise has been shown to increase bone mineral density in premenopausal women even after the teenage years, and it helps preserve the bone mass achieved in the subsequent decades. Evidence also shows that exercise adds a modest amount of bone mass to the postmenopausal skeleton. As these findings demonstrate, women of all ages can benefit from regular weight-bearing exercise, an increased intake of calcium-rich foods, and—for postmenopausal women—the maintenance of adequate estrogen levels. Women of all ages can prevent osteoporosis or lessen its severity by making appropriate lifestyle choices.
If you experience a roadblock when constructing a coherent conclusion such as this, Schall (para. 14) recommends reviewing the essay’s introduction and body to revisit what the paper set out to do and how it accomplished its aims or reviewing these sections to determine the paper’s contributions to the particular research area addressed.
While focusing squarely on the essay’s central message and the document’s particular purpose, a conclusion may also discuss how the essay’s findings compare with other research in the area; emphasize the implications of the findings (what they mean and why they are important—the so what, in other words); consider the limitations of the research conducted for the essay; or make recommendations for further research. Again, these elements should link back to the essay’s central message so readers understand the context for their discussion. Here is a conclusion example, adapted from the Academic Writing Help Centre, Student Academic Success Service at the University of Ottawa (2016b, para. 7), that emphasizes the essay’s central message and summarizes its key points before underscoring the implications of the findings and proposing a solution to the issue discussed in the paper.
In the end, there is no way to deny the seriousness of the environmental threat. If the current clear-cutting practices continue, the Ungolu rainforest will be unable to support the red-tailed swallow, and it will become extinct. Without this bird, the tree-eating corkscrew beetle will have nothing to stop its spread, and it will disrupt the rainforest’s ecosystem even further. Although the inhabitants of the area request the commercialization of land and wood to encourage the economic development of Ungolu, initiatives with regard to ecotourism and biological agriculture can be pursued to ensure both the growth of the economy and the survival of the red-tailed swallow. Because of the dire environmental consequences of its extinction, it is vital that this species be preserved—and it is possible to do so with a reasonable amount of effort and resources. Indeed, the best way to encourage the inhabitants of the area to let the Ungolu rainforest recover is for northern countries to stop purchasing the products obtained from logging practices and to subsidize the local initiatives discussed in this paper, otherwise the local population will not be motivated to make a significant change. Without quick and decisive action, rainforest tracts will be eliminated, and the inhabitants of the area will be even worse off than before the introduction of logging.
The implications and call to action discussed in this conclusion coherently link back to the introduction and body sections of the essay.
Gathering Quality Evidence for an Essay
In addition to a logical structure, an essay’s effectiveness largely hinges on the quality of its evidentiary support. Evidence that is inaccurate, untrustworthy, irrelevant, insufficient, dated, or flawed in some other way is unlikely to convince a reader to adopt a writer’s perspective and may actually inspire the opposite effect. On the other hand, sound evidence can contribute to the persuasiveness of an essay and demonstrate a writer’s research ability. While the “Writing Topic Proposals” chapter of this textbook supplies tips for evaluating the quality of sources and the evidence they provide, the multipage handout in Figure 5 (adapted from McKeever, n.d.a) offers additional points to consider.
Does anything on the handout surprise you? Why or why not?
You might decide to use the checklist items in Figure 5 to evaluate sources of information for your essay. Figure 6 (Webber, 2018, p. 1) presents an alternative tool: a visual scorecard for source evaluation.
The instruments in figures 5 and 6 can help you apply consistent evaluation criteria to potential sources of evidentiary information for an essay.
Incorporating Quality Evidence into an Essay
After locating quality evidentiary support for an essay, you must incorporate it into your text in a logical and ethical way so that readers understand its presence, its origin, and how it relates to your own ideas. Quotation, paraphrase, and summary offer three means by which to integrate evidence into an essay.
Before attempting to quote, paraphrase, or summarize a source, make sure you fully understand the text’s meaning and feel confident about discussing it. If you are unclear about what the source text says, do not try to integrate its information into your essay; such confusion can damage the persuasiveness of a paper since savvy readers may detect the issue. Instead, read the text several times slowly to grasp its meaning or discuss it with your classmates and instructor before attempting to incorporate its information into an essay. Class discussions about confounding texts can oftentimes provide clarification and fruitful avenues for writing projects.
