Guide to Essay Writing - Introduction
- 1.1 General comments
One could say that writing an essay consists essentially of two processes:
(i) writing to find out what one thinks - preliminary drafts
(ii) writing to communicate one's thoughts to others - further drafts completed and essay.
It is, in fact, through the process of writing that one tends to discover and to clarify one's ideas.
Many people start writing with a relatively vague idea of their interpretation, but after having written a draft they can arrive at a clearer statement of what they think (this is often found on the last page or in the last paragraph).
- 1.2 Writing a preliminary draft or drafts
(i) Think out the essay question in the light of the images you have studied and of what you have read.
(ii) Write a plan - this is only a guide and will undoubtedly change as you write.
Example of such a plan:
Topic: 'Cubist painting embodied a new way of representing the external world'
- Intro. para - didn't describe ext. world - used signs - spectator's role.
- Not a static but a dynamic form of representation (parallels in science, philosophy- Bergson)
- Cubism and modern life (see Berger)
- Which images - still life? A portrait?
- Compare with more realist still-lives and portraits (use Cezanne's?) Compare with earlier Cubist works where more legible-
- Repres. of space? of volume?
- Use of signs.
Quote Apollinaire on Cubism as 'Realist' (where?) Fry's interpretation 'abstract'; compare Golding's emphasis on 'realist' qualities - but Cubist paintings are both 'abstract' and 'real'
- Conclusion - Cubism, and the dynamic ambiguous repres. of reality.
(iii) Write a rough draft in these terms. Do not write straight from your notes; this generally results in a patchwork of facts and opinions Its best to leave your notes somewhere else! You will remember what you need. You should return to your notes only when rewriting your draft for the final essay.
At this stage don't bother too much about how it sounds (above all don't bother about a resounding first paragraph). What you want is a broadly argued interpretation which you can develop and demonstrate as time goes on. If you want a specific fact, contrary idea or quotation, don't interrupt the flow at this stage by searching through notes or books or you may lose the thread of your argument. In such cases you can note: 'Apollinaire said "something about Cubism being realist, etc" - and then you can make this exact later.
- 1.3 Re-writing the draft
The rough draft is only a beginning It is the process by which you find your interpretation, but the form in which this is put is rarely the form which communicates well. Re-writing is not just a question of making a fair copy, but of re-organising the material so that the reader can follow the argument.
A first draft rarely begins with a clear statement of your ideas (which is a natural way of communicating), and you will often find that in your first draft you don't arrive at a clear statement until the end. It therefore often helps to 'swing' your concluding statement to the beginning of the essay. Then you need to consider what evidence will convince your reader.
Very often that evidence is, of course, that which you have already used to 'find out' your interpretation, but it will have to be re-ordered. When you have finished the draft, try to leave it for a time, then examine it critically. Ask yourself questions like the following:
(i) What have I said?
(ii) Is what I have said clearly expressed?
(iii) Have I used evidence to support my views?
(iv) Have I dealt with the major issues?
(v) Have I given my reader a sense that I am aware of the varying interpretations and that I have come to my own conclusions about their validity?
At this stage you will probably have to clarify these points. You may find that you need to do further reading to demonstrate certain points, or to fill in the gaps in your argument.
When critically examining your essay, remember that the only facts which are useful are those which serve to demonstrate your reasoning. Irrelevant or unused facts merely obscure your argument. In particular, in the history of art there is a tendency (whatever the question and issue) to give biographies of the artists concerned. This is often quite irrelevant, and unless you can show the relevance of such facts, you should cut them out.
Remember too that your reader has no need to be told the obvious. For example, if writing an essay on a specific aspect of Monet's style, there is no need to give the entire history of Impressionism, and you can assume that your reader knows about the generally accepted accounts of the subject.
It is at this stage that you should check notes and facts (good note-taking pays off here) and indicate where you need footnotes or endnotes.
In re-writing the draft, remember:
(i) that the essay should begin with a clear statement of your interpretation of the issues
(ii) that the body of the essay should substantiate and amplify your initial statement
(iii) that there should be a conclusion summarising your arguments and your interpretation
- 1.4 Visual material
It is not adequate to use an image merely as an illustration to an argument. You should be sure that your arguments are drawn from your experience of the images and that you have shown your grounds for developing your interpretation in terms of your chosen visual material.
- 1.5 Quotations
Quotations will not do your work for you, any more than illustrations will. Is not enough simply to copy out the quotation in your essay as if it explains itself since others will not necessarily read it in the way in which you do. You will therefore need to show why the quotation is there, what it is doing in your argument, how you interpret it.