New Editing Tool

The Hemingway app is an editing tool that can help you with your essay writing. It checks for problems common to the kind of writing your argumentative essays require and which I’ve discussed in my Honors Seminar Tutorial (lessons 15, 16, and 17). Check it out!

The Graded Essay: 5 Steps to Improve Your Next Essay

In this post I will guide you in the process of interpreting the feedback on your essay and how to prioritize and incorporate it into your next, much improved, essay. This topic is a natural extension of the posts I’ve written on how to write your argumentative essays (see my “Mastering the Human Event” tutorial).


You’ve gotten your graded essay back. Your Instructor wrote a lot of comments on it. Your first instinct, because several years of schooling have trained you to practice grade-grubbing, is to look for the letter grade or numerical score, to find out what you “got” on your paper. My first piece of advice is to develop the discipline to disregard the grade, or at least not to imbue it with so much value. The real value of your graded essay is the criticism you’ve received on your writing by an Instructor who knows how to write well and is eager to share her knowledge with you. If you value this feedback for the gold that it is, you can incorporate the criticisms into your next writing assignment and the grade will take care of itself. I’m going to give you 5 steps to help you take the information your Instructor gives you and apply it to all of your future writing.

1.  Find where your Instructor has written a summary narrative comment and read that carefully.

This is often at the end of your paper, or sometimes a separate page is attached to your original paper or file. Here the Instructor will often summarize the most important shortcomings in your essay (as well as praise you for what you did well). In my experience, the top 4 shortcomings in an argumentative essay are:

  1. the thesis statement is not a well-formulated argument;
  2. the evidence adduced in the body of the essay is not expounded or effectively analyzed;
  3. the conceptualization of the argument, the conceptual framework of the essay, is inadequate or uninteresting;
  4. the prose is unsatisfactory to the point where your diction and linguistic errors interfere with your meaning.

NB: Nos. 2 and 3 may be the result of an inadequate reading and grasp of the primary text(s) that you are writing about. No. 4, if it is bad enough, may cause your Instructor to give up before completing your essay; I’ve given up after one page in the worst cases. If you had a chance to rewrite this essay, how would you address these shortcomings? Whatever your Instructor has identified as an important shortcoming in the summary narrative comment on your essay, you need to review the instructional materials for performing that task correctly.

2. Read the key marginal and in-line comments written by the Instructor.

Go back to tgraded-essayhe beginning of your essay and identify the key marginal and in-line comments. These are the comments that correspond to the most important shortcomings identified in Step 1. Your Instructor provides more details in these comments to help you understand what the specific problem(s) is (are).

Example 1. Suppose the Instructor has commented in his or her summary narrative at the end of your paper that your thesis is weak or even nonexistent. So now that you know you have a major shortcoming with your thesis statement, you should jump to your thesis statement on the first page of your essay to read any additional discussion of the problems in the Instructor’s marginal comments. You reread your thesis statement and sure enough, it’s a hamburger thesis – simply a list of claims, disconnected from each other and with no logical inference to a definite proposition. If there was a problem with the thesis statement in my students’ essays, these would receive my longest marginal or inline comments. The details you get from the Instructor in these comments are important because they will tell you not only that you do not have a well-formulated argument, but why specifically it isn’t. Often the Instructor will give you editorial suggestions about how to improve or fix the issue. You can thank them for that later (Step 4).

Example 2. The Instructor has commented in the summary narrative that your paper lacks sufficient evidence. Go to each paragraph in the body of the essay and check each of your quotes to see what your Instructor has said about them. It could be that the quotations aren’t relevant to your argument. Or that your discussion of the quotes lacks adequate analysis or explanation. (Analysis is an element of textual evidence.)

Now compare what the Instructor has written in the marginal comments with the instructional materials that pertain to that issue, just like you did in Step 1. Incorporate any specific editorial suggestions the Instructor included in his or her comments. Now it is time to practice applying those instructional materials so that you can break bad writing habits and replace them with good habits. Review your previous short writing assignments, earlier drafts, and papers. See if you can find problems on those that are similar to the shortcomings your Instructor identified in your current essay.

3. Revise the parts of your essay that have the most serious flaws in reasoning.

You’re not in this for the grade, remember? There’s no way around this step if you are serious about improving your writing skills. To write well you must write more and write smarter. Your Instructor is guiding you in the latter; the former is up to you!