When writers quote, they use the exact words from source texts, enclose those words in quotation marks, and cite and reference the sources to document the origin of information. Quotations can provide telling evidence in a paper if they are used sparingly and strategically. Conversely, their overuse can affect the flow of a piece of writing and give readers the impression that the writer cannot formulate his or her own thoughts about a text. Table 1 explains when to use and avoid quotations.
Table 1. Reasons to use and avoid quotations when writing
|Use Quotations||Avoid Quotations|
|When the language of a source is the focus of your project or investigation||When the quotation repeats rather than expands on the point you are making|
|When a text’s language is especially expressive||When you simply want to fill space|
|When the precise words of an authority give credence to your argument||When the quotation makes rather than supports your point|
|When exact wording is necessary for technical accuracy||When you cannot weave the quotation into your own text in a cohesive manner|
If you decide to use quotations in an essay, take care to integrate them cohesively.
Quotations cannot on their own provide compelling evidentiary support for an essay; a writer must consequently explain their presence and relevance to readers. In other words, a writer must contextualize a quotation so readers understand its use. The quotation sandwich offers a helpful method for working quotations into papers in a cohesive way. Using this technique, a writer introduces a quotation, provides the quotation, and comments on the quotation’s relationship to the paper. Figure 7, adapted from McKeever (n.d.b), demonstrates use of the quotation sandwich approach.
The sandwiching method in shown in Figure 7 can also be used with paraphrases, summaries, visuals, and lists to interweave those elements into a document so it flows together effectively.
Using a quotation from the first page of Charles Dickens’ 1859 novel A Tale of Two Cities—“It was the best of times, it was the worst of times”—textbook writers Last and Neveu (2019, pp. 236-237) explain that the seamless integration, signal phrase, and colon methods can also be used to integrate quotations into a text in a cohesive manner. The following list, adapted from Last and Neveu, explains and exemplifies these methods.
- Seamless Integration: Embed the quotation or parts of it into your sentence so that if you read the text aloud, listeners cannot distinguish the quotation from the rest of the sentence.
Example: Charles Dickens begins his 1859 novel with the paradoxical observation that the eighteenth century was both “the best of times” and “the worst of times” (p. 1).
- Signal Phrase: Use a signal phrase (author + reporting verb) to introduce the quotation, clearly indicating that the quotation originates from a specific source.
Example: Describing the eighteenth century in his 1859 novel, Charles Dickens observes, “It was the best of times, it was the worst of times” (p. 1). → Notice that a comma follows observes since the verb signals the beginning of a quotation.
- Colon: Use a colon to introduce a quotation when your own introductory words constitute an independent clause (i.e., a complete sentence); the colon emphasizes the quotation.
Example: In his 1859 novel, Charles Dickens defines the eighteenth century as a time of paradox: “It was the best of times, it was the worst of times” (p. 1).
Any of these techniques can be used in conjunction with a quotation sandwich for maximum cohesive effect.
Although a quotation extracts the exact words from a source, a writer might need to adjust the quoted material to interleave it into his or her own text so the language flows together in a concise, grammatical manner that makes sense to readers. For example, the writer might need to alter the verb tense of the quotation so it matches the tense used in the rest of the sentence or insert a clarifying comment into the quotation to help readers understand its meaning. Both of these situations call for the use of brackets (i.e., [ ]). Ellipses, three periods in a row (…), are used to show that irrelevant words have been omitted from the middle of a quotation; four periods are used when a sentence or more is omitted from the middle of a quotation. Instead of quoting full sentences, writers oftentimes integrate short phrases or parts of sentences into their texts, using ellipses in these circumstances. If a writer omits words from the beginning or ending of a quotation, the ellipses are unnecessary.
Last and Neveu (2019, p. 238) call upon the following text from Petroski (2014) to demonstrate the use of brackets and ellipses in action. The text is a long quotation (40+ words), so it begins on a new line and is indented rather than enclosed in quotation marks. When citing a long quotation such as this, place the citation information (in this case, the page number of the quotation) outside the final mark of punctuation at the end of the quotation. These are standard conventions for incorporating long quotations into a piece of writing. The examples that accompany the text are adapted from Last and Neveu (2019, p. 238).
