Essay Writing Guide - Cary Academy

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Essay Writing Guide - Cary Academy

Essay Questions & Organization Tips

If you don’t understand something about the question, do the best you can to figure out the most likely meaning

of the question and what it is asking. If you don’t understand a particular word, try to figure out its most likely

meaning by its context and your understanding of the words around it and the rest of the question.

Essay questions will often be phrased in one of the following formats:

1. Assess the validity format, where you are asked to assess the validity of a statement, i.e., argue to what extent the

statement is true or not. You are free to argue for or against the statement, as long as you back up your argument with

good analysis and good supporting evidence.

Example:

“Virginia was clearly the best colony to live in!”

Assess the validity of this statement in reference to at least one other colony. In your response, consider the following

issues.

- economic prospects - religious climate

- social structure - political system

2. Normal question format.

Example:

Given the political, economic, social, and religious realities of the early 1600’s, was Virginia the best colony to settle?

Important Note: The question might or might not identify the points of comparison. If it does identify the points of

comparison, then you know what you need to address. If it does not give you the points of comparison, you need to

identify for yourself what you think are the most important points of comparison. Hint: in history and the social sciences,

common points of comparison to consider are: social, political, economic, religious, and cultural aspects, among others.

1. Assess the validity format, without points of comparison given.

Example: “During the 1600’s, Virginia was clearly the best colony to live in!” Assess the validity of this statement.

2. Normal question format, without points of comparison given.

Example: During the 1600’s, was Virginia the best colony to settle?

© Conrad Hall


How many paragraphs? / Essay Organization

This depends on the question: how many things are being compared and how many points of comparison are there? All

essays should have an intro/thesis paragraph and a conclusion paragraph, and then enough body paragraphs to deal with

the question and all of what it is asking you to address. For example if there are two things being compared, and three

points of comparison, then it would likely be at least a five paragraph essay, maybe more. If there were two things to

compare and four points of comparison, then it would likely be at least a six paragraph essay, maybe more.

Example: the following question could be organized in a number of ways, some better than others.

“During the 1600’s, Virginia was clearly the best colony to live in!”

Assess the validity of this statement in reference to at least one other colony. In your response, consider the following

issues.

- economic prospects - religious climate

- social structure - political system

ATTROCIOUSLY BAD ORGANIZATION / NO ORGANIZATION:

P1 – Whole essay is one paragraph (no paragraphs used). Essay rambles in one huge undifferentiated mass.

STILL REALLY BAD ORGANIZATION:

P1 – Intro/Thesis

P2 – Body – entire argument is one paragraph; essay rambles through all parts of the comparison and argument in one

huge undifferentiated mass.

P3 – Conclusion

RELATIVELY WEAK ORGANIZATION:

P1 – Intro/Thesis

P2 – Virginia (economic, social, religious, political)

P3 – Massachusetts (economic, social, religious, political)

P4 – Conclusion

Why weak? Because it comes across as too purely descriptive, rather than as an argument or comparison that is

forwarding your thesis. It comes across to the reader as a description of Virginia followed by a description of

Massachusetts. The comparison is not very tight and the direct comparison of the issues is weaker.

STRONG ORGANIZATION:

P1 – Intro/Thesis

P2 – Social (Virginia vs. Massachusetts)

P3 – Economic (Virginia vs. Massachusetts)

P3 – Religious (Virginia vs. Massachusetts)

P5 – Political (Virginia vs. Massachusetts)

P6 – Conclusion

Why stronger? Because the comparison is tighter and more direct on the issues. It comes across as an argument

regarding the comparison in question. It has more purpose, direction, and momentum. It keeps the reader focused on the

comparison – the comparison is the goal of the question.

© Conrad Hall


Thesis Tips: Your thesis should do more than restate the question or merely repeat the question components/points of

comparison in an argument form. You need to add more. In general, there are two questions that you should be

addressing in order to expand your argument of the question components. You need to address “In what ways? and To

what extent?” the question components impact your overall argument. (“IWW” & “TWE”). Therefore your thesis should

be at least 2-3 sentences. The first sentence can state your argument, but you need at least one and perhaps two more

sentences to elaborate on your thesis, usually delving into IWW & TWE. A one sentence thesis may be clear, but it is

insufficiently developed.

Example Question: (a typical and very common “assess the validity” question)

“The Ford Fiesta is clearly the best car to buy!”

Assess the validity of this statement. In your response, consider the following issues.