Steps 3 – 5 are the key for you to advance from understanding what you did wrong or poorly on the essay to being able to avoid repeating those errors on future essays. Focus especially on any shortcomings in your thesis, conceptualization, analysis of evidence, and map or structure of the essay. Don’t rewrite the whole essay. Take no more than two hours to revise sections of your graded essay by focusing on the parts that have the most serious problems. Print out a copy of these revisions, which should be no more than a page or two, and…

4. Request a meeting with your Instructor to discuss your paper.

See my guidelines about communicating with your Instructor. Even if this is the last essay you write for the course, the real-time feedback from your Instructor that is available to you is extraordinarily valuable for all of your future writing. Here are five key points about this step:

  1. In your email contact with the Instructor, make it clear that you have specific items from the last essay you’d like to get further feedback on. You don’t have to list them in the email; the point is to let the Instructor know in advance that you have a specific reason and agenda for meeting with him or her, and you’re not coming to grade-grub, argue about his or her comments or evaluation of your work, or otherwise pitch a fit. You’re going because you believe that a brief autopsy on your recently deceased essay will improve your writing.
  2. Go to the meeting prepared. Make sure you’ve done the first three steps I’ve outlined in this post.
  3. Bring your revised material from Step 3 as well as a printed copy of the graded essay. Explain that this is your attempt to understand and incorporate the Instructor’s feedback and ask him or her to evaluate how well you’ve understood the main problem(s) with your essay. Ask for further guidance if your revised work still hasn’t significantly improved your problem areas in the essay. Only if you show your initiative in trying to improve your writing by bringing in brief, revised material for your Instructor to review is it then appropriate to ask for further editorial suggestions if they were not provided by the Instructor in the graded essay.
  4. Keep the meeting concise and on point. Your Instructor should do most of the talking. It’s an autopsy and she is the medical examiner. You’re there to assist, listen, and learn. Certainly ask for further clarification if you don’t understand something your Instructor says. But don’t get bogged down in too much detail like word choice or get defensive about either your original essay or the revised material. Your graded essay is a corpse and you’re looking for the cause of death. You’re there to show you’re serious about improving your thinking and writing, to show that you’ve grasped what the problems in your essay were, and reflected on how you would correct or improve them were the graded essay a first draft.
  5. Take written notes of any new suggestions or information your Instructor gives you. This is more grist for your mill.

5. On your next essay, build in a reasonable period of time to develop your first draft and analyze the areas of the draft that were shortcomings in your previous essay.

You’ve put some real work into incorporating your Instructor’s feedback, and the last thing you want to do is repeat the same mistakes.

Apply these 5 steps and you’re sure to improve your next essay. And make your Instructor much happier as he contemplates the task of grading your work and that of your classmates again.


Essay Writing – Post Upcoming

New work and business opportunities have thrown my best laid plans for regular posting on Core Texts into disarray. We’re regrouping over here, having to do the heretofore unthinkable: long-range planning. Nevertheless, we are gratified that the site has unexpectedly garnered so many readers. It’s all very encouraging and motivates us to provide meaningful and helpful content more regularly.

The next post will concern an important skill you’ll need to succeed on your essay writing: assimilating and integrating feedback on earlier drafts and essays into your next essay. I’ve covered the basics of argumentative essay writing in the “Mastering the Human Event” Honors Seminar Tutorial, but knowing what to do with feedback from your instructor is a critical skill for you to learn if you want to improve your writing performance.


Engaged students “taking notes”

While I’m finalizing that post, I recommend this article in the Chronicle of Higher Education to you about one professor’s experiment banning laptops in class for a year. There is a connection to the forthcoming post.

Mastering the Human Event: Essay Writing (III)

The introductory seminar tutorial is nearly complete! In this final post in the essay writing mini-series, we will examine the third and fourth requirements in the Barrett Writing Standards.

Essay or Gift from a Stalker

In the first post, we discussed the all-important thesis statement. In the second post, we covered the organization of an argumentative essay. In this post, we will discuss two topics: evidence and style. Let’s start with evidence:

  1. Evidence from and analysis of the primary text(s) form the backbone of the paper’s defense of a thesis.
  • Textual evidence constitutes the foundation of the paper’s argument. The paper cites the sources of evidence.
  • No outside sources are permitted.
  • Analysis offers plausible explications of the texts that show how the meaning of the cited evidence helps develop the argument.

The description of the evidence requirement reveals its connection to the previous requirement: your essay is expected to be a defense of your thesis; that thesis is defended throughout the body of the essay by a progressive series of arguments; this defense is built on a specific foundation (or “backbone”): evidence and analysis of the text(s). As this logic shows, the success of your entire paper, from thesis to conclusion, hinges on how effective you are at marshalling evidence and reasoning on the basis of that evidence. Your grasp of the actual text in question is therefore essential to your performance on this assignment. Do you see how the essay writing is built on the earlier foundation consisting of close reading, meaningful annotations, and thoughtful, engaged discussion of the texts?

