So you've been assigned to write an essay. You know you'll be spending the next few weeks of your life with this sort of hanging over your head, you'll do a lot of writing and asking yourself "What on Earth am I trying to say?" and rewriting and re-rewriting, and then you'll turn the thing in and be done with it until the next one.
But the process gets a whole lot easier once you have a clear sense of what you're doing, what your goals are and what your instructor is likely to expect.
So let's walk through the essay writing process and familiarize ourselves with it. Just what does writing an essay entail?
To see the essay writing process in action, we'll also walk through my personal process of writing an essay assignment, from beginning to end.
From an English 1101 class at Georgia State University, I took an assignment prompt by Mack Curry IV and ran through the whole process of writing an essay. Let's see what my process looks like:
Adapted from http://sites.gsu.edu/mcurryiv1/rhetorical-analysis-prompt-gsu/
I. Figure out what to write about.
Understand the prompt or assignment.
The first thing you need to do is spend some quality time with the requirements of the assignment you're working on. What kind of essay are you writing? What exactly is the question or issue you need to answer? If you're not sure what the essay requires, you can always ask your professor to clarify. Before you begin, you need to have a solid sense of what the essay is supposed to do.
Know your purpose and audience.
This means that you need to know why you're writing, and to whom. Keeping straight the purpose of your essay will help guide you as you write, so you can stay on course, answer the prompt, and not stray into tangents. What are you trying to accomplish with your essay? What do you want your reader to get out of it?
This means you also need to know who your readers are. How much do they already know about your topic, and how much do you need to explain to them? Do they have any preexisting characteristics that'll affect how they read your essay or what they'll think of it? What tone and level of formality is appropriate for your audience?
The first thing that I do is read through my prompt and try to decide how I'm going to answer it. At this stage in my writing process, the only important bit is the first paragraph—the details will come later. So let's pick apart the prompt and see what I'll be doing.
In a 3-5page essay, make and support a claim about how an image (picture, painting, advertisement, etc.) or a text (song, poem, speech, etc.) is being used. Your analysis should include discussion of how the image or text uses rhetorical canons (invention, arrangement, style, memory, and delivery) or rhetorical appeals (ethos, pathos, and logos). The purpose of a rhetorical analysis is to read, analyze, interpret, and argue your position with evidence.
Ok, it's a rhetorical analysis. Three to five pages. Pick an image or short text and analyze it—not the content of the piece, but how it communicates whatever message that it does. I should look at the rhetorical canons OR the appeals employed in the piece, but not both. That makes sense, for an essay of this length—I need to keep my focus narrow and not stray off topic.
The thing I'm going to need to keep most in mind is my purpose: I'm NOT looking at the content of whatever I choose to analyze. I'm strictly analyzing the WAY that the message is communicated. My audience doesn't want to know about the subject of the piece, they want to know about how the creator gets their message to the recipient.
All right, I think I've got the concept.
II. Gather information.
Some essays require more research than others, but almost every essay will require you to find sources that you can reference as you give your reader background and context on your topic. There are lots of resources for you to use as you're gathering what you need for any essay you're writing. Be sure to utilize the library and librarians available to help you.
The UTSA library has many resources to help you research! Not only is there access to hundreds of databases, but the librarians themselves are also a fantastic research resource.
All UTSA Library Databases by subject or alphabetically - http://libguides.utsa.edu/az.php
Subject-specific Research Guides created by specialists - http://libguides.utsa.edu/?b=s
You can email the librarian who is a Subject Specialist on your field - https://lib.utsa.edu/services/find-your-librarian/
External annotated list of databases - https://oedb.org/ilibrarian/best-online-research-sites/
Choose a topic.
After doing some research, enough to familiarize yourself with the subject, choose a topic that interests you—one that you'll enjoy as you dig into it. Gather information about that topic and begin to organize it to answer your prompt. Once you have a general sense of the topic, you can begin brainstorming specific ideas that'll go into your paper.
In my case, research will have to do with finding an image or text that I feel like I'll be able to do a rhetorical analysis of. My preference is to analyze an image, so let's start brainstorming what kinds of images are worth analyzing.
I definitely need something that was created with a specific audience and purpose in mind, or else there won't be anything much to analyze. For this essay, I know that choosing my subject for analysis will be the hardest part. My research will mostly involve considering different images and choosing the one that's right for the assignment.
I'm thinking an advertisement will probably be the way to go. But let's get a little more specific and narrow my focus. The types of ads that are distributed to students on college campuses, inviting them to events occurring on campus, just might be the way to go. I know that they have a specific audience in mind—young college students—and a purpose—getting them to attend the event. My analysis from there will be pretty straightforward: I'll be looking at how the ad's designer tries to achieve that purpose in the image.
