Writing the perfect paper is a lot like a military operation. It takes discipline, foresight, research, strategy, and, if done right, ends in total victory. It follows then that the best advice for writing a paper -- be it a high school essay, a college research paper, or even an office memo at a Fortune 500 company -- would come from the tactics of a brilliant military commander.
I discovered these tactics myself as a student, reading in awe of the mastery of ancient military masters and put them to good use. I could then -- and still can, when necessary -- bust out a ten or even twenty page paper with a few days notice. I've developed a worry-free formula for your academic paper or essay (called the Spartan System) that has been so successful that it was printed out and taught as a curriculum by almost every English teacher I've had. Naturally, I was hesitant to teach my secrets to more than a few friends but after I left school and published the formula online in 2007, the formula went viral across the web. It's since been used in classrooms across the country by many satisfied strangers. I've gotten countless emails from adherents -- and these emails are always the same: your system got me an A. In my own life, I applied the tactics to my writing and knocked out a 70,000+ word book in 90 days... which I sold for a cool six-figures.
What Was My Secret?
In my reading of Greek history, I stumbled across an obscure military maneuver, one designed for troops penetrating deep in enemy lines. It seemed to be used by the greatest of generals from the Spartan Brasidas to the Athenian Xenophon (an actual student of Socrates). I thought, if this one trick can protect a ten thousand man march through country after country of hostile territory, it can probably work for a silly school paper.
Their tactic was this: to successfully march or retreat, the general brings his troops together in an outward facing square with their supplies and wounded in the middle and the strongest troops at the front and back. As they moved away from unfavorable ground, the men would defend their side, stepping out only slightly to meet their attackers and then retreating immediately back to the safety of the shape. And thus they were completely impenetrable, able to travel fluidly and slowly demoralize the attacking army. As Xenophon wrote, the idea was that having prepared hollow square in advance, so that "we should not have to plan [everything defense related] when the enemy is approaching but could immediately make use of those who have been specially detailed for the job."
My essay format works the same. Consider your introduction as the creator of the shape, and then the following paragraphs making up each side. They venture outwards when called to but never abandon the safety of the formation entirely. It is a process of constant realignment, maintaining the square at all cost. In terms of "writing" you need only to create a handful of original sentences for the entire essay: a thesis, a theme, a mini-thesis which begins each paragraph and a conclusionary sentence that says what it all means. Everything else is a variation of these four sentences in some way. Together they create the square, and the serves as the point of return -- much like Chuck Palahniuk concept of "chorus lines (see in books like Fight Club, where whenever the plot gets off track he immediately comes back to one -- "I am Jack's sense of rejection.") And so the reader always protected and the troops defend your point.
Forget your teacher's boring prompt. Forget "Commentary/Concrete Detail/Commentary/Concrete Detail" and all that nonsense. Let's do real work, real writing.
Here is the outline for a hypothetical five paragraph paper:
Introduction: (see a complete intro example here)
- Begin with a broad, conclusive hook. This will be the meta-theme of the paper. Example from a paper on The Great Gatsby: "When citizens exhibit a flagrant disregard of morality and law, societies quickly crumble."
- Thesis. This needs to specify and codify the hook in relation to the prompt/subject. Ex: "This atmosphere as shown in F. Scott Fitzgerald's The Great Gatsby -- with blatant corruption and illegal activity -- eventually seems to become all but incompatible with a meaningful incarnation of the American Dream."
- One sentence laying foundation for first body paragraph. (These are mini-theses for each point you will argue.)
- Sentence for second body paragraph.
- One sentence for third body paragraph.
- Restate the hook and thesis into a single transition sentence into the first paragraph. "The 1920′s as the epitome of excess and reactionism symbolized a sharp break in the American tradition; one that no one seemed to mind."
Notes/Advice: Some say the thesis should go at the bottom of the intro instead of the top, which I think is a huge mistake. The point of a paper is to make an assertion and then support it. You can't support it until you've made it.
- Rewrite first body paragraph thesis.
