What Teachers Look for in Essays

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When it comes to essay writing, one of the biggest questions students have is: What is the instructor looking for in the essay? Teachers, professors, and instructors we've talked to offer the same advice, no matter what course or what level: An essay needs a clear thesis statement and needs to be supported with a strong argument.

Do not be dismayed by the term 'thesis.' This is simply a sentence that sums up
everything that your essay is trying to say. It's the 'elevator pitch' version of your paper,
and if you can't sum it all up in one clear sentence then you don't really know what your
paper is about or what it is trying to accomplish. Teachers look for this because without
it your paper is just a string of loosely related observations -- 'stray thoughts on stuff,'
as one of our professors in graduate-school put it.

The really problematic term is 'argument.' Almost no one uses this word properly
anymore because it doesn't mean (as many seem to presume) 'being contentious or
contrary.' One of the clearest illustrations of the difference between the popular notion of
argumentation and the academic one (which teachers are looking for) is Monty Python's
'The Argument Clinic.' Michael Palin sheds a beautiful light on the subject when he says
"an argument is a connected series of statements to establish a definite proposition."
This is really all an essay is: ideas arranged in a specific order so as to support a single

It breaks down this way. Every good essay can be reduced to one sentence: its
thesis. Each paragraph presents one idea that supports that thesis with several points
of data or facts. The creativity of an essay comes from how these are arranged, so
when a teacher reads an essay, they look first and foremost for this structure. If it's
there, they then look for how well those ideas support the thesis. Do all the paragraphs
connect clearly back to the thesis or are some dealing with a different matter
altogether? Teachers then focus on how well written the thesis and paragraphs are. Are
they clear? Is the supporting information in the paragraphs accurate and well
documented (if references are required)? Is there anything more that absolutely needs
to be said?

Once a teacher has assessed this overall structure, she or he will then focus on
how well the sentences themselves are written. Is the student stringing together a lot of
generalizations like 'most students dislike writing essays' or 'many people think that
academic writing should be boring?' If there are grammatical problems, then the clarity
of a student's writing will be damaged.

 The ultimate purpose of writing is communication, and the academic essay is
designed from the bottom up to communicate a definite statement (the thesis) in as
efficient a way as possible. 98% of an essay is supporting proof because readers need
to be offered the means of deciding whether or not they agree with that foundational,
most important statement. Clarity of writing, correct grammar, good citations, proper
formatting: teachers look for all of these but only insofar as they all go back to
supporting the thesis. We write essays as part of our education because the ability to
write well translates directly into the ability to think carefully and clearly. If you can take
your perception of a topic, reduce it to a single, clear statement, and then prove that this
statement is correct by supporting it with a range of ideas that are supported in turn by
relevant and well-positioned data, then you will also know how to solve any other
problem intelligently.

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About this Entry

This page contains a single entry by Legible Larry published on March 26, 2013 5:00 PM.

4.5 Ways to Make Your Writing More Concise was the previous entry in this blog.

Nine Easy Steps to Creating the Perfect Essay: Part 1 is the next entry in this blog.

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