Alright. Ready? Let’s write a farming essay.
1. Getting started: Don’t be dumb or boring.
Start early. In my experience, the single most effective thing a student can do to improve their essay grade is starting early. But that doesn’t mean write the whole essay early — just do a little bit at a time, and you’ll have enough time to do it right. If you’re fresh out of high school, you might also want to take a second to find out the differences between what you’ve been learning all along and what we expect you to do now. Sorry for the nasty surprise and all, but you’ve got some adjustments to make.
A) As soon as you get the assignment instructions, read them.
You’ll farm yourself up automatically if you don’t follow instructions, so read the assignment prompt thoroughly.
Find out what kind of assignment it is. Some prompts ask for a very specific list of things to include in your essay. Others offer some questions or ideas as a jumping-off point. Still others will give you very little to go on, and instead they will ask you to develop a topic and thesis on your own. When in doubt, ask whoever will be grading your paper what kind of assignment it is. Here is a guide to understanding assignment prompts that ask you to “discuss” or “analyze.” And here is a guide to other kinds of assignment prompts.
Once you know what you have to do, write up a checklist that you can use to double-check your essay when it’s done. Include things from the assignment prompt, such as “use ten peer-reviewed soures,” “include one article by Author X,” “develop a thesis,” or “discuss topic A.”
B) Pick a topic that isn’t boring.
The first few things that occur to you about your topic probably won’t be very interesting because they are the same first few things that occur to everybody else. Snoozefest. So let’s find you a topic that won’t make me die of boredom while I’m reading your essay.
Let’s say you’re writing an essay about “feminism and pornography” (I work in classes on sexuality and sex work, so that’s where my examples will come from). Here’s how to make your topic interesting:
- Break it down. “Feminism” is a big idea that is about, in part, women and gender. I might find I can be more specific by researching women or gender in particular than by researching feminism more generally.
- Review the literature on feminism in a particular field, like labour studies or medieval history. What do you learn about feminism by looking at it in this context? What do you learn about this context by focusing on its take on feminism? (Answering these questions will help you form a thesis later…)
- Approach it from a particular theoretical angle. Does poststructural feminism say something different about pornography than does Marxist-feminism, for example? (FYI: Yes. Yes, it does.)
- Narrow it down. Look at one specific aspect of the topic in greater detail. For example, you might look only at interracial pornography, or porn actors’ working conditions in Eastern Europe.
- Be interdisciplinary. Can you find some fiction about a porn actor’s life? Or is there a geography of porn production? An interdisciplinary study might yield new insights on an already well-researched topic.
Not all of these angles will be appropriate for every essay, of course, but hopefully they will give you an idea of how to take a general topic, like “feminism and pornography” and turn it into a specific topic for research, like “women in medieval pornography.”
If you’re still struggling with originality, try reading some of these links about being original, knowing what you don’t know by finding out what concepts you use that you can’t explain, and open-minded inquiry. It’s not like you’re an intrinsically boring person or anything, but maybe you haven’t had a chance to learn (or need to brush up on) the skill of interesting essay-writing.
C) Turn your topic into a research question.
Now that you have a topic, turn it into a research question, or something specific that you want to find out. Using my sample topic from above, I could ask any of the following questions:
- Who was involved in the production of sexually explicit images of women in the Middle Ages? (Scribes adding doodles to the margins of books? The wealthy book-buyers who commissioned the art from the scribes? Did women model for art? Did women consume pornographic art? Were only the upper classes involved in such production and consumption, or did poor people also read dirty books or look at dirty images?)
- What was the content of medieval porn? (Was it hardcore sex, or something more akin to “courtly love”? Were realistic sex acts pictured, or did porn show fornication involving demons and devils? Were animals shown in medieval porn? Was only “straight” sex shown, or were queer images available? Were only white bodies depicted, or did racialized people have a role in medieval porn?)
- Where was medieval porn produced? (In what kinds of institutions, such as book-binders or churches or universities, was porn produced? In which countries, climates and regions were particular kinds of pornographic images produced? Popular with buyers? What were the distribution routes used by pornographers to disseminate their wares?)
- When were different kinds of medieval porn made? (Did different time periods yield different kinds of porn? What effects did political and technological changes, such as the enclosure of the commons or the invention of the printing press, have on porn?)
- Why were certain images compelling to people in the Middle Ages, even though they might not be compelling to us now? (Are there mythical beasts pictured in medieval porn that no longer form a part of our cultural imaginary? Are political figures pictured in pornographic materials as a form of homage, satire or even rebellion?)