Engineers are always striving for success, but failure is seldom far from their minds. In the case of Canadian engineers, this focus on potentially catastrophic flaws in a design is rooted in a failure that occurred over a century ago. In 1907 a bridge of enormous proportions collapsed while still under construction in Quebec. Planners expected that when completed, the 1,800-foot main span of the cantilever bridge would set a world record for long-span bridges of all types, many of which had come to be realized at a great price. According to one superstition, a bridge would claim one life for every million dollars spent on it. In fact, by the time the Quebec Bridge would finally be completed, in 1917, almost ninety construction workers would have been killed in the course of building the $25 million structure. (p. 175)
Petroski, H. (2014). To forgive design: Understanding failure. Belknap Press.
- Brackets can be used to signal a change to the verb tense in a quotation:
Petroski (2014) recounts the story of a large bridge that was constructed at the beginning of the twentieth century in Quebec, saying that “by the time [it was done], in 1917, almost ninety construction workers [were] killed in the course of building the $25 million structure” (p. 175).
- An ellipsis can be used to signal the omission of words from a quotation:
“Planners expected that when completed, the…bridge would set a world record for long-span bridges of all types,” according to Petroski (2014, p. 175).
- Brackets can be used to signal a clarifying insertion into a quotation:
“Planners expected that when completed, the…cantilever bridge [built using structures that were anchored at one end and projected horizontally at the other] would set a world record for long-span bridges of all types,” explained Petroski (2014, p. 175).
Brackets and ellipses help authors cohesively incorporate quotations into their own writing.
When source material contains a misspelling or other composition blunder, signal the error’s presence to readers in a quotation by enclosing the italicized word sic (Latin for thus) in brackets and placing it right after the error. Here is an example of the notation used in a sentence.
According to Jones’ (2019) Best Journal review, the book is “an important contribution to gender studies, suceeding [sic] where others have fallen short” (p. 2).
The notation informs the readers that the mistake appeared in the original text.
Lastly, when quoting text that already contains quotation marks, change the internal double quotation marks (“ ”) to the single variety (‘ ’) to help readers distinguish the elements. Here is an example that illustrates this use of punctuation.
In their journal article “Fish Tales: Combatting Fake Science in Popular Media,” authors Thaler and Shiffman (2015, p. 88) classify “‘bad science’ as unsound conclusions drawn from invalid premises; ‘pseudoscience’ as sound conclusions drawn from invalid premises; and ‘fake science’ as unsound conclusions drawn from invalid premises.”
Help readers understand how you have integrated quotations into your own sentences by using the standard conventions discussed herein.
Paraphrasing is another technique that can be used to integrate evidence from sources into an essay. When paraphrasing, a writer articulates a text’s ideas using his or her own words and sentence structures and cites and references the original source. This technique has a number of benefits, as the following list explains.
- To compose a paraphrase, a writer must have a strong command of a source. Thus, inclusion of a paraphrase in an essay demonstrates that a writer has engaged actively with the source and can discuss it in an informed way using his or her own words.
- A writer can oftentimes incorporate a paraphrase into an essay in a more straightforward way than a quotation by maintaining his or her own writing style.
- If a source uses complex technical terms, a writer can translate this wording for a general audience of essay readers by articulating the ideas in a paraphrase.
Paraphrase when a text’s ideas are more important than how a source communicates them. Also bear in mind that paraphrasing and summarizing are the norm in much academic and technical writing, while quotations are used sparingly if at all.
To be certain you are using your own words and sentence structures when paraphrasing, follow these steps.
- Read the source text carefully to make sure you understand it.
- Decide which short section of text (a sentence or two or a brief paragraph) you intend to paraphrase.
- Note down key points about the text on a separate piece of paper using your own words.
- Put the source text away so you cannot see it.
- Write your own version of what the original text said using your notes.
- Leave the paraphrase alone for a while, and then revisit it to see if it can be improved.
- Check that the paraphrase expresses the overall idea of the source text in a new form.
