How to Write Essays People Want to Read
A simple lesson from a college writing instructor on crafting essays with the proper stakes
I’ve been teaching writing at the college level for almost a decade now, developing courses in everything from introductory composition to advanced technical writing, and the most persistent problem I encounter with students’ writing (at any level) has nothing to do with style or structure or citation or logical fallacies or anything you’d expect, really. The most bothersome problem is that their essays often just aren’t worth reading.
Don’t get me wrong; my students are wonderfully intelligent people with brilliant thoughts and opinions. What I mean is when it comes time to get down to the business of writing, they somehow forget the whole point is to contribute to and advance an ongoing conversation. And it’s not hard to see why. They’ve been trained to think about writing as something that happens only in the context of the classroom, as a means to a good grade, rather than as a contribution to the sum of human knowledge.
When I receive an essay arguing, for instance, that we should lower the drinking age (a very common topic for college freshmen), I simply ask something like, “How are you responding to or adding to what many, many others have already said about this?” If there’s no obvious answer to that question, the logical next one is, “Well then why bother to write this at all?”
The first step in improving your writing, in other words, isn’t to work on your grammar and mechanics but to work on developing a clear sense of the stakes of your argument (i.e., the reasons why readers should care in the first place). Perhaps your argument overturns the commonplace way of understanding a problem. Perhaps your argument reveals a crucial gap in our current thinking on an issue. Perhaps your argument adds complexity to some concept normally considered quite simple. In any case, writing is ultimately about engaging with the ideas of others, and only when you develop your ideas in relation to what others have said on a particular topic can you really stake your own claim as a participant that conversation. Only then will people really want to read what you have to say.
1. Enter an Ongoing Conversation
To illustrate this notion of developing an argument’s stakes, I like to have my students imagine listening in on a lively conversation, whether it be one taking place in a political chamber like the Senate or one taking place among a group of friends at a sports bar. Person A offers an opinion, and Person B backs them up. But Person C offers a counterargument. Person A defends her claim and provides new evidence, while Person D suggests that considering the argument from a whole new perspective yields a different answer, a proposal that Person B rejects outright. And so on.
A crucial part of making an effective argument in this situation would involve first listening to the speakers for a while, seeing what various people have said, what the main positions in the debate are, then figuring out what you think and weighing in with your own claim, which will itself be supported, extended, or countered by others, as long as people are interested in discussing the topic. This is what good writers do; they get a sense of that ongoing conversation, pay attention to what’s been said, then jump in with their own claim, one that’s well situated in and contributes to that conversation.
As another way of illustrating this idea, we might think about an argument that doesn’t participate in the ongoing conversation around its topic of choice. Take for instance the example of a student who recently argued that the final season of “Game of Thrones” was the best season of all. She had plenty of great examples from the show that backed her claim, including references to the cinematography, the story, the actors, and so on. But in an office meeting with this student, I asked, “What made you want to argue this in the first place? Why does it matter?” “Because everyone has been saying the last season was awful!” she said.
“Precisely my point!” I wanted to shout. But I didn’t. Instead, I tried to show her that her claim about the final season of “GoT” only really matters when positioned as a response to that raging debate. The thesis my student was looking for wasn’t “The final season of ‘GoT’ was the best because x, y, and z,” which is really just an observation; instead, she was aiming for something like, “Though many have argued that the final season of ‘GoT’ was was rushed and unevenly paced, it was actually the best season of all because of x, y, and z,” which is an argument that jumps into a contentious debate and makes a contentious claim within it. Perfect. I want to read that essay. (Actually, I did. Some people have made that very argument.)
In their writing textbook, “They Say, I Say: The Moves that Matter in Academic Writing,” Gerald Graff and Cathy Birkenstein underscore this idea, suggesting that your very first move should be to “start with what others are saying”:
“Remember that you are entering a conversation and therefore need to start with “what others are saying,” as the title of this chapter recommends, and then introduce your own ideas as a response. Specifically, we suggest that you summarize what “they say” as soon as you can in your text, and remind readers of it at strategic points as your text unfolds.”
In other words, your first step in writing a compelling essay is to be clear about who needs to hear these claims and who might think otherwise. Your readers need to know who you’re responding to. Keeping what “they say” in view, “ensure[s] that your argument is a genuine response to others’ views
rather than just a set of observations about a given subject.”
2. Take a Stand
Once you’ve done your research and gained a sense of the conversation surrounding your topic, it’s time to develop your own main claim (also known as the thesis).