- safety rating - passenger room

- acceleration - styling

- gas mileage - price

No thesis:

Many people buy Ford Fiestas because of safety ratings, acceleration, gas mileage, passenger room, styling, and price.

(purely descriptive – no argument being made)

Weak thesis:

Ford Fiestas are clearly the best cars to buy, because of safety ratings, acceleration, gas mileage, passenger room, styling,

and price.

(Partially developed; there is an argument, but is weak and lacks substance. You should modify the question

components rather than simply re-listing them rote. This thesis does not address, In what ways? and To what

extent? in its assessment of the question components.)

Strong thesis:

Ford Fiestas are clearly the best cars to buy. Due to superior safety ratings, blazing acceleration, prodigious gas mileage,

cavernous passenger room, highly refined styling, and competitive price, no other car can even compare with this fine

automobile. Over the past 20 years, data from both the United States and Europe provide overwhelming evidence to

support superiority in these areas.

(Clear argument made, with elaboration; substance is added to modify the elements of comparison. Reader has

more of a feel for your argument, and you add force and momentum to it. Could probably even expand more, but

it does deal with “in what ways?” and “to what extent?” the question components have an impact on the overall

argument of which car is superior and why.)

Strong thesis, which also acknowledges and refutes possible counter-argument:

Although traditional wisdom posits that BMW’s are the best automobiles, they are in fact woefully inadequate in

comparison with the Ford Fiesta. Due to superior safety ratings, blazing acceleration, prodigious gas mileage, cavernous

passenger room, highly refined styling, and competitive price, no other car can even compare with these fine automobiles.

Over the past 20 years, data from both the United States and Europe provide overwhelming evidence to support

superiority in these areas. Ford Fiestas are without question the best cars to buy.

© Conrad Hall


Outside Information / Evidence / Examples:

Use abundant specific examples throughout your essay as evidence to support your argument. Be specific – name names.

People, events, laws, court cases – call them by name and use them as evidence to support what you are talking about.

Your essay should be “chock full” of specific examples. Think of your essay like a soup or a stew and your examples are

the “stuff” that goes into the stew – you want your stew to be a chunky stew, not a watery gruel. No matter how flavorful

you may think your gruel is, it needs the chunks to satisfy the diner.

Other tips:

1. Sometimes a question gives you the points of comparison that you are expected to use. Sometimes the points of

comparison are not explicit and you are expected to identify them for yourself. When asked to compare things by

a question, such as “compare the Northern and Southern colonies,” if the question does not give you the points of

comparison, you need to identify the important points of comparison for yourself: these often include things such

as Economic, Social, Religious, and Political/Governmental aspects.

2. use only college ruled, lined paper.

3. use only black pen; ballpoint is preferred.

4. don’t skip lines when writing your essays; some people have a habit of writing every-other line – don’t.

5. write on both the front and back of your paper.

6. don’t use white-out (waste of time) – just cross out your words by drawing a single straight line through them.

7. don’t refer to “the quote” as if it’s an entity unto itself; make your argument and assess the quote’s arguments and

validity without referring to it (“the quote”) in the 3P rdP person.

8. know the difference between an “underlying” cause and a “direct” or “precipitating” cause.

9. the Declaration of Independence is not the same thing as the Constitution; they were written over 10 years apart

and,

while both important, they have different roles in shaping the United States.

10. Either refer to an individual by their whole name (the first time they are referred to) or by their last name

(subsequent referrals), not by their first name, i.e., refer to W.E.B. Du Bois as “Du Bois,” not “W.E.B.,” and refer

to Booker T. Washington as “Washington,” not “Booker T.”

11. know the difference between “its” and “it’s.”

12. when enumerating your arguments, use “first,” not “firstly.”

13. know the difference between “who” and “whom.”

14. know the difference between “economic” and “economical.”

15. know the difference between “colonist” (singular) and “colonists” (plural).

16. know what the following terms (or similar variations) mean in context: agenda, as in legislative agenda; record,

as in the Republican record or Democratic record or legislative record; conservative; liberal; republican v.

