Writing an Essay

Writing an Essay

Your introduction should identify the problem to be examined and explain why it is significant and deserving of attention. A thesis statement at the end of the introduction is a good idea, but not indispensable: it is more important that the introduction establishes the subject of the essay, the significance of the topic, and problem to be investigated. There are many ways to write a good introduction: a dramatic and symbolic event, or a speech announcing a change of policy, or a direct characterization of some crisis in human affairs, are all potential routes into your subject, though the list is not meant to be exclusive. Use your imagination.

The second section should fill in historical or other background that the reader needs to make sense of the subject. The problem you’re examining will have changed over time in some respects, and here is where you convey the developments that provide essential information for understanding the problem you’re examining. A paper on whether NAFTA has been a success or a disaster would explain here the origins and development of that agreement, highlighting the provisions that are particularly important to friends and critics of it. Ideally, one should both tell a story and make an argument here–filling in essential details and establishing certain basic propositions that help your overall argument.

The third section should develop an interpretation or argument with respect to the problem you have identified with which you disagree. If you want to argue that China should be regarded as a friend, state the case here for why some consider it an enemy. Your next (or fourth) section will then show why the “China as an enemy” school is wrong-headed. You need to be careful in handling the contrary thesis, because you need to make clear that you’re characterizing a view that is not your own and that you’re subsequently going to criticize. Make sure the reader understands whose voice it is that is speaking.

The more that you can show that you have carefully considered arguments contrary to your own, the more likely you will convince the reader that your own view is the better one. It is certainly permissible to arrive at a conclusion which concedes merit to some of the contentions of the other side, but avoid a conclusion in which opposite views are held to be of equal plausibility. So, too, you can be agnostic with regard to certain questions, but don’t be agnostic with regard to the main question you take up. If you find that you cannot solve the problem you have stated at the outset (or give persuasive reasons for preferring one solution or approach to another), re-think the way you have posed the question.

I. Introduction: Subject, Significance, Problem

II. Historical Development: What it was and how it changed. How we got to where we are now. Tell a story here, but also make an argument. Put differently, try to establish certain facts that support your main pitch.

III. Contrary Thesis: The interpretation of those you will subsequently criticize.

IV. Main Pitch:  The themes that throw the best light on the question.

V. Conclusion
The dialectical encounter between the Contrary Thesis and the Main Pitch need not be handled in precisely the fashion I’ve indicated. Your three main sections might each take notice of an opposing argument in some fashion, for example. You might not want to devote an independent section to it, but rather work it into the argument less obtrusively. Generally speaking, however, it’s a good idea to give the reader a clear picture of not only what you’re arguing for but also what you’re arguing against.

It is natural and desirable to try to introduce an element of originality into your essay, but you need to get over the idea that if someone has already said something it’s not worth saying again. Not so! Almost every interesting subject will have a literature that is complex and in which virtually all conceivable positions will have been taken at one time or another. In a deep sense true originality is impossible, but discovering which position among the variety presented is closer to the truth is nevertheless very important and a worthy aim. At the same time, the existence of controversy on a given subject gives you a nice problem to unravel and a logical opposition to make use of in structuring your paper.

While an essay should have a clear point of view and should seek to identify points of disagreement with others, it is the case that “the facts” are sometimes difficult to determine. So, too, the conflicting values at play in a controversy may all seem important, such that it is not easy to say which should be given priority. Usually political controversies do not nicely divide geniuses from idiots, or the perspicacious from the insane, or the virtuous from the depraved. So a certain modesty in approach is advisable. You can make a compelling argument while also treating your opponents fairly–trying to refute their best case.

The conclusion should recall, either implicitly or explicitly, the themes announced at the outset. Since the reader now has the benefit of your previous analysis, you can state your resolution with confidence here. It is often appropriate also to indicate briefly the elements of uncertainty in the situation that make your conclusions susceptible to change.  

As you do your research, think of the ways in which you can fit the facts and observations you discover into the scheme of your essay. Try to determine the main points on which the authors seem to agree and disagree with one another. Take good notes, looking for the short and pithy expressions that summarize some essential point.

