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Transcript of The Essay:
Not as Awful as You Think
Here are the most common essay
mistakes -- by far! -- made in this course:
1. Not doing it.
2. Not following the instructions.
3. Not proofreading effectively.
"Well," you might be thinking, "I won't do any of those things. This should be easy."
Not so fast.
Those are the most
but there are still a lot of things that can go wrong.
I thought you said essay writing wasn't awful!"
but it's not a cake walk either.
Don't worry: the trick is to
think of an essay as a formula
with a series of blanks
that need to be filled in.
By the way, did you know that the "cake walk" was a kind of dancing walk done by slaves on American plantations in the late 19th century? It was performed at the Centennial Exposition in Philadelphia: first prize for the winning couple
was a giant cake. From there, it gained more popularity in mainstream America.
Okay! Time for blank number one: the essay title.
Here is what your title should never be:
Or this one:
Or this one:
I know it may seem logical
in a clerical sort of way,
but it gives absolutely no clue
as to what your essay is ABOUT,
which is the purpose of the title,
So, if you're writing an essay about
common mistakes made by new parents,
your title might be something like....
"Common Mistakes New Parents Make"
Or, on a slightly more upbeat note:
"Easy Ways to Avoid Common
New Parenting Mistakes"
"New Parenthood: What Not to Do!"
You get the idea.
Remember that words in a title
start with an upper case letter
UNLESS they are "little" words
like "as," "to," "and," etc. For example:
"The Road to Damascus."
Nor should your essay title appear
in quotation marks (I'm only doing it here
because this is how you might identify
a title when it's not at the head of an essay).
Okay: moving right along....
The second blank you need to fill in
is the beginning of your
introductory paragraph (which is the
first paragraph of your essay).
Now, you don't just dive in and start with
your argument. You can start with...
A quote or expression that relates to your essay topic:
John Wilmot, the Earl of Rochester, once said, "Before I got married, I had six theories about
bringing up children. Now, I have six children and
no theories." It's true that having a baby can seem
like one confusing defeat after another, but there are things you can do to make things a bit easier.
American actor Ed Asner once said:
"Raising kids is part joy and part guerilla warfare."
Certainly, the early days of parenthood can feel
pretty desperate, but there are some pitfalls you
can guard against.
You can also start with a relevant statistic:
Last year, the Canadian birth rate went up for the
third year in a row. With this increase in experience, are we getting better at handling babies?
Or you can start with a surprising,
We like to talk about how wonderfully
magical it is when a new baby arrives, but
the truth is that it often feels more like
getting hit with a Mack truck than
getting a gift from the universe.
Fourth, you can share some
background information about your topic:
Parenting advice has been a growing field
of expertise ever since Dr. Benjamin Spock published massive bestseller in 1946.
Today, there are thousands of parenting
books on the market, but all that information
can be overwhelming.
Finally, you can start with a personal anecdote:
When I had my first baby, I felt as though every day
was filled with gaps and silences -- places and times when I wanted to know what to do and what not to do, but there were no "right" answers. And yet there did seem to be lots of ways to get things "wrong."
With the invention of the internet,
there's no excuse for not being able
to fill in this blank!
Coming up next....
The middle of your intro paragraph
gives you a chance to expand a bit on how
your opener (quote, statistic, etc.) leads
to your thesis statement, or argument.
With the advent of the internet,
parents today can seek advice
from medical websites and parenting
blogs. They can consult with experts
in baby sleep patterns, lactation nurses,
and even baby-proofing services.
And after you've filled out your intro
paragraph, you're ready for...
wait for it...
THE THESIS STATEMENT!
I'm not sure I gave that enough emphasis.
One more try...
Ooooo I absolutely love the thesis statement.
Was there ever anything so clear?
COMPLETELY FOCUSED AND RELATED
TO ITS ESSAY'S CONTENT?!
No. There has not.
Properly written, the thesis statement is thing of eloquent beauty and unshakeable strength.
Huh. That is actually a
very interesting historical
tidbit. You should probably
learn how to cakewalk in case
I ask you to perform one in
an exam-type situation.
Here is a picture to help
get you started:
I'm quite sure Wilmot was a
wise gentleman who knew
a thing or two about life.
