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Notes on Composing a Term Essay

by John Porter


Many students find it difficult to compose a term essay. Their problems tend to fall into one of five categories:

(1) Difficulties of expression
(2) Research
(3) Lack of a thesis
(4) Lack of proofreading
(5) Lack of consultation
Other difficulties, particularly some of the more mechanical type, can be found in the *Check-List of Items to Keep in Mind When Composing Your Essay at the end of this page.


(1) Difficulties of Expression

If you are concerned about your abilities to express your ideas effectively in written English, there are two resources that you should consider.

The first is your professor: compose a first draft of your essay well in advance of the submission deadline and ask your professor to read it. He/She should be able to point out major areas of concern and, at the very least, offer specific suggestions/corrections for that particular essay.

(Notice that the first sentence of the previous paragraph refers to a first draft, not a "rough" draft. For this exercise to work, you must make a serious effort to compose a polished paper that is ready to be submitted and receive a mark; otherwise you are unlikely to receive comments that go much beyond the "Needs more work" variety.)

The second resource you should consider is the University of Learning Centre, in room 142 of the Murray Library. If you are truly serious about improving your writing skills, this is the place to go.

A good on-line reference is Jack Lynch's Guide to Grammar and Style.


(2) Research

Students often find it difficult to research a paper properly.

One major difficulty involves the use of secondary sources, on which see the Use of Secondary Sources page on this Web site.

But a more fundamental problem lies in the nature of the research itself. All too often students, being human, leave their essays to the last minute. This means that they often cannot obtain important sources that they should have consulted in composing their essay; more important, it also means that they have too little time to master those sources and reflect upon the information that they contain. A good essay is the result of a good amount of thought: in a course where students are dealing with material to which they have had little or no exposure beforehand, a fair degree of spade-work is necessary in order merely to develop a general background knowledge of your subject. As a result, essays composed at the last second tend to present merely a collection of facts or of other people's observations: these can be interesting, but a mere collation of material, however diligent and far-ranging, does not an essay make. It is important that you master your secondary sources, reflect upon them, and evaluate them in the course of developing your own thoughts on your subject. You also need time to consider the various ramifications of your subject, on which see (3) below.

For a list of various bibliographic tools available in our library and on the Internet, see the Bibliographic Aids page.


(3) Lack of a thesis

A proper essay has a thesis — i.e., a proposition that it intends to prove by marshaling various arguments which, in turn, are based upon the author's interpretation of primary sources (ancient texts, inscriptions, art, archaeological discoveries, etc.) and upon material gathered from various secondary sources (modern scholarly writings).

Above all, your essay should do more than simply describe a topic: it should have a point that it wishes to demonstrate via a reasoned argument. A paper that sets out to "prove" that women's lives in ancient Greece were very different from those of women in modern Canada faces three problems: (1) it is so open-ended that it could potentially go on forever (since the number of points of difference are virtually countless); (2) the point that it seeks to make is obvious; (3) it ignores the more interesting question of possible similarities. This last question is more interesting because many of the possible similarities it suggests are both less obvious and more contentious than the points likely to be raised in the essay as planned. It is in such contentious questions that the seeds of a good thesis are to be found.

Developing such a thesis, however, requires a good deal of work. First you have to learn about women's lives in ancient Greece. Then you have to reflect upon the lot of women in modern Canada and, e.g., confront the question of whether either group can be treated as a homogenous unity. Then, having decided just what groups you want to compare, you have to find interesting points of similarity and consider what the implications of those similarities might be. Then you have to select particular facts that will support your case, consult your secondary sources to see if they have anything relevant to say, decide how to marshal your arguments, consider possible counter-arguments that might be raised, think of particular modern texts, historical events, etc. that you might want to point to, and so forth. For a good example of the product of such a process of reflection, consider, e.g., the Sample Student Essay on Juvenal and the patron-client relationship available on this Web site: here you will find an excellent example of the detailed use of primary and secondary sources to support a thesis that is informative, analytical, and original.

All of this takes a good deal of time and effort, but it is also a good deal more satisfying than the typical last-second report that students often find themselves putting together. One of the most grievous sins of our modern educational system is that it has taught students that composing an essay is simply a mindless punishment, requiring them to churn out a given number of pages filled with meaningless facts and information. A properly composed essay offers students the freedom to pursue their own thoughts and interests, argue for their own views, and define for themselves what direction their education will take. It also offers perhaps the greatest potential for students to reflect in a meaningful way about themselves and the world in which they live.

On the other hand, a good thesis does not require massive amounts of data in order to be presented in an interesting and persuasive fashion: if your argument is nicely focused and to the point, you might find that you need less in the way raw material than does someone who is slavishly compiling the typical "report." Consider, e.g., the Sample Student Essay on the ancient Olympics available on this Web site: here you have an example of an intelligently argued and nicely thought-out essay that uses both primary and secondary sources well, but only to the degree that these sources are relevant to the particular case the author wishes to make.


(4) Lack of proofreading

Nothing will undermine your work more than multiple misspellings, grammatical mistakes, errors in formatting, etc., all of which suggest a carelessness on your part in putting the essay together (particularly in this age of the spell-checker!). An essay that seems to have been thrown down on paper at the last second is bound to receive a lower mark. All too often, students who complain that they simply don't know how to write an essay are in fact guilty of devoting too little time to the project.

As for the old argument that it is the quality of your thoughts that should matter and not their presentation, I suggest this simple test: would you adopt the same attitude toward what you wrote on a job application? But the more important point is simply this: in any piece of writing that aims for more than the mere exposition of a set of facts, sloppy language is often a sign of sloppy thinking. The odds are that if you are consistently employing imprecise or incorrect expressions, you have not thought seriously enough about just what it is that you are trying to say.

A good resource for those of you concerned about basic matters of formatting (headers, footnotes, quotations, etc.) is the Department of English's brochure, Requirements for Essays.


(5) Lack of consultation

Talk to your professor about your topic early on the process and consult him/her as your paper develops. Your professor should be able to suggest useful sources, lines of thought for you to explore, flaws or gaps in your argument, and various pitfalls that might not be obvious to you.
(I once had a friend whose main source for a term essay was a work on James Joyce that was an elaborate gag and was meant to be taken as such: she didn't get the joke and, unfortunately, neither did her professor.)
As in point (1) above, however, you need to present your professor with something solid in order for him/her to offer a useful response: the more indefinite you are, and the less informed you are about your topic, the less likely will it be that your professor will be able to give you any real advice.



A Check-List of Items to Keep in Mind When Composing Your Essay

  1. Make certain that your essay is on an appropriate topic. If you are taking a literature course, do not submit a paper that deals mainly with social history, to the exclusion of the texts read in class; if you are taking a course in daily life, do not submit a paper that would be more at home in a course on the constitution of ancient Rome. If you have doubts about the suitability of your topic, consult the professor.

  2. Give your paper a specific title that is grammatical and that gives a clear indication of what your essay will be about. (It need not be pedestrian, but, even in the case of a deliberately provocative or teasing title, it should make some sort of sense to someone who has yet to read your paper.)

  3. Avoid overwriting. A term essay should employ language that is more formal and precise than that which we often use in day-to-day speech, but artificial attempts to elevate your prose style will all too often lead to gibberish.

  4. AVOID PLOT SUMMARY.

  5. Avoid colloquialisms.

  6. Avoid tense shifts. (In general, it is best to stick to the present tense throughout your essay unless there is a particularly compelling reason to do otherwise.)

  7. Avoid contractions.

  8. Avoid overuse of quotation marks to qualify your statements: these are inappropriate for a formal paper in general and often merely serve as a cover for lack of care/precision or for inappropriate colloquialisms. (E.g., "Achilles loses his 'cool.'")

  9. Underline/italicize the titles of works (unless you are citing, e.g., a short poem or a scholarly article) and foreign words (e.g., kleos) — otherwise the latter might look like typographical errors or, in some cases (e.g., "time" for timê) be mistaken for common English words. (With some exceptions [e.g., German nouns], foreign words should not be capitalized unless they are proper nouns or begin a sentence.)

  10. Make certain that any quotations that you cite are properly formatted. (Longer quotations should be presented separately in an indented paragraph and should be reproduced exactly as they appear in the original work [i.e., quotation marks only if the passage itself has them; in the case of poetry, line breaks as in the original]. In general, longer quotations should not be incorporated into one of your own sentences: do not merely continue with your introductory sentence following the quotation. Shorter quotations should be incorporated into your own paragraph. They should be preceded by a comma or colon and surrounded by quotation marks [double quotation marks if the original passage itself is a quotation]. In the case of poetry, line breaks should be indicated by a slash ( / ): the slash should be separated from the adjacent text by at least one space on each side. The punctuation at the end of the quotation (if any) should be appropriate to the context [e.g., no period if the sentence is going to continue and be concluded by a period of its own].)

  11. Make certain that you correctly spell the title of the works you are discussing. (E.g., do not write an essay about Homer's "Illiad.")

  12. Proofread your papers and use a spell-checker.

  13. Number your pages. (Do not include the title page in your numeration. No indication of the page number need appear on your first page.)

  14. Staple your pages together in the upper left-hand corner. A title page is fine, but do not submit a folder or binder unless the size of the paper (e.g., over 30 pages) or the addition of supporting material (appendices, etc.) warrants this. Do not simply paperclip your pages together.

  15. Always retain a personal copy of your paper, either on disk or in hard copy, in case the copy you submit should go astray.



Final Annoying Note

Many of you will have noticed that a common theme that keeps cropping up in the above discussion involves the need to start your essay early! The root of many of the problems students encounter in the above-listed areas is lack of time and the need to produce a certain number of pages in the space of a few days or, in some cases, hours (!). If you want to have a good chance at receiving a good mark, begin working on your paper relatively early in the term and give yourself plenty of time both to evaluate what you've written and to proofread your work.

For related musings, see my Notes on Composing an In-Class Essay page.


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These pages were designed by John Porter.
Last Modified: Friday, 02-Sep-2011 12:52:53 CST
Please send queries and comments to john.porter@usask.ca.