Republican; democratic v. Democratic; progressive v. Progressive; domestic program / agenda v. international

program / agenda

© Conrad Hall


Basic Essay Grading Rubric:

Thesis: thesis stated early in first paragraph? ____ RTQC? -- IWW? / OWN? / TWE? / How so? Name:

16-20 clear, well-developed, explicitly stated thesis; understands and addresses full complexity/all aspects of question

11-15 partially developed thesis; not explicitly stated early in 1 st paragraph; somewhat clear; does not address all aspects of the question

6-10 superficial, unclear, or unfocused thesis; simple restatement of question / lacks modification, evaluation, evaluative content

0-5 lacks thesis or merely paraphrases question; does not address the question that was asked

Analysis: thesis/argument weaved in throughout body of essay? ____ acknowledges/refutes possible counter-arguments? ____

16-20 effective, substantial analysis of ALL aspects of question; treatment of aspects may be somewhat uneven

11-15 analysis substantially uneven or incomplete; needs more development; does not answer whole question; unclear analysis; ANP

6-10 incomplete analysis; too “storytelling”/narration of events – not enough analysis/forwarding argument/application to thesis

0-5 no analysis, almost entirely descriptive, no argument made; does not address the question that was asked; errors in analysis

Support of thesis: uses abundant, specific historical examples as evidence to support general arguments? ____

16-20 develops thesis with substantial relevant information/evidence, specific historical examples

11-15 some relevant information /evidence, but could use more; may be presented but not used effectively enough to forward argument

6-10 limited relevant evidence; relies too heavily generalizations; need to cite more specific examples / evidence

0-5 little or no relevant information or specific examples

Errors:

16-20 may contain minor errors that do not detract from overall quality

11-15 may contain errors that do not seriously detract from overall quality

6-10 may contain major factual errors

0-5 substantial factual errors or little or no factual information

Organization of essay/clarity of writing: good paragraph unity? ____ -need to use more, smaller, better focused paragraphs?

16-20 well-organized / organization reflects thesis components; clearly written -are topic sentences/paragraphs tied to thesis? ____

11-15 acceptable organization and clarity of writing; organization should be based more clearly and directly on thesis components

6-10 poorly organized; writing somewhat choppy/ rambling/unclear; prgrphs lack focus/unity-jump from topic to topic/unclr transitions

0-5 lacks any coherent organization; turgid prose is unreadable Total: _____/100

Basic DBQ Grading Rubric:

Thesis: thesis stated early in first paragraph? ____ RTQC? -- IWW? / OWN? / TWE? / How so? Name:

16-20 clear, well-developed, explicitly stated thesis; understands and addresses full complexity/all aspects of question

11-15 partially developed thesis; not explicitly stated early in 1 st paragraph; somewhat clear; does not address all aspects of the question

6-10 superficial, unclear, or unfocused thesis; simple restatement of question / lacks modification, evaluation, evaluative content

0-5 lacks thesis or merely paraphrases question; does not address the question that was asked

Analysis: thesis/argument weaved in throughout body of essay? ____ acknowledges/refutes possible counter-arguments? ____

16-20 effective, substantial analysis of ALL aspects of question; treatment of aspects may be somewhat uneven

11-15 analysis substantially uneven or incomplete; needs more development; does not answer whole question; unclear analysis; ANP

6-10 incomplete analysis; too “storytelling”/narration of events – not enough analysis/forwarding argument/application to thesis

0-5 no analysis, almost entirely descriptive, no argument made; does not address the question that was asked; errors in analysis

Outside Information: uses abundant, specific historical examples as evidence to support general arguments? ____

16-20 develops thesis with substantial relevant outside information/evidence, specific historical examples

11-15 some relevant outside information/evidence, but could use more; presented, but not used effectively enough to forward argument

6-10 limited relevant outside information; relies too heavily generalizations; need to cite more specific examples / evidence

0-5 little or no relevant outside information or specific examples

Effective use of Documents: -need to quote less and explain meaning in own words? -documents are referred to and cited correctly ___

16-20 effectively uses a substantial number of the documents; accounts for document source, context, possible bias of source

11-15 uses some documents effectively; may not account for doc. source, context, or possible bias of source effectively enough

6-10 quotes or briefly cites docs w/o incorporating them effectively in argument, or sufficiently addressing content and context

0-5 shows little understanding of the documents or ignores them completely; some documents are misinterpreted; too few docs used

Organization of essay/Clarity of writing/Errors: good paragr. unity / topic focus? __ -need to use more, smaller paragraphs?

16-20 well-organized around TC, clearly written; may have minor factual errors - are topic sentences / paragraphs tied to thesis?

11-15 acceptable organization / clarity of writing; organization should more reflect TC; factual errors present but don’t seriously detract

6-10 poorly organized; writing somewhat choppy/ rambling/unclear; prgraphs lack focus/unity - jump from topic to topic; major errors

0-5 lacks any coherent organization; turgid prose is unreadable; substantial factual errors Total: _____/100

© Conrad Hall


Essay Editing Guide - the following is a key to the editing abbreviations I use in grading your essays:

A or AWK – awkward; your wording is awkwardly phrased; you need to be more clear.

