Notes on How to Write an Essay.
How to Write an Essay:
Toastmaster’s Rule : Tell ‘em what you’re gonna tell ‘em. Then tell it to them. Then tell ‘em what you just told ‘em.
Five-paragraph formula : The Most Common Essay Formula/Template, etc.
What Else Do I Need?
There are two more important elements in any essay besides ethos – pathos and logos.
First there’s logos – logic. You can use deductive logic, where you start with a general rule and apply the rule to the facts you wish to discuss in the essay. You can also use the facts as a base from which you find the general rule, perhaps citing to similar situations to support your case – what is known as inductive logic. It is a good idea to use comparisons, analogies, and the like to show how one situation is like another, and to use contrast to show how one situation is not like another. “Asking a college student to sign a promissory note to pay for essential college needs such as tuition, room, board, and books is just like any other loan made to an adult – a person society expects to be responsible, and who generally is capable of making responsible decisions either accepts the loan and its terms or turns it down. Should that person accept the loan, he must pay it back on the terms to which he or she agreed – no ‘But I was just a kid when I signed that!’ arguments should be allowed.” You can see the comparison here.
A contrast might be “A billion-year contract to serve Scientology, signed by a person raised in the Church of Scientology who has no social contacts outside the Church, is not at all similar to a normal contract that can be performed in a single lifetime signed by an adult dealing with another adult ‘at arm’s length.’ The Church has monumental power over a lifetime member, and the idea of a billion-year contract is inherently absurd.”
Consistency: This is the principle that a good (i.e., defensible and intelligible) logical position cannot be self-contradictory. Roommates/sisters: “Oh, I see; they’re your clothes when you want to wear them, but they’re my clothes when they’re dirty!” A consistent position would be “Since they were your clothes when I wanted to borrow them, they’re certainly your clothes when they’re dirty, on the bathroom floor, and need to be washed and ironed!” Response to cigarette-cadging teenager: “Are you old enough to smoke? Then you’re old enough to buy your own.” Freedom of religion: “Allowing one religious group to put up a display in a public park means every group that wants to do so must be allowed to do so.” Drinking: “If an 18-year-old is presumed mature enough to decide to serve in the military, sign legal contracts, and vote, why can’t that same person legally have a beer?”
Reciprocity: The idea, related to consistency, is that obligations should be mutual. Think “You’ve got to give something to get something.” “What goes around comes around.” For example: Foreign policy: “Why should the U.S. help a nation that’s never come to the U.S.’ aid when asked?” “Why should the U.S. respect Chinese copyright and patent law when China refuses to respect U.S. copyright and patent law?” Roommate dispute: “Why should I be the only one cleaning the kitchen when everyone uses it?” Student loans: “Students who expect the government to support their expensive college educations should support the government by registering for the draft and obeying drug laws.”
Cause and Effect: Arguing that “one thing leads to another.” For example, the “broken window” theory of law enforcement states that letting people break windows without punishment or fixing the window sends the message that larger crimes will be acceptable. Therefore, it is just as important to enforce “quality of life” laws against minor crimes (e.g., littering, graffiti, drinking alcohol in public) as it is to enforce laws against more serious crimes (e.g., auto theft, assault, etc.). Taken too far, this is known as the “slippery slope” fallacy.
How About Style?
The next thing you need is writing style – an appeal to the emotions beyond simple logic or appeals to facts – also known as pathos.
Rhetorical questions: These are questions that really aren’t meant to be answered. They’re made for the sake of argument (“rhetoric”). Your mother: “Do you expect me to follow you around, picking up after you, for the rest of your life?” (Don’t answer “Yes.”) There’s only one way to answer such a question without looking like an idiot, so you aren’t expected to answer.
Rhetorical threats: Similar to a rhetorical question – it’s a threat made to make a point rather than actually make anyone afraid. “If you borrow my car again without refilling the gas, so help me, I’ll fill up the tank, then HIT YOU WITH MY CAR!” Are you really afraid your friend’s going to hit you with his/her car? No. Will you fill up the tank next time you borrow it? I hope so.
Attacks may be useful. Be careful – ad hominem (“to the man”) or ad feminem (“to the woman”) attacks – where the writer/speaker attacks an idea by attacking only the person presenting the idea - are generally considered to be logical fallacies. However, an ad hominem/feminem attack may be justified if you can show the person presenting the idea is biased, has an ulterior motive, or there is some other reason this particular person may hold a position most people wouldn’t or shouldn’t support. For example, a person arguing that cigarettes shouldn’t be regulated could be attacked on the grounds that he/she owns tobacco stocks. Attacks can also include things like “People who are against sex education in schools tend to be the same people who oppose any education in schools, save perhaps shop class, auto repair, home economics, and Bible study.”
