One. The Four Questions I Ask When I Grade Your Essay
1. How clear is your purpose (thesis) and how effectively do you keep focused on your purpose throughout the essay?
2. How well do you develop your ideas with concrete detailed paragraphs?
3. How well do you bring the "Excitement Factor" into your essay by finding an approach that stirs your emotional fire, passion, and conviction?
4. How effectively do you execute the mechanics so that in terms of grammar, precise word choice, and formatting you deliver a polished, professional manuscript?
Two. The Five Writing Traps to Avoid
1. Turning in late papers—I set my sights on the new cycle of essays so that when a late paper, from the old cycle, comes my way I look at that paper with disdain. In fact, my heart is “dead” to the late paper and I will mark that late paper with a C or D grade no matter what the paper’s virtues. My hostility to the late paper is exacerbated when students give me their grossly tardy expositions during the last two weeks of the semester, a time in which I am already inundated with stacks of on-time papers, thereby making me especially vitriolic toward late essays, which I see as an affront to my dignity and self-respect and which therefore compel me to mark those essays with a D or F grade. I harbor enormous suspicions towards alleged “medical and family emergencies” which “necessitate” turning in a late essay. While I concede that compelling circumstances do exist and while I address those alleged compelling circumstances on an individual basis and with sympathy, I have found over the last twenty years of teaching that well over 99% of the students who claim special circumstances are a constant source of chafing agitation and demonstrate a highly annoying predictable pattern of lame excuses, “bad luck,” and emotional neediness which, for their sake, I do not indulge lest I should be guilty of encouraging their dysfunctional behavior. In conclusion, do not, I repeat, do not turn in late essays.
2. Writing essays that are full of the obvious and self-evident—an essay full of obvious truths and clichés has no reason to exist, no matter how well organized and well written. Writing about the evil of greed and materialism or the way in which we are withdrawing into our technology or how we have forgotten to love and respect one another are all true and noble sentiments but they have no business in your papers since, presumably, we already have those beliefs so that these papers are superfluous. To capitulate to obvious truths about the human condition is to sermonize or to lecture down to your reader. Also, if the material is obvious, you will be bored with your own essay and your reader will even be more bored. Therefore, strive to challenge your intellect and argue for a position that requires vigorous defense and sophisticated analysis.
3. Writing essays from your head but not your gut—intellectual explorations can only take you so far. A memorable essay must be fueled by both your mind and a fire in your belly. If you can’t muster a fire of passion for your topic, then your essay will be flaccid, perfunctory, and lackluster, sins which your reader will never forgive. You cannot fake passion. Either you have it or you don’t. It is your responsibility to find a way to bring authentic passion to your essay.
4. Writing half-baked essays—a half-baked essay is a rough draft, a seed of a good idea. It may contain a recognizable structure, topic sentences, a clear focus, and an exciting approach but it falls on its face because the essay lacks details, color, and concreteness. A telltale sign of a half-baked essay is short paragraphs. Fully developed paragraphs, 100-150 words, are a sign of a fully baked exposition, which I can spot immediately just by glancing at your paragraphs. A lack of details, haphazard sentences, redundant syntax, lack of word variety—all these things evince a half-baked essay written in the rush of a moment or with one hand on the keyboard and other holding a cell phone. I have sadly received many half-baked essays because students carried on with cell-phone conversations while writing their essays.
5. Relying on your computer or a tutor for spelling, grammar, and other facets of your exposition—realize that your computer is a nincompoop that is incapable of discerning the difference between possessive case and a contraction (whose/who’s or your/you’re or its/it’s) and many other spelling scenarios. Its grammar check is a complete stinker. Its ability to detect other syntax errors is at best weak. Do not rely on it. Do not rely on your tutor for grammar either. Over the last twenty years I have received thousands of “tutor-approved” essays rife with comma splices, run-ons, fragments, noun-pronoun errors, dangling modifiers, faulty subordination, elephantine syntax, and other egregious errors that have prompted full investigations into the credentials of these so-called “tutors.” I have also over the last twenty years graded horrific, cliché-laden essays that the students defended by saying, “But my tutor liked it,” or “It was my tutor’s idea.” I don’t care what your tutor thought or said about your essay. Your tutor means absolutely nothing to me. Therefore rely on no one but yourself. This is a life lesson in being street smart, the most valuable kind of intelligence. Remember that Rule Number One in being street smart is trusting no one. Rule Number Two is don’t make your pride, performance, and excellence dependent on others. Your excellence and success is your responsibility and no one else’s.