- Enclose any unique terms borrowed from the original source in quotation marks.
- Provide an in-text citation and accompanying reference list entry for the original text.
The example below, adapted from Last and Neveu (2019, p. 239), follows the principles conveyed in the list while paraphrasing the final two sentences of the Petroski (2014) text presented earlier.
At the end of its construction, the large cantilever bridge in Quebec cost $25 million, explains Petroski (2014, p. 175), but the cost in lives far exceeded the prediction of one death for each million dollars spent. While the planners hoped that the bridge would set a global record, its enduring reputation was much grimmer.
An unacceptable paraphrase is one that simply replaces source language with synonyms. To avoid this form of plagiarism, use the steps listed here to express the meaning of a source in your own words.
Summarizing, when a writer communicates a text’s central idea or theme in his or her own words while excluding details, is another technique that can be used to integrate source evidence into an essay. Although the “Reading Actively” chapter of this textbook contains detailed summary-writing guidance, Figure 8, a handout adapted from the Robert Gillespie Academic Skills Centre, University of Toronto Mississauga (n.d.), lists essential reminders for constructing a summary.
In what instances might you use summaries in essays?
Figure 8. Steps for composing a summary
The following example, adapted from Last and Neveu (2019, p. 239), follows the principles discussed herein when summarizing the Petroski (2014) text.
According to Petroski (2014, p. 175), a large bridge built in Quebec during the early part of the twentieth century claimed the lives of dozens of workers during its construction. The collapse of the bridge early in its construction represented a pivotal design failure for Canadian engineers that shaped the profession.
As the sample illustrates, a summary condenses an extended text down to its essential meaning, providing readers with an overview; a summary also supplies readers with a citation and reference for the source text.
Synthesizing Ideas for an Essay
Although this chapter has discussed quoting, paraphrasing, and summarizing as means to integrate source information into essays, before you can use these techniques to their fullest potential, you must think carefully about the points your essay sources make, how they concur or disagree with one another, and how they connect to and extend your own ideas about an essay topic. Collectively, these activities facilitate synthesis, or connecting with sources by responding to their ideas and research in a piece of writing in order to contribute your own unique insights to the area of focus. Many composition scholars liken synthesis to engaging in conversation with sources since it involves establishing how sources relate to one another and to your own thoughts about a subject.
Using Summary to Synthesize
To demonstrate synthesis in action, we will explore a scenario adapted from Excelsior Online Writing Lab (2020f). Imagine you are researching a topic. You will likely encounter a variety of sources about the subject that contain different information and points of view, and you will need to compare and evaluate this information to draw your own conclusions—a process that leads to the synthesis of new ideas. It may help, at this point, to compare synthesizing to analyzing. Whereas analysis breaks something into parts to examine how they work together, synthesis combines ideas to form new ones. Regardless, synthesizing is not the same as summarizing; summary involves concisely stating someone else’s ideas, while synthesis is a critical and creative process in which you compare or combine the ideas you have read to form new ones. Although synthesis can involve summarizing ideas from other texts in order to compare them and draw a conclusion, the result is a new idea.
To continue the scenario, we will read two passages that express different points of view about bike lanes: first, we will summarize the authors’ main ideas, and then we will compare them and draw a conclusion. The author of this first passage is in favor of bike lanes.
Bike lanes are an essential feature of modern, urban life. Indeed, many urban residents have traded their cars for bicycles. Bicycling offers many advantages to driving: bicycles do not get stuck in traffic, run out of gas, break down often (and even when they do, repairs are inexpensive), need insurance, produce pollution, or receive parking tickets. They also offer an excellent way to add exercise to a busy schedule. Many cities across the nation have encouraged bicycling to cut down on traffic, accidents, and pollution and have added bike lanes to downtown areas to provide safe and speedy thruways for bicyclists, producing a net positive result for all parties.
We can summarize this argument by pulling out some keywords: bike lanes, advantages, urban, traffic, accidents, pollution, inexpensive, safe, and exercise. Putting this information together, we can summarize the author’s argument as follows.
Placing bike lanes in urban areas is beneficial because bicycling reduces traffic, accidents, and pollution and offers an inexpensive, safe, and healthy way to travel.
