Simply stated, an essay is the product of thinking through writing. This is not, however, as easy as it may seem. It does no good to think you can “just write the way you talk” (Horton, 1990:3).
An essay is organized thinking. “Because essays convey ideas usually too complex to be held in the mind all at once, it makes sense that you can only get to those ideas through and by way of writing” (Horton, 1990:3).An essay usually develops a particular idea or set of ideas for the purpose of informing and/or persuading the reader. As such, an essay is very much organized in a manner similar to a college level course for which you are writing. Let us take an example. Suppose you are enrolled in a course titled, “Crime, Personality Theory and Human Behavior.” The course typically begins with a theme that will guide your understanding of the lectures and reading materials. Thus, a theme, or a guiding principle, for a course on crime and personality theory might be the following:
“Events occurring in early childhood contribute to the formation of future behavior, including criminal behavior.”
During the first lecture, the professor will typically state the theme of the course, followed by a brief overview of how that theme will be realized during the progression of the semester. Each subsequent lecture (and the reading materials to accompany each session) will contribute one small piece of information, leading to an understanding of the theme of the course just prior to the final examination. By the end of the semester, then, you should (hopefully) be convinced that childhood events are central to human behavior. Note that the professor does not bombard you with facts and information all at once. Instead, she develops them in a step-wise fashion following a particular organization. An essay should operate in a similar manner.
Thus, an essay represents a written body of work containing information presented in an organized fashion for the purpose of supporting a central theme.
What Should an Essay Do?
Contrary to popular belief, the purpose of writing an essay is not to earn a good a grade or successfully complete the requirements for a course (Johnson, Jr, Rettig, Scott, Garrison, 1999). The purpose of writing an essay is to inform and educate the reader by synthesizing a wide body of information into a coherent framework. Typically, students are asked to argue a point, take a position or persuade the reader of a given idea. Thus, an effective essay should usually perform the following functions (Horton, 1990):
- An essay should inform
- An essay should instruct
- An essay should organize
- An essay should speculate
- An essay should persuade
- An essay may try to solve a problem*
- An essay may speculate about a particular issue
*Depending upon the paper guidelines, an essay may ask the student to problem solve or to predict future trends.
The Structure of an Essay
Begin your essay by introducing a phenomenon or trend that is the subject of your assignment. Returning to the example of a course discussing personality theory and crime, assume you must write a paper discussing whether early child abuse predicts future acts of delinquency and criminal offending by the abused child. You might want to begin your hypothetical essay by introducing the phenomenon of child abuse. How is it defined?How prevalent is it in contemporary society? What are the harms (physical, emotional and psychological) that are produced by child abuse?
Once the general subject has been introduced, your essay should state specifically what is it about this trend that warrants lengthy discussion in the form of an essay. Typically, the phenomenon or trend occurs in a broader setting that warrants examination. Perhaps the trend presents a problem that must be addressed in your essay? Is the trend of child abuse increasing simultaneously with an increase in juvenile delinquency? As such, the problem that your essay must address is whether there exists a connection between the two observations.
Introduce a theoretical framework. A theory is a statement explaining the relationship between two variables or among numerous variables. Thus, theories not only explain phenomena but predict future trends. What explanation exists for the problem specified in your essay? Returning to the hypothetical essay, what explanation is there to predict that increased levels of child abuse would have anything to do with increased crime? Examples may be: social learning theory, classical conditioning, Freud’s concept of repression.
Unquestionably, the most important point of your essay! Your thesis statement is a statement of your argument. If an essay must inform, educate, and persuade, then your thesis statement explicitly states what you are trying to convey to the reader. What will you be arguing? What is your goal in writing this essay? Why is your essay important or worth reading? 0ften, thesis statements literally state the purpose of the essay: The Purpose of this essay is to illustrate the role that early child abuse has on explaining future levels of crime and delinquency.” Your thesis staement should be easily indentifiable to the reader, cleary stated, and directly to the point. If you had to explain to a friend in one sentence what your paper topic is about , your thesis statement should be that one sentence.
