General Guidelines for Writing a Good Essay

These guidelines were written by Alan Liu for students in his courses at UC Santa Barbara.
(Last revised 16 March 2020)

Your essay must focus on an interesting topic or problem: Write about something that really interests you or that you care about. A topic doesn’t have to be a “point” you are making; it can also be a problem or question you want to consider from various angles as part of an argument drawing them together in a conclusion or, as sometimes happens in good papers, resolves them in a higher-level problem or question.

Your essay must have an argument: You need not only a topic or problem but an argument about it, even if the argument is not a direct one but instead is designed to take twists and turns to explore various views before coming to your conclusion. Some tips for writing an argument (based on the fact that awareness of your audience is important in good writing): Assume that your reader is not just your instructor with an “insider’s” understanding of the course but is instead someone you don’t know. For the purpose of a scholarly paper, your audience is intelligent and educated, but does not know everything you do about your particular topic. arrowhead right Your audience thus needs your help in focusing on a particular path through an issue (rather than being lost in a forest of issues). arrowhead right Your audience needs your help in getting from point A to Z in your argument, which means you need to lead the argument through points B, C, D, etc. (even if it appears blindingly obvious to you). arrowhead right Last, but not least, your audience doesn’t want to be bored to death with totally predictable arguments that steamroll over everything in their path to get from their beginning “This is what I will argue” through their middle “This is my argument” to their concluding “This is what I argued.”

So be sure to:  arrowhead right focus your essay around a main issue, including other issues as necessary but in a manner logically subordinate to your argument (i.e., in ways that make them supports, components, extensions, or challenges to your argument). arrowhead right  Be sure to demonstrate steps A to Z of your logic so that your audience can follow your trail of thought. arrowhead right And also be sure that you actually deal with something important or that you care about, which naturally means that there is some problem or open question that puts a kink in any totally predictable argument. For example, good essays often include a pivotal intellectual turning point, question, challenge, or complicating problem in mid-flow. Here’s an example (in outline form):

  1. Thesis argument (e.g., “Today we live in an age of information, audio-visual entertainment, and other multimedia materials that require us to ‘close read’ such materials if we hope to be literate consumers….”)
  2. Turning point or challenge (e.g., “But unlike the texts that the New Critics studied, some of the new information and multimedia carry hidden structures and codes that cannot be “read,” or even seen, in any ordinary way. How can we be ‘close readers’ of such materials today?”)
  3. Resolution (e.g., “If we look more deeply into the issue, we can see that literacy now requires an understanding of the underlying structures and history of information or entertainment that are analogous to those of the print literature. These new structures are different but also similar….”)

Your essay must  have a title that relates descriptively and/or allusively to its  specific topic or argument: For example do not simply title your essay “Essay on Wordsworth.” Instead, include something about your particular topic or argument–e.g., “Reading 19th-Century Romantic Poetry  in the 21st Century: William Wordsworth’s Nature and Climate Change.”

arrowhead right Notes and citations for essays: Essays or reports should include notes with citations in MLA style (unless there is a reason to choose a different style). (See the Purdue Online Writing Lab’s “MLA Formatting and Style Guide”. A handy tool for automatically generating citations in various styles is ZoteroBib.) Be sure to cite works that you quote or otherwise use. (See this course’s Intellectual Property & Academic Integrity Guidelines.)

arrowhead right Notes and citations for creative writing: If your assignment gives you an option to write in a creative-writing mode (e.g., the Essay 1 assignment in Alan liu’s English 25) but also asks you to cite any relevant references from the readings you have been doing, then the following are some options:

  • Option: Add footnotes that point out relations between your creative piece and reference sources (e.g.,”See Marshall McLuhan’s ‘The Medium is the Message’ –specifically, McLuhan’s argument about ‘extensions of man’–for the significance of this statement by my character”).
  • Option: Add a short paragraph at the end titled something like “Context” or “Background” in which you explain the relevant context (intellectual, social, historical, technological, media historical, etc.) for your piece. That context statement would be the place to refer to some sources.
  • Option: After your creative piece, you could add a bibliography of relevant  sources (which may include works that are not directly cited). A variant of this strategy is to create an “annotated bibliography” that includes a short sentence or two, or a paragraph, summarizing what a source is about. The last sentence of such an annotation could be an explanation of the relevance to your creative piece. (Here is a guide with examples of annotated bibliographies.)