The Academic Essay

This article presents a general overview of the academic essay as a form of writing: its purpose, its component parts, and its development from idea to polished document.

Academic formality

What distinguishes the academic essay from other essays are its rigour and its method.

On rigour

It is because academic essays are to be painstakingly meticulous that people in the academy will sometimes say, “an essay is not a statement of opinion.”  What they mean is that an academic essay fails utterly when its argument is so weak that someone might call it “just an opinion.”  In an academic essay, your opinion must be presented as rigorous argument—your essay must forcefully persuade or cunningly induce its readers to believe.

Rigorous argument cannot not rely on the author’s intuition or feeling about a topic, but must present reasons others will find convincing in support of the author’s view on a topic. These supporting reasons are what give an essay its persuasive power. Academic essays don’t ask for people to believe—and they especially don’t assume that people will believe—they provide convincing reasons to believe.

Careful citation practice forms another pillar of academic rigour, and you should be exacting and vigilant about tracking sources and putting them in the appropriate places.

On method

As scientists have settled on the fixed structure of a scientific report to convey their findings, so academic essayists have more or less settled on a fixed structure to convey their arguments (although the essay form predates the scientific report by centuries).

Practiced essayists sometimes vary their approaches, but academic essays of any length or type, almost without exception, have a definite set of component parts, and certain types of information follow a more or less certain order.

Thesis statements

The opinion of which you’re trying to convince your reader becomes your thesis statement.  Every essay will have a thesis statement, with the exception of what are called “narrative” and “descriptive” essays (which can be thought of as a blend of short-story-like writing and more standard essay writing).

General form

Every essay has an introduction, body, and conclusion that always do more or less the same things.

Paragraph form

Because academic essays require so much rigour and clarity, paragraphs are required to be well-integrated with one another, and a fairly formulaic approach to writing any given paragraph can be helpful. Introductions, in particular, can be understood with a unique formula. Even when writers forge more creatively organized paragraphs, each paragraph requires good transitions and normally uses well-defined topic sentences.

Differences in essay execution

Obviously, though, each essay is not the same. Essay content and emphasis begins to differ depending on the demands of the topic and the purpose of the essay, and there are recognizable patterns for ordering paragraphs that we can pick out for various purposes.

Pre- and-post-essay-writing

The demands placed on you as an academic essayist are high enough that the writing process begins long before the writing, and the essay is not done even when the writing is complete.

The writing process

Before you begin work on your polished essay, there are a number of steps to take:

The revision process

Once you produce a draft containing all of the substantial parts of your argument, the revision process begins.  Revision can be usefully broken down into two separate processes—looking at global concerns and scrutinizing the fine-grained details of the essay.

The Academic Essay

The academic essay is merely a specific writing genre–as is the love letter, newspaper editorial, or pop-fiction.  As a genre, it functions within a set of norms, rules, and conventions.  The purpose of this discussion is to make clear to you what those rules and norms are, and how to use them to express your argument clearly.

Purpose:
The purpose of the academic essay is to persuade by reasoned discourse.  Scholars use the essay amongst themselves to advance ideas.  Its value as an instructional tool is to assist students in developing their critical thinking skills.  As you recall, critical thinking is defined as: the ability to read theory accurately, appropriate it meaningfully, apply it independently, generate results based on that application, analyze the results, and form a clear argument based on those results that can be defended with a specific line of reasoning.

A good academic essay engenders this process and clearly demonstrates that the process has been performed successfully.    With this in mind let's examine how to write an academic essay.

Introduction

Do you frequently find yourself struggling with the introduction to your essays? Do you not know how to begin the essay?  Do you find yourself searching for a generalizing statement that will get things going, and trying to find a delicate balance  between BS'ing and saying something meaningful?  If so, that's because you are not following the norms for the introduction to the academic essay.  Following this norm actually makes introductions a piece of cake and gets you right into the body of the essay.  Here is the norm:

The purpose of the introduction is two-fold:
1. To introduce the theoretical framework that will guide your analysis
2. To introduce the thesis statement that will organize your paper.
 

Following this norm allows you to cut to the chase.  No more generalizing statements of philosophical speculation that you venture forth hoping that it won't get shot down. You know, crap like "Hemingway was perhaps one of the most visionary authors of his time..." or "The Western is perhaps the most uniquely American of all the genres..."  Rather, if the purpose of the essay is to demonstrate that you have appropriated a theory and applied it independently to produce results, then the function of the introduction becomes more focused: to introduce the theory–or theoretical framework–that you have decided to use.  Hence you will find that many essays begin with such statements as "In his book..."  Or, "In her essay..."