- Support the mini-thesis with evidence and analysis.
- Restate body paragraph thesis in the context of thesis as a whole.
-Begin with your strongest piece of evidence
-Introduce quotes/points like this: Broad->Specific->Analysis/Conclusion
-Always integrate the quote, and try to incorporate analysis into the same sentence. As a general rule never use more than 5-7 of the author's words. Normally you can use even less: "It was Jay, who despite the corruption around him, looked forward to what was described as an 'orgastic future.'"
- Rewrite second body paragraph thesis.
- Support mini-thesis.
- Restate body paragraph thesis in context of the paragraph above and thesis as whole.
- Rewrite third body paragraph thesis.
- Support mini-thesis.
- Restate body paragraph thesis in context of the paragraph above and thesis as whole.
- Restate hook/meta-theme.
- Specify this with restatement of thesis once more.
- One sentence for each body paragraph, surmising its assertion.
- One sentence for each body paragraph, surmising its assertion.
- One sentence for each body paragraph, surmising its assertion.
- Rewrite hook and thesis into a conclusion sentence.
- Last sentence must transition to general statement about human nature. "The American Dream -- and any higher aspiration -- requires a society that both looks forward and onwards as well as holds itself to corrective standard."
That's it. Seriously. You can see why this frees you up as a writer; essentially, the format requires just six original sentences and the rest is nothing more but reiteration and support. It works for a paper of 300 words just as much as it does for one of 300 pages. It's self-generating, self-reinforcing and self-fulfilling. Could you ask for anything better?
Just like the tactics of the great generals, by laying out the square in advance with clear, orderly lines, you insulate yourself from the chaos of improvisation. You mark the boundaries now so later you don't have to. Each paragraph is given a singular purpose and its only duty is to fulfill it. No longer is the professor or teacher grading you in terms of the prompt, because you have redefined the dynamic on your terms. By marking the boundaries out early, excellence is achieved simply by filling them in with your sentences. You take the prompt and make it your own. You place the reader in the middle of the square, protected by all sides, and methodically move them forward, defending doubts and objections as they arise.
With the strongest thoughts at the introduction and at the conclusion, you make it so that the reader -- or the soldiers, as historian VD Hanson pointed out -- "might be led by the former and pushed by the latter." The thesis is buttressed at the top by your intro hook and at the end by your look forward. The middle is just details. The thesis is the entire paper-as it is, and always should have been. Once that is written, everything else falls quickly into place. The meta-theme, logically, is deduced from your primary theme just as your mini-themes are. All that is left to the writer is to simple decide a theme and record it to paper. And like Palahniuk, when we venture too far from it, remind the reader with a chorus line.
And if you object too much to rigid structure, consider the freedom this truly allows you (none of which is ever permitted in the horrible "Schaffer Method"). Once you've disregarded-or been able to reduce to the subconscious-the actual form of the paper, all that is left is the ideas. Isn't that what is truly important? Would you rather parrot back plot summary or take the theme not only to a new level, but an understandable one? If a professor can't respect that, what does their grade even mean? All I know is that this technique has allowed me both to remove any sort of stress from paper-writing, and even better, given me the opportunity to put to words concepts I'm grappling with.
So go now. Internalize this system and watch as it does all your work for you. See if you can beat the record: an 8 page paper in 3 hours... with a nice big A+ stamped on the front.
Follow Ryan Holiday on Twitter: www.twitter.com/ryanholiday
Although writing an essay is daunting for many people, it can be pretty straight-forward. This page is a general recipe for constructing an essay, not just in philosophy, but in most other humanities disciplines (such as English, History, Religious Studies, etc.) and perhaps the social sciences. It should be an appropriate guide for writing at the middle school, high school, and lower college levels. The typical assignment I have in mind will be an argumentative essay, in which you argue for something, even if just an interpretation of someone an author’s work.
Note that what I provide here are only general guidelines. Be sure to check whether your instructor has different ones. If your instructor has not given clear guidelines, then these should suffice, since they are pretty standard.
