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The Perfect Essay

Draft is a series about the art and craft of writing.

Looking back on too many years of education, I can identify one truly impossible teacher. She cared about me, and my intellectual life, even when I didn’t. Her expectations were high — impossibly so. She was an English teacher. She was also my mother.

When good students turn in an essay, they dream of their instructor returning it to them in exactly the same condition, save for a single word added in the margin of the final page: “Flawless.” This dream came true for me one afternoon in the ninth grade. Of course, I’d heard that genius could show itself at an early age, so I was only slightly taken aback that I had achieved perfection at the tender age of 14. Obviously, I did what any professional writer would do; I hurried off to spread the good news. I didn’t get very far. The first person I told was my mother.

My mother, who is just shy of five feet tall, is normally incredibly soft-spoken, but on the rare occasion when she got angry, she was terrifying. I’m not sure if she was more upset by my hubris or by the fact that my English teacher had let my ego get so out of hand. In any event, my mother and her red pen showed me how deeply flawed a flawless essay could be. At the time, I’m sure she thought she was teaching me about mechanics, transitions, structure, style and voice. But what I learned, and what stuck with me through my time teaching writing at Harvard, was a deeper lesson about the nature of creative criticism.

First off, it hurts. Genuine criticism, the type that leaves an indelible mark on you as a writer, also leaves an existential imprint on you as a person. I’ve heard people say that a writer should never take criticism personally. I say that we should never listen to these people.

Criticism, at its best, is deeply personal, and gets to the heart of why we write the way we do. Perhaps you’re a narcissist who secretly resents your audience. Or an elitist who expects herculean feats of your reader. Or a know-it-all who can’t admit that stylistic repetition is sometimes annoying redundancy. Or a wallflower who hides behind sparklingly meaningless modifiers. Or an affirmation junkie who’s the first to brag about a flawless essay.

Unfortunately, as my mother explained, you can be all of these things at once.

Her red pen had made something painfully clear. To become a better writer, I first had to become a better person. Well before I ever read it, I came to sense the meaning of Walt Whitman’s “Song of Myself.” And I faced the disturbing suggestion that my song was no good.

The intimate nature of genuine criticism implies something about who is able to give it, namely, someone who knows you well enough to show you how your psychic life is getting in the way of good writing. Conveniently, they’re also the people who care enough to see you through the traumatic aftermath of this realization. For me the aftermath took the form of my first, and I hope only, encounter with writer’s block.

It lasted three years.

Franz Kafka once said: “Writing is utter solitude, the descent into the cold abyss of oneself.” My mother’s criticism had shown me that Kafka is right about the cold abyss, and when you make the introspective descent that writing requires you’re not always pleased by what you find. But, in the years that followed, her sustained tutelage suggested that Kafka might be wrong about the solitude. I was lucky enough to find a critic and teacher who was willing to make the journey of writing with me. “It’s a thing of no great difficulty,” according to Plutarch, “to raise objections against another man’s oration, it is a very easy matter; but to produce a better in its place is a work extremely troublesome.” I’m sure I wrote essays in the later years of high school without my mother’s guidance, but I can’t recall them. What I remember, however, is how she took up the “extremely troublesome” work of ongoing criticism.

There are two ways to interpret Plutarch when he suggests that a critic should be able to produce “a better in its place.” In a straightforward sense, he could mean that a critic must be more talented than the artist she critiques. My mother was well covered on this count. (She denies it, but she’s still a much, much better writer than I am.) But perhaps Plutarch is suggesting something slightly different, something a bit closer to Cicero’s claim that one should “criticize by creation, not by finding fault.” Genuine criticism creates a precious opening for an author to become better on his own terms — a process that’s often excruciating, but also almost always meaningful.

My mother said she would help me with my writing, but first I had to help myself. For each assignment, I was to write the best essay I could. Real criticism isn’t meant to find obvious mistakes, so if she found any — the type I could have found on my own — I had to start from scratch. From scratch. Once the essay was “flawless,” she would take an evening to walk me through my errors. That was when true criticism, the type that changed me as a person, began.