The author of the second passage opposes bike lanes, as this text reveals.
Bike lanes remove valuable space from already crowded inner-city streets. Urban areas already suffer from traffic and pedestrian congestion, and such overcrowding is worsened by the introduction of legions of reckless bicyclists. Many bicyclists also ignore street signs, causing additional accidents with cars and people. Furthermore, parked bicycles clutter congested sidewalks, making many areas impassable. These problems far outweigh the benefits of bicycling. People who do not want to drive can hop on a bus or subway and gain most of the benefits of bicycling without taking up precious space on the roads.
We can use several keywords to summarize this argument: bike lanes, urban, space, crowding, accidents, congested sidewalks, problems, buses, and subways. Combining this information leads to the following summary.
Placing bike lanes in urban areas is problematic because bicycles take up valuable space, create additional crowding, cause accidents, and congest sidewalks. Bike lanes can also be replaced with better alternatives, such as buses and subways.
Having summarized the passages, we can practice synthesizing by combining the two summaries and drawing a conclusion.
- In the first passage, the author argues that placing bike lanes in urban areas is beneficial because bicycling reduces traffic, accidents, and pollution and offers an inexpensive, safe, and healthy way to travel.
- Conversely, in passage two, the author contends that placing bike lanes in urban areas is problematic because bicycles take up valuable space, create additional crowding, cause accidents, and congest sidewalks. Bike lanes can also be replaced with better alternatives, such as buses and subways.
- Synthesis: These opposing viewpoints demonstrate that while bike lanes encourage a healthy, safe, and low-cost way to travel in cities, they also cause problems that need to be addressed through better urban planning.
The synthesis statement fuses the two passages by combining and comparing the two summaries and then drawing a conclusion that raises a new idea about the need for better urban planning to support bicycling.
Using a Matrix Tool to Synthesize
When exploring the connections among various sources for an essay, you might also decide to use a matrix tool to create a visual representation of source relationships. When using this type of tool, a writer groups common themes, arguments, or points raised in sources in tabular fashion to facilitate synthesis. Table 2 is an example of a synthesis matrix.
Table 2. A matrix tool to facilitate synthesis
|Theme, Argument, or Point 1:||Source 1:
|Theme, Argument, or Point 2:||Source 1:
|Theme, Argument, or Point 3:||Source 1:
When using a matrix tool, it is vital to consider your own thoughts regarding groupings in order to encourage synthesis, as the right column of the figure indicates.
Signaling Synthesis in an Essay
When synthesizing ideas in an essay, you can help readers understand how they connect by using sentence structures that signal relationships. Bruce and Gagich (2018, p. 93-94) explain that these sentence structures oftentimes point to a writer’s agreement or disagreement with sources, although you can also use them to discuss patterns of thinking, errors in logic, omission of points, or other matters that add to the research conversation. The textbook authors provide examples of sentence structure templates (adapted below) that can be used to establish synthesis.
- Synthesis that indicates agreement/support:
- Source A asserts…Source B agrees when stating…
- According to sources A and B…
- The combined conclusions of sources A and B seem to indicate that…
- The evidence shows that…
- Source A is correct that…However, source B’s point that…is also valid.
- Source A makes a convincing case when she argues…
- I agree with source A’s conclusion that…
- Synthesis that indicates disagreement/conflict:
- Source A asserts that…, while source B offers a different perspective by…
- Sources A and B disagree regarding…
- Contrary to what source A has argued, my view is that…
- I argue that X is the best option even though source B proposes a different solution.
- I would like to offer several objections to the opinions expressed by source A…
- While source B makes a strong argument, I would disagree with…because…
- Instead of focusing on…as source A does, source B emphasizes…
- Synthesis that adds to the conversation in other ways:
- While most of the experts on X see…as the primary cause of…, only source A acknowledges that there may be other…causes.
- When I began researching topic X, I expected to find…To my surprise, neither source A, B, nor C address this reason, which leads me to believe that…
- Because source A is an expert in the field of X, most others writing about X accede to A’s authority, but a closer examination of A reveals an important omission about X.
These templates demonstrate how you can weave together source information with your own thoughts to create new ideas about a topic.
