Suggestions for Writing Effective Essays

Dr. Gene Kannenberg, Jr.

University of Houston-Downtown


My Goal:

To help your writing become clear, unambiguous, and effective in communicating your message to your reader.


The Big Stuff:


·        Don’t organize your essays around the plot of the text you are discussing; rather, focus on “patterns of evidence.”  While this linear method represents the way we first encounter a text, it’s almost always not the best way to present an argument or analysis.  Remember, the second time you read a text, you begin to see how the different aspects of it relate to each other; in your essay, you will need to elucidate these relationships, so organize your arguments around various patterns or themes, not just on the chronological order of events.


·        A Research Essay is not simply a collection of ideas from other writers.  In a literature class, use research as springboards for your own discussion.  Use secondary sources as tools to help you build your own argument; for example, you might agree with and expand another writer’s idea; you might take an idea from one context and apply it in another; you might take an argument and disagree with its conclusions or methods; etc.  But your ideas (your analysis, your argument) always should remain central to your essay.


·        Quote for language use or ideas, not for plot.  Don’t simply quote from a novel to prove that something happens; rather, quote so that you can discuss how the author uses language to help us come to an understanding about an issue.


The “Picky-Yet-Important” Stuff:


·        Use MLA format.  Your work needs to follow MLA style for citations and Works Cited, of course, but also for the design of your document as a whole, including proper headers, margins, page numbers, spacing, etc.  UHD’s library has a helpful (if a bit slight) guide to MLA citation available on-line at <>.  See also the MLA's Frequently Asked Questions About MLA Style.  Our Annotated Bibliography Example demonstrates MLA document design by example; note that the entire document (every single line) is double-spaced.


·        Do NOT use full justification.  This format makes your text harder, not easier, to read.


·        Use an original, descriptive title. Not “Research Essay” – not “Analysis Essay” – not “Theme #1” – not “Roll of Thunder, Hear My Cry”


·        Introduce texts in your introduction. Be sure to give the complete title of a book, its author, and the year of publication when you introduce a novel you will discuss in your essay.


·        Refer to incidents in the novels in present tense.  Example: “When Holden Caulfield talks to the nuns on the train, he says…” not “When Holden Caulfield talked to the nuns on the train, he said…”


·        Provide context for quotations. If you quote from a source, don’t simply “drop in” the quotation.  Introduce it, giving the reader a sense of the larger story or argument in needed to understand the quotation; and follow it with a discussion in which you demonstrate to your reader why the quotation is important, and what you want your reader to learn from it.


·        Incorporate quotations grammatically.  If you need to quote only a portion of a sentence to make your point, remember that your overall sentence must still make grammatical sense.


·        “This ‘n’ that.” Avoid beginning sentences or phrases with “this” or “that” unless you follow “this” or “that” with a noun to modify it.  This practice will make the connection between your sentences easier to follow.


·        Avoid long paragraphs.  In most academic essay writing, paragraphs generally run between one-third to two-thirds of a page in length.  If your paragraphs are very short, they might represent ideas which need more development; if your essay includes very long paragraphs, you need to look at them carefully – long paragraphs often indicate a lack of focus (ideas wander from one to another without clear connections).


·        Use underlining or italics, not both.  Book titles should either be underlined or italicized.  Whichever you choose, be consistent over the entire document; the two styles mean the same thing, so pick one and stay with it.


·        Grammar, spelling, punctuation, and revision count!  Nuff said.


If you have any questions on any of this material, please let me know, either in class or in office hours or over WebCT.



Last revised: 29 November 2004