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O.K. So you’ve gotten this assignment. It’s for a 5-page essay on a characterization of Sydney Carton in Dickens’s Tale of Two Cities, and you are thinking, “Five-page essay? Does he (the teacher) mean a paper?” The answer is “no,” because there are some basic differences between an essay and a research paper.
- An essay, unlike a paper, does not generally have the level of research found in a paper.
- Essays are usually shorter than papers but certainly can be five pages long.
- Essays come in a variety of types, but papers are either argumentative or analytical.
In terms of how to write a 5-page essay, however, the steps are certainly similar to those for a research paper (minus the hefty research, however, so be happy about that!).
Step One: Obviously, you have to have a topic, and it must be complex enough to be able to write 5 pages about it. So, if you are in charge of selecting your own topic, make sure that you can write 1000 words on it. Most often, however, at least the general topic area is assigned, and you can choose among options – whew – this step has pretty much been done for you!
Step Two: A purpose. Here’s another step that has probably already been assigned. Purposes refer to the type of essay you will write – narrative, comparison/contrast, explanatory, persuasive, descriptive, analytical, etc. In the case of the characterization of Sydney Carton, you essay will be analytical – you have to discuss his personality traits and his character growth during the story, and, yes, you will have to reference passages from the book to prove your points.
Step Three: Your Thesis. Every essay must have a point. If it doesn’t, then why are you writing it? I always suggest to students that they devise a “working thesis,” write the essay, and then refine that thesis statement before placing in the introduction (which, by the way, you should write last).
Step Four: Time for the 5-page essay outline! You cannot write an essay without a plan, and the outline is your plan, or blueprint, for the sequence in which you will cover the points you intend to make. Back to Sydney Carton! He is first introduced as a lawyer who has fallen on bad times. In fact, he has pretty much wasted his life and is a raging alcoholic. He is also in love with Lucy Darnay but quite resigned to the fact that he shall never have her – she’s too good and too pure and deserves someone much better. His professional life is a mess too. He doesn’t really practice law but works more as an assistant to a lawyer who doesn’t think much of him either. Still, he is crafty and proves that through a trick during a trial early in the novel. During the remainder of the novel, he transforms, gradually, but purposefully, and you will need to describe these changes and prove them with text from the book. Your outline, then becomes pretty clear. It will be a sequential one. An outline for a persuasive essay will be a bit different, because each of the points of your argument will be listed in the order in which you will cover them – usually most important down to the least impactful.
Step Five: The Rough Draft. You know the “drill.” You sit down and actually write the essay. Remember what I said about research? Well, here’s where it gets a little “sticky.” Some essays will require small amount of research, especially if you need to include some facts and figures, in a comparison/contrast or a persuasive essay most often. These are easily found online, however, so it’s not like you have to go to the library and pour through books and periodicals! Be thankful!
Step Six: Refine That Thesis Statement. Once you have the complete essay in front of you and have had some time to reflect on what you have said, you are ready to craft a great thesis statement. In the case of the essay on Sydney Carton, for example, I might write, “The story of Sydney Carton is a story of redemption.” That’s it. My reader knows what I believe about this character and what I am going to address in my essay – it’s really that simple! And your conclusion should refer back to that thesis statement, perhaps enlarging upon the idea of redemption as a possibility for anyone.
Now, some thesis statements may be a bit longer, but they must certainly be clear. If, for example, I were to write a persuasive essay that takes a position on fracking, and, after some simple reading about it, I might decide that I am currently against it. My thesis statement might be this: “There is simply not enough evidence yet to prove that fracking is safe or dangerous, and it therefore should be halted until the evidence is in.”
Step Seven: That Pesky Revision. Unless you are a seasoned professional writer, your rough draft is not submissable (is that even a word? I don’t think so). But you know what I mean. You have to clean it up. Review it first for structural soundness. Does it flow logically, one paragraph to the next? Transition sentences create the flow, so be sure you’ve got good ones! The second revision should be looking at sentence structure and other grammatical issues (punctuation too). Did you vary sentence lengths? Do you have subject-verb and pronoun-antecedent agreement? Are your verb tenses all aligned? Spell and grammar check will catch most of these but don’t rely on them completely. Spell check will not catch wrong usage such as in “there, their, and they’re” or “to, two, and too.” And I have yet to see a grammar check program that really gets commas right in all instances!
Step Eight: Write the final draft, and format it as you have been instructed.
Step Nine: If you have done your job right, you can expect an above-average grade!