Advice to Undergraduate Essay Writers

Tuesday, September 15, 2020

Years ago, sometime between 2001 and 2003, I was sitting in my office at UCSD, grading yet another first year essay in the equivalent of the “Great Books Program” for the Humanities program at Revelle College. The notes I am about to post came out of a realization I had back then. I wish to thank Professor Steve Cox for the chance he gave me to work in that program. I never would have come up with this particular piece of advice unless I had worked under him.

THE TITLE/THESIS SENTENCE “X” and “Y” COORDINATES
or, How I Learned to Pay Attention to the Subject Position

Look at the title of your essay.

Then circle the word that is the subject of your thesis sentence.

If the word in the subject position of the thesis sentence is not in the title, then the left and the right hand (so to speak) of your essay don’t know the meaning of the word “coordination.”

You’d be surprised how often a keyword in the title serves as the object (in the predicate part of the sentence), but the argumentative energy of the thesis will recoil most vigorously in the subject position. The primary keyword of your argument (not the heroine or hero of the story) should find its outlet in the subject position of the thesis sentence. THE CONSEQUENCES of that idea should be saved for the predicate.

Now, all rules get broken, and this one is no exception. However, what is the advantage to your argument in diminishing the stature of your main idea by having some nondescript word (“It” or “There…”) in the subject position.

The trick is remembering to put this into practice. It sounds easy and simple enough to check your title and thesis sentence, but in practice, it’s all too easy to forget.

Finally, it you truly want to know how well the argument in your paper is developing, simply look at the subjects of all 50 to 60 sentences in your five-page essay. IT IS LIKE A CHESS GAME. Each word in the subject position represents a move on the chess board. A good chess player is aware of the sequence of moves. Each move matters. What is the advantage of choosing this word (e.g., “retribution”) over another word as one discusses the penal system? At some point in your argument, that word might appear in the subject position of a sentence, but in which one of the several dozen sentences? The writer in control of her art as an essayist knows precisely in the essay when to use that word, and also when to deploy “reconciliation.”

Now the question is: what are looking for once you have assembled your sequence of words in the subject position, for indeed each one constitute a link in a chain. Well, what is it you are checking for?

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Post-script:

For a chance to hear a distinct critique of one of our system’s primary disaster zones, here is a link to Steve Cox addressing the logic behind wide-spread imprisonment in the United States: