13 MIN READ
At first, I was surprised that, of the many Nepali-language Youtube videos that I’ve made about writing, the most popular was also the longest — a video called Easy Excellent Essays. Once I thought more, though, it became less surprising; writing essays is important and hard. And in schools, most Nepalis don’t get much hands-on essay writing practice. Fortunately, there are several easy-to-learn principles that make writing excellent essays much easier.
Here are some common questions that people ask me about essays.
How did you learn to write argument essays?
I got a lot of practice in my 11th-grade social studies class. All year, we never faced regular tests, only essay exams. I probably wrote 8 or 10 essays that year and prepared to write three times as many. That gave me a lot of practice with the concise five-paragraph essay: introduction, three body paragraphs, and conclusion.
That model works well with short articles. But I’ve found that the same writing concepts help with longer articles, journal articles, and even whole books (and also with presentations.) My PhD dissertation, which eventually became a published book, is nothing more than a whole lot of five- , six- , and seven-paragraph essays woven together into nine chapters.
What is the best way to start an opinion essay?
The first one or two paragraphs are crucial. With short articles, such as an opinion article for the newspaper, I often read just one or two paragraphs and then ask myself, “Is it worth reading this article?” I’m busy and picky. If I can’t tell what the essay is about, or if I think it’s saying something obvious or not new, or if I think the author is not careful with words, I give up partway and move to another article.
Do you start with your main point right away?
That is one effective approach, either right away or at the end of a paragraph that introduces the main topic. In fact, that’s the classic way to start a short argumentative essay such as an op-ed article — with an intro paragraph highlighting the main argument.
The US military has a term for this: BLUF, or Bottom Line Up Front. Putting the main argument — what you are trying to prove — early makes it much easier for readers. One of the most common mistakes in newspaper op-ed articles is to not make the argument clear early on. Similarly, in an academic article, a big blunder is to jump to the evidence without setting up the question and clarifying the overall argument in an introductory paragraph. For both, I recommend summarizing the main point in a single crystal-clear sentence such as “While X and Y have argued Z, I will argue A and B.”
What about a hook?
I also often start an essay with a ‘hook’ — something to pull in readers — usually an interesting story or a startling statistic or really engaging quotation. But if I do, I’m careful to be concise. Tell your story quickly and clearly, then give the essay’s main topic and your main argument. There’s nothing worse than a long-winded opening to an essay that attempts to be interesting but fails because it doesn’t get to the topic or main argument quickly enough. Unless you are an exceptionally skilled storyteller, hooks must be very clear and very quick. Readers want to know where they are going.
Some people suggest ending the essay similarly to the way you start. What do you think?
That’s effective and easy to do. You can start a personal essay for a college or graduate essay about some life-altering, near-fatal experience you had, move on to other topics in the middle of the essay, and then in the essay’s last sentences, quickly remind readers of the life-altering, near-fatal story again. Doing this can be very powerful. It brings things full circle. It shows how far we’ve come in the essay. It feels elegant. That’s why you see the method often. It works well in op-eds too.
This long-form opinion piece by Sarita Pariyar uses this technique very well: ‘The old weight of caste’.
For another example in a long essay, see how I start and end my 5,000-word essay in Nepali Times, ‘The monsoon, and nature’s arithmetic’.
This easy and effective writing technique shows a defining feature of essays — that the material in them “holds together.” Everything — the beginning, middle, and end — is somehow connected to a single question or theme. The fancy name for this is ‘coherence’. An essay is not a list — a loosely connected collection of info — but a more focused set of interlinked facts, info, and opinion. The key concept is interconnection. Starting and ending with the same story or theme shows this concept well.
Ok, you’ve got us through the introduction. What then?
Next come body paragraphs or body sections. Generally two-to-four of each but sometimes more. Here, my advice is short paragraphs with the main point at the beginning. A new paragraph signals to readers that a new idea is coming. Don’t keep them guessing what it is. Bottom Line Up Front. BLUF.
When you say short, how short do you mean?
One-to-four sentences for newspaper articles. A little longer for academic writing. Most academic articles have paragraphs that are way too long. Most readers get lost or bored or both. Nothing helped my writing more than learning to write focused paragraphs. One paragraph equals one idea.
How do you order the body paragraphs?
Generally, either thematically or chronologically. Follow the same order as in the introduction — or fix the introduction so it mimics the order of paragraphs. That makes it much easier for readers. Otherwise, it’s like light switches that don’t align with the lights they turn on — it’s counterintuitive and confusing.
The key thing is that there needs to be a logical order and you need to show it to the readers. If your structure is logical but the readers can’t actually see the logic, that’s not very helpful. You want to build your argument, step by step. It’s often effective to use numbers to organize your paragraphs.
I hear you have a good metaphor for thinking about the essay writer’s role.
I find it helpful to think about an essay as a journey or trip for the readers. Readers start in one location and move to three or four other places. Then they arrive at a final location.
Your job, as author, is to be the tour guide. At the beginning, explain where you are going and why. That’s the essay’s introduction. Why should readers care? Then actually take them to several locations and explain what they should be looking at and why. Each stopping point is a body paragraph. Make sure readers don’t get lost. Make sure they know what they are looking at.
The best tour guides know where readers might get confused and so they make the right path very clear. But once readers know where they are, the best tour guides get out of the way, so as not to distract from or block what’s important.
At the end of the trip, the tour guide helps readers make sense of the trip, to find meaning in what they saw. That’s the essay’s conclusion. After a journey, it is often useful to look back to where you started and remind readers of what you talked about at the beginning of the journey, and each step of the way.
What is your approach to transitions?
The most effective transitions involve no special transition words. Instead, they rely upon logic that is so clear that even without help readers can easily see the necessary jumps from topic to topic. Sometimes all they need is the paragraph break that says ‘Hey reader, here comes a new idea’.
But, and this is crucial, especially when there’s a change in time or place or argument, readers need more help. The best transitions provide clarity about the new context and do so quickly: “In nineteenth century France, …” Or, “In India in the 1970s,…” What a great transition! Clear and quick, right at the beginning. Along these lines, I love using the word “but” or “yet” at a paragraph’s beginning as a signpost. One short word says so much.
How do you make an essay interesting? How do you keep readers wanting to read on?
In each and every paragraph I ask myself this question. I’m always thinking about the reader and how to keep him or her interested.
One thing that helps far more than you might realize is keeping things concise. Keep paragraphs short and focused. Cut the unnecessary words. Most first and second drafts are way too loooooong. [See my tips on writing concisely ‘Less is more’.]
For content: Don’t state the obvious. Pay attention to what surprises you. If you find it surprising, your readers probably will too. Ask a probing question. Create a mystery or puzzle to solve. Collect startling statistics and powerful quotations. Build paragraphs around them. I often think of my essays as a trip from one juicy quotation to another, from one interesting person’s views to another. My essay is really not much more than several great quotes strung together.
One final note: It’s helpful to pay attention to what makes engaging writing engaging. I love Roy Peter Clark’s advice on this: Whenever you can’t put a book down, put it down and analyze what makes it so interesting.
Is it ok to repeat things?
Except in one situation, repetition is boring, and deadening. Weed it out of every sentence. Adding words that don’t add much — what is called ‘wordiness’ — makes reading your sentences a chore. Inexperienced writers sometimes use two words when one is actually more powerful. Same for sentences. In some drafts, I cut every other sentence because all they do is repeat the previous sentences.
The exception is when you’ve gone on for a while and readers might get confused by all the details and lose track of the larger argument. In those moments, a little repetition from the author — Hey forgetful reader, again, here’s why this long story is so important — can be a lifesaver. I think of this as ‘strategic repetition’. The best writers can do this orienting, reminding work with just a word or two or quick list.
When you sit down to write, do you actually write the way you describe here? Do you really write that way?
No, not at all. What I describe here is how I re-write and re-re-write. When I write, I often have a rough outline, a narrative arc, and several juicy quotes and startling statistics in mind. I turn each quotation or two into a paragraph, then decide the most logical order. Often, it’s not until the end that I realize my overall argument — often, it comes out most clearly in the last few paragraphs. And only then do I go back and write my introduction, making sure my topic and my main argument is clear from the beginning. I usually can’t write that introduction until I’ve done at least a first draft.
After a draft is complete I look at everything I’ve got again and again from the perspective of the imagined reader to see if it’s clear. I value clarity above all else. I make a new outline (a ‘reverse’ outline) to make sure that what I’m trying to say is clear and where I want it. I always do several drafts and, if it’s important, I always show it to someone else for feedback.
What is your favorite tip for essays?
I think I’ve given most of them: hook, BLUF, short paragraphs, great quotes, remember the reader, cut, cut, cut, and, of course, strategic repetition.
How should you conclude an argument essay?
Because newspaper articles often follow different rules than essays, they often end with a reminder or gesture toward the article’s main point but try to end with a bang — what they call a ‘kicker’ — a powerful quotation or witty line.
But classic essays, op-ed articles, and academic articles need to spotlight the argument. In the conclusion, the main goal is to clearly re-iterate the main argument and show how things fit together. You don’t want readers to leave the article with some confusion about exactly what your main point is. That is the biggest possible blunder.
In my view, with the conclusion, it’s much better to be clear even if a little repetitive. That’s much better than being elegant but confusing. That said, there are ways to remind of your main argument and its importance in artful, elegant, memorable ways.
I recommend studying how authors end their articles and essays in different contexts. Collect and study the best strategies for ending effectively.
Resources and links
Tom Robertson Tom Robertson, PhD, is an environmental historian who writes about Kathmandu and Nepali history. His Nepali-language video series on writing, 'Mitho Lekhai', is available on Youtube. His most recent article, 'No smoke without fire in Kathmandu’, appeared on March 5 in Nepali Times.
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