Note: If you need help figuring out how to write an essay in philosophy specifically and at the college level, see my “Writing in Philosophy.” If you want to know how I evaluate students on a paper assignment, see my “Grading Rubric for Paper Assignments.”
Table of Contents:
- Essay Structure
- General Writing Tips
- Style & Punctuation
- Grammatical Errors
- Humorous Writing Guidelines
- Citations & References
- Relevant Links
- Typed – use a word processor (such as Microsoft Word) on a computer.
- Spacing – the space between lines on the page is typically double-space. However, it may be changing. (I now prefer single-spaced myself.)
- Font size – standard size of the text is usually 12-point.
- Font style – standard font, such as Times New Roman.
2. Essay Structure
The first thing to notice is that the basic form of an essay is quite logical. Let’s look at the standard structure of an essay starting with the most general. You can divide your paper into three main sections:
For the introduction section, you will need to do two things: introduce your topic and provide a thesis statement. Typically, these two tasks should be accomplished using only one paragraph for a short paper, but can be longer for longer papers.
First, introduce your topic. The introductory paragraph(s) should briefly orient the reader to the topic and provide a conceptual map of the rest of the paper.
Second, provide a thesis statement.
Your thesis statement is the main point of your paper and should address the paper topic assigned by your instructor.
Make sure your thesis statement is clear, specific, declarative, and on-topic. You should be able to provide the thesis statement in one or two sentences (most instructors prefer one, concise sentence) for a fairly short paper (about 1-8 pages). It is usually best stated at the end of your introduction section (the end of the first paragraph if your introduction section is only a single paragraph in length).
The body section should consist of at least several paragraphs where you will provide support for your thesis statement in the form of reasons, evidence, arguments, justification, and so on. That is, you have something you want to communicate or argue for (your thesis) and here is your chance to explain it in detail, support it, and defend it.
Each paragraph in the body section should have a topic sentence and, perhaps, a transition sentence. The topic sentence is the particular point you are trying to make in the paragraph. It’s sort of like a mini-thesis statement. It should usually be the first sentence of the paragraph, though in some cases it is appropriate to be the second sentence. A transition sentence is a sentence that helps link the points of each paragraph together by making a smooth transition from the previous paragraph. It can be done in the first sentence of the new paragraph or the last sentence of the previous one. A good way to tie all the points together throughout the body section is to have them all clearly state how they support the thesis statement. That way it is obvious that all of your paragraphs tie together. Note that the first sentence of the paragraph may satisfy both goals. That is, you may have a topic sentence that also serves to transition well. Another option is to have a transition sentence first and then a separate topic sentence following it.
The summary section (often misleadingly called a “conclusion”) is a short recap of what you have said in the essay. You might want to provide a slightly different version of your thesis statement as the first sentence of this paragraph and then provide a few sentences that sum up what the body section said in support of the thesis statement. The summary section should be only one paragraph long for a short paper, but can be longer for longer papers. (Some instructors, like me, even think that summary sections are unnecessary for short papers.)
Note: It’s a good idea to put these sections titles in as headings in your paper to organize and break things up for yourself and your reader. If your instructor doesn’t want headings in your paper, just take them out before you print it to turn it in. It is also helpful for long papers to put in additional headings, perhaps even sub-headings, to break up the body section (such as “First Argument,” “Second Argument,” and so on).
3. General Writing Tips
1. Think & Discuss
Familiarize yourself with the material before you begin writing. You won’t be able to write much if you don’t have anything to put on the page. Think about your paper topic as soon as you get the paper assignment prompt from your instructor. This can be facilitated in a number of ways. A great way is to discuss the issue with your instructor or teaching assistant. You can even try talking about it to a friend or family member.
2. Rough Drafts & Editing
Write rough drafts ahead of time. For most people, writing their rough ideas down as rough drafts helps them see their ideas more clearly than even thinking about them. Then take a break from the essay (this usually requires at least a half, if not full, day). After the lengthy break (for example, the next day), go back and edit more. Repeat this process as necessary until finished. (This is why it is important to start working on your essay far in advance!)