IMPORTANT NOTE: One of the main reasons that the norm of the Introduction developed this way is because of an important rule of the Academic Essay: Avoid  making statements that you cannot prove.  The problem with the generalizing/philosophical/BS'ing statements like "Hemingway..." and "The Western..." is that they cannot be proven through reasoned discourse.  Moreover, to even try and do so would require voluminous amounts of discourse for something that is not even your thesis: what you actually ARE setting out to prove.  As a result, the genre of the Academic Essay has evolved into the above norm.  It still meets an introduction's purpose of orienting the reader, it just does so in a very specific manner.

Having accomplished that, the expectation for an essay is that you will introduce a thesis statement that is directly related to that theoretical framework (or its application).  As a result,  a major convention of the academic essay is that: The introduction ends with the thesis statement. 

Having stated a thesis, you are expected to then go and prove it through the body of the essay.

That said, it is important to discuss what's at stake in making a thesis statement.  There are four basic logical forms for a  thesis statement:

 • A banal thesis statement
 • A simple thesis statement
 • A complex thesis statement
 • An impossible thesis statement

Let's discuss each of these quickly before moving on.

A banal thesis statement is a statement that does not really say anything–it is in fact meaningless because it is either so overly general or so evident as to not be of significance.  Here's an example from literature. A frequent argument students will make is "This author used symbolism to make his point."  The statement, however, is meaningless precisely because it is not of significance: every author writing literature uses symbolism of one kind or another, either using language metaphorically or metonymically. Thus, to attempt to single out or make a distinction of a piece for using "symbolism" is to not say anything that even needs proving to begin with.

A simple thesis statement is not quite what it may sound like.  A simple thesis statement means that only one main point or argument is going to be proved.  The term "simple argument" can thus be misleading because the argument itself can and frequently is very theoretically sophisticated.  What makes them simple is that in terms of their logical structure, they only take on one line of proof, and hence, their organization of proof will be simple.   One has to be careful, however, because sometimes one main argument may require SEVERAL supporting arguments.  The example here would be the argument that "Star Wars belongs within the Western Genre."  Here the writer has only one thing to prove, but in order to do so will have to establish the elements that comprise the Western Genre and demonstrate how the film embodies them--not a small task.

Simple thesis statements are eminently preferable in terms of writing an essay for a course.  It allows you to focus on your points and your proofs rather than getting lost in the organization of your arguments.

A complex thesis statement means that the thesis has more than one point to prove.  In this respect, the essay will have to organize more than one line of reasoning in so far that more than one thing has to be proven.  Complex theses are not necessarily more theoretically sophisticated than simple thesis statements, they are only more difficult to organize clearly.  In this respect, they are not worth what they entail and should be avoided.  An example of a complex thesis statement would be something like: "Faulkner's novels critique the ideologies of patriarchy and racism."

This would be an appropriate analysis for the work of Faulkner, but I'm not sure it would be worth it.  To begin with, it is not clear what the writer has to gain in terms of proving BOTH of these aspects of the work rather than just the one. Instead, with this complex thesis, there are going to be long sections of the essay where half of what needs to be proved will be left suspended while the other half gets discussed. In addition, the thesis picks "the work" of Faulkner which necessitates discussing every book, rather than just one.   Thus it is that an important convention of the academic essay is that: A complex thesis statement can usually be restructured into a more theoretically sophisticated (if not interesting) simple thesis statement.
 
The impossible thesis statement is a kind of corollary of the banal thesis statement insofar as you want to stay away from it.  Rather than saying something which is evident or meaningless, however, the impossible thesis statement puts forward something which cannot reasonably be proved, as a result of there being no agreed upon or stable criteria from which to render conclusions.  Examples of impossible statements abound, but the one most related to this course would be "The Plague is great art," or "The Plague is the most realistic of all Camus' novels."  In each case, there is no stable criteria.  Take the first one.  What distinguishes between "good" art and "great" art?  Furthermore, the essay would not be able to point to a stable definition of "art", a concept that art historians, artists, and cultural critics have been arguing over for centuries.  The latter thesis has a similar problem since "realistic" is not a stable concept with firm criteria.

Making an Argument
As stated earlier, the academic essay is an exercise in reasoned persuasion.  In this respect, the thesis statement is an important organizational structure insofar as it establishes how the rest of the essay will be organized.  Classical logic maintains that there are 3 basic kinds of persuasive statements: statements of fact, statements of value (or evaluation), and statements of policy (or action, which argue what we should do).  Unless otherwise specified, the first of these, the statement of fact, is the form that the thesis statement for an academic essay should take–the obvious exception being when you write evaluative criticism (which you will NEVER do in my course).

Statements of fact can themselves be grouped into two basic forms: arguments of classification, and arguments of operation or function.  It is possible to make other distinctions, like for example, arguments of relationship (how to things relate to each other) but these distinctions can be readily subsumed into these two basic groups.

Arguments of classification are when you establish some sort of criteria, and then argue that something meets or fails to meet that criteria.  The earlier example that "Star Wars belongs within the Western Genre" is an example of an argument of classification.  Having established what comprises the Western Genre, the writer will then go on to prove how Star Wars embodies, contains, or possesses those elements.  The writer will, in other words, prove that Star Wars meets that criteria.

Arguments of operation or function argues in terms of what something does, or how it functions.  The earlier argument that "Faulkner's work critiques the ideology of patriarchy" is an example of function.  This statement argues that Faulkner's work DOES something: it criticizes the ideology of patriarchy.  Note that unlike the argument of classification, the writer of this essay SEEMS to have to do more to prove their thesis.  They will not only have to define what the ideology of patriarchy is–and thus establish criteria–they will also have to demonstrate that Faulkner's work DOES something with that criteria.  The question of HOW leads to a discussion of the body of the essay.

The Body of the Essay

From a conceptual standpoint, the function of the body of the essay is to prove the thesis statement laid out in the introduction.  Easy enough.  This section discusses how the writer accomplishes that proof.

Establishing Criteria
In the discussion of types of argument, I made the point that the writer will have to establish criteria that can be used to prove their argument.  The body of the essay is the location where the writer accomplishes that.  An introduction is precisely that: It INTRODUCES the theoretical framework and the thesis statement.  It does not DESCRIBE or DISCUSS these two things.  This is a fairly common mistake that beginning essay writers make.  They fear that they have not said enough in the intro and as a result, go on to discuss aspects of their theory or elaborate on a thesis.  The problem with doing so is that it screws up your organization. What comes next is no longer clear to the reader.

If you keep it clear to yourself that the purpose of the introduction to your essay is to only INTRODUCE your theoretical framework, and your thesis statement, then the function of the body of your essay will also become evident to the reader.  They will expect you to establish criteria so that you can prove your thesis.  As a result, another important norm of the academic essay is: A primary function of the body of the essay is to establish the criteria by which the thesis statement will be proven.

Thus it is that having argued that Star Wars is a Western, the body of the paper is going to have to first establish the elements that comprise the Western–it will have to establish the criteria by which the thesis can be proven.  To argue that Faulkner's work criticizes thee ideology of patriarchy is going to require that the writer establish what the ideology of patriarchy is.

Meeting Criteria
Establishing the criteria by which the thesis statement will be proven leads to the next logical step: demonstrating how the object under investigation meets those criteria.  Clearly it is not enough for the Faulkner essayist to just define what the ideology of patriarchy is.  Their thesis is that Faulkner's work criticizes that ideology.  As a result, they will have to point to specific things within the text and argue that they relate to those criteria IN A SPECIFIC WAY–in this case through a process of criticism.  This process of relating the object of investigation back to the established criteria is another fundamental component of the body of the essay.  Without it, the proof is not complete.  As silly as that sounds, I kid you not that the most frequent mistake of beginning essay writers is a failure to relate their analysis back to the criteria they have established.  Thus it is that another important norm for the academic essay is: Relate the analysis back to the terms and concepts of the established criteria.

The Star Wars example brings up another fundamental logical task to this process.  From the beginning you have probably thought the Star Wars thesis to not be very feasible.  The film is not set in the West, and it occurs in the future.  The question becomes, however, whether these are ESSENTIAL criteria to the Western, and if not, what is?  In terms of proving that thesis statement, the writer is going to have to clearly establish what the elements of the Western Genre are, and then relate aspects of the film back to ALL of those criteria.  Herein lies the essential importance of "completeness" to that process.  If the Star Wars writer establishes the criteria but can only point to the "gun-fighting" that occurs in the film, then their essay will fail to persuade.  Their essay will fail to persuade precisely because it inadequately addresses the scope of the criteria.  Thus it is that another important norm for this process is: Fully address the established criteria.

