Thursday, September 26, 2013

Myths about Writing Essays

Four suitcases sit,  and the title "Myths about Writing Essays" appears above them.  The subtitle, "Check these preconceived ideas about writing at the door" appears to the right of the baggage.
Following certain old "rules" can actually cause more
serious writing errors.

There are a few "old friends" students bring into the college composition classroom with them year after year.  These memorized rules, these "old standby buddies" are called upon paper after paper, student after student, only to let their writers down in the end.

These seedy comrades, after all, are merely posing as pals, when in reality they are nothing more than mythical shadows leading their followers astray.

In other words, students come into my writing classes thinking that there are a certain number of sentences per paragraph, a certain number of words per sentence, a rule that states a sentence can't start with "because," and a rule that says a writer is not allowed to use "I" in an essay.


Myth #1: There are 3 - 5 sentences in a paragraph.


Reality: A paragraph is as long as necessary to support a topic sentence.  That means a paragraph requires two things: a topic sentence or a statement of a main idea and some sort of support or evidence that demonstrates the credibility of that main idea.  If a paragraph seems too short, it's missing its main idea or an element of support.  If the paragraph seems too long, it may contain more than one main idea or it may be "beating a dead horse" with its copious or trite evidence.

Believing the myth, students often commit more serious errors than paragraph length.  When students believe their paragraphs are too short, they add evidence that lacks credibility or they add meaningless sentences as filler, often even straying off topic or countering their thesis claims.  On the other hand, if they think a paragraph is too long, they cut sentences that help clarify their main ideas, leaving gaps in their arguments or reasoning.

Myth #2: There are no more than 25 words in a sentence.


Reality: Sentences can be (and should be) long, short, and in-between.  A good essay will be composed of sentences of a variety of lengths and complexity.  As long as a sentence is well-written and well-punctuated, it can be as long as it needs to be in order to clearly establish the writer's claim or position on the topic under discussion.

When students adhere to the myth, they sometimes simplify their ideas at the expense of clarity or coherence.  For example, if writing an essay about a literary work, students will sometimes leave the title of the story, play, or poem out of their thesis statements in order to reduce the number of words, leaving a reader with a major question.  If including quoted evidence from an expert source, student writers will sometimes omit an introductory phrase or a statement of attribution before the quote, making the evidence seem arbitrary or pushing the edge of plagiarism.  Plagiarism is a much more serious error than sentence length.

Myth #3: Sentences cannot start with "because."


Reality: A sentence should be complete.  Beginning a sentence with "because" does not necessarily mean a sentence will be incomplete; it simply means the writer must be certain the dependent "because" clause is followed by a comma and an independent clause.

Sentences should always begin with the most important words within the sentence.  Furthermore, reasons generally follow the word "because."  If a writer begins a sentence with "because," it could be because he or she wants to emphasize the reason within the sentence over the premise or conclusion.  Because some students are taught never to do such a thing, however, they never learn to add emphasis to the reason within a sentence.

Myth #4: Writers should never use "I" in an essay.


Reality: An essay is a short discussion.  That short discussion can be molded into an expository essay, a descriptive essay, an argumentative or persuasive essay, or a narrative essay.  Depending on the type of essay a student is writing, "I" could be perfectly acceptable.

When students are trying to avoid "I," they sometimes commit a worse error; that is, they resort to using the second person, even when commenting on their own lives.  That error distracts readers and can even put a reader on the defensive.  For example, in a narrative essay about learning to drive, I once had a student writer state, "You need to drive more carefully so you aren't in any more accidents."  When I asked him why he was assuming I had been in a car accident, he stated that he was the one who had been in an accident.  When I asked him why he said it in his paper as though his reader had been in an accident, he told me it was because he had been taught never to use "I" in an essay.

In conclusion, although there are some hard and fast rules about writing writers should learn to trust like old friends, these are not those friends, those rules.  A paragraph should be as long as necessary to support a topic sentence.  A sentence should be as long or as short as necessary to clearly establish an idea.  Sentences can begin with "because," and "I" can sometimes mean the difference between offering a lesson or insight to a reader or offending or confusing a reader.  In the end, it remains a matter of unity, coherence within and between paragraphs, and a clearly stated and supported discussion of a claim or position.

Want to learn more about writing essays?  

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Copyright Amy Lynn Hess.  Please contact the writer for permission to reuse.

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