Also, don’t be afraid to just type without thinking too much about whether it’s any good. You can always go back and edit it. Many people find it best to just sit down and write a lot without much reflection. Just make sure you have enough time to go back and edit.
Once you have a final draft ready, have someone read it to look for errors and provide feedback. Many instructors encourage students to turn in early drafts to them for comments. Just be sure to check and see if your instructor allows you to do so.
4. Style & Punctuation
Overall, the paper should demonstrate a command of the writing process and the author’s care in crafting it. Avoid errors of spelling, punctuation, grammar, sentence structure, verb tense, and vocabulary, such as the following:
- Put punctuation inside quotations (for American writing). If you put something in quotations that is immediately followed by punctuation (such as commas or colons), then put the punctuation mark inside the last quotation mark.
Correct: John Doe claims that, “Britney Spears is a tool.”
Incorrect: John Doe claims that, “Britney Spears is a tool”.
Another example: “I’m in love with Space Ghost,” Bjork proclaimed.
(Note: I know this rule doesn’t seem right. The British style of writing has the punctuation outside the quotation marks, which makes more sense. However, the American style requires that you write it the other way.)
- Put parenthetical citations outside of quotations.
Correct: “Blah, blah, blah, this is a quote” (Author 32).
Incorrect: “Blah, blah, blah, this is a quote (Author 32).”
- Introduce quotes. Introduce quotes, preferably by acknowledging who is saying it.
Example: In the article “War Without End,” John Doe says, “…blah, blah, and blah” (36).
Notice the three dots in the quote (…), which is called an elipses. You’re supposed to put those in when you are not quoting the whole sentence. It denotes that something came before (or after) the part of the sentence you are quoting.
- Generally, spell out numbers. For example, write ‘three,’ not ‘3.’ Exceptions can be made for larger numbers, like 1089, especially when you are simply making reference to a numeral.
- Avoid informal abbreviations and notations. For example, don’t write ‘&’ for ‘and’ or ‘b/c’ for ‘because.’ However, there are notations and abbreviations that are conventions in professional writing; for example: ‘e.g.’ is often used for ‘for example’ and ‘etc.’ for ‘et cetera’ and ‘p.’ for ‘page.’ However, for this last one, note that it is only used in citing sources or references, not in other sentences. So, for example, don’t write “The p. had many words of wisdom written on it.”
- Use versus mention. In general, when you mention (or talk about) rather than use a word you should put quotes (single or double) around the word. This is not necessary when you use a word.
Incorrect: John contains the letter h.
Correct: ‘John’ contains the letter ‘h.’
(Note: Some people simply italicize the word to indicate mention. I follow this convention here sometimes so that it is easier to read. However, it can get confused with emphasis, which is what italics are more commonly used for. Also, the standard for use-mention indication is not exactly clear. Most people use quotes and use single quotes for British style and double quotes for American style. I tend to use single quotes just to distinguish them from quoting what someone has said.)
- Write well and consider your reader! Good writing keeps the reader’s perspective in mind. It takes work to read someone’s ideas. You owe it to your readers to explain your ideas clearly and ideally in a pleasing manner. To become a better writer in terms of style, read widely and find good writers to emulate (some excellent non-fiction writers that come to mind: Paul Bloom, Rebecca Goldstein, and Steven Pinker).
- Recognize the Flexibility of Writing Rules. You’ll notice that skilled writers don’t always follow all the “rules” for writing. They know that the rules are somewhat flexible and can even be explicitly broken for good effect at times. You might be able to get away with the same, but it’s good to practice working well within them for graded papers!
5. Common Grammatical Errors to Avoid
- Misusing i.e. and e.g.Do not confuse these two. They do not mean the same thing!
i.e. = that is
e.g. = for example
(Many people think that ‘i.e’ stands for ‘in example.’ That is false. Both are abbreviations for two different latin phrases.)