Your essays must be grounded in something beyond your own opinion. The validity of your arguments depends upon authority, which is demonstrated through textual evidence cited and your analysis of this textual source material. Authority is not conferred by your high-school GPA, standardized test scores, IQ, or the praise of your 11th grade English teacher. Authority also doesn’t spring from majority opinion or an authority figure to whom you defer; if your arguments are text-based, logical, and coherent, an unbiased HFF couldn’t care less if they agree with your conclusions. If your HFF doesn’t explain how to use texts to help you make your arguments, you should ask them for ways to help you avoid such runaway “opinionating.”

Analysis requires that you enter into a system (that is, accept the worldview and presuppositions of the text as given) and then look to the internal logic of that system and to the logical implications of the ideas and arguments contained within it. In other words, once you understand the author’s perspective and argument, look for logical consequences, consistencies, inconsistencies, etc. For example, if you simply dismiss Plato’s idealistic methodology in the Republic and other dialogues, what are you really saying beyond “I don’t care for philosophical idealism” or “Plato annoys me?” What’s the argument contained in such statements?

Analyze, v. (General): “To differentiate or ascertain the elements of (something complex) in order to determine its structure or nature, and hence to explain or understand it; to examine closely and methodically for the purpose of interpretation; to subject to critical or computational analysis.” (Specialized—Literary): “To examine a text critically to bring out its meaning; to give a critical description of a work especially with regard to its style, structure, or composition.”

Analysis, n. (Specialized—Philosophical): “The investigation of complex ideas, concepts, etc., so as to determine their constituent elements and their structure.”

The body of your essay consists of your analysis of the quotations from the text(s) as well as the issues, questions or problems raised by the text(s) being examined. To analyze the text you examine the specific details you find in the quotations and context. Analysis has a clear direction: it proceeds from the complex to the simple. Your text(s) in their entirety are the most complex units involved in your essay. The specific passage quoted and cited in your paragraph is the next unit of complexity. A relevant and substantive quotation does not speak for itself. You must “break it down” by differentiating its elements (words, phrases, sentences, ideas, concepts, and so on) and examining these elements methodically and in their proper context. Note well: this comprehensive approach to textual analysis occurs in your thinking about the text; only the relevant findings of this effort, often paraphrased, are transposed into your written essay. Hence, a thorough analysis of the quotation is not always necessary for a paragraph, though it is a good idea to do this as part of your close reading and notes leading up to writing an essay draft. You need to be able to differentiate between the relevant and irrelevant details in the text, and then focus on the relevant ones. How do you do this? How do you know whether the elements of the quotation that you’ve described and explicated are getting you anywhere toward an interesting, important or significant point?

This is the job of your conceptual framework, of your conceptual approach to the text and the problem or question you are trying to answer. Your analysis of the text is, more specifically, a conceptual analysis of the text. Your goal in a text-based argumentative essay is to use conceptual analysis to focus your ideas on something of significance, relevance and insight about one or more of the texts, and thereby analyze the text(s) in some interesting and thought-provoking way. Developing a conceptual framework goes hand-in-hand with the subject of my previous post on blocking your arguments. But it is not an easy task to understand or execute, so in a future post I’ll explain how to develop a robust and interesting conceptual framework.

Practically speaking, you fulfill the evidence requirement by:

  • reproducing relevant quotations from the text(s). Punctuate them correctly and integrate them properly. Instructors have different expectations about the appropriate number of quotations that they consider adequate textual support. Don’t obsess about such quantities, however. You may bulls-eye the ideal number of quotes suggested by your Instructor, but if your analysis of the quotes is ineffective or incompetent, having the “right” number will do you no good whatsoever.
  • no sources outside the primary text(s). Avoid appealing to texts or authors that are not a part of the course, whether implicitly or explicitly. No crutches. Leave them outside the course and pick them up later if you must. The inspiring quote from a business or political leader may move you to tears, but such “quotables” will come across as superficial or forced.
  • correct citation of the quotations. Most Instructors prefer inline quotations; some want footnotes; some want a Works Cited page. Your Instructor will specify these matters and indicate which citation style they prefer.
  • interesting, relevant, and plausible discussion of the cited texts. Your Instructor can’t read your mind; you need to explain how and why the evidence you’ve cited supports your argument. I call it unpacking the quotations and forging their connection to your argument.

Now Eadwine01onto the final requirement, which concerns your writing style.

  1. Papers adhere to fundamental style elements.
  • The paper uses proper grammar and word choice including gender neutral and inclusive language.
  • The author proofreads the paper to avoid errors, wordiness, unnecessarily complex phrasings, and excessive use of passive voice.