I mean, just look at him:
Okay, maybe it's better to look at him
as played Johnny Depp....
Okay! NOW he looks eminently
knowledgeable and trustworthy.
And to prove John Wilmot / Johnny Depp's
point about how difficult it is to raise children,
THIS is what he looked like after the birth
of his sixth child:
This is why I only had five kids.
Anyhow, back to quotable quotes
to start your essay....
To continue with our hypothetical essay topic, here is a solid thesis statement:
There are a few basic, common mistakes that new parents make, and thankfully, some easy ways to avoid them.
Here's another one:
Since the beginning of time, parents
have been making mistakes.
If you just thought to yourself, "That doesn't
sound like a thing of eloquent beauty and
YOU'RE ABSOLUTELY RIGHT! IT ISN'T!
Let's look at it again:
Since the beginning of time,
parents have been making mistakes.
First, how on earth would your essay prove what
parents have been doing since the beginning of time? This is far too broad -- it's too much to cover.
Second: what kind of mistakes are they making?
Are they using the good china for everyday meals?
Are they washing their colours with their whites?
Are they failing to file their taxes on time?
It's too vague.
To improve it, you could change it to...
There are several common parenting mistakes
that new parents make in our culture today.
Now you have a very clear, manageable
argument that's neither too vague nor too broad; you're going to talk about parenting mistakes
NEW parents (i.e. parents of babies) are
making today in "our culture" (contemporary North America).
If your essay will also address how to avoid those mistakes, your thesis statement would look like this:
There are several common parenting mistakes
new parents make in our culture today, but there are ways to try and avoid them.
Notice that I didn't say that it's "easy" to avoid them "completely" -- this would be asking for trouble. Why? Because making these kinds of generalizations and overstatements opens your argument up to easy (and justified) criticism.
Later, if (despite your outstanding lifetime record of chore-completion) you fail to do the vacuuming, you have an "out:" "I said I could
do it! I had a really important phone call I had to take! I never
I would do it!"
Words like "several" and "common" and "try"
and "avoid" are far more realistic and less open
to critique. You probably know this and put it into
action all the time. When a parent asks if you can
finish a task (like vacuuming), you're more likely to
say "probably" or "I'll try," because you want to give
yourself some wiggle room in case it doesn't happen.
His statement was not only an overstatement, it was just plain wrong, and therefore it substantially weakened his argument. If he'd said that girls are still very much in the minority in hockey enrollment, or that "not many" were enrolled as compared to boys, he'd have been fine.
But let us talk no more of him and his writing missteps. It saddens me.
Onward! There are more blanks to be filled!
A student once wrote an essay for me in which he claimed that "Despite greater gender equality in other sports like soccer, parents still don't enroll their daughters in hockey." Poor fellow. I have three daughters. They all play hockey.
You've written your title, and the three parts of your
introductory paragraph, the last of which is your thesis statement. Now it's time to write the first of your body paragraphs.
Let's say that your investigation into this topic
(new parents' common parenting mistakes) has
turned up three mistakes that have gotten
a fair amount of attention in things like advice columns, parenting books, and expert medical websites. They are:
1. Not getting enough sleep.
2. Not getting enough support.
3. Not understanding what kind of
environment calms a newborn.
Wait a minute....
I don't like the order I put those in.
I'm going to switch them around;
I'll explain why a bit later.
Okay. Your first body paragraph begins with a topic sentence, which tells the reader what the paragraph is about. Like, for instance:
When a baby is first born, it's not really ready for the "outside world."
The topic sentence is followed by a
VERY IMPORTANT PATTERN.
No, definitely not that pattern.
No! That one hurts my eyes!
Oh, aye....a lovely one, that...
Argh! Dinnae distract me with Scottish paraphernalia!
Tartan is my greatest fabric-related weakness!
No, the pattern I am referring to is...
If you follow the point, proof, analysis pattern correctly you're on your way to essay-writing greatness. So, to return to our topic sentence:
When a baby is first born, it's not really ready for the "outside world."
Next comes your point:
A newborn's environment should mimic the environment of the womb as much as possible.
After that comes your proof of that point:
Unswaddled babies' arms and legs fly out erratically, and all the space around them is
disorienting and frightening. Total quiet is disturbing to them because they're used to the constant whooshes and beats of their mother's lungs and heart. Close, secure swaddling and white noise are two things that work to calm a baby.