- How was porn produced in the Middle Ages? (What materials were used to draw or write porn? What institutions and technologies were involved in its production, distribution and consumption?)
Because I have a specific topic, I am able to ask specific questions about it. Lots of them, in fact. But not all of them are relevant to my assignment: feminism and pornography. So I will choose from among my many good ideas one question that suits the assignment well. This is a “who” question, although I have phrased it a little differently for the sake of sounding pretty:
How were women involved in medieval porn production? What roles did women play as producers, subjects and/or consumers of sexually-explicit material in the Middle Ages?
D) Get feedback.
Send your professor or TA a polite email telling them what you want to research and why you think it’s a good idea. Ask them for advice on pursuing the topic. Academics love giving advice (case in point: this website). Feel free to copy and paste this sample email, filling in your own details as necessary:
I’m writing to ask for your advice about my essay topic. I was thinking of writing about [topic]. I think it will be interesting because [reason]. Does that sound like a good idea? Is there anything you think I should keep in mind while researching? Can you recommend any reading for this topic?
Whatever advice they give you will probably be very helpful, and they will notice when grading that you have followed their advice.
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2. Research: Work smart, not hard.
As an undergraduate student researcher, you basically have two goals:
- Don’t make it more work than it has to be.
- Don’t farm it up.
To meet these goals, you have to plan your research process. You need good search terms, good scholarly sources, and notes you can use when you’re ready to write your essay.
A) Come up with search terms.
Start with Wikipedia, but don’t use Wikipedia as a source in your essay. You can use section headings, oft-repeated terms and other keywords from the Wikipedia article as search terms in a library database. (You can also use the section headings on Wikipedia to help you narrow your topic to one specific sub-topic.)
Your search terms will include:
- The words you saw on Wikipedia
- Synonyms for those words (e.g., in addition to “pornography,” I might search for “sexually explicit literature” and “erotica”)
- Words you see in the titles of journal articles once you start searching
B) Find scholarly sources for your research.
Use your library’s databases to search for peer-reviewed articles relevant to your topic. (Brock and Athabasca students can find those databases at the links here.) You can find out what databases to use by accessing your library’s research guide for the discipline you are researching in. Go to the library website, find the link for research guides (almost all academic libraries have them) and find “English,” or “Geography,” or “Sociology” or whatever class you’re checking Facebook and doodling in your notebook margins in right now.
You can also ask your prof or librarian for help choosing a database to search. As mentioned, academics LOVE giving advice.
Don’t just download and read the first articles that come up in your search results. Of the articles you find, some will be irrelevant and many will be incomprehensible to you. Judge the articles according to the following criteria:
- Title: does it appear to be about whatever your topic is? If so, click through…
- Abstract (a short summary of what the article is about): can you understand the language it’s written in? Are the author’s findings relevant to your research question? If so, download and read the article…
- Bibliography (the list of sources the article cites): are there any other titles listed that might be useful to you? If so, locate, download and read those articles, too…
Stop searching when one of the following two things happens:
- You have enough articles to be able to write your paper, or
- You are finding new articles, but they all say the same thing (this is called saturation).
If your research results are saturated, it’s time to dig into those bibliographies and find some additional sources. Alternately, you could search for very recent articles by limiting your results to only the last couple of years. That should turn up some new insights.
C) Read a book.
Search your library’s catalogue for a book on your topic and read — at the very least — the introduction, conclusion and chapter most relevant to your research. You will get a much more nuanced understanding of your topic from a book than from a journal article, and the difference will show in your essay.
D) Do not use Google.
Do not just use Google to search. You will not find peer-reviewed sources, much of the information you do find will be wrong, and you will waste hours searching through thousands of results only to get an F for having unscholarly sources.
I repeat: use your library’s databases, not Google, to search. Do not use Google. Google will farm you up. Do not use Google.
E) Don’t be farming lazy.
“Scholarly sources” means books and articles. Not editorials, not book reviews. (And definitely not mainstream news articles.)
F) Draft while you read.
Once you have all your research sources collected, you need to read them.
While you’re reading, take notes that you will be able to copy and paste into your essay later. That way, by the time you’re done reading, you will have most of your essay drafted — just not in the right order yet.
You want to put as much of the information from your research into your own words as you can. This will help to protect you from accidental plagiarism, and you will get a better understanding of what you’re reading. If you just copy and past chunks of the article into a .doc, then by the time you come back to it, you might not remember what you wrote vs. what you copied.