- Using ‘if’ when you should use ‘whether’.
Incorrect: I do not know if this is true.
Correct: I do not know whether this is true.
Correct: If this is true, then you are wrong.
- Confusing ‘there’ with ‘their.’ ‘Their’ indicates possession, ‘there’ does not.
Incorrect: There problem was a lack of courage.
Correct: Their problem was a lack of courage.
Incorrect: Their are a lot of problems here.
Correct: There are a lot of problems here.
- Misconnecting verbs.
Incorrect: We should try and change the law.
Correct: We should try to change the law.
- Letting your accent get in the way of things.
Incorrect: Mind and brain are one in the same thing.
Correct: Mind and brain are one and the same thing.
Incorrect: Socrates should of fought.
Correct: Socrates should have fought.
- Improper form of the plural possessive of names.
Incorrect: Descarte’s problem was ….
Incorrect: Descartes problem was….
Correct: Descartes’ problem was….
Correct: Descartes’s problem was….
(Note: Either of the last two is acceptable only for names ending in ‘s’ like ‘Descartes’ or ‘Jesus.’ Otherwise, always go with the last example–i.e., add an apostrophe and an ‘s.’ The convention is usaully to not add an extra ‘s’ for old names, such as ‘Descartes’ and ‘Jesus.’ So, to say that this is the book that Rawls owns, people often write: “This is Rawls’s book.”)
- Improper use of semi-colons.
Incorrect: The following will be on the test; Locke, Hume, Parfit.
Incorrect: Although there is no right answer; there are many wrong answers.
Correct: There is no right answer; there are many wrong answers.
(The Rule: Use a semi-colon only where you could use a period instead. In other words, a semi-colon must join two clauses that could stand by themselves as complete sentences. The semi-colin is just used to indicate that the two sentences are connected or intimately related.)
- Confusing ‘then’ and ‘than’.
Incorrect: If this is true, than I’m a fool.
Incorrect: I am more of a fool then you are.
Correct: If this is true, then I’m a fool.
Correct: I am more of a fool than you are.
- Its versus it’s.
Incorrect: Its easy to make this mistake.
Incorrect: It’s pages are crumbling.
Correct: It’s easy to make this mistake.
Correct: Its pages are crumbling.
(Note: partly adapted from Pasnau’s Top 10 Writing Errors)
6. Humorous Writing Guidelines
- Be more or less specific.
- Use not bad grammars.
- Proofread carefully to see if you any words out.
- Don’t use no double negatives.
- Avoid tumbling off the cliff of triteness into the dark abyss of overused metaphors.
- Take care that your verb and your subject is in agreement.
- No sentence fragments.
- Placing a comma between subject and predicate, is not correct.
- Who needs rhetorical questions?
- Use the apostrophe in it’s proper place.
- Avoid colloquial stuff, like totally.
- Avoid those run-on sentences you know the ones they stop and then start again they should be separated with semicolons.
- The passive voice should be used infrequently.
- And avoid starting sentences with a conjunction.
- Excessive use of exclamation points can be disastrous!!!!
- Exaggeration is a million times worse than understatement.
- Stamp out and eliminate redundancy because, if you reread your work, you will find on rereading that a great deal of repetition can be avoided by rereading and editing, so reread your work and improve it by editing out the repetition you noticed during the rereading.
- It’s incumbent on one to employ the vernacular and eschew archaisms.
- It’s not O.K. to use ampersands & informal abbreviations.
- Parenthetical remarks (however relevant) are usually (but not always) an obstacle for readers (and make it harder on readers even if you’re being careful).
7. Citations & References
If you are doing an essay that involves researching or you quote anyone in your essay, then you need to cite your sources. There are many different formalized styles for citing sources. For example: MLA (Modern Language Association), Chicago (Turabian), APA (American Psychological Association), and more. The most standard for English papers is MLA. You can buy the official books on how to properly cite sources according to certain styles, but you can also find a lot of that information on the Internet.
Here are a few Internet resources for citation styles: