Thursday 17 May 2012

10 Ways to Improve Essay Marks

Looking at the many essays that I edit for students, it's sad to see how many students are going to lose marks that they could have easily earned. So I put together this list to help students improve essay marks. You may notice that this list does not include hiring a professional editor. The main part of your grade should be about your thinking. Nonetheless, there are a lot of basic steps to take to improve essay marks. These are things that you should be focusing on yourself to improve your writing, and therefore, grades.

How to Improve Essay Marks

10. Use the correct format.

English essays use MLA style; a lot of other subjects use APA format, but don’t assume. There are dozens of styles, and some are particular to certain institutions. Your school may have its own style. If your professor hasn’t specified, ask. Or, you can use Google, and search for your subject, plus the words “citation style.” Each style has specific ways to cite, and although it's easy to get confused. Here's a link to a page with a list of styles. Here's a comparison between APA, MLA, and Chicago styles.

9. Make a title page.

APA and some other major styles require a title page with the name of the essay, your name, the course name, your professor’s name, and the date on it. Not only does this make the essay look tidier, your professor will know who wrote it, and you will get credit where credit is due. Use the “Insert Break--Page Break” command after the title page (see below “Use the tools in your word processor). Here's an APA sample paper. (MLA only requires you to put your name, course number and professor's name at the top of the first page.)

8. Use the tools in your word processor.

Word processors are designed to make writing easier. And they work! You can turn on and off the spelling and grammar under the Tools menu. Make sure they are turned on, or if they annoy you while you are writing, turn them on after you finish. If you are using MS Word and a red line appears under a word, then it’s misspelled. Fix it! If a green line appears, then Word is questioning your grammar. It also highlights extra spaces between words and little things that just make the essay look messy. I know that Word can be wrong, but you need to think carefully before moving on. If English is not your native language, and you write in another language in your word processor, check that the document is in English (Language, also under the tools menu). You can use the Paragraph formatting (under Format) to specify “Indent first line” for body text, “Hanging” for references, and “Keep lines together” when a heading appears at the bottom of a page away from the following text. Use “Insert--Break--Page Break” when you want to force a page break instead of a bunch of returns. When you edit, you won’t need to be continually adjusting where the page breaks. Only single space between sentences. The word processor will visually adjust the space.  I wrote a whole blog post on 5 Essential MS Word Tools Every Student Should Know.

7. Double space.

Most styles require double spacing. Even if you are submitting the essay to an editor who charges by the page, they will charge you for more pages. Somewhere on the site, they have something like "275 words equals one page." In addition, double spacing makes the paper so much easier to read. Even if you are writing an essay with no defined style, such as a personal reflection, double space. Your professor or marker will appreciate it and that’s the person who should be happy at the end of reading the essay.

6. Make sure each paragraph is related to the assigned topic.

It’s easy to go off on a tangent. The purpose of an essay is to discuss a particular topic, not show off the breadth of your knowledge. In a thesis, you may need to discuss the methodology and background, but in most undergraduate essays, just discuss the topic. It's important to keep this in mind when writing, but also you should think about it when editing. Revising for a second and third draft shouldn't be all about grammar and wording, but also about whether or not you have honed your ideas to make a logical point.

5. Ensure each paragraph has a topic sentence and all sentences are relevant to the topic sentence.

It’s easy to jump into a paragraph with a quote or idea that you believe is important. But when you review the essay, think about each paragraph as an individual unit. The key idea should be clearly set out. In fact, you should be able to summarize your essay by choosing one sentence from each paragraph. Make sure you have explicitly stated that idea in each paragraph. When an essay does not have a clear thesis statement, one result is that paragraphs might contain irrelevant information. Here's some information about paragraphs.

4. Make sure your introduction has a clear thesis statement.

A good introduction will orient the reader to the topic, provide some general information, and make a clear thesis statement. It is not necessary to say, “It is the purpose of this essay to discuss…” but certainly make a clear statement that you intend to prove through the body of the essay. Here's more about the thesis statement. I recently learned that many students coming to a university in Canada and the U.S. from Asian countries have been taught a different approach to defining their essay objective. These students provide a lot of information throughout the essay and bring it together in their conclusion. The standard way when writing in English is to prepare the reader by stating your objective in the introduction. Maybe we English speakers are not as bright as Asian thinkers, but as one person told me the format of the essay is: This is what I'm going to tell you (introduction), this is what I'm telling you (body), and this is what I told you (conclusion).