And last in this pattern comes the analysis, or explanation, that demonstrates how your proof supports your thesis:
Contrary to this, many parents tiptoe around their new baby and whisper. Tight swaddling goes against their instincts because it seems too restrictive and rigid for their soft, vulnerable newborn.
Let's try that again in the second body paragraph.
One instinct most of us have is the instinct to sleep when we need rest, but newborns wreak havoc with it.
Notice that I picked up on the idea of instincts from the end of the previous paragraph to start this paragraph -- this is a way of TRANSITIONING from one paragraph to the next.
It's not unusual for babies to wake up for a feeding every two hours through the night. Aside from this sleep disturbance, there is also sleep loss as parents stay awake to feed their baby and then get their baby to fall asleep again. During the day, parents frequently force themselves to stay awake so they can host friends and family dropping by to meet the child, or simply because they are so keen to bond with their new addition.
A new parent's schedule (or lack thereof) almost always results in a sleep deficit.
Being a new parent is overwhelming enough; sleep deprivation will only worsen a parent's mood and ability to cope with the challenges of caring for a newborn.
And then we apply the pattern again in the
third body paragraph....
Last, many new parents don't get the support they need in their baby's first months of life.
Being a new mother, especially, can be very isolating.
We used to grow up in close-knit, multi-generational families and communities -- villages and tribes that stayed together for generations. Now families are often scattered in different towns, provinces or even countries, so there are fewer experienced parents to offer a hand to new parents. Furthermore, since the 19th century families are smaller, with fewer brothers and sisters and cousins to give each other support and advice.
Despite the fact that doctors, midwives, lactation consultants and public health nurses are all tasked with supporting new parents, it's a mistake to think that services can take the place of family and friends, who might be able to look after a baby for a few hours as opposed to a few minutes. New parents should make every effort to ask for help and accept it when it's offered.
Phew! Okay. For the purposes of this course,
we'll focus on three body paragraphs.
Right now I'm focusing on the point, proof, analysis pattern. Later on in the course, we'll look at the "proof" component of your essay and how to research and use appropriate content like facts, statistics and anecdotes to support your thesis.
Now: do you remember when I said I was going to switch around the order of my body paragraph topics? I decided to put the paragraph on support last so that it could lead smoothly into my CONCLUDING PARAGRAPH, which is the last blank you need to fill in this essay formula.
Here is the thing about the concluding paragraph:
almost everyone gets it wrong. Writing textbooks often get it wrong too. I won't name names, but they're out there I'm watching them.
The concluding paragraph should NOT be a place to simply repeat your argument. You just wrote it out, after all! It's right there in front of your reader!
No, the concluding paragraph can be -- nay! must be! -- so much more. It can be a place to ADD CONTENT, not just repeat content
The best writers use their conclusion as if it were a springboard. They add importance and weight to what they've written by showing how it connects to broader issues -- how it leads into bigger questions.
For instance, here is a conclusion that acts as a springboard:
It's ironic that in this time of hyper-connectivity, when communication with others is supposed to be easy and constant, simple human support could be so hard to find. However, for a lot of new parents, that is exactly the case. In this high-tech world, it's the simple, no-tech things -- being able to nap during the day, borrowing a friend's old swaddling blankets -- that can make the biggest difference in new parents' lives. Mommy blogs and WebMD are no match for a grandmother's advice about the best swaddling technique, or a brother's offer to bring dinner over so meal preparation time can be converted to nap time.
Please note: you don't always need a topic sentence AND a point in every single body paragraph. If your point does a good job of indicating the topic of your paragraph, then you don't really need a topic sentence too.
So you see how this conclusion does recap the essay's points (napping, swaddling and support) but its main thrust was to prompt the reader to consider how the essay's thesis, or argument, can lead to a greater understanding or consideration of bigger social issues. In other words: what does hyper-connected really mean? What is real connection? What are we losing as we move into greater social media involvement and move away from human, face-to-face connection?
And there you have it. This is the basic structure of the essay -- just a formula. If you know the formula, then you can think of the essay as a series of blanks that need to be filled in.
Not so awful, right?