The image I choose is one that advertises a show held on a college campus:
But, doing more research into the background of the show, I find that it's actually a religious show that is marketed as a magic show, with no indication of the religious aspect in the advertising. In fact, that's a source I'll save to use later:
All right, I think this is going to be my subject. Now it's time to brainstorm the specific ideas that'll go into the body of my essay.
Having a topic, you'll then want to expand your ideas into content that'll go in the main body of your essay. Where do your ideas take you? While you're letting your mind run with your topic, keep track of all the interesting subtopics that you might use in your body paragraphs.
If you're having trouble coming up with points that both fit your topic and have enough substance to fill up the body of your essay, there are different strategies you can use to jump start your brain.
List out concepts, read and make notes, or talk to a friend or tutor to feel your ideas take shape in conversation.
Write or speak to yourself, record yourself if you prefer, and just see what's in your brain so you can organize it later.
Freewriting is a method where you don't think about grammar or formality and just let your words flow.
Mind-mapping is a popular method of laying out ideas and visually connecting them so you can see the relationships between your main topic and the satellite concepts that support it.
For more brainstorming ideas, try checking out this site for web writers: https://webwriterspotlight.com/8-brainstorming-strategies-for-generating-new-writing-ideas
There is no wrong way to brainstorm! Just do anything that works for you to get the ideas out of your head and onto the page so you can start working with them.
Well for a rhetorical analysis of an image that needs to be three to five pages long, I know that I'll only be able to make two or three main points. Part of the essay will go to an intro, a description of the image, and the context and/or background of the image, which will only leave me enough room to explore two or three big ideas as to the actual rhetoric behind the piece. So I'd better make them good.
The prompt, again, asks me to look at the rhetorical canons (invention, arrangement, style, memory, and delivery) or rhetorical appeals (ethos, pathos, and logos). Since my chosen subject is an image and not a speech, I think I'd best stick with the appeals (since there isn't really invention, memory, or delivery in an image). Ethos, pathos, and logos—I can brainstorm something out of that.
But before I start thinking up possible points I want to make, I'm going to think again about the main purpose of my essay. Let's return to the prompt again: it asks me to make and support a claim about how an image is being used. It tells me that the purpose of a rhetorical analysis is to read, analyze, interpret, and argue your position with evidence. So, to summarize:
My task is to use evidence to make an argument about the way that my image achieves its purpose.
Great. The components of this, then, are that I need:
What I claim is the purpose of the image
How I claim the image achieves that purpose
Specifically keeping in mind the use of ethos, pathos, and logos
Evidence to support these claims
So the purpose of the image, as I had sorted out before, is to get students to attend the event. This seems straightforward enough. The way that the image achieves that, then, is where my claim will really be made.
Thinking about ethos, pathos, and logos, I'm not seeing a lot of logos in the image. But ethos and pathos, certainly. Ethos, being the image's appeal to the audience's trust in the people involved, is the biggest thing present in the image: the whole thing is designed to make us want to see him, the man with the blue eyes, perform. His confident expression tells us he's sure of his own ability to entertain us. He's young and handsome, and intriguing. The ethos of the image is drawing us to attend, to see this man in action, to be entertained.
The pathos is a little subtler. There's the attractiveness of the man, sure, but there's also the drama of the whole image. The black and white of everything, including the man's skin, makes the blue of his eyes pop—it gives the viewer an emotional reaction of disquiet, but also of interest. That's the emotional appeal of a magic show, all wrapped up in this image: mystery, the desire to be tricked. It's weird, it's interesting, and it's likely to grab our attention.
I also don't want to forget, though, the whole background to this image. It's a religious show being advertised as a magic show, although it also does contain some actual illusion. The purpose behind the image's attempt to get students to attend the show, then, is actually a proselytizing purpose. They want to convert students to Christianity.
Ok, I feel like I've got some useful ideas floating around now. I can definitely use this.
When writing an essay, getting started is the most important step. This is where you get a clear sense of what direction to go in, and if you set out on the right track, you'll find it easier to stay focused. The steps of getting started are:
Figuring out what to write about , where you get familiar with the prompt and what form your essay is going to take;
Gathering information , where you research and choose a topic; and
Brainstorming , where you do some exploration, figure out what ideas are in your head, and start to organize them.
From here, the next step is to unite your essay under a central idea that you can communicate clearly to a reader—in other words, the next step is Outlining.