3. Include a quote, citation, or fact in each paragraph and explain its importance.

Especially in high school and first-year university essays, students ask, “how many citations do I need?” That’s like telling the teacher you only want a C. Learning to properly use citations is one of the keys to developing your academic writing skills. Don’t confuse citations with sources. You might use only one or two sources (books, articles, etc.) in your essay research, but each separate idea from those sources needs to be cited. Each paragraph (with the possible exception of the introduction and conclusion) should cite some authority so the arguments that you are developing in that paragraph carry some weight.

2. Summarize, but don’t repeat in your conclusion.

Your conclusion could remind the reader of some of the major points or it could make a recommendation based on the thesis statement. A lot depends on the topic and the format of the essay. However, every essay needs to have some kind of summation, so the reader is not left hanging at the end. People often ask me if it is necessary to use quotes or references in a conclusion. The answer is that it's not. You shouldn't be introducing new facts or observations in a conclusion. Therefore any information you present has already been presented in your essay and sources cited. The exception is if you want to end with a quote. Just like in an essay, using a pithy quote from a well-known thinker is a good way to come to a completion. Here's more about writing a great conclusion.

1. Make an outline first, and then follow it.

I can’t emphasize this enough. Essays that are written without outlines tend to be disorganized. The logic doesn’t flow. There are often bits that don’t relate to the theme, or ideas that are repeated. It’s a mess. This has to be the number one reason people write poor essays. Here's some information about creating an outline. The most important part of your essay mark is the content of your essay. An essay is a demonstration of your thinking about a topic. Try to say something interesting and justify it with evidence from the text or other sources.

Updated March 8, 2018.
Image courtesy of Salvatore Vuono /

Wednesday 16 May 2012

How To Write A Persuasive Essay

A persuasive essay is an essay that tries to persuade the reader to take a position on an issue. This may be an issue that's currently in the news such as the war in Afghanistan, or health care, or it may be an issue that never seems to die, such as abortion or gun control. In any case, these are topics on which people hold diverging opinions and which do not have clear answers.
Sometimes persuasive essays are called "argumentative essays" because you are arguing for or against a point of view. Think of the topic of a persuasive essay as something two people in a bar might get into an argument over. It's so much more civilized to write it out in an essay. The point in writing a persuasive essay is to research facts to back up opinions and to present these facts in a logical manner.
Literary or history essays can also be persuasive essays because they try to persuade a reader to agree with a particular interpretation of a work or of events.
At one time rhetoric was one of the cornerstones of a classic education. Gentlemen (and I mean this: ladies and the lower classes were not educated) were taught to debate. They were taught the elements of logic and how to apply it in making arguments. These days we simply ask students to write on a controversial topic. Most are up to the task. Some fail utterly to differentiate between opinion and fact. Some fail to arrange their arguments logically. Some don?t seem to want to take a stand.
An important part of a persuasive essay is to know where you stand and what you want your reader to believe at the end of the argument. Never sit on the fence. Even if the opposing arguments are good, and often they are, you must be sure where you stand on the issue. This is your thesis. Check out the page on thesis statements
A persuasive essay takes the following structure: introduction, body, conclusion. The introduction provides the reader with some basic background information. It may begin with a quote, a statistic or a general statement. The introduction gives the thesis statement?the statement that the author intends to prove, or the point of view that he/she is defending. The body provides the evidence. The conclusion sums up, taking into account the presented evidence. See the page on: essay structure.
There is a special type of persuasive essay called a Rogerian persuasive essay. There is a separate article on how to write this type of essay.
In the body of the essay, the writer presents the strongest facts in support of the argument. A good persuasive essay will also examine the evidence that supports the opposite conclusion. It will attempt to undermine this evidence by presenting alternative interpretations, additional facts or expert commentary. It is important to acknowledge the existence of these alternative points of view because readers may start off being sympathetic to these points of view and if you simply attack them or treat them without respect you will alienate these readers instead of persuading them.
It could be argued that most essays are persuasive essays. Sometimes an essay is about a topic that's not controversial, except to a select group of people. For example no one gets into a fight at a bar over whether TS Eliot's "The Wasteland" was an ode to marriage or an ode against marriage. You might be able to raise a few hackles at an English department meeting, but to the average man on the street, who rarely contemplates interpretation of early imagist poetry, it's a moot point. Nonetheless it's a valid topic for an essay to take a stand on. Similarly, Marx's interpretation of the Sino-Russian split, or A History of Western Table Manners would each have a thesis statement to be proved and a series of arguments to back up that thesis statement.
In sum, a persuasive essay is one in which you are deliberately setting out to persuade a reader to believe your point of view is correct.