Sensory language – appeals to the five senses. “Why would you ride a smelly, slow bus or an expensive, cramped airplane to a faraway city when you could ride a clean, spacious, and fast bullet train?” Notice this also a rhetorical question. Think adjectives and adverbs. “We need independent thinkers who can find solutions creatively, not conventional conformists who figure formulaically.”
Emotional appeal – this appeals to the reader’s/listener’s sense of duty, patriotism, fear, love, etc. to convince him or her of a point. “If the Electoral College worked for our Founding Fathers, and every generation since then, including the immigrants who came through Ellis Island in search of new lives and those who laid down their lives in World Wars I and II, should we really abolish it?” “If English was good enough for Jesus, why should we teach foreign languages in schools?” (Note: yes, I know Jesus did NOT speak English – it’s a joke.).
Humor: Irony, sarcasm, funny stories, etc. can help you make your point. “We all know simple things can be the most satisfying, as any parent who’s bought the latest educational toy for his or her child, only to see the child ignore the toy and play with the box in which it came all day can attest.”
Formal Language: You can make yourself sound smarter and more authoritative by using formal academic language. “Pragmatism demands that novel methodologies be avoided when existing paradigms and procedures have proven efficacious.” The disadvantage is the overuse of formal or academic language can make your writing sound like “gobbledygook” – language that was purposely chosen to obscure, rather than clarify, thought. We’ve all met people who string big words together to try to sound smart, but who usually just sound silly.
Informal language: The use of slang/informal (perhaps even ungrammatical) language can be used for emotional appeal or dramatic effect, to appeal to the audience. For example, our “formal language” example, “Pragmatism demands that novel methodologies be avoided when existing paradigms and procedures have proven efficacious,” can be rewritten as “If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it!” [I’ve seen a cartoon of a man changing the “If it ain’t broke…” sign to read “If it isn’t broken…” then seeing the sign crash to the ground].
Inclusive and Exclusive Language: Basically it’s just using “We” and “us” language to get the audience to identify with ideas/people the writer wants to promote, and “they” and “them” language to separate from those the writer does not want to promote. “We” are not necessarily “the good guys”- preachers and politicians may wish to point out shortcomings of “our team,” “our guys,” etc. For example “We offend people and they retaliate.” But usually, “we” are the good guys. “We all believe in hard work and sacrifice as the best ways to advance in society, even when others seem to succeed by cheating and cutting corners. We know those people never make it in the long run. Cheaters never prosper.”
Straw man: Distorting your opponent’s argument, then attacking the distorted version of the argument. For example: Person 1: “We should provide more aid to the poor.” Person 2’s straw man response: “Oh, so you think we should give every lazy bum a million dollars a year? Where’s that going to come from? There’d be no incentive to work! You’d bankrupt the country!”
Assuming what is true of the part is true of the whole: Some religious people believe in end-time prophecies, such as the Apocalypse, Book of Revelations, etc. Some of those people believe that we should act to bring on the end times (e.g, a nuclear or biological war that would destroy the world). If we assume what is true of part is true of the whole, then all religious people want to start a nuclear or biological war to destroy the world. Obviously, that’s not true. This may also be called “guilt by association.” For example, Woody Allen’s relationship with his now-wife, Soon-Yi Previn, the adopted daughter of his former partner Mia Farrow, was presented by certain Republicans as evidence of the moral depravity of the Democratic party. The logical fallacy is “A man doing something distasteful in his love life and just barely on the right side of the law is a Democrat. Therefore, all Democrats have distasteful, barely legal love lives, or support those who do.”
Assuming a necessary condition is also sufficient for that thing to happen: You have to get out of bed to go to school. However, merely getting out of bed will not automatically put you at your desk in your classroom at school.
Slippery Slope: As stated above, this is cause and effect taken to a ridiculous extreme. For example, opponents of same-sex marriage often used the slippery-slope argument that allowing two grown, unrelated men or women to marry would lead to people marrying nonhuman animals, underage children, their siblings or parents, etc. The idea was to connect something not particularly objectionable to something disturbing and vile. This can also be labeled “guilt by association”/assuming what is true of the part is true of the whole. See above.
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Author: John Linneball Who did you think? ;-)
I'm the proprietor and only tutor for this business; that's why I named it after me.