As Graff and Birkentstein would put it, now that you’ve got a sense of what they say, it’s time to figure out what you say. Here, again, we have a question of your essay’s stakes. You must add to the ongoing conversation on this topic, which means your own claim must be controversial enough to be interesting, yet it must also be reasonable enough to not seem ridiculous. As the Harvard Writing Center explains, the reader’s reaction to your main claim should be, “Perhaps what the author says is true, but I am not convinced. I want to read further to see how the author argues this claim.”
In class, to make this idea a little more visual, I draw a long horizontal line on the board. At the far left I write “totally boring,” and on the far right I write “utterly absurd.” Then I circle a big chunk of the middle. “This,” I say, “is where your main claim should land — contentious enough that you can imagine a significant number of people disagreeing with it, yet reasonable enough that readers will hear you out.”
Students often propose to make their main claim something obvious, like, “Global warming is a serious danger to the planet, and we must take action to reverse it.” Sure, that’s true. But are there many people who would disagree with this? Does it seem new? Does it add to the conversation? Not really. On the other end of the spectrum, some students come ready with combative claims that just aren’t defensible, like “Video games cause school shootings.” Really? There aren’t any other causes? You’re talking about all video games? “Mario Kart,” too?
There are some reliable patterns for finding your “Goldilocks claim” (i.e., not too controversial, not too boring). You might challenge a commonplace interpretation of some issue, as Malcolm Gladwell does in his recent New Yorker essay “Is Marijuana as Safe as We Think?” Most people assume marijuana use is not harmful, Gladwell writes, but we don’t really know yet; the research isn’t conclusive. Because his claim questions a commonly held belief, it’s quite controversial, yet it also seems believable.
You might implore readers to see a familiar topic in a new way, as does Michelle Alexander in her book “The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness.” Though most people understand systemic racial discrimination to have ended as a result of the civil rights movement, Alexander argues that the United States criminal justice system, which disproportionately incarcerates people of color, can be seen as “a stunningly comprehensive and well-disguised system of racialized social control that functions in a manner strikingly similar to Jim Crow.” Because Alexander offers a radical new way to look at a topic people think they understand already, it’s controversial — yet it also seems to make a good deal of sense.
In short, your reader’s reaction should be neither “that’s absurd!” nor “no duh!” but something more along the lines of the Harvard Writing Center’s example: “Perhaps what the author says is true, but I am not convinced. I want to read further to see how the author argues this claim.”
In other words, once you’ve got a sense of what’s been said on the topic, the way to make your essay worth reading is to make your main claim arguable, controversial enough that it isn’t self-evident and reasonable enough that an audience is willing to be convinced.
3. Refine the Scope
So now you’ve got what seems to be an arguable main claim that contributes to the ongoing conversation on a particular topic. You’re getting there, but we need to do a little tweaking and dial this argument in further.
Once I’ve gotten my students this far, I ask them to think hard about what their claim really means. What are its distant implications? With which bits might people take issue? For instance, imagine a student is working with this thesis: “When it comes to automobile pollution and safety standards, people often overlook the impact of old cars, which actually pollute more and are less safe. Cars over 20 years old shouldn’t be allowed on the road because of their high emissions and poor safety features.” Looking good so far. This is a controversial but reasonable claim that jumps into a contentious debate about how to reduce carbon emissions and car-related deaths. But at this point I’d ask this hypothetical student to dig deeper to find the implications of his argument. All cars over 20 years old? Are there any exceptions? What if they’re updated to fit modern standards? And what if they’re just hobby cars that are only very occasionally driven?
Faced with questions about the problematic implications of your main claim, the best thing to do is to dial in your argument’s scope, which has to do with the extent of its application.
For instance, I’d advise my student to adjust the scope of his main claim by altering it slightly to account for the possible counterclaims in the questions I raised. He might revise as follows: “When it comes to automobile pollution and safety standards, people often overlook the impact of old cars, which actually pollute more and are less safe. Most cars over 20 years old shouldn’t be allowed unlimited access to the road because of their high emissions and poor safety features.” Note the italicized words. Now the main claim accounts for possible exceptions to the rule, like cars that have been updated to modern standards. It also makes room to develop a more particular measurement of road time for old cars that are only occasionally driven; classic car hobbyists will likely be more content with this.
What we’re using here to dial in the scope of the main claim are elements of argument British philosopher Stephen Toulmin called qualifiers. Noting that we seldom use the airtight formal logic of syllogisms in our day-to-day life, Toulmin created a set of structures to describe the way people make reasonable arguments in everyday situations. In his influential book, The Uses of Argument, Toulmin sought to explain the kinds of everyday contexts in which people qualify their thoughts with words like usually, sometimes, unless, almost, and typically. These qualifiers limit your claim, making it more precise, acknowledging its limitations, and specifying the extent of its application.
In its explanation of Toulmin logic, the popular writing textbook Everything’s An Argument (Andrea A. Lunsford, John J. Ruszkiewicz, and Keith Walters) advises students to use proper qualifiers to dial in their main claim’s limitations: “Never assume that readers understand the limits you have in mind. Rather, spell them out as precisely as possible.” They offer the following example:
Unqualified Claim: People who don’ t go to college earn less than those who do.
Qualified claim: Statistics show that in most cases, people who don’t go to college earn less than those who do.
As this example shows, to write an essay worth reading, you need not only to take part in an ongoing conversation, to say something controversial yet reasonable, but also to hone your main claim’s scope and limitations, making it precise, accurate, and honest.
4. Revise and Rethink
“For me and most of the other writers I know, writing is not rapturous,” writes Anne Lamott in her famous guide to writing “Bird by Bird: Some Instructions on Writing and Life.” “In fact, the only way I can get anything written at all is to write really, really shitty first drafts.”
I find that students respond well to this idea of “shitty first drafts.” For some reason, most of us think good writers just produce golden prose straight from the top of their heads. They don’t. They’re good revisers. Your shitty first draft, Lamott writes, is the “down draft,” in which you get all your ideas down and let them romp around, knowing no one will see this draft and you can shape it up later. The second draft is the “up draft — you fix it up. You try to say what you have to say more accurately.” And the third draft is the “dental draft, where you check every tooth, to see if it’s loose or cramped or decayed, or even, God help up, healthy.”
So once you’ve got an essay that enters an ongoing conversation and stakes its bold yet reasonable claim within that discussion, the finish line still hasn’t been reached. You’ve gotten your essay down on paper. You’ve written the down draft. Congratulations! That’s hard to do. But now you’ve got to go back and rethink the whole thing.
Revising isn’t editing — it doesn’t mean checking for grammar, spelling, and usage mistakes; rather, revision is literally re-seeing, as in seeing your writing anew, with a fresh critical eye and making changes based on that new perspective. Revision is where the magic happens. As William Zinsser puts it in his legendary writing book, “On Writing Well”:
“Rewriting is the essence of writing well — where the game is won or lost.”
Obviously, there are many objectives when it comes to revision, but in terms of developing the proper stakes and crafting an essay worth reading, what you need to do at this stage is go back to your draft and make sure 1) you’ve said what you meant to say, 2) that it’s clear throughout what you’re saying, 3) that you still want to say that.
That final bit is the most important, I think. In short, should your main claim be modified in light of something you discovered as you wrote the paper? Read your paper carefully and then look back to your thesis — does the thesis contain a condensed version of the argument you actually made or the one you thought you were going to make when you started writing? Almost every time I write, I find my argument along the way, and what I think I was trying to argue turns out to be something else. Once I read through my “shitty” first draft, I can go back and reframe my main claim to more accurately reflect the argument I actually ended up making.
The tool I recommend my students use for reflecting on and revising their main claim is called a “reverse outline.” Whereas a regular outline is a tool to help organize your thoughts before you write, a reverse outline involves looking back after you write and revealing what you actually put down on paper. If you are concerned your essay might not be saying what you want it to or that your main claim doesn’t quite match the argument you ended up making in your essay, a reverse outline is a great way to begin the revision process. The fantastic Purdue Online Writing Lab provides the following guidance on writing a reverse outline. First, “in the left-hand margin, write down the topic of each paragraph. Try to use as few words as possible.” Next, “in the right-hand margin, write down how the paragraph topic advances the overall argument of the text. Again, be brief.”
This short outline of your paper as it stands in “shitty”-first-draft form can help you evaluate the effectiveness of your overall argument and your main claim as a condensed statement of that argument. You should also be able to assess what each paragraph contributes to your larger claim, what still needs to be added, and whether your current organizational pattern is effective at supporting that claim.
Of course, there are many other things that make up a good essay. Style, organization, and structure are just as essential as finding a claim worth arguing, but I find students, for the most part, have some basic understanding of those more tangible aspects.
They know as essay should be written well, but they’re not yet sure how to make it worth arguing. With proper attention to stakes, however, anyone can craft an essay people actually want to read. Make your argument matter, and people will want to read it.
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