It is usually advisable to set off your sections with Roman numerals or section titles.  This will encourage you to think about your essay in more manageable form. However, don’t use as section titles the names I have used to designate the logic of each section (e.g., Contrary Thesis); instead, think of a pithy phrase that gets at the subject or theme of the section.

There are of course many ways to organize a good and interesting essay. Another possibility is suggested below. It allows you to get more directly to your main thesis but then allows for qualifications of the argument and the examination or one or two illustrative cases.

I. Introduction: Subject, Significance, Problem

II: Main Thesis

III: Exceptions to the Argument

IV: An Illustrative Case

V: Conclusion

Yet a third potential outline is as follows:

I. Introduction

II. How We Got into this Fix

III. Deficiencies of Remedies Offered

IV. The True Remedy

V. Conclusion

After you’ve done some reading and reflection on your topic, try to organize your material in accordance with a couple of these outlines, and see which one helps you say more of what you want to say.

In evaluating written work, correct grammar and clean copy will be highly prized, so please proofread your work carefully before turning it in. An “A” paper should be excellent from a technical point of view, free of misspellings and punctuation errors, in addition to being well‑researched, thoughtful, and solidly structured. A “B” paper reflects above‑average effort yet may still require revisions to correct logical missteps or writing problems. A “C” paper fulfills minimal requirements but lacks insight, organization and/or development.  An “NC” grade indicates unsatisfactory work‑‑material that is ungrammatical, incoherent, or is otherwise seriously deficient. 

A Few Other Points

1. Do not forget to number your paper.

2. The spell check on Word perfect or Microsoft Word is a useful tool, but is not a substitute for careful proof reading of the paper. It is far better to make a correction in ink (thus spoiling your clean printed page) than to leave a mistake uncorrected.

3. Be sparing in your use of the first person. It is usually possible to explain why a subject is fascinating, difficult, painful, etc. without dragging yourself into it.

4. Learn the difference between “it’s” and “its,” “principle” and “principal,” “their” and “there,”  “borders” and “boarders,” “populace” and “populous.”

5. Be specific in your references to places, dates, numbers.

6. When mentioning individuals for the first time, give their full name and, if applicable, their title.

7. Use the proper tense. Even when writing a paper concerned with contemporary affairs, you should try to stay in the past tense when possible.

8. When using a quote from someone else, make sure that you introduce it in grammatically correct fashion.

9. Your essay needs a good title that communicates the theme and the subject matter. Try to be short and sweet rather than lengthy and ponderous.

Footnotes and Bibliography

Please use footnotes rather than endnotes, and add a bibliography. For footnote citation, use the following style:


Andrew Bacevich, American Empire: The Realities and Consequences of U.S. Diplomacy (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2002), 13-45. After first mention, use short titles: Bacevich, American Empire, 13.

Journal Articles

Timothy Healy, “Will Clayton, Negotiating the Marshall Plan, and European Economic Integration,” Diplomatic History 35 (April 2011): 229-56. After first mention, use short title: Healy, “Will Clayton,” 230. (In this example, “35” is the volume number and “229-56” are the pages.)

Newspaper Articles.

Give author, title (in quotation marks), publication, date. Thus: David C. Hendrickson, “Why We’re Doomed,” New York Times, December 25, 2029. If you use a hyperlink, embed it in the title rather than cutting and pasting on the text. Hyperlinks are not necessary for purposes of school papers, but it is important to learn how to do that.

* * *

If you are using a reader containing selections from previously published works, first give the author and title of the original source followed by year of publication, then the author and title of the book. Thus: 

Arthur Link, The Higher Realism of Woodrow Wilson (1963), excerpted in Thomas G. Patterson and Dennis Merrill, eds., Major Problems in American Foreign Relations, Volume II: Since 1914 (Lexington, MA: D.C. Heath, 1996), 47-52.

* * *

If you are quoting an historical figure, make sure you identify who the person was and the date of the utterance. For example, if you quote Brent Scowcroft, make sure you identify Scowcroft in your main text as National Security Advisor under President George H. W. Bush. If you do not give the date of utterance or writing in the text, give it in the note. Thus:

Brent Scowcroft, National Security Advisor under George H.W. Bush, April 13, 1991, quoted in Bacevich, American Empire, 6.

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