General Guidelines for Writing a Good Essay

Start with an Argument

First, make sure you have an argument or thesis that directs the essay. By an argument, I mean a clearly stated position in response to an assertion, question, or statement that I issued, backed by reasons supported by evidence. For example, do you agree or disagree with one of the topic statements?

Second, do not accept everything in lectures and the readings at face value. I may disagree on key points with parts of the readings, and you may disagree with one or all of them. What matters is that you ground your disagreements in clear reasons.

Third, you must provide evidence-based reasons. You should analyze the readings and arguments that we have considered in class and form reasoned conclusions, by which I mean “a conclusion for which you have a reason based on available evidence.” The following statement lacks evidence-based reasons:

“Representative democracy doesn’t work because people are stupid.”

While it is possible that this true, the statement fails to explain how stupidity impair democracy and offers no evidence that this is the case. It is an assertion without an evidence-based reason. By contrast the following statement, while debatable, is based on evidence-based reasons:

“Democracy cannot work effectively if people are easily misled by advertising, as the video The Persuaders argued, because people will not evaluate candidates’ positions on issues accurately.

Scope of the Essay

The essay cannot cover all aspect of a topic. What matters is how you focus the essay. Consider the top two or three reasons in favor of your position, and the leading objections to them. Do not focus on trivial items; consider the elements that the authors emphasized and that we discussed in lecture.

Be wary of back-tracking – discussing items from a previous weeks more than the readings and lecture for the week before the essay is due. To me, the essay will read as if you didn’t bother to do the reading for the week. 

Do Not Ignore Counter-arguments

Always address obvious counter-arguments to your thesis. For example, if you think that the “penumbras” of rights do not exist, you should discuss why this approach to liberty is flawed.

Examples vs. Research

These are not research essays. There is no need to do new research to get a good grade on them (indeed, you may get a poor grade by failing to discuss the class readings sufficiently). Extra-class sources may supplement but newer substitute class readings and discussions. You should, however, use examples to illustrate your arguments. They can be drawn from the readings, lecture, periodicals, or from work in other courses.

It is essential to explain why the example is relevant. Detailed stories are unnecessary, but you should write a sentence or two showing how the example relates to your claim. (E.g., “Tolerance for free speech has varied over time. The “clear and present danger” test was replaced by a “grave and probable danger” rule and then an incitement test.”)

Be Clear Rather Than Clever

Do not try to toss around jargon that you do not understand or use a three-syllable word when a one-syllable word will do. For example, the statement “An epistemological pessimism characterizes Mill’s justification for the emancipation of elocutions” is better replaced by the sentence, “Free speech is necessary because we cannot know which views are really true or false, according to Mill.”

Do Not Plagiarize!

Do not plagiarize. Do not plagiarize. Do not plagiarize. Do not plagiarize...


When it is clear from the context of the sentence, cite the page number parenthetically, as I have done above. You may use footnotes or in-text citations (I prefer that you not use endnotes since I hate flipping back and forth). When citing outside sources, use either the Modern Language Association or Note style. This Dartmouth website provides examples:

The Spell-Checker May Deceive You

I do not want to read about the “pubic” interest in the “Untied” States. Print a draft to proofread, or have a friend proof-read it. An essay with many misspelled words and grammatical errors will be down-graded. I have to be able to understand what you are saying.


Use Quotations and Block Quotes Sparingly

The purpose of this paper is to show that you have understood the readings. Simply copying what the authors have written does not demonstrate this. Do not fill your paper with direct quotations from the readings.

Any dolt can copy out of the book, so do not use block quotes like this extensively.


Guide Your Argument with Headers

You might consider using headers (the text above this sentence is a header) to guide your argument. The header should be concise. You should not break questions down into sub-questions in your essay. You should be writing coherent essays, but you may use headers as a way of outlining your arguments. If you have a talent for writing good segues, then headers may be redundant.


Abjure Diatribes, Polemics, and Rants

Discuss one of the topics that I assigned. Do not pen a screed against injustice or idiocy in American politics that you have been wanting to write. If you want to make a political statement, submit an op-ed to a campus paper or journal, start a blog, write your legislator, or hold a rally. But raging against the machine to me will neither gain you a good grade nor advance your cause because even if you persuade me to accept your views, I have no power to alter the course of history. Yet.  


Avoid Profanity and Glibness

Profanity –  the seven words (and many others) you can’t say on the radio –  does not sound as clever in written work as it does in a comedian’s monologue or my lectures. Unless you are Rowan Atkinson (and you are not), be wary of using sarcasm in essays. Being glib may make your essay appear poorly reasoned. A dry paper that has good evidence and arguments will do better than a colorful paper that places style over substance.


Keep Conclusions Concise

Make sure that your conclusion actually concludes the paper. You should simply be summarizing the argument of your paper in the last paragraph. Do not raise new topics in the last paragraph. If it was relevant, you should have discussed it in the body of the paper.