In addition to summarizing your reading in your own words, there are three kinds of notes that you want to take here. First, you can quickly paraphrase (repeat in different words) points of fact:
So-and-so (2007) argues that there are 34 different species of leprechaun (p. 51).
Next, you can directly quote from the article, making sure to integrate the quotation into your own prose as you go:
According to so-and-so (2007), “leprechauns will stab you in your sleep” (p. 53).
Third, you can summarize a broader point of argument in the paper:
In her review of literature on magical creatures, so-and-so (2007) claims that leprechauns are real and offers us a description of their lifestyles and habitats.
Here is one of many great guides (the rest are linked under the “resources” tab) to using quotations, paraphrases and summaries effectively. It’s worth reading if you keep getting comments on your essays about your failure to “integrate evidence/quotes into your prose.”
For students in English, Cultural Studies, Film Studies or a similar discipline that deals with texts, you don’t want to take notes on stories or movies the same way you take notes on academic articles. See Mark McCutcheon’s page “Strategies for Close Reading and Critical Reflection” for instructions on how to read literary and cultural texts.
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3. Thesis statement: Have one.
The most important thing about the thesis statement is that you have to have one.
A) Know what a thesis statement is and isn’t.
A thesis statement is what your essay argues: a concise statement of what you, as a writer, are trying to convince me of. It’s not a statement of why you wrote the paper or how you found stuff out in your research.
Take, for example, this draft thesis statement, written by a student in my third year class on “Sex Work and Sex Workers,” and used here with his permission:
“The thesis of this paper is to compare the health and safety implications between stripping and prostitution while highlighting the myths and realities of safety and health in the sex industry.”
The draft thesis above is more like a combination of a purpose or research question (what he wants to find out) and a method (how he is going to find it out). Let me explain:
- The purpose or research question is: “What similarities or differences are there between health and safety issues in stripping and those in prostitution?”
- The method is: “I’m going to compare health and safety issues in stripping with those in prostitution, and I’m going to compare the real occupational health and safety issues that exist to myths about health and safety in sex work.”
This is actually a good place to start, since you need to know what you’re trying to find out and how you’re going to find it out before you start making arguments about it. But we need to turn it into a real thesis.
B) Draft your statement of purpose and your thesis statement — but remember you might have to change them later.
The student’s research question (purpose) is: “What similarities or differences are there between health and safety issues in stripping and those in prostitution?” His thesis is going to be a sentence that answers that question. It could be something like:
“Occupational health and safety issues in prostitution and in stripping are very similar (or very different).”
“Among the similarities (or differences) between occupational health and safety issues in stripping and those in prostitution, X is particularly interesting because Y.”
“Comparing occupational health and safety issues between stripping and prostitution is illuminating because we learn X.”
“’Occupational health and safety’ is not an adequate framework for analyzing sex workers’ wellbeing because X.”
You can make sure you have a purpose and a thesis by just filling in the blanks:
- Purpose/research question — what is your essay trying to find out:
- Method — how are you going to find your answer:
- Working thesis — what is your answer to your question:
We’ll re-use these sentences in the intro paragraph of our essay when we’re ready to put it all together.
Let’s look at the sample research question about feminism and porn that I came up with above. I’ll fill in the blanks and come up with a purpose, a method and a thesis statement:
- Purpose/research question: The purpose of this essay is to learn more about how women were involved in medieval porn production.
- Method: I will choose a small number of primary resources from the Internet History Sourcebook, and I will analyze them by reviewing the scholarly literature on women’s roles in the Middle Ages.
- Working thesis: Women’s involvement in porn in the Middle Ages was largely limited to being its subject, but some women consumed porn and many women worked in the sex industry.
Now I have most of my introduction drafted! And since I also drafted parts of my essay as I took notes, I’ve got most of the essay done — even though I haven’t even started writing yet. Score.
C) Double-check that thesis statement.
The most important thing about the thesis is having one, but it still doesn’t hurt to have a good one. Here’s what makes for a good thesis statement:
- Plausible: it’s not outlandish, impossible, or unlikely to be believed by a reasonable reader.
- Arguable: it doesn’t state the obvious, but offers an argument that may or may not be true.
- Provable: it’s an argument, not an opinion or a feeling. It can be supported with evidence.
- Clear: it’s expressed in concise, easy-to-understand language.
- Specific: its focus is narrow, stating exactly what your essay argues.
D) Use phrases that make your thesis statement stand out.