Get a style handbook. Use the numerous, high quality online resources out there to help you with your diction. One of the most enjoyable parts of essay writing is finding your own voice. Put some work into that! We live in an age where writing consists mainly of ephemera, constantly expelled, joining unnoticed the noisy stream of mass distraction. Much, if not most of it, is dreck, skubalon. People who can write well and substantively stand out and find new opportunities open for them.

There is little to explain about this requirement. Only note that it appears last in the Standards. Students often get their priorities backwards in writing their first essay. This is understandable, because it is much easier to work on and fix the mechanics of one’s writing than the logic of one’s arguments. But style, at least insofar as it doesn’t interfere with a reader following your reasoning, is the least important requirement in the assignment. So don’t obsess over how many pages you should have, margins, line spacing, font, font size, where to put your name, and any number of things that can be managed by your competence with word processing software. There is no formula, no mechanical procedure, for writing a satisfactory argumentative essay.

Sometimes an illustration is the best explanation, so I will conclude this post and the essay writing mini-series with these “Instructions to Writers,” from the Texas Newsletter for Medical Technology 5(9), 1978, and reprinted in Games 4(13): 16, March/April 1980. Enjoy!

Instructions to Writers

  1. Subject and verb always has to agree.
  2. Being bad grammar, the writer will not use dangling participles.
  3. Parallel construction with coordinate conjunctions is not only an aid to clarity but also is the mark of a good writer.
  4. Never use a preposition to end a sentence with.
  5. Do not use a foreign term when there is an adequate English quid pro quo.
  6. If you must use a foreign term, it is de rigor to use it correctly.
  7. It behooves the writer to avoid archaic expressions.
  8. Do not use hyperbole; not one writer in a million can use it effectively.
  9. Avoid clichés like the plague.
  10. Mixed metaphors are a pain in the neck and ought to be thrown out the window.
  11. In scholarly writing, don’t use contractions.
  12. A truly good writer is always especially careful to practically eliminate the all-too-frequent use of adverbs.
  13. Use a comma before nonrestrictive clauses which are a common source of difficulty.
  14. Placing a comma between subject and predicate, is not correct.
  15. Parenthetical words however should be enclosed in commas.
  16. Consult the dictionary frequently to avoid misspelling.

Stay tuned for the last post in the tutorial.

Mastering the Human Event: Essay Writing (II)

In the previous post to tvincent-of-beauvaishis mini-series on an introduction to writing argumentative essays, I introduced the essay Writing Standards and discussed the first requirement, the thesis statement.

In this post, I will discuss the second requirement, which concerns the organization of your thesis into sub-theses, which are developed and defended in the body of your essay. The Standards state:

  1. The body of the paper defends the thesis via a progression of arguments.
  • The opening of the paper provides an overall map of its direction.
  • The body of the paper mirrors the introductory map, and each paragraph builds the case in logical progression.
  • The paper makes an evidence-based case in support of the thesis. Accordingly, the paper also anticipates and addresses potential objections.

As in the previous post, let’s break these requirements down and I’ll explain what they mean and how to use them.

The body of the paper. These are all of the paragraphs between the introductory and concluding paragraphs.

…defends the thesis. But why should your thesis need a defense? It’s what you think. And why should you have to defend what you think or believe? Suppose the text you’re writing about is a poem. Isn’t it all just interpretation? And we’re all entitled to our own interpretations? Sure, someone might disagree with your interpretation and ideas. But so what? You disagree with theirs.

This is almost verbatim what the parent of an Honors student once said to me in a roomful of other parents of Honors students. It was a glorious moment.

What this person, and the students who have been taught likewise, may not realize is that there is a difference between disagreement and logical argumentation. The thesis paper is not a quarrel, it is an argument in this second, rational sense. You need to write an essay on your topic with the understanding that your reader (your Instructor) is not interested in quarreling with you, he or she is interested in examining, critiquing, and improving your powers of reasoning.

The main claim of your thesis should be such that, taken alone, it inspires a response like this: “Oh, really? What evidence do you have to support that position?” As I discussed in the previous post, your thesis should be non-obvious and non-trivial. “Though frequently appearing and interacting with  human characters, the gods in the Iliad do not ultimately affect the course of events depicted in Homer’s epic.” If this is the main claim of my thesis, I need to marshal a defense of that claim, because any other close reader of the Iliad would not take it is as obviously true, and quite probably might think it false. That’s good! I will have to work to show that I have good reasons to support this claim.

…via a progression of arguments. How will you defend your thesis? With arguments. “But wait,” you say, “I thought my thesis statement was an argument!” Yes, Virginia, it is. But each supporting reason in defense of the main claim in your thesis requires its own argument for support. These sub-arguments, or sub-theses, are arranged in a progression such that the chain of your reasoning is made clear.