Although synthesis is critical to developing an effective essay, you will also regularly call upon the skill when producing other types of writing assignments as well.
Formatting an Essay
As with any other type of document you write, design an essay with the principle of consistency in mind so that readers can concentrate on its content rather than on formatting variations. When producing an essay, use double spacing throughout, one-inch margins, and indentation to signal the beginnings of new paragraphs, unless you are told otherwise. This list, adapted from Lambert (2019, paras. 4-8), indicates other ways to stay consistent with design.
- Make sure your font and type size is the same throughout the entire paper. If you opt to use different fonts or type sizes for headings and body text, employ this design decision consistently.
- Use the same style bullet points throughout lists in the paper. Remember that numbers and letters indicate rank or sequence, whereas bullets do not.
- Design lists in a consistent manner. In general, capitalize the first letter of the first word in a list, and use punctuation at the end of full-sentence list items.
- Format all same-level headings the same way, using uniform design choices (bold or italic lettering), standardized positioning (center or left alignment), and a consistent pattern of capitalization.
- Apply the design principle of repetition when implementing color. If you decide to employ color in visuals, aim to use the same or a similar color in more than one visual.
Keep in mind that certain formatting conventions (e.g., heading design and placement) are associated with documentation styles. The “Reporting Research Outcomes” chapter of this textbook provides specific guidance on formatting documents using APA (American Psychological Association) style.
Developing an Essay Title
An essay’s title offers insight into the accompanying text’s direction, purpose, and content, so devise a precise title that is particular to the paper you are developing and is clearly written with an envisioned audience in mind. Implementing this piece of advice may mean fully drafting the essay before composing its title.
To elaborate on the previous paragraph while adapting advice provided by the Sweetland Center for Writing, University of Michigan (2020b, paras. 5, 11-16), readers typically find titles like “Essay One,” “Society and its Many Problems,” “A Picture is Worth a Thousand Words,” and “Technical Writing Assignment Two” unhelpful. These types of titles are simply too general to provide any needed context. To avoid such titles, think carefully about the essay’s thesis, research, and implications, and identify keywords that succinctly encapsulate these. Imagine, for instance, that you are writing an essay about animal behavior. You have a particular species to study, conduct relevant research, and have conclusions to offer. Here is your first attempt at an essay title: “Monkey Behavior.” This title says nothing about the kind of monkey or its distinctive behavior and does little to attract or inform the reader. Your second attempt is a little better: “The Effects of Sugar on Monkey Behavior.” This title is clearer and somewhat amusing. Regardless, it still does not offer many specifics or include key terms from the paper. Readers can already conjecture that sugar would have some effect on monkey behavior, so the title needs to be markedly more precise. Here is a revised version: “Sugar Stimulates Intensity of Tail-Twitch Social Behavior in Panamanian Monkeys.” This title contains specific terms, includes a clear location, and provides an explicit claim—information the reader can use to immediately identify the paper’s focus.
Developing Essay Headings
Create specific and informative headings for essay sections since headings signal a paper’s organization and scope and help readers follow the text’s development. So, rather than using the vague Body as a heading, divide the body section of the paper into segments organized by the main points covered in paragraphs, which should all relate back to the paper’s thesis statement, and give the sections explanatory headings. By reading an essay’s explanatory headings, the reader should be able to discern the general progression of the piece and what the essay sections cover.
Revising an Essay
Like any quality piece of extended writing, an essay requires time and effort to prepare, and revision is a key step in the composition process. Revision is most effectively completed in stages: a writer begins the process by looking for big-picture issues that might affect an essay’s coherent construction, then considers mid-level issues that can impact paragraph development, and finishes by checking for sentence-level errors that can influence reader understanding. The following list provides guiding questions that can be used during each stage of revision.
- Stage 1: Revising Big-Picture Items (adapted from Excelsior Online Writing Lab, 2020a)
- Do you have a clear thesis? Do you know what idea or perspective you want the audience to understand upon reading your essay?
- Is your essay well organized?
- Is each paragraph a building block in your essay: does it explain or support your thesis?
- Does the essay need a different shape? Do parts need to be moved?
- Do you fully explain and illustrate the main ideas of your paper?