Body of Essay
Now it is time to prove your thesis. It is at this point that you must inform, educate, persuade and predict. You do this by building upon your theoretical framework and the course materials that support your thesis. Provide support for your theoretical framework. Show how your problem is related to your theoretical framework. Give examples from course material to support your thesis (paying attention to proper citation: see below).The body of your essay should not be a laundry list of what you have learned during the semester. Rather, it should be logical and linear and should contain only that information which supports your thesis. If you are arguing that child abuse contributes to future crimes committed by the abused, do not include in your essay a discussion of suicidal personalities unless you are certain that such a discussion is relevant to your thesis. You may have had to read an entire chapter on suicide, but that does not mean that such a chapter is pertinent to your essay.Finally, the body of your essay should be organized in a coherent fashion. If you are trying to prove that A is related to C by way of B, begin by discussing A! Avoid discussing A, B and C simultaneously. This will only confuse the reader.
This brings up an important point: paragraph structure.It is easiest to conceive of each paragraph as a mini-essay. Each paragraph is intended to inform or persuade the reader. The difference is that a paragraph is intended to contain only one point. Each paragraph should begin with an introductory sentence, usually a mini-thesis. Example: “Child abuse is a growing problem in the United States.” Now, your paragraph should focus on proving that point and that point only. The next two or three sentences should do just that: “Since 1975, the number of emergency room doctors reporting cases of suspected physical abuse has increased by 30%.” This may be followed by, “While this increase in reporting may be due to a heightened social awareness among the medical community, emergency doctors and pediatricians have always been those most likely to report suspected child abuse. Therefore, it is unlikely that such a dramatic increase in child abuse is due solely to increased reporting.” Note that both sentences attempt to support your mini-thesis. Your paragraph should conclude with a sentence that convinces the reader you have proven your mini-thesis: “Clearly, then, at least some of the increase in cases of reported child abuse is due to an actual increase in abuse prevalence and incidence.”
Summary, Conclusion and Discussion
Once you have proven your point(s) in a logical and organized manner, you must conclude your essay (a step most students readily welcome!). Restate your thesis. Provide a few sentences that review the support for the thesis. Discuss why your thesis is important to the field.
“To effectively reduce crime and delinquency, the criminal justice system must take a pro-active approach and recognize that the seeds of criminality are planted early in life.”
“Criminal justice policies which continue to focus on increased policing and tougher sentences fail to address the causes of deviant behavior.”
Finally, an essay must point the reader to areas of future inquiry. What issues remain to be addressed? What are your recommendations? Are there any limitations to the points you have raised in your essay? The conclusion is the opportunity for the student to show the professor that she has thought beyond the readings. It allows the student to prove that she can think independently. The conclusion is the point of the essay where the uniqueness of the writer becomes apparent. Take advantage of the conclusion to make a personal contribution to the discussion.
“While child abuse is a crime and falls under the domain of the criminal justice system, it remains the responsibility of each citizen to look after the welfare of society’s most vulnerable members. As such, we must begin to conceive of child abuse as not solely a crime problem but a social problem.”
Quoting, Citations and References
Plagiarism is the use of other’s words or ideas as if they were one’s own. Since your essay will eventually be graded, it is important that the student be graded solely on her own work. As such, any information, idea, thought or quote that is not directly the product of a student’s own work must be appropriately cited. Not only does the use of proper citation represent your commitment to scholarship, it also provides your writing with a sense of authority (Johnson, Jr. et al., 1999). When a student makes a statement and properly cites it, the student is conveying to the professor that she has researched the topic of her essay and that support for the ideas conveyed in her writing exist. In addition, proper citations convey to the professor an appreciation of the previous research contributing to her essay.Writings in the field of criminal justice adhere to the guidelines specified in the Publication Manual of the American Psychological Association: Third Edition (1983). Students are encouraged to consult this publication to ensure proper citation protocol. Below are some brief guidelines on proper citation. Note: this is not an exhaustive list of proper citation practices. Students are expected to be familiar with the guidelines contained in the APA manual and to consult them prior to submitting a paper.
- All references should be arranged in alphabetical order according to the first letter of the last name of the author.
- If a work has more than one author, use the first letter of the last name of the first author.
- If two works are by the same author, begin with the earliest work.
- References should begin with the names of the authors, followed by the year of the publication in parentheses.
- The second line of each citation should be indented.
- Books are always underlined, articles are always quoted, journals are always italicized, and documents/reports that are not part of a larger work should be treated as books and underlined. Only the first letter of the first word of an article is capitalized.
- Journal articles should always be cited with the name of the journal along with the volume, number, and pages. Books should always be cited with the name and location of the publisher.
- Articles from books or edited volumes should be cited by the name of the article (in quotes) followed by the names of the editors and the book underlined.