Monty Python to the rescue. In this sketch, Michael Palin’s character gives an excellent definition of an argument: “a connected series of statements to establish a definite proposition.” The “connected series of statements” are your reasons and evidence that support your main claim. In asserting these premises, you are establishing your defense of your main claim, and if your logic is sound, your main claim, or conclusion, follows from the evidence. This link between the premises, the “connected series of statements” and the conclusion, the “definite proposition,” is called an inference. You derive your conclusion from the evidence and reasons you marshal.

It is important that your argument have an inferential link. The reader should be led, if not compelled, to grasp that your conclusion logically follows from your evidence. Without an inferential link, you argument tends to merely tell the reader that X is the case rather than show the reader how and why you think that X is the case. Your Instructor may critique your drafts with a comment like, “Show, don’t tell.” It’s one of my favorite editorial marks.

This is often the most difficult part of the essay composition process. Anybody can string together a series of statements. But it takes careful reasoning to string together a logically connected series of statements. Okay, I’m really hammering the terminology here, and as helpful as it is to understand and be able to use these ideas, let me pull back a bit to reset some context for this requirement.

The logic that applies to your thesis statement is supposed to be the glue that holds your whole essay together. Note well that this standard concerns the body of your essay. Your entire essay is one long argument. Many students focus on the thesis statement as “the” argument of the paper, and neglect developing the supporting arguments connecting each of thesis’ points together. My colleagues have a great illustration of this structure: the Hamburger Paper. Behold! hamburger-paper

In a future set of posts, I’m going to go into a lot more detail about writing argumentative essays, and I’ll unpack this illustration then. For now, I only want to point out three things about the hamburger-structured paper:

(1) If this looks like the ubiquitous 5-paragraph essay you learned in middle school, that’s because it is. As a structural model for argumentative essays, this form is an inevitable disaster. Consider: “Hamburgers are delicious” [thesis]. Your reader says, “Oh, really?” So you “support” your thesis by saying “Yes. There’s the buns, patty, some lettuce, the ketchup, the pickles, the tomatoes, the cheese and the bacon. See? 8 delicious ingredients all put together = delicious. QED.”

(2) Only, it is not QED. In point of fact, you can put these ingredients in any order, and even add or subtract ingredients, and it makes no difference. All you have by slapping yummy ingredients together is a list, not an argument. So the structure of the body of a hamburger essay is not a logical structure.

(3) The other problem with this model is the independence of the ingredients from each other and from the final product. The paragraphs do little more than wave to the reader–“Hi, see, I’m here.” They typically have weak topic sentences, not robust, non-trivial claims that have to be defended in the body of the paragraph. The paragraphs also tend to be of the same type. The conjunctions “Also” or “And” in transitional or topic sentences often announce that the paragraph is listing yet another item in the hamburger. Finally, hamburger paragraphs don’t develop internally. They don’t go anywhere, meaning they don’t exhibit reasoning in support of a sub-thesis or the overall argument.

Organizing an argument is one of the key skills you will need to learn to succeed in an academic paper, Honors or otherwise. Learn how to block an argument. You must abandon the 5-paragraph model forever; adding two or three more paragraphs (ingredients) to the hamburger isn’t going to cut the mustard.

map. The “opening of the paper,” i.e., the introduction, should announce to the reader the starting point (the topic question or problem), the destination (the thesis), and the route you’re going to take to get from the starting point to the destination. Sometimes we call this “forecasting” the argument of your paper. What it amounts to is that in the introductory paragraph you should state the connected series of premises and the definite proposition, i.e., the conclusion, i.e., the main claim, that they establish, i.e., that follows by inference from the premises. Don’t leave a claim unstated or assumed that is necessary to establish the argument. Be explicit so that the route you’re going to take in the body of the essay is understood before you get underway. No surprises please.

…body of the paper mirrors the introductory map. If you say you’re going to go from Montreal to Albuquerque by way of Eau Claire, Pierre, Denver, and Santa Fe, then when our journey from Montreal (the beginning of the introductory paragraph) is underway, we should pass those waypoints in the order you gave them.

…each paragraph builds the case in logical progression. In my map illustration,  the geographical metaphor represents the logical. Our trip from Montreal to Denver builds as we pass each waypoint. Moreover, as we pass each waypoint, we progress geographically closer to our destination. There may be hundreds of other routes (arguments) from Montreal to Denver (question/problem to answer), but this route, for some reason, makes sense and can be completed as planned. No unnecessary sidetrips, no change of destination, no going in circles, no space-time warps. If we make a stop in Key West, then the body of the essay is off-track from the thesis, and you’re using a different map. You’re going to have a hard time convincing me that we needed to go through Key West (even though I wouldn’t mind the visit, and would probably just wave goodbye as you continue your journey to Albuquerque by yourself.

evidence-based case. The thesis must be supported by evidence, specifically, textual evidence. I will go into more details in the next post.

