While taking 15 to 18 credit hours of courses per college semester, students face a clear temptation to go to the ATM and buy themselves some peace of mind and a free evening. However, many schools now have the capability of uploading essays they’ve received from students to the internet and running them through an essay database to search for similarities or redundancies. Writing a lengthy exploration or persuasive argument about a subject may not be the most fun a student has in college, but failing a class or being expelled are far worse fates. Here are some tips to understand what an essay really is and how to get started writing one.
Ghost Writing in College – What Is an Essay?
Schools have made the oversimplification of the essay into an art form. “What we think of as a formal essay today is largely the kind that students start to write in grade school when teachers ask them to write a theme,” said Dr. Jennifer Cognard-Black, Professor of English at St. Mary’s College of Maryland. “Even today, school kids are still assigned descriptive, comparison-contrast, and expository essays to demonstrate their knowledge of a subject matter, as well as their writing abilities—think ‘What I Did on My Summer Vacation.’”
By middle school, this writing of themes has evolved to the five-paragraph “test” essay, which is usually a persuasive essay. “Persuasive essays have the intent of teaching young minds how to write a thesis statement; how to learn principles of organization; and how to practice, use, and cite secondary sources,” Dr. Cognard-Black said. “This essay form is now the gold standard for taking timed exams, writing speeches, or writing research papers in college-level classes.” Yet these clichéd and boring essays are merely one kind of an essay, in the same sense that memoirs are, merely hinting at what an essay actually should be.
“The essay has no fixed parameters, apart from including a first-person narrator intent on telling the truth,” Dr. Cognard-Black said. “Essayists draw on the facts of history and science, the musings of philosophy and theology, the melodies and harmonies of music, and even on the visual elements of film or cartoons. And then, by applying the techniques of poets, fiction writers, and dramatists, we document imaginative encounters with the real.”
Colleges and universities are finding new ways to prevent students from paying for their essays to be written, NPR reported recently. Students cite rising academic pressures and workloads in choices that educators are calling “contract cheating.” Let’s look at how to write essays instead of buying them.
Five Elements of an Essay
Dr. Cognard-Black provided the five essential features of an essay. The first is ethos, or the moral character of a writer. “Ethos is the first of what Aristotle calls three artistic proofs, or modes of persuasion,” she said. “The other two are pathos, or emotional appeals; and logos, which is how a writer proves a truth through rational argumentation.”
The second element is to represent a larger or more universal truth to the audience. “An essay must speak beyond the petty concerns or obsessions of the essayist herself,” Dr. Cognard-Black said. “Third, an essayist must ask, ‘So what?’ What is the purpose—the point—of my essay?” She said that the audience is the common reader who hungers for knowledge, not only the academic or other essayists. The second and third elements of essay writing are closely related, speaking to the greater purpose and the wider audience of the essay.
The Fourth element eschews the idea of a formula: avoiding the use of a rigid outline, opting instead for a loose, flowing structure. This type of essay gives the audience a look inside the essayist’s mind to comfortably perceive an idea. The fifth element, then, is to speak the truth. “An essayist must speak the truth,” Dr. Cognard-Black said. “Because a writer needs to convince her author that she’s credible, that she has wisdom and that she’s reliable.”
Comprehending what an essay should be and how to get started writing one should help any student defeat the dreaded “blank page” and the urge to buy their way out of it. “Contract cheating” may be on the rise, but the risks outweigh the rewards.
Dr. Jennifer Cognard-Black contributed to this article. Dr. Cognard-Black is Professor of English at St. Mary’s College of Maryland. She graduated summa cum laude from Nebraska Wesleyan University with a dual degree in Music and English. She studied under Jane Smiley for her M.A. in Fiction and Essay Writing at Iowa State University and received her Ph.D. in 19th-Century British and American Literature from The Ohio State University