10 Ways to Get Started on Writing an Essay

Note: This article is for when you have some time to plan ahead. If your essay is due tomorrow and you haven't got a word down yet, then you should be reading the article on overcoming procrastination and getting started right now.
10. Have a functional workspace. Get your books and other materials and have a place where you can work on them without being disturbed. This could be in your home or in the school library. What's important is that you can concentrate there.
9. Structure your time. Allow several hours of preparation time before you ever start writing. Ideally, this should be over a few weeks before the essay is due. If you have an essay due tomorrow and you haven't started seriously researching yet then stay calm, put on the coffee, and get down to work.
8. Read the materials. Often people try to write an essay by just searching the texts for facts. It helps to get an overall idea of the subject by reading a little more. If this subject is covered in a textbook assigned for the course, make sure you have read that material. Even if you haven't read it for class yet, the text will give you the best idea of what the opinions of your instructor are.
7. Yellow stickies rule! As you read, take notes or just jot down page numbers for anything which you think might be relevant to your essay. I like to keep a bunch of yellow stickies to insert into pages I want to come back to later.
6. Take a walk. When you have an overall idea of the subject and some specific ideas about the facts involved, then you might want to go for a walk and mull it over. This can give you the opportunity to let some of your ideas mature before you have to write them down. Skip this step if you just read the whole novel in one sitting to complete step 8.
5. Be well rested. On the day that you do most of your writing, start early in the day if you can. You may be going to school weekdays and working weekends. If that is the case, you really need to be planning in advance in order to avoid having to pull an all-nighter.
4. Make sure your technology is all working. This means you have enough toner to print several drafts, you have paper etc. You don't want to have to get up in the middle of the essay to go out to find a toner cartridge. When I was an undergraduate I was once saved by the fact that 7-11 carries paper which I urgently needed at 4 a.m.
3. Have a nutritious snack. The brain needs energy, but avoid the really tempting stuff because your blood sugar will rise abruptly and then fall dramatically. In a short time you'll be yawning and not thinking as sharply. Foods containing complex carbohydrates such as fresh vegetables or even a sandwich on whole wheat bread will give you energy for a sustained effort. Go easy on the coffee; it can give you a boost but too much will burn you out. Red Bull will not substitute for preparation; trust me, I've tried it.
Now you've fiddled around long enough. You are going to have to actually get some words down.
Still don't know what to do? Go to my Getting Started page for concrete steps on how to get some ideas down.
2. Draw a chart of your essay showing where your thesis statement will come and the general arguments you will use. It could be like a flow chart or just group things you want to say into a few general areas. Look for points which might belong in two groups. These can be used as transitions. Use the bubble format on the Getting Started page.
1. Create your title page in your word processor. This will give you the feeling of writing and then you can begin to follow your chart or take your arguments one at a time. Don't worry if you aren't sure of the order, you can always edit later. Just start writing them down.

Top 10 Things to Do Before You Hand In Your Essay

10. Spellcheck. It's obvious but often overlooked. Run the grammar checker too.

9. Proofread. Again. The spellcheck will not catch typos which create a different but properly spelled word such as "lover" when you meant "loner." Also look for words which are easily substituted for the wrong spelling such as "it's" and "its" or "your" or "you're". Look for all words which use an apostrophe and if they end in "s" ask yourself if they need an apostrophe. (Possessive: yes; Plural: no)

8. Read the essay through paragraph by paragraph. Do the paragraphs follow in a logical order? Does any paragraph refer to information which should have been introduced into the essay instead of assuming the reader knows? Are facts documented with proper footnotes?

7. Read the paragraphs through sentence by sentence. Is each sentence a proper sentence? Are any too long? Are there some which could be combined to communicate your ideas more effectively? Look for passive sentences and fix them if necessary. Often the passive voice is correct for academic essays; sometimes it is wrong.

6. Did you specifically refer to any work mentioned in the assignment? If the instructor asked you to write about Emmanual Kant's "Critique of Pure Reason" make sure you include the words "In 'Critique of Pure Reason' Kant argues..." It makes the essay accessible to a wide audience. Anyone should be able to read the essay without having been in your class. Never say " our text..." or " we saw in class..." If you must refer to material from class, you can cite it and footnote it as "Professor Frink, Springfield College, Physics 400 Lecture, November 14, 2005." (Check your style guide.)

5. Write in the present tense. "Plato says..." or "Einstein shows..." The people are dead, but their ideas are alive. It also gives you more grammatical freedom. It's easy to shift tenses by accident while you're writing. Take time to look for these tense shifts.

4. Avoid the second person. Make sure you don't have any places in the essay where you say "You can see..." or "You ..."

3. Make sure you answered the question! This is a surprisingly common fault. The essay assignment might specify certain facts or arguments you might be required to include. It's easy to overlook some of them as you begin to put together your own arguments about the material. Make sure your name is on the essay as well.

2. Use your grammar checker. But don't trust it. My experience with grammar checkers is that they expect people to write very basic sentences. When you are writing at a university or college level, you should be stretching for complex ideas which need to be expressed in complex sentences. I've often had serious disagreements with grammar checkers, but they have also alerted me to errors I have made such as tense agreements for example. Academic essay style and scientific writing use the passive voice. Most grammar checkers flag this as an error. But the grammar checker is a great and easy tool to let you look at specific sentences and phrases which might be problematic.

1. Spell check it again. If you haven't made a few changes while going through the list then you weren't trying very hard. When you make any changes, you introduce the possibility of a new typo. A last spell check never hurts. Then you can print out your final copy which will be all clean and ready to hand in.

The Passive Voice

Many sentences are presented in the SOVC (subject-object-verb-complement) format. The boy threw the ball. A person takes action and moves an object. When we read these sentences we know who took the action. These sentences are in the active voice. In most of our writing we want the reader to know who did what.

In passive construction, the sentence usually starts with the object, then the verb. Ronald Reagan famously said "Mistakes were made." He didn't say who made the mistakes. You might say to your parents "The car was in an accident," when you could have said "I rear-ended a police car with your BMW." See how much nicer it sounds when you leave out the subject? But in an essay we want to know who did what to whom.

Because of this, sentences in which the person doing the action is not clear are bad style for essay writing. When you write "It was discovered that America lay between Europe and Asia on the western route," you don't let the reader know an important piece of information: who did the discovering. A much better sentence would be "Columbus discovered that America lay between Europe and Asia on the western route."

Let’s see how this works.

Sometimes you will accidentally slip into the passive voice because all you want to introduce into your essay is a fact and you might not know the source without going and doing a lot more research and it's already midnight and the essay is due at 8 am. You write "It was found that operant responses were most effective in modifying student behavior." What can you do to fix this without doing more research? You could write "Student behavior is most effectively modified using operant responses." If the marker is sharp, he/she will want a reference here. However, you have avoided the dreaded passive voice.

In science writing, however, the passive voice is preferred. Why? Because scientists like to live in a fictional world where facts are facts and don't rely on human agency. So in your science report you should write "The chemicals were mixed," not "We mixed the chemicals."

When you are writing about a scientific discovery, use the active voice. Einstein proposed the theory of relativity. Newton formulated the theory of gravity.

To proofread for the passive voice look for the words "by" or "it was." These are clues that you might have written something using the passive voice.

