We’ve had quite a few posts now on undergraduate essay writing (a general post on academic writing, why you should never write a sandwich essay, and developing a research topic). I refer my students to these resources (and many others developed by universities) all the time for basic essay writing skills, but I’ve recently noticed that many students still struggle with using sources to bolster their argument instead of merely narrating events with provided texts. What follows is a back-to-basics post that I hope will make the distinction a little more clear.
In writing persuasive essays, you should always use sources to support arguments that you make. While it is certainly true that in writing articles for publication you should write as though your audience is not intimately familiar with your sources and your material, in an undergraduate course it is usually acceptable to assume that your TA or your professor has read the same readings as you have, so you don’t have to provide summaries of those things in your essay. What I mean by this is the following: if you have been assigned an essay topic on Caesar’s Gallic War, it is not necessary to summarize the Gallic War in detail in the early part of your essay. Doing so uses up precious space, often not leaving enough room for the analysis we’d really like to see in your essay. Furthermore, it often signals to us (maybe wrongly) that you don’t have anything interesting to say, so you’re putting in some fluff hoping we won’t notice your essay doesn’t have much substance. As a related comment, I would also strongly caution against starting your essay with blanket statements about the topic (examples include things like “The Roman Empire was the most famous empire in the world…”, “Julius Caesar was the most famous general ever born…”, or “Throughout the ages people have always been fascinated by ancient Rome…”) for the same reasons.
So what should you do? You should come up with an argument that you think is supported by the sources you are aware of and use those sources to prove your argument. Let me illustrate with the example of Little Red Riding Hood, pretending that someone asked me to write an essay about it. I’m going to assume we all know the classic fairy tale (and I’m talking the rather more gruesome original version in which both Little Red and her grandmother – let’s call her Granny – are devoured by the wolf) and start right away with my thesis and argument.
Thesis: Granny and Little Red both died because Little Red showed no concern for the old woman’s life.
You can of course disagree with the statement, and I hope that you do if I don’t back it up with evidence from the text. It is a good thesis, though, for two reasons. First, you can disagree with it. No one has to like your thesis for you to prove it. I’m sure that climate scientists don’t expect you to like that global warming is an imminent threat to humanity, but they can certainly prove it. Second, it lays out for the reader exactly what it is that I am hoping to prove: that Little Red caused her grandmother’s death. Now, how do I prove it?
This thesis requires me to prove that Little Red did not show concern for her grandmother’s life. Consider the following:
- By disregarding her own safety (not following her mother’s instructions which were designed to keep her safe), Little Red also disregarded her grandmother’s safety because her sick grandmother was dependent on her for her own wellbeing.
- Little Red’s mother told her to take a basket of food to her sick grandmother and not to talk to any strangers on the way, because the woods are full of dangers. Little Red did talk to a stranger, the wolf, whom she told all about her sick grandmother and basket of goodies she was taking to the practically defenseless old woman.
- Little Red’s mother also told her to go straight to her grandmother’s house without dawdling, again because the woods are full of dangers. Little Red, however, did not do as her mother asked and instead took her sweet time gathering flowers and wandering about. If her grandmother had fallen and broken a hip, she’d have been lying on the floor for hours waiting for rescue. As it was, the wolf had plenty of time to get to Granny’s house, eat her, dress up in in her clothes, and climb into bed before Little Red arrived.
- Little Red obviously never visited her grandmother because she couldn’t tell the difference between a wolf wearing her grandmother’s pajamas and her actual grandmother.
- Little Red has a prolonged dialogue with the wolf in which she expresses surprise at her grandmother’s physical features. Little Red never says that her grandmother’s eyes are larger than the last time she saw her, only that her eyes are large.
- During the entire dialogue between Little Red and the wolf, Little Red never remarks that her grandmother’s voice sounds different than it usually would. She didn’t even know what her own grandmother sounded like.
Nowhere in the story of Little Red Riding Hood does the narrator tell us that the death of the grandmother was Little Red’s fault. I would argue that the sentiment was implied by the whole entire story, but I would have to argue that fact because it is never explicitly stated. Also, nowhere does the narrator tell us that Little Red disregarded her grandmother’s safety or that Little Red was a horrible granddaughter because she couldn’t tell the difference between her grandmother and the wolf. Those are things that I was able to argue based on the text. I will certainly admit at this point that everything I’m arguing here was supposed to be taken in with the story (which is why, I think, that it makes such a great example). Little Red Riding Hood is a fairy tale that is supposed to teach children a lesson about not listening to their parents. It doesn’t need to spell out the things I’m arguing (it isn’t, after all, a persuasive essay). You could, and should, at this point complain that my argument regarding the story is unsophisticated and obvious. You may be right – but an obvious argument is an argument nonetheless! (And I guarantee that your TA or prof would rather see a obvious argument than no argument at all.)
What I did not do in this exercise at any point is tell you the story of Little Red Riding Hood. Why would I? (In this case, I might because there are different endings to the fairy tale.) But if you were assigned a specific text/version for your class, you would be able to assume that everyone was working with the same text. You could mention the fact that there are different versions of the story if it’s relevant to your argument, but you wouldn’t need to do so unless you were specifically comparing the alternate versions. Even if you did decide that telling the story was absolutely essential to your paper, it would probably benefit your argument if you waited until after you wrote the rest of the paper to put in your summary to keep the ideas separate in your mind – and make sure that you have enough space to let your argument take the starring role.