- Does your introduction grab the reader’s interest?
- Does your conclusion leave the reader with an understanding of your point of view?
- What is your paper’s strength? What is its weakness?
- Stage 2: Revising Paragraphs (adapted from Excelsior Online Writing Lab, 2020b)
- Does each paragraph contain solid and specific information, vivid description, or examples that illustrate the point you are making?
- Can you add other facts, quotations, paraphrases, examples, or descriptions to more clearly illustrate or provide evidence for the points you are making?
- Can you delete any sentences, words, descriptions, or information because they may confuse or tire the reader?
- Are your paragraphs in the right order?
- Does each paragraph explore one main idea?
- Do you use clear transitions so the reader can follow your thinking?
- Do any of your paragraphs contain redundancies that can be deleted?
- Stage 3: Revising Sentences (adapted from Excelsior Online Writing Lab, 2020c)
- Have you been consistent in your use of tense?
- Do your pronouns agree with their antecedents (referents)?
- Have you accurately and effectively used punctuation?
- Do you rely on strong verbs and nouns to enhance descriptions and build clear sentences?
- Are your words as accurate as possible?
- Do you define any technical or unusual terms that readers may not know?
- Can you delete any extra words from your sentences?
- Have you avoided clichés and slang?
- Do you vary your sentence structures?
- Have you accurately presented facts?
- If you are writing an academic essay, have you tried to be objective in your evidence and tone?
- If you are writing a personal essay, have you used a lively narrative voice?
- Have you spellchecked your paper?
- Have you ethically incorporated source material by effectively quoting, paraphrasing, or summarizing it?
- Have you consistently cited and referenced source information using a standard documentation style?
Although a draft paper represents an important milestone in a writing project, a draft typically needs considerable revision and refinement before it is ready for submission. Figure 9, an essay extract reproduced courtesy of Excelsior Online Writing Lab (2020d, “Rough Draft Example”), illustrates this point.
Figure 9. The revising process at work in an essay extract
Think of revising as a recursive activity, meaning that you may proceed through the previously listed revision stages multiple times during an essay’s development.
In addition to revising a paper in stages using the prompt questions listed, you may also have the opportunity to revise an essay based on peer feedback. Peer review sessions offer valuable chances to find out what others think of your writing and what suggestions they can contribute to help you during revision; the sessions also give you the chance to supply constructive feedback on your classmates’ writing—a vital skill you will need in the workplace. When supplying constructive criticism, identify what needs to be changed in a paper, why it needs to be changed, and how it can be changed. Alternatively, highlight what works well in a paper, why this is the case, and how the positive aspect affects you, the reader. Figure 10, a multipage handout produced by the Writing and Communication Centre, University of Waterloo (n.d.b), offers further peer review advice and a feedback template that can be used during peer review sessions to help ensure they are maximally productive.
Have you ever participated in a peer revision session before? What did you think of it? What do you think of the peer review advice presented in the handout?
Peer review is one of a number of revision and proofreading strategies available to you. While there are many ways to structure peer review sessions, at its core, this technique involves soliciting feedback on one or more aspects of your writing from classmates or colleagues.
Peer Review: Purpose and Scope
While peer review has the obvious benefit of getting feedback on your writing, it also has benefits for the person doing the reviewing:
- We become better writers by being diligent peer reviewers
- We learn good writing habits by writing often and by reading the writing of others
- Giving feedback requires us to think carefully – not only about what we think about someone’s writing, but also about how writing is constructed and why we are making specific suggestions.
It is up to individual peer review groups to determine what aspects of writing a given session (or series of sessions) will look at. Broadly speaking, the following aspects of writing are the ones that you could potentially focus on:
- Content: arguments, analysis, logic, evidence
- Structure: organization, transitions, connections
- Style: tone, word choice, formality
- Mechanics: punctuation, sentence structure, spelling
General Tip:Avoid the urge to focus initially or primarily on mechanics. The revision and proofreading process will be more effective when you focus on higher-order concerns (content and structure) first and lower-order concerns (style and mechanics) second. See our handouts on revision and proofreading for more strategies that you can use.
Done correctly, the peer review process is a social, productive, and engaging way of participating in your discipline’s community of practice. However, though some instructors or supervisors will encourage their students to work together in a peer review process, others may require that projects be completed independently. In order to avoid any issues around academic integrity, make sure to consult with your instructor or supervisor before engaging in peer review.
Peer Review: Spaces
There are lots of spaces available for conducting peer review, including the following:
- Coffee shop
- Someone’s home
- Google Hangouts
- Google Docs
Peer Review: Practice
Steps in Peer Review
- Write notes for your reviewer on the peer review sheet and exchange papers. If you are not using a peer review sheet, discuss the specific questions or concerns that you’d like your reviewer to pay attention to.
- Read actively and critically. Make notes in the margins of the paper or in the track changes feature if using Word. If using a review sheet, make general notes there, too.
- Return the paper (and the review sheet, if you used one) to the original writer; discuss the feedback and create an action plan for revision and proofreading.
Sample Peer Review Worksheet
Peer Review Marking Sheet
Name of Writer:
Name of Reviewer:
Notes from the writer to the reviewer:
Aspect of Writing Being Reviewed: Content / Structure / Style / Mechanics
|Component||Needs significant work||Needs some work||Needs little/no work|
(e.g., Clear thesis statement)
(e.g., Specific topic sentences)
(e.g., Use of transition words or phrases)
Additional comments on writing:
Action Plan: How will you (the writer) incorporate the suggestions of your reviewer into your edits? What steps will you take during the editing process? Be specific:
Figure 10. Peer review guidance and a feedback template
Notice that the final procedure on the handout asks you to specify how you will use peer comments to revise your paper, a crucial step when working with feedback.
Drawing the Chapter to a Close
Take the advice in this chapter into account when preparing an essay to persuasively communicate with readers.
Activity A: Producing a Reverse Outline and Answering Questions about an Essay
This chapter discusses revising in stages and peer reviewing as means to facilitate the revision process. A reverse outline offers another technique that can be used to revise an essay, as the following handout, adapted from Student Academic Success Services, Queen’s University (2018c), describes.
Practice using the reverse outline technique with the sample proposal essay provided on upcoming pages (Hanna, 2020, as cited in Excelsior Online Writing Lab, 2020e, “Sample Essay”). The essay argues for streamlining the recycling infrastructure on a college campus to encourage recycling.
After reading the proposal essay, also answer the following questions about it. Be prepared to share your answers in class.
- In what way does the author create a narrowly defined focus for the essay?
- Does the author provide sufficient coverage of her topic in the paper? How?
- Identify the introduction, body, and conclusion sections of the essay. Are they logically structured and easy to follow? What makes them so?
- A proposal aims to persuade readers. What does the author do to try to persuade you in her essay?
- What do you think about the evidence the writer uses? For instance, is it accurate, trustworthy, relevant, sufficient, and timely?
- How does the writer incorporate source evidence into the essay? Could her technique be improved in any way? If so, how?
- Where do you detect synthesis in the essay?
- What do you think of the essay’s formatting? Could it be improved in some way?
- Do you think the writer has put sufficient effort into revision? What makes you think so?
- Imagine you are giving constructive criticism to the author during a peer review session. Identify one thing that needs to be changed in the paper, why it needs to be changed, and how it can be changed. In addition, name one thing that works well in the paper, why this is the case, and how the positive aspect affects you, the reader.
Activity B: Reading and Answering Questions about an Essay Focused on Source Credibility
Read Warrington et al.’s (2020) essay entitled “Assessing Source Credibility for Crafting a Well-Informed Argument” located at https://wac.colostate.edu/docs/books/writingspaces3/warrington.pdf. To reflect on the essay and its relevance to your own academic work, answer the five questions starting on page 202 of the text. Be prepared to talk about your answers in class.
Activity C: Applying the Ideas Discussed in the Essay to a Text
Working with a group of classmates, apply the credibility questions Warrington et al. discuss in their essay to the journal article “Fish Tales: Combatting Fake Science in Popular Media” (Thaler & Shiffman, 2015), which is available at https://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S0964569115000903. Afterwards, share your group’s determination about the article’s credibility with the whole class during a brief informal presentation. This activity is adapted from Warrington et al. (2020, p. 203).
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