She chided me as a pseudo-sophisticate when I included obscure references and professional jargon. She had no patience for brilliant but useless extended metaphors. “Writers can’t bluff their way through ignorance.” That was news to me — I’d need to find another way to structure my daily existence. She trimmed back my flowery language, drew lines through my exclamation marks and argued for the value of understatement. “John,” she almost whispered. I leaned in to hear her: “I can’t hear you when you shout at me.” So I stopped shouting and bluffing, and slowly my writing improved.

Somewhere along the way I set aside my hopes of writing that flawless essay. But perhaps I missed something important in my mother’s lessons about creativity and perfection. Perhaps the point of writing the flawless essay was not to give up, but to never willingly finish. Whitman repeatedly reworked “Song of Myself” between 1855 and 1891. Repeatedly. We do our absolute best with a piece of writing, and come as close as we can to the ideal. And, for the time being, we settle. In critique, however, we are forced to depart, to give up the perfection we thought we had achieved for the chance of being even a little bit better. This is the lesson I took from my mother: If perfection were possible, it wouldn’t be motivating.

John Kaag is an associate professor of philosophy at the University of Massachusetts Lowell and former visiting assistant professor of expository writing at Harvard. He is the author of the forthcoming book “Finding Westwind: A Story of American Philosophy.” And yes, Becky Griffith Kaag, his mother and a former high school English teacher, took her editing pen to this essay.

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Essay Tips: 7 Tips on Writing an Effective Essay

Essays can be crucial to admissions and scholarship decisions.

By The Fastweb Team

November 22, 2017

Writing an essay often seems to be a dreaded task among students. Whether the essay is for a scholarship, a class, or maybe even a contest, many students often find the task overwhelming. While an essay is a large project, there are many steps a student can take that will help break down the task into manageable parts. Following this process is the easiest way to draft a successful essay, whatever its purpose might be.

According to Kathy Livingston’s Guide to Writing a Basic Essay, there are seven steps to writing a successful essay:

You may have your topic assigned, or you may be given free reign to write on the subject of your choice. If you are given the topic, you should think about the type of paper that you want to produce. Should it be a general overview of the subject or a specific analysis? Narrow your focus if necessary.

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Once you have determined the purpose, you will need to do some research on topics that you find intriguing. Think about your life. What is it that interests you? Jot these subjects down.

Finally, evaluate your options. If your goal is to educate, choose a subject that you have already studied. If your goal is to persuade, choose a subject that you are passionate about. Whatever the mission of the essay, make sure that you are interested in your topic.

2. Prepare an outline or diagram of your ideas.

In order to write a successful essay, you must organize your thoughts. By taking what’s already in your head and putting it to paper, you are able to see connections and links between ideas more clearly. This structure serves as a foundation for your paper. Use either an outline or a diagram to jot down your ideas and organize them.

To create a diagram, write your topic in the middle of your page. Draw three to five lines branching off from this topic and write down your main ideas at the ends of these lines. Draw more lines off these main ideas and include any thoughts you may have on these ideas.

If you prefer to create an outline, write your topic at the top of the page. From there, begin to list your main ideas, leaving space under each one. In this space, make sure to list other smaller ideas that relate to each main idea. Doing this will allow you to see connections and will help you to write a more organized essay.

3. Write your thesis statement.

Now that you have chosen a topic and sorted your ideas into relevant categories, you must create a thesis statement. Your thesis statement tells the reader the point of your essay. Look at your outline or diagram. What are the main ideas?

Your thesis statement will have two parts. The first part states the topic, and the second part states the point of the essay. For instance, if you were writing about Bill Clinton and his impact on the United States, an appropriate thesis statement would be, “Bill Clinton has impacted the future of our country through his two consecutive terms as United States President.”

Another example of a thesis statement is this one for the “Winning Characteristics” Scholarship essay: “During my high school career, I have exhibited several of the “Winning Characteristics,” including Communication Skills, Leadership Skills and Organization Skills, through my involvement in Student Government, National Honor Society, and a part-time job at Macy’s Department Store.”

4. Write the body.

The body of your essay argues, explains or describes your topic. Each main idea that you wrote in your diagram or outline will become a separate section within the body of your essay.

Each body paragraph will have the same basic structure. Begin by writing one of your main ideas as the introductory sentence. Next, write each of your supporting ideas in sentence format, but leave three or four lines in between each point to come back and give detailed examples to back up your position. Fill in these spaces with relative information that will help link smaller ideas together.

5. Write the introduction.

Now that you have developed your thesis and the overall body of your essay, you must write an introduction. The introduction should attract the reader’s attention and show the focus of your essay.

Begin with an attention grabber. You can use shocking information, dialogue, a story, a quote, or a simple summary of your topic. Whichever angle you choose, make sure that it ties in with your thesis statement, which will be included as the last sentence of your introduction.

6. Write the conclusion.

The conclusion brings closure of the topic and sums up your overall ideas while providing a final perspective on your topic. Your conclusion should consist of three to five strong sentences. Simply review your main points and provide reinforcement of your thesis.

7. Add the finishing touches.

After writing your conclusion, you might think that you have completed your essay. Wrong. Before you consider this a finished work, you must pay attention to all the small details.

Check the order of your paragraphs. Your strongest points should be the first and last paragraphs within the body, with the others falling in the middle. Also, make sure that your paragraph order makes sense. If your essay is describing a process, such as how to make a great chocolate cake, make sure that your paragraphs fall in the correct order.

Review the instructions for your essay, if applicable. Many teachers and scholarship forms follow different formats, and you must double check instructions to ensure that your essay is in the desired format.

Finally, review what you have written. Reread your paper and check to see if it makes sense. Make sure that sentence flow is smooth and add phrases to help connect thoughts or ideas. Check your essay for grammar and spelling mistakes.

Congratulations! You have just written a great essay.

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It is good practice to pay someone to write my essay for me? There are arguments on either side, both of which have merit. It is important to remember that everybody involved has valid reasons for thinking the way they do – there is no one answer.

The essay services themselves think that it is good practice. From their point of view, the students are simply asking them to provide a service that has been advertised, so there is nothing unethical about what they are doing. On another note, the services go out of their way to assure their customers (and anybody else who stumbles onto their websites) that they take plagiarism very seriously, and go out of their way to ensure that each paper is completely original. They go so far as to make sure that the papers are checked on multiple levels to ensure that there is no plagiarism.

Educational institutions, perhaps understandably, take the opposite viewpoint. To them, the student is supposed to do the work by themselves, and anything else is plagiarism. Since the definition of plagiarism is passing somebody’s else’s work off as your own, even though the essay is original work, it is not the work of the student, and qualifies as plagiarism.

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What Skills does Essay Writing Develops in Students?

Essay writing can develop a number of different skills in a student – it isn`t just about writing, although obviously writing is something which improves as you do it.

Essays are designed to show how well someone has learned their subject, so they involve a number of tasks surrounding that. The ability to deliver a coherent argument on that subject, including showing proper research, is something that an essay tests in various ways. Being able to understand the question enough to do the necessary research is the first step which is asked for in essay writing, as it shows that students have a firm enough grasp of the material being taught that they know where to go to learn more. Additionally, being able to frame an argument shows that they understand the material, since it requires students to be able to understand that any issue has different sides to it, and to be able to fully understand which side they are on.

Essay writing does also teach writing skills, though in a more abstract way than simply teaching them how to use grammar correctly. The writing skills in an essay include being able to format a variety of essays so that they are all recognisable to anybody who is reading them. They also include being able to format an argument so that it flows smoothly and logically from point to point

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