…anticipates and addresses potential objections. In a future tutorial dedicated strictly to essay writing, I’ll spend at least one whole post and give examples of this requirement. For this tutorial, here’s what you need to know. Remember that your aim in the argumentative paper is to show the reader that your reasoning is correct, that if your supporting points are granted, the thesis logically follows from them. This, by the way, is a far more achievable goal than that your argument is persuasive, for it will only be persuasive insofar as each of your premises is true and your reasoning is sound. A 5- to 7-page paper is not of sufficient scope to establish a convincing case for all of your supporting point. Many, if not all, of your premises might be reasonably challenged. The logical connection between them or between the premises and the conclusion might be challenged. Any of these points might be probed by someone who subjects your argument to analytical scrutiny. You should do this yourself. Identify claims or logical connections that are dubious or open to additional or alternative theses, or for which there are ready counterexamples. And then raise an objection to this point or points in your argument. Or at least compose the defense of your points in such a way that shows the reader you are aware of the vulnerabilities in your argument and the potential objections. Then address the objection, i.e., show why the objection should not stand and why your argument prevails. Sometimes a paper can begin with an objection as an obvious answer to the topic, and then the remainder of the paper is your argument as to why that answer is wrong or isn’t adequate, and why your answer is better. If you can’t figure out an objection to your arguments, then you probably are simply asserting one point after another and not actually reasoning.

In the third post in this mini-series, we’ll look at the third and fourth requirements in the Writing Standards. Stay tuned…the tutorial is nearly over!

Mastering the Human Event: Essay Writing (I)

Our st-john-depicted-as-a-scribenew mini-series in the Honors Seminar tutorial is on one of the most challenging areas of the course: essay writing.

Let’s start with a description of the writing standards composed and adopted by the Honors Faculty themselves. I will limit this tutorial, which is a general introduction to Honors Seminars, to explaining these standards and illustrating how you can use them. I am in the process of designing a second tutorial which will be entirely dedicated to argumentative essay writing. Look for that soon.

So now, the standards:

Writing Standards for Thesis Papers

The elements outlined below form the basis of all Human Event [Honors seminar] argumentative papers (as of 17 Aug 2013), and therefore constitute the fundamental criteria of evaluation.

  1. The paper contains a clear thesis statement.
  • The thesis statement makes a specific, text-based claim, not a vague or broad observation.
  • The paper must stake a substantive position, one that is neither trivial nor obvious.
  • Essays are typically 5-7 pages, and the thesis statement should appear in the first paragraph.
  1. The body of the paper defends the thesis via a progression of arguments.
  • The opening of the paper provides an overall map of its direction.
  • The body of the paper mirrors the introductory map, and each paragraph builds the case in logical progression.
  • The paper makes an evidence-based case in support of the thesis. Accordingly, the paper also anticipates and addresses potential objections.
  1. Evidence from and analysis of the primary text(s) form the backbone of the paper’s defense of a thesis.
  • Textual evidence constitutes the foundation of the paper’s argument. The paper cites the sources of evidence.
  • No outside sources are permitted.
  • Analysis offers plausible explications of the texts that show how the meaning of the cited evidence helps develop the argument.
  1. Papers adhere to fundamental style elements.
  • The paper uses proper grammar and word choice including gender neutral and inclusive language.
  • The author proofreads the paper to avoid errors, wordiness, unnecessarily complex phrasings, and excessive use of passive voice.

If you’re going to write a good essay, you need to know what a thesis is. The bullet points under #1 expand on the qualities of a good thesis. Let’s break those down a bit.

A good thesis statement is–

clear. To be a clear statement, two things are required: well-written prose and intelligible, lucid meaning. The first requirement concerns your diction; the second requirement concerns your logic.

specific. To make a specific claim, you must express your clear statement explicitly and precisely. Don’t hint at what you’re claiming. You don’t want to make your reader guess as to what you’re arguing. State your claim definitely. Do not use language or phrases that are vague, general, ambiguous, or otherwise indistinct.

text-based. Your thesis paper is an argumentative essay. Arguments require evidence and reasons. The grounds upon which you justify your claims are to be found in the specific text or texts that the essay is about. Your thesis must be based in evidence and inferences drawn from the text. Aside: you can communicate that your thesis is text-based from the very beginning of your essay by contextualizing your thesis statement with prior reference to the text(s) at issue.

claim. A claim is a declarative statement that is either true or false. Claims are propositions that you either assert or deny. Arguments consist of two types of claims: premises and a conclusion. “The dialogue Euthyphro was written by Plato” is a claim because it is a statement that is either true or false. Moreover, the claim asserts that the proposition “The dialogue Euthyphro was written by Plato” is true. If you were to make such a claim in ordinary English, you typically omit the explicit assertion or denial and allow the diction of the statement to express this. For example, in ordinary English, the phrase “It is the case that” prefixed to the claim would appear superfluous to the reader: “It is the case that the dialogue Euthyphro was written by Plato.” It is already clear that the sentence without the prefixed phrase is asserting that the proposition is true. Similarly, most denials in ordinary English are expressed with a negative. For example, “The Iliad was not written by Plato.” This is a denial of the proposition “The Iliad was written by Plato.”

vague or broad. These are intended to express the opposites of clear and specific. Avoid them.

observations. To observe something is to note it. Observations are not argumentative claims. They may be statements of fact, and thus either true or false, but are not crucial to establishing an argument. “The Iliad is a poem featuring gods and heroes” is not a substantive claim. Yes, the Iliad is a poem. And its characters include gods and heroes. But this is trivially true. In my previous example, “The dialogue Euthyphro was written by Plato” is similarly little more than an observation (though one might regard it as nontrivial if it were a claim in an argument about the authorship of the Euthyphro). An observation is not something that a competent reader would dispute. NB: observations can be, and usually are, appropriate within an argumentative essay; what this requirement is pointing out is that observations are not appropriate in a thesis statement or argument.

substantive position. Your thesis statement announces the position you are taking by expressing that position in the form of an argument. Your essay develops, establishes and defends that position. This implies that your thesis statement cannot be obviously or trivially true. Therefore, a substantive position requires that your argument be contestable. A thesis statement that concludes “Therefore, Shakespeare’s Hamlet is an indecisive figure” is not a substantive position. Who would disagree with it except someone obstinately (unreasonably) contrary? A key characteristic of a substantive position is that it illuminates something interesting or important about the text, but that the desultory reader is likely to miss. NB: ‘interesting’ here means something of concern to one, of intellectual significance, the understanding of which matters to one’s knowledge and understanding. Thus, a substantive position is one that, with the resources of the text(s), sheds new light on a question or problem or topic. This is what you’re ultimately aiming for in your thesis statement. One way to check whether or not your position is substantive is to ask the “So what?” question. Suppose I, the reader, grant for the sake of argument that your position turns out to be true. If I accept your position, so what? What significant implication follows from the truth of your position? What of importance changes about my understanding of the text? In what ways should I be newly impressed by the significance of the question or problem at issue? And so on.

trivial or obvious. These are intended to express the opposite of substantive. Avoid them.

In my next post, I’ll expand on the second requirement of the Writing Standards. In my third post in this mini-series, I’ll cover the remaining two requirements.

Mastering the Human Event: Why the Human Event? (III)

In this third and final post about why the Human Event is the cornerstone of your Honors education, I will follow-up our previous post on why books, especially material books with printed letters in them, are the key technology, the preferred medium, in which to confront the “key social and intellectual currents” of human history. In this post I will explain the practical reasons books and printed texts help fulfill the course emphasis on “critical thinking, discussion, and argumentative writing.” But first, a warning by way of the irrepressible Calvin:


Our friend Calvin has walked unawares into one of the great dangers of reading books. There is nothing more dangerous than a book and a library. Within them are the seeds for the overthrow of the world…and your own convictions. Revolutions are spawned in the library. Stroll through Hayden one day and observe shelf after silent shelf of sheathed swords. Some of them seem to have been asleep for centuries. But they aren’t. Like Calvin’s Hobbes, there are many among them that are tigers crouching behind the door, waiting to spring upon you.

Many Human Event students will report on their course evaluations things like Calvin says in the second panel: “this course presented me with perspectives and ideas I had never before considered…it was awesome.” You might appreciate that such experiences as you’ve read have been important to some humans in history and even today. But if you are actually doing close reading, like Calvin has, some of these texts might provoke some unlooked for self-examination to occur. Recall my earlier post, “Who Are You?” If you are asked to read a poem, a Greek tragedy, an Eastern religious work, an historical report of colonial practices, a philosophical examination of virtue, or any number of other works, and your answer is like Calvin’s in the last panel, then the Human Event is not for you. It indicates that your mind is made up and that developing new habits of mind, to explore “key social and intellectual currents” that challenge the established patterns and conclusions of your thinking, or even which you find offensive, is not an education that you value. Mind, to unsettle and complicate your life is not the point of the Human Event, but if you perform the necessary close reading of the texts, it is a possible, even likely, byproduct. Here be dragons, so prepare yourself accordingly.