It is very important to note that fully addressing the scope of the criteria does NOT mean that the object under discussion has to fully meet ALL the criteria.  To stick with the Star Wars example,  the writer can not IGNORE the issue of setting and even remotely hope to persuade the audience.  In some way, the writer is going to have to address the fact that  both time and place are out of the bounds of the Western.  This is the point precisely.  The author will have to ADDRESS that point–those criteria–not necessarily MEET those criteria.  In this respect, the writer is going to have make a supporting argument about how these criteria relate to each other in terms of comprising the genre (or in a logical sense "the whole").  The important point is that all criteria are addressed adequately.  Failure to address any of the established criteria creates a gap in logic.  Subsequently,  the reasoning process (and its ability to persuade) fails.

Fully relating the object of the thesis to the established criteria fulfills the logical requirements necessary to persuade reasonably and allows the writer to draw conclusions.  Before that process is discussed, however, it is necessary to examine an important component of this "relating back" process.

The Role of Description
Relating "the object of investigation" or the "object of the thesis" back to the established criteria is necessarily going to involve description.  Description is frequently an unclear and thorny issue for writers of the academic essay–especially in terms of scope (how much is enough?).  The purpose of description, however, clarifies the issue of scope.  The purpose of description to is to make clear, or establish WHAT in the object of investigation (the film, the scene, the shot) relates to the criteria being used.  It therefore becomes important for the writer to use description in such a manner as to establish the basis of the relationship between the object and the criteria.  Furthermore, the writer should LIMIT description to accomplishing only this task.  Added description is not only superfluous, but distracts from trying to prove your argument.  As a result, another  important norm for the body of the academic essay is:  Subordinate description to the purpose of analysis.

The Conclusion
As stated above the process of fully relating the object of the thesis to the established criteria has the effect of fulfilling the logical requirements.  It is THAT task which ultimately persuades, not the conclusion itself.  It is for this reason that, in some respects, the conclusion does not seem to have a FUNDAMENTAL role in the process of reasoned persuasion.  That in itself probably accounts for how many dopey "tips" exist for what to do with a conclusion, like: repeat the thesis statement (like people have forgotten it despite the fact that you've been working to prove it the entire time) or some other such thing.

What to do with a conclusion if the work of proof is already done?  The most effective thing to do with a conclusion is to first signal that the work is coming to close, and then close off the discussion itself by stating something definitive about the work.  Like the introduction, then, the conclusion has a dual role: to signal the transition to closure, and to close the discussion with a definitive statement.  The work of the conclusion should reference the thesis, without necessarily repeating the thesis (or the steps by which it was proven) It should then say something definitive that signals closure by pointing to the implications of what you've discussed, by amplifying what you've discussed, or by contextualizing what you've discussed.

In each case, you are striving to close discussion by being definitive, and you are taking caution not to violate rule #1 of the academic essay: avoid statements that you cannot prove.

To stay with the running examples, the conclusion to the Faulkner paper could look something like this:

"...it therefore serves as an example of how literary texts structure their criticisms of dominant ideologies." (pointing to the implications of proving your argument).

or

"Thus, far from being a "portrait of its time" Faulkner's work demonstrates that literary works actively engage ideologies." (amplifying your argument)

or

"Rather than a story centered exclusively on war, Hemingway's novel instead participates in the reinforcement of dominant ideologies with American culture." (Contextualizing the argument)

Note that the similarity here is how definitive these statements are.  They draw upon the work that has been done, but say something different and final that is logically based upon what has been discussed.
 
 

Final Observations
There are, of course, variations on the genre of the academic essay--some rather large difference exist, for example, between the social sciences and the humanites.  This discussion is based on the humanties approach.  Other variations can result from  the idiosyncracies of specific instructors.  To the degree that what is written here sounds heavy handed and inflexible, I caution instead that such tone is trying to reflect the manner in which your own analysis and writing will need to sound precise and rigorous–the standards by which the academic essay is evaluated.

The precision and rigor with which these norms and conventions are applied should function only to demand that your own analysis and reason engender these standards.  They are thus meant to elevate your thinking, not control it.  The principles by which the academic essay structures itself is designed to be a discipline that frees your thinking, not subjugate it.  Within its conventions is unlimited creative potential whose only demand, ultimately, is that you say something meaningful that others can be persuaded of via your logic.

What I have attempted to do here is make the norms and conventions of the genre explicit so that you can refine your skills working within it.  Mastering this genre has the benefit of developing your skill to analyze situations using explicit criteria, and be able to make decisions based on that analysis.  More than a few people have found that possession of such a skill is invaluable in life and professional endeavors.
 

Tally Ho.

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