- “In this essay, I argue…”
- “My argument is…”
- “I contend…”
- “I reached the conclusion that…”
If you can’t use the first person voice (“‘I’ statements”) in your essay, then you’re stuck with somewhat more awkward phrasings:
- “This essay demonstrates…”
- “The argument this essay pursues is that…”
- “The conclusion reached in this paper is…”
- “It is shown that…”
4. Outline: Do it. Or else.
A) Never ever ever ever ever skip this step: write an essay outline.
Oh, but it takes so long! Oh, but I just want to get started! Oh, but I’m a magical unicorn, and my essays, unlike every other student’s ever, make perfect sense if I just start typing them beginning to end.
If you want to get a decent grade on your essay, write a motherfarming outline. I promise I am not just inflicting it on you because I hate you. I make an outline for every essay I write. I made an outline for this guide. Sometimes I even make outlines for emails. Why? Because the outline is what keeps you from babbling incoherently about God-knows-what for ten pages.
B) Get all the right stuff in there.
Your outline will include your topic, working thesis statement, and the steps you will take to support your thesis, referred to here as points of argument. It might also make space for information about the context surrounding your topic and the relevance of your argument in the real world.
Each point of argument in your essay is like a mini-essay itself. You will state your point, explain the analytical or logical steps you take to support your point, and restate your point’s relevance to your thesis. Then you will walk the reader through the analytical or logical process behind your point of argument step by step, offering evidence and examples along the way.
Here’s a template you can fill in. You don’t have to follow it rigidly. It’s just a guide.
Remember that you are writing an outline of an argument, not a series of summaries of things that you read. Mix and match evidence from your readings based on the themes you choose for points of argument. The great thing about how you did your research is that much of your writing is already done! You just need to copy and paste your notes into the right places in your outline.
5. Making sense: You have to do this, too.
A) Use the simplest language available to you to say exactly what you mean.
Sometimes students get it in their heads that what makes a writer scholarly is sounding scholarly. They listen to their professors or read academic literature and see folks using a lot of dense academic prose. So they figure that if they want a decent grade on their essay, they’d better do the same.
You don’t need to “sound smart.” We know you’re smart. That’s why you’re still here. You just need to be clear.
When it comes to writing a paper, write more or less the way you speak. Don’t use slang or swear words, of course (or some pearl-clutching academics might insist you edit them out of your farming essay guide), but use the same vocabulary you use on a daily basis.
Being clear is more important than being stylish, even if you have to write
My thesis is [blah]. My first point is [blah]. Next I am going to discuss [blah]. In conclusion, [blah].
Does it sound like your essay was written by a stoned robot? Yes. Am I going to be left guessing what your thesis is? No. And that’s what matters.
B) Don’t try to say what you think we want to hear.
Yes, your professors and TAs have political and moral positions on the course content, but no, we don’t give a crap whether you adopt the same ones or not. If you try only to say what you think we want to hear, you’re probably not going to make a convincing or well-informed case, and that is extra bad for you when your case is about a position we hold dearly. Instead, aim to show us evidence that you’re thinking for yourself and learning something about the course content.
C) Feel feelings and argue arguments.
Nothing irks me more than reading “I just feel that…” in a student paper. You are not feeling, sweetheart. You are arguing. Call it an argument and support it with evidence or find something else to talk about.
Here’s how to get this right:
- If “I feel” is followed by “that,” then you are probably making an argument. Delete “feel” and use an arguing word. (<– possibly the most useful link you will ever click as a student.)
- If “I feel” is followed by a feeling, then you are probably ok. But be sure to analyze the feeling. Why are you talking about your feelings in an academic paper? Are you sure it’s appropriate? What does it mean that you’re having that feeling and not another? Why might other people feel differently? How might they feel instead? How does your discussion of your feeling help to support your thesis? Here are some feeling words you can use, if appropriate.
Here are some more tips on how to use the “first person voice” without farming it all up.
D) Focused paragraphs are a beautiful thing.
A paragraph is a block of text that discusses a single thought, argument or idea. Like the larger essay that it belongs to, a paragraph has a particular structure, which depends somewhat on what the paragraph is intended to do. Some paragraphs introduce the essay or its sections and tell what is to come. Others make specific arguments, attempting to persuade readers that your ideas are correct. Others are transitional in nature, helping the reader make linkages between ideas as your essay moves from one topic or argument to the next. What all paragraphs have in common is that they focus on one topic or thought only, and they fit in to your essay by helping you to develop a cohesive argument, step by step.