How to Use MLA Style in Writing Essays

This is only a brief overview of some of the issues of using MLA style in your text references based on some of the problems I've seen in the essays I've edited. If you want to source the details of MLA style, go to the source: The Modern Languages Association.
One major difference between referencing styles is how to format in-text citations. This means that the name of the author and the page the reference is from are inserted in brackets directly after the reference (Francis 56). Note that in MLA style, you are citing the page for paraphrases as well as the author's name, but not the date.
If there are multiple editions of the work, then you need to let your readers be able to locate the cited passage in their own edition. Help them out by including a reference to which volume (vol.), book (bk.), part (par.), chapter (ch.), section (sec.), or paragraph (par.) you are citing from. For example: (Plato 34; bk. 5).
If you cite more than one author with the same last name, use the first initial as well, in your in-text citations. (P. Francis 34)
With multiple authors, cite all names for three or fewer; use et al. for four or more. Write out "and" before the last name. Do not use an ampersand: &.
If the same author has multiple works cited, then include a shortened title of the work as well. (Francis, "Justin Bieber's love child" 56). Note, we use a comma after the author's name here. It's preferable to keep the citation smaller by including some of the information in the text, so the reader has a clue as to what work you are discussing. "In his memoir about growing up as Justin Bieber's love child, Francis confesses to space time anomalies that made him decades older than his father" (45).
If you don't know the author's name, then use the title of the work. The key is to use what ever is going to be the first part of the citation in the Works Cited page. When you are using the title of the work, enclose it in quotation marks ("How to make citations" 44).

Citing Sources from the internet in MLA style

Umm...don't. No seriously. Be careful. If you are using your school library to access on-line versions of print sources, treat them as print sources, citing date of publication, etc. But for web pages, first evaluate if it is a reliable source. Many teachers will not accept Wikipedia as a reliable source. If you writing on Wordsworth and you are citing the website of the Wordsworth Scholars' Association, then OK. But be cautious. Nonetheless, there is a citation style for you.
Since page numbers don't matter on the internet, forget them. In your in-text citation, use the first words you will use to reference the web page in your Works Cited page. This will be either the name of the author, the title of the webpage, or the domain name. Do not include the http:// and all the junk after the domain name. (How to use APA Style)
The first challenge for using APA style for in-text citations is when to use page numbers. "If you are quoting from a text, then you should use page numbers." (Francis, 2010, p 3.) If you are only paraphrasing an idea, then only use the author's name and date of publication. (Francis, 2010) If a work has two authors use both name joined by "and" in the text and both names joined by & in the parentheses (Francis & Francis, 2010). With three to five authors, cite all names in the first instance and use "et al." in subsequent instances. Six or more, simply use et al. For an unknown author, cite the name of the work (HGPublishing, 2010).
It is important to note that et al. is an abbreviation and ends in period. Do not put a period after a comma.

Reference page in MLA Style

At the end of your essay, you need a Works Cited page. This is a list of all the references you have used, in alphabetical order by last name of the main author. The Works Cited page should be a separate page from the body of the essay. Double space all citations, but do not put an extra space between citations. Use a hanging indent format.
As of 2009, MLA style requires you to state the type of resource such as print, web, CD, etc. You do not have to cite URLs. Sometimes instructors will insist on URLs, so include them in angle brackets followed by a period. Include a database name if you have retrieved an previously published article from an on-line database.
Capitalize each word in a title, except prepositions and conjunctions. (Basically the main words, and always the first word.)
Order the entries alphabetically by author's last name. If you are citing more than one work by the same author, order them alphabetically by work title. Only write out the author's name for the first entry. In subsequent entries, substitute three hyphens followed by a period (---.) for the author's name.
Where a work has no known author, place it alphabetically according to title.

Format for books

Last name, First name. Title of Book. Place of Publication: Publisher, year of publication. Medium of Publication.
Notice that the Title of the Book is in italics. The medium of publication would be "Print" for a book.
When a work is part of an anthology or collection, then cite the author of the key part first, followed by the title of the key part, then the main collection.
Last name, First name. "Title of Essay." Title of Collection. Ed: Editor's name(s). Place of Publication: Publisher, year of publication. Page range. Medium of Publication.
Notice that the title of the collection, the main title of the book, is in italics. Also notice the addition of the page range. This is because you are not citing the whole book. The page range should be cited as simply as possible. (33-78).
If you are citing several works from the same anthology, place one entry for the anthology alone such as:
Last name, First name. Title of Collection. Ed: Editor's name(s). Place of Publication: Publisher, year of publication. Medium of Publication.
Then an entry for each part of the collection you used:
Last name, First name. "Title of Essay." Editor's name(s) Page range.

Format for periodicals

The basic format of bibliographical references for journal articles is:
Author(s). "Article Name." Journal Name. Day month year: pages. Medium of publication.
Note the use of italics above. Only the name of the publication is in italics.