AE or AEC – add evaluation or add evaluative content; you have listed the bare bones of a topic with out much evaluation; you need

to add your own evaluation or evaluative content to give substance and direction to what you are saying; evaluative content might be

adjectives or examples that modify the thing you are talking about.

AG – agreement; grammatical error in which your noun and verb are not in agreement in terms of singular-plural.

AN – analysis; either this segment needs more analysis or the analysis is not completely correct

ANP – assertion not proven; you assert something to be true, which is either not necessarily true or you have not adequately proven to

be true / have not provided sufficient supporting evidence or elaboration

AQ or AQC – address question or address question components; you need to address the question that was asked more directly; you

need to tie in what you are saying to the question that was asked

B – body paragraph; your idea or evidence is too detailed or specific for the intro/thesis paragraph, and is more appropriately located

in later body paragraphs

C – contradictory; you are asserting something which seems to contradict one of your other assertions

CEC – cite evaluative content; you have listed the bare bones of a topic with out much evaluation; you need to add your own

evaluation or evaluative content to give substance and direction to what you are saying; evaluative content might be adjectives or

examples that modify the thing you are talking about.

CH – choppy; your writing is choppy – makes abrupt transitions in topic that don’t flow well or relate logically together

CHR – chronology; you are making an error by presenting topics out of correct or clear chronological sequence

CL – clarify; clarification is needed here; perhaps be more specific and explain further

CQC – cite question components; you should address the specific points of analysis or comparison that were identified by the question

that was asked

CS – cite specifics; you need to cite specific evidence and examples to prove your point; you are talking in too general terms and

generalizing too much without enough specific evidence.

DNF – does not follow; an assertion or assumption that you have made does not follow logically and is not necessarily correct as you

seem to assert; your argument is not logically valid.

DRQ – don’t re-quote question or refer directly to “the question” or “the quote” – instead, make your own argument addressing the

question and its components

DS – source? – you are analyzing a document without addressing the source of the document; good analysis includes addressing the

document’s source: who is speaking?, what is the context?, do they have any potential biases or a personal agenda to forward?, is the

source a reliable source?, etc.

DSL – don’t skip lines when writing your essay; also, write on both the front and back sides of your paper.

EQ or XQ – excessive use of quotations or don’t use a quotation here; you would be better served explaining in your own words,

making your own argument, or paraphrasing rather than quoting

EV – need to give evidence to back up your general assertions; need more specific evidence

EX – example; you are making general assertions that are begging for a specific example to back them up; give a specific example; do

you have any specific examples to back up what you have just said? Generally speaking, here shouldn’t be “dry spells” in your essay

where specific evidence is not cited – you should be bringing in specifics throughout your analysis / throughout the body of your

essay. Your essay should be “chock full” of specific, named examples.

EXP – expand or explain further; you need to expand on this point and explain it more; your idea might be good and on-target, but you

haven’t given enough explanation and it deserves fuller consideration / elaboration

© Conrad Hall


FWR – for what reason(s)?

H or HS – how? or how so?; you need to explain “how” with regard to something you are describing.

HR – how relevant?; whatever you are saying might well be historically accurate, but is it relevant to your argument?, is it relevant to

your thesis?, is it relevant to the question that was asked?

I or INC – incomplete; you have written an incomplete sentence; this is a grammatical error.

IA or INC AN – incomplete analysis; you need to expand more and explain in a fuller and more convincing manner

IWW – in what ways?; need to explain in what ways something is true

NA or NCA – not accurate or not completely accurate; while perhaps not a major factual error, you have just made an assertion that is

not completely accurate, and may be partially incorrect.

NC or NCC – not clear or not completely clear

NFP – no first person; do not use first person (“I think…”) in your essays.

NP – not proven; you assert something to be true, which is either not necessarily true or you have not adequately proven to be true

NR – not relevant; this is not relevant to the question that was asked, the time period that was asked about, or to your thesis

NRQ – no rhetorical questions; do not use rhetorical questions – they are too informal. State your points in a clear, straightforward

manner instead.

OAQC – organize around question components; the paragraph organization of your paper does not clearly reflect the question

components – you should make sure that your paragraphs each clearly and directly address the components of the question that was

asked

OWN – of what nature?

P – paragraph; you should start a new paragraph here; it is likely that your current paragraph is too long and taking on too many

themes/topics, either with or without smooth transitions between them; there is a natural break point here where you are moving from

one topic/theme to another, and it would be advisable at this point to break this larger paragraph into a couple of smaller ones.

POC – points of comparison; what are the points of comparison that you are supposed to be addressing between two things?

PU – paragraph unity; your paragraph is too long and rambles through too many topics and themes; you need to break it down into

multiple, smaller paragraphs that have a more defined focus; make sure your paragraphs are unified and focused on a particular, welldefined

goal or topic in your argument.

QC – question components; does not clearly reflect the question components – you should make sure that you more clearly and

directly address the components of the question that was asked

R or RA – relevance to argument; whatever you are saying might well be historically accurate, but is it relevant to your argument?, is

it relevant to your thesis?, is it relevant to the question that was asked?

RMB – rambling; you are rambling / shifting from point to point, or from topic to topic, without clear transitions or paragraph unity –

organization of thoughts is lacking and your argument is therefore becoming lost and unclear.

R-PH or R-W – re-phrase or re-word; you have worded something in an unclear manner and should re-word or re-phrase your ideas

more clearly

RWS – rhetoric without substance; you are using aggressive or flowery argumentative language without offering much substance in

support of it – it might sound impressive or authoritative, but it is not convincing

S – source? – you are analyzing a document without addressing the source of the document; good analysis includes addressing the

document’s source: who is speaking?, what is the context?, do they have any potential biases or a personal agenda to forward?, is the

source a reliable source?, etc.

SA – such as?; you need to give an example(s) of what you are talking about

© Conrad Hall


SI or SIG – significance?

SP – spelling; you are misspelling words that you should know how to spell, possibly even words that are key concepts pertaining to

the essay question.

T or TTT – thesis or tie to thesis; you need to tie the topic sentences of your paragraphs (and your paragraphs themselves) to your

thesis/argument; you are being too purely descriptive and your thesis and argument are not evident; make sure you are tying your topic

sentences and paragraphs into your thesis and that you are forwarding your argument instead of just narrating in a purely descriptive

fashion.

TC – too colloquial or too conversational; your diction is too casual – use more formal and appropriate wording; academic essays are

more formal than casual speech, so make sure your word choices are appropriate to a serious academic tone.

TCBS – total & complete bullshit

TI – too informal; your wording / writing style is too informal or casual – use more formal and appropriate wording; academic essays

are more formal than casual speech, so make sure your word choices are appropriate to a serious academic tone. This includes not

using rhetorical questions.

TN / TS or TD – too narrative / too “storytelling” / too purely descriptive; you are being too purely descriptive and your thesis and

argument are not evident; make sure you are tying your paragraphs into your thesis and that you are forwarding your argument instead

of just narrating in a purely descriptive, “storytelling” fashion. Don’t just give a run-down of events/chronology, or a run-down of the

opinions presented in the documents, or a run-down of the points of view of others -- instead present the opinions and points of view

of others or of the documents within the context of proving your argument and forwarding your thesis.

TP – too prefatory; your thesis paragraph is too “storytelling” in nature and is beginning with a “once upon a time” context; rather,

you want to get straight to your thesis/argument in a more direct manner

TS – too “storytelling”; see TN or TD above.

TR – transition; you have just jumped from one topic to another without a smooth transition; you need to have better transitions

between different themes or topics.

TV – too vague; your argument is too vague and too general, and does not contain enough specific evidence to back it up.

TWE – to what extent?; need to elaborate more on the extent to which something is true

U or UNC – unclear; your argument is unclear or the wording in your sentence is unclear.

UA – unclear analysis; your argument or analysis is difficult to follow or understand, or may be logically flawed

UW – unclear wording; the way you are phrasing things does not clearly express your idea

V – vague; your argument is too vague and too general, and does not contain enough specific evidence to back it up.

VT – verb tense; all historical essays should be written in past tense; make sure your verbs are in past tense throughout your essay.

W – why?

W/RE – with regard to?; to what are you referring with your assertion or analysis?

WC – word choice; you should use another word or different wording; your diction is awkward, not quite accurate, too colloquial, too

casual, or otherwise wrong in content or tone; choose another word instead of the one you used.

WK – what kind?

WU – word usage; you are not using a particular word correctly - the word doesn’t mean what you evidently think it means in this

context.

X – error; whatever you wrote is not correct; it is wrong; you are in error.

/ or v/ (check mark), which for me sometimes just looks like a line – good point; good piece of evidence used; you are correct.

© Conrad Hall

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