A typical argumentative paragraph will include the following elements:
- Topic sentence: One sentence clearly stating what the paragraph is about.
- Explanatory sentences: A few sentences giving the argument in detail. These sentences should walk the reader through the logical process behind the argument.
- Evidence and examples: These sentences refer to scholarly sources or real world examples that back up the argument explained in the paragraph. They should show the logic of the argument at work.
- Transition: This final sentence wraps up the argument of the paragraph and links the thought or argument that you have just explained to the next paragraph in the essay.
With a bit of practice, good paragraphing will start to come naturally to you. But in the meantime, it’s OK to outline your paragraphs the way you do your essay, to make sure you get the structure right. Your essay might end up a bit rigid, but it will make sense.
E) Good paragraphs are composed of good sentences.
Once again, good writing is all about good structure. A complete sentence is composed of at least two elements: a subject (who or what is performing a particular action) and a verb (the action performed by the subject). But sentences are usually more complex than that. Some sentences will contain several dependent clauses, or parts of sentences that depend for their meaning on being attached to a complete sentence. For example, the sentence I just wrote has a dependent clause right after the comma–it depends on the first part of the sentence for its meaning. If you know what to look for, it is easy to fix common errors in sentence structure.
Watch for these errors in your writing:
- Fragments are parts of sentences posing as whole sentences. A common error occurs when students write a dependent clause without attaching it to another whole sentence. These clauses can be identified by checking for words that make their meaning dependent on other sentences: words like before, although, when, in which, even though, because, in spite of. Other times students forget to include a subject or a verb in their sentences. This often happens when you have written a complete sentence and then decide to add a detail to it. For example:
My weekend was ruined because I had to rewrite my whole essay, at the request of my TA. A mean, nasty woman, with blood-red eyes and fangs for teeth. (A verb is missing from the second sentence.)
I barely escaped from the seminar with my life. Ran like the wind the second it was over. (The second sentence doesn’t have a subject.)
- Run-on sentences are the opposite of fragments. These sentences use commas or other punctuation to join together two or more phrases that could be sentences on their own. You can fix them by dividing them up with periods.
- Vagueness occurs when students choose words that don’t clearly tell the reader who or what is involved with their idea. Here are some key fixes:
- If you’ve written “it,” “this,” “these” or “they,” try replacing that word with a noun, unless
itdoing so would sound weird and repetitive.
- If you have used the passive voice by writing “the thing is verbed,” rewrite the phrase to include the name of whoever or whatever is doing the verbing. You can write either “the thing is verbed by so-and-so” or “so-and-so verbs the thing.”
- You may find dangling modifiers in your writing. These are dependent clauses intended to describe one thing, but placed improperly so they end up decribing another. For example, you might write: “Hot and fresh, Sandeep enjoyed the coffee.” This implies that Sandeep is hot and fresh. Either we are in TMI territory with Sandeep, or you need to rewrite the sentence. You could try, instead, either “Hot and fresh, the coffee was enjoyed by Sandeep” or “Sandeep enjoyed the coffee, which was hot and fresh.”
- If you’ve written “it,” “this,” “these” or “they,” try replacing that word with a noun, unless
- Finally, watch out for phrasings that are gramatically correct, but still awkward to read and understand. This happens most often when you are rushing to write your essay or when you are trying to use “smart-sounding” language that you haven’t quite got the hang of yet. Slow down, read your own writing back to yourself, and remember to focus on clarity over style.
6. Wrapping up: Find those farmups and fix them.
OK. All your words are on paper, they’re all in basically the right order, and they more or less support your thesis. Let’s wrap this up.
A) Run spell check.
But don’t be passive about spell-checking. Make sure the spell-check wizard doesn’t replace a grammatical sentence with an ungrammatical one or replace a correct-but-misspelled word with an entirely different word. Google words that you need definitions for or that you don’t know how to spell.
B) Read your essay back to yourself, out loud.
This is where you’re going to catch most of the mistakes you made, like skipped words, phrases that don’t make sense, or sentences that go on forever. Pay attention to the structure of your paragraphs and sentences, and be on the lookout for the errors discussed in the section on making sense, above.
C) Put your name and a page number on each page.
D) Give your essay an interesting title.
And you’re done!
With thanks to Mark McCutcheon for his feedback on the first draft of this guide (not to mention years of invaluable writing instruction), to Jeff Boggs for proofreading the guide and letting me steal his pseudo-swears, and to students in LABR 3Q95 and WGST 2P98 at Brock University for inspiring and offering feedback on it.