Three. Qualities of a Successful Thesis, the Foundation of Your Essay
1. One sentence that declares or asserts a position that can be demonstrated with examples.
2. The examples can be expressed in mapping statements or mapping components.
3. Avoids being self-evident or obvious but creates new insights.
4. A good thesis is visceral, from the gut, meaning you have an immediate emotional connection to it. The intellect comes later.
Sample Thesis with Mapping Statements
Phil Connor’s time warp in Groundhog Day is an excellent illustration of Wallace’s warning about the dangerous consequences of us settling into our morally bankrupt “default setting.” First, Connor is a man who has become a slave to his “template” of self-centeredness, unable to connect with the outside world, a form of insanity. Second, he is absent of any beliefs other than conviction of his own vanity making him blind to his own repulsiveness. Third, his misanthropic bitterness creates a self-fulfilling prophesy that brings out the worst in others and therefore reinforces his cynicism. Fourth, he cannot escape his private hell until, in Wallace’s words, he develops a “critical awareness” of his misguided “certainties” and realizes he is “totally wrong and deluded.”
An effective way to write a thesis is to give it concession, refutation, and mapping components (underlined below). Example:
While ABC's Gray's Anatomy is often cleverly written and deals with timely topics that are dramatized in a complex, compelling manner, the show too often is sodden with cutesy dialog, predictably needy characters who are less endearing than they are chafing, and highly annoying, "sensitive" scenes that deteriorate into over-stylized MTV-style music videos accompanied by precious and cloying indy-pop folk rock.
The above example has concession by conceding that the show is often "clever," "timely," and "complex"; at the same time, in the thesis' independent clause the writer refutes the show by accusing it of being "cutesy," "chafing," and "annoying." Finally, the thesis has mapping components that outline the body paragraphs and thus give the writer a road map or organizing structure for the essay.
Sample thesis structure for Cooked in which the essay is divided into two parts:
Jeff Henderson goes down the road to insanity through __________________, _________________, and ___________________and finds redemption through ___________________, _______________________, and _________________________.
Part Four. The Risks of Coming from a Fatherless Home
From Life Without Father:
In 30 years the rate of fatherless children has doubled. And death isn't the cause. Abandonment is.
Teen suicided has tripled during that time.
72% of murderers grew up fatherless.
70% of long-term prison inmates grew up without a father.
Another Source: New York Times
Another Source: Root Cause of Violent Crime
Another Source: Jeff Henderson Becomes a Father Figure in His TV Show
Another Source: Beliefnet Interview
Part Five: Journal Entry: Someone You Know With No Father Who "Acts Out"
Describe the behavior of a young man you know who has no father. Does his behavior evidence the need for a father? Does he seem to be going down a "wrong path"? Explain.
Part Six: Essay for Cooked
Essay One: The Fall, Perdition, and Redemption in Cooked
In 1-1.5 pages, write a salient, concrete, colorful profile of someone you know who experienced a fall, perdition, and redemption. You can focus on concupiscence, denial, or effects of a fatherless childhood. If you don't know such a person, find a character in a film or a work of literature.
Then using an appropriate paragraph transition such as "Similarly" or "Likewise," you might start your thesis paragraph this way:
Likewise, we read in Cooked about the extraordinary Jeff Henderson who undergoes his own Fall into the abyss of insanity and a redemption born from necessity. JH's Fall is caused by ___________________, _________________________, and _____________________________. Only after sinking to the rotten depths of nihilism does he begin his journey toward redemption. This salubrious journey is born from _____________________________, ____________________________, _____________________________, and ______________________________________.
Your body paragraphs will correspond to the components you use to fill in the above blanks. Your conclusion will be one sentence, a brief, dramatic restatement of your thesis. Your final page, your Works Cited page, will show the sources you used fromCooked, from my blog, from interviews, or from other helpful sources you find. Your Works Cited page and manuscript must conform to MLA format. Be sure to make your own catchy, creative title.