Format for internet sources

Like any other source, the key is that your reader can locate the document you are citing. Therefore the key information to include includes: author name, article name in quotation marks; title of website, project or book in italics; version numbers, dates or posting references; publisher information; page numbers (if available); date you accessed the information; medium of publication; and include URL only if specifically requested.
For an entire website:
Editor, author, or compiler name (if available). Name of site. Version number. Name of institution, sponsor or publisher (if available). Date of resource creation (if available). Medium of publication. Date of access.
Sometimes you have to dig for this information. Sometimes even when you dig, it's not available.
Here's the reference for this site:
Francis, P. HyperGraphix Publishing Services. n.d. Website. Date of access.
Here's the reference for this page:
Francis, P. "How to Use MLA Style." HyperGraphix Publishing Services. n.d. Website. Date of Access.

How to use APA Style

This is only a brief overview of some of the issues of using APA style in your text references based on some of the problems I've seen in the essays I've edited. If you want to source the details of APA style, go to the source: The American Psychological Association.

In-text citations 

Basically, the difference between APA style and the other major style of citations, MLA, is how APA uses in-line text citations. In APA style, the name of the author and the year of publication are inserted in brackets directly after the reference (Francis, 2010).

The first challenge for using APA style for in-text citations is when to use page numbers. "If you are quoting from a text, then you should use page numbers" (Francis, 2010, p 3.). If you are only paraphrasing an idea, then only use the author's name and date of publication (Francis, 2010). If a work has two authors use both names joined by "and" in the text and both names joined by & in the parentheses (Francis & Francis, 2010). With three to five authors, cite all names in the first instance and use "et al." in subsequent instances. Six or more, simply use et al. For an unknown author, cite the name of the work (HGPublishing, 2010).

It is important to note that et al. is an abbreviation and ends in a period. Do not put a period after a comma. If you have two sources for the same information, cite both in the same order as in the bibliography. (Francis, 2010; HGPublishing, 2001)


At the end of your essay, write a list of references. This is a list of all the references you have used, in alphabetical order by the last name of the main author. If there is not author's name available, use the title of the article, but place it alphabetically in the list as if it were the author's name. The reference list should be a separate page.

The basic format of bibliographical references for journal articles is:
Name, Initial., Name2, Initial., and Name3, Initial. (Year) Article Name. Journal Name. Volume number(issue number), pages.

Note the use of italics above. Only the Journal Name and Volume number are in italics. Each name is identified by the last name followed by the intial(s). Even if the journal identifies the authors by first name and middle name, you only use initials in APA style.

The biggest controversy I hear from students is how to cite sources from the internet. I often see students who include the date and URL for every reference which they downloaded. What the APA says is this:
"When a citation includes a digital object identifier (DOI) no further information is needed. When a DOI is not available, and a URL is included, do not include retrieval dates unless the source changes over time." A DOI is a special number used to identify an electronically published article. It is usually found on the first page of the article near the copyright notice or on the landing page where the article was found.

This means you do not need dates when you download articles from your library's electronic journal database. Simply use the DOI. You only need dates and URLs when you download information from a wiki since that web page can change at any time. For a web page, try to see if there is a date (often in small print for copyright purposes at the foot of the page). If there is a date, use it in brackets after the title. If there is no date use "n.d." for "no date." The reference for this page would be:
HyperGraphix Publishing Services (n.d.) How to Use AP Style. Retrieved from

How to Overcome Essay Writing Procrastination

Procrastination is a problem in many areas of life, not just writing essays. Procrastination can be a result of many causes. I've been told one cause is perfectionism. That seems a bit backwards to me because when I procrastinate I end up doing it in a rush at the end and I do a lousy job. But there could be some truth to this theory, in that when I'm afraid I will do a poor job, I can't get started. It's only when I'm about to fail completely that I can bring myself to do whatever is necessary to get the job done to a minimum standard.

Sometimes I procrastinate just because I'm not sure how to do the job. With these cases I have a few strategies that I am going to share. First, I do something to get started. Perhaps I take some notes. Perhaps I do a little work on the outline. Perhaps I do some research. Sometimes this gets me going enough that I can just putter along, moving in the right direction. I often set a little goal for myself with a reward. If I can write the first paragraph, I can take a break and have a cup of coffee. If I can get three points down in an outline, I can walk around the house for a minute.

With these strategies, the key to success is to remember to come back to the job quickly. It's easy to achieve one goal and then put the whole project on the back burner until the deadline arrives and I've only got the first paragraph written.

Another way to face procrastination is to dive into the hardest part. I'm a terrible home handyman, so I will put off doing home repairs until my partner is getting stressed. If I admit that I feel afraid to use power tools, then we can divide up the job and I'll plan and measure and tell her what size to cut the wood to. When I'm writing, often the hardest part is creating an outline, so I do that first and then I can write by simply following the outline. Unlike some people, I actually like writing, I only get stressed when I don't know where I'm going with the writing. When I have an outline, then I can simply fill in the paragraphs as I go along.

Sometimes the key to overcoming procrastination is to just get started. The last step in my article is to write something at the top of the page. If we just do something, anything, we open the door for the possibility of doing a little more. So now you know...just get started. I meant to write more but I never got around to it.

Thursday 10 May 2012

Waiting for Superman: A review

Last spring I edited an essay for a client who was a student teacher. She had been assigned to write an analysis of the film "Waiting for Superman," which is about failing schools in the US and supports the charter school movement as a solution. She recommended that I, as a practicing teacher in Canada, view the film myself. I finally got around to doing that last night.

Let me start with my caveats. As mentioned, I am a practicing teacher, so I have definite opinions and knowledge of educational practices. I am also a member of the BC Teachers' Federation, a powerful union in British Columbia that represents teachers across the province. It is a requirement to be a BCTF member to teach in the public system here. Although I generally support and I strongly believe in unions, I do not agree with all union policies. I certainly don't agree with the union protecting incompetent teachers, but I also don't think it really does that. I think what the union demands is accountability on the part of management for any decision that affects a teacher's future. It's the management's job to make sure this is carried out in a workable way. I could write a whole blog entry about BC teacher politics, but it wouldn't be relevant to this Waiting for Superman, which is about problems in the US.

I do have some personal experience with the US system, having graduated from a public high school in the US, Thomas Jefferson High School in Alexandria, Virginia. In 1974, when I graduated, it was simply a high school, but it was later changed into a magnet school, with a focus on science.

Waiting for Superman makes several broad assertions. The primary argument is that failing primary schools feed students who are some grade levels behind where they should be into failing middle schools. When students move from these middle schools to failing high schools, they are four or five grade levels behind. They flounder for a few years and then drop out. One school cited a 40% drop out rate. School district statistics show up to 87% of students in grade 8 reading below grade level! These are shocking statistics. It's hard to argue with the drop out rate, and even though I think standardized testing is a suspect practice for evaluation of teachers, I think the argument that millions of students are not being properly educated is probably true.

We get into more difficult terrain analyzing why there are so many failing schools. A lot of causes are suggested in the film: poverty, school culture, poor or inconsistent teaching, and unions. The film attempts to show poverty is not the cause of failing students through the depiction of several charter schools that are producing first rate scholars drawn exclusively from poor neighborhoods. It does attack poor teachers, somewhat mercilessly, while praising the good teachers. The point the film makes is that school officials have their hands tied in getting rid of poor teachers, or rewarding good teachers.

I absolutely agree that good teaching is essential. And I agree that in any profession, whether filmmaking or teaching, there are some good and some bad. And, of course, poor filmmakers will have a hard time finding funding for their next film, but poor teachers have a job to come back to every September. But are union contracts really the problem? In my school district, the drop out rate is about 15%. I'm sure we have a few underperforming teachers. There are a few teachers I know who I don't think cut the mustard. But in BC, you can be fired as a teacher for a wide variety of reasons. Having a strong union does not have to mean incompetent teachers automatically get to continue in the profession. Having a strong union means teachers cannot be fired for arbitrary or political reasons. Having a strong union also means teachers can be compensated fairly for their education, and seniority.

One of the very troubling things that I found with the film was the support for the idea that high performing teachers should be paid more based on their students learning outcomes. The recent scandal in Georgia, in which teachers and administrators were found to be changing test scores, is evidence of why pay for performance based on standardized tests is so wrongheaded. Gathering evidence is one thing, but they don't call this "high stakes testing" for nothing.