Now, what is the connection between reading books, dangers notwithstanding, and the Human Event course aims of developing your abilities in “critical thinking, discussion, and argumentative writing?” Let’s connect the dots from books to these abilities.

A. G. Sertillanges wrote, “We want to develop breadth of mind, to practice comparative study, to keep the horizon before us; these things cannot be done without much reading.” However, to develop the intellectual powers needed to “read, think, and discuss core issues of human experience [“the horizon” Sertillanges speaks of] analytically and disinterestedly,” you need the right content and the right method of reading that content.

The “right” content of the primary sources you will read is not the specific ideas advanced by the author of the work, though these are crucial to perceive and understand and you will need to note and think about them carefully. No text should be approached as if it were an unquestioned repository of wisdom, though the intellectual virtue of charitable reading should be your default posture toward them. No, many of the works you will read in the Human Event have been selected because their authors exemplify the very habits of mind that Barrett seeks to teach you. This is why books that can be read and understood desultorily are unsatisfactory, and why secondary sources like Wikipedia and Sparknotes will be of no help whatsoever in thinking critically about what you read.

Sertillanges goes on to describe why desultory reading is of no avail:

What we are proscribing is (…) the poisoning of the mind by excess of mental food, the laziness in disguise which prefers easy familiarity with others’ thought to personal effort. The passion for reading which many pride themselves on as a precious intellectual quality is in reality a defect; it differs in no wise from other passions that monopolize the soul, keep it in a state of disturbance, set it in uncertain currents and cross-currents, and exhaust its powers.

The problem with only reading works that themselves don’t exemplify the ability to examine core issues of human experience analytically and disinterestedly is that they dull rather than sharpen your mind. Wikipedia, Sparknotes (not to mention almost all content written for the web) and other sources written with the express intent of being read desultorily (because they reduce the original material for you to what you “need” to know and therefore have already done your thinking for you) atrophy your intellectual powers, making you less capable of reflection and concentration, and of resisting the ebb and flow of ideas and images that have your momentary attention.

The “right” method of reading the texts is close, or studious, reading. Here’s the logic. You are assigned books of lasting value to read, so you ought to study what you read. And if you are going to study what you have read, you need to take notes. And if you take notes, you should organize and assemble them into some sort of coherent commentary. The point of close reading is ultimately to evaluate critically what you read. Ingest the good, reject the bad, but not on subjective bases, like whether you “like” what you read or not. Rather, critical evaluation of what you read must be done on careful analysis of the material and the disinterested weighing of its merits and demerits. This requires you to suspend, or put out of play temporarily, your own private point of view and beliefs, as far as possible. Remember, forming intellectually powerful habits of mind is the name of the game. This won’t occur from desultory reading, or when your encounter with an author is on the terms of your own unquestioned ideological sovereignty, but only by your active engagement with the material and response to the author as a fellow critical thinker. The best way to do this is by writing up your own take on it.

You will need the right tools to do close reading well. medieval-scribe-aberdeen-bestiaryA comfortable chair and desk. Accessories such as pens of various colors for different sorts of annotations and underlinings, notebooks. Water, tea, a cup of coffee. Atmospherics and location that will encourage your focus on studious reading, be it a particular playlist or silence, indoors or outdoors, in a library, a study room, a park, your dorm room.

Use a good dictionary to look up any words that are unfamiliar. Look up characters, places, or events that are unfamiliar in an encyclopedia (here Wikipedia may be a helpful resource, but use it cautiously). Find a system of annotations that works for you. Marginal notes are essential. Transpose and arrange your marginalia into more developed thought and commentary. Although your learning style might lend itself to nonlinear notetaking, I recommend that you not leave your notes in such forms (maps, trees, etc.). Ultimately, you will be required to write a reading response or an argumentative essay that draws from the text. You will save yourself a lot of trouble if you take the time at the time you read the work to impose a linear, sequential arrangement to your ideas. So apply some systematic method, such as SQ3R or the Cornell system, to organize and structure your notes. I recommend having a journal for this purpose.

I will discuss more tips and suggestions for reading and annotating in future posts, but I conclude this “Why the Human Event?” subseries with the connection between reading books and the writing you will do in the Human Event. Reading books that must be studied to be understood is essential to becoming a good writer. “We learn to write by reading,” as Leo Strauss puts it. Here’s more from Strauss’ excellent insight:

It is a general observation that people write as they read. As a rule, careful writers are careful readers and vice versa. A careful writer wants to be read carefully. He cannot know what it means to be read carefully but by having done careful reading himself. Reading precedes writing. We read before we write. We learn to write by reading. A man learns to write well by reading well good books, by reading most carefully books which are most carefully written.

In my next post we’ll turn to that decision that worries so many incoming Barrett freshmen: selecting your Human Event instructor.