We have some controversy over testing here in BC. Although neither teacher compensation, nor school funding rests on it, a private right-wing think tank, The Fraser Institute, uses it to publish school ranking. Although the purpose of the testing, which occurs province-wide in grades 4 and 7, is supposed to be for the use of the Ministry of Education, using freedom of information laws, the Fraser Institute gains access to the data and ranks the schools of the province. Schools in remote aboriginal communities are compared to schools adjacent to universities. Guess who comes out on top?

Again, I can accept Waiting for Superman's argument that good teaching trumps poverty. But how and under what conditions does good teaching occur? Waiting for Superman showcases several charter schools. We do not have these kinds of schools in Canada yet. (But the Fraser Institute, which is in awe of anything privately owned, is pushing for them.) These charter schools operate within a school district, but outside of the school district administration. They also do not hire teachers from the union, and therefore have more freedom in hiring and firing.

If you were paying attention, it was cited in Waiting for Superman that only 20% of charter schools are performing above the public system. That's why there is so much demand for a few schools. But it also shows that freedom from the union and school board does not necessarily translate into a successful school.

Waiting for Superman cites several factors for a successful school. Great teaching is one factor. In addition, it says longer school hours, dedication to excellence, and a longer school year are needed. I don't argue with any of that. I would argue that all of these can be achieved with a union contract, and without standardized testing. Graduation rates and post-secondary admissions speak for themselves.

But I think there is one huge unspoken issue. Waiting for Superman focuses on a few families who are working very hard to ensure their children have an opportunity to attend one of these select charter schools. And that is the key. These families value education. They support their children to whatever degree is necessary. The kids get the message. Education is the key to their future.

Kids from families like these also attend public schools. But what happens in the public school system is that kids unlike these also attend. Sometimes the kids who are from the families that don't value education outnumber those who do. In poor neighborhoods (as Waiting for Superman states) many kids know more people who have been to prison than who have attended college. The challenge for public schools is at least partly fighting against a community culture that does not value education.

When charter schools siphon off those families who care about education, the proportion of families in public schools who do not value education grows. Even though charter schools may be giving an excellent education to a lucky few, those left behind (irony intended) in public schools face even more challenges.

I teach at a school that draws on a mixed income community. Most of the students come from comfortable homes, but some come from poverty. I teach a special program for kids at risk. My students are most likely to drop out. A high proportion of my students have drug and alcohol issues, and come from homes with drug and alcohol issues. A majority have already had problems with the law, or are on probation. They are embedded in a culture that does not value education. They are more likely to see drug-dealing as a way out of poverty than education, because the only people they see who are financially successful are the drug dealers. Thank God, I'm not paid based on their test scores. If I were, I'd probably have to take my advanced degree in Learning Support and move my teaching to the wealthy community closer to where I live. Instead, I do my long commute every day and bring the best I can to a group of students who largely don't have any reliable adults in their lives. I know I help some kids; others not so much.

The solutions proposed by Waiting for Superman are superficial and can not help those students left behind in public schools. School boards need to have the ability to fairly evaluate teachers. School boards need to be able to fire teachers who are clearly not performing to minimum expectations. But there are so many more issues.

Waiting for Superman cites in Illinois some hundreds of school boards. The actual number is 869. Here in BC we have about 70. At least part of the problem in the US is too much bureaucracy. Waiting for Superman describes the maze of funding from the federal government, state governments, and local school boards. US school funding is through property tax, which guarantees a disparity of funding between communities. Here in BC, the provincial government funds education. Each school district is allocated funding based on the number of students enrolled. That doesn't mean each school and district is not crying for more money, but at least I can get paid the same as my colleagues in the wealthier communities.

I do not disagree with the proposal to extend school hours. I'm not sure I want to work more for the same money. The assumption that teachers work only from the time of the first bell to the time of the final bell is not correct. It is obvious that teachers must be in their classrooms, ready to teach before the first bell. My experience is that most arrive about half an hour before school starts. I often arrive an hour before school starts and I'm never the first. Teachers also work after students leave and take work home. When did you think they do their marking? In Learning Support, almost all the teaching materials must be custom prepared. I'm on summer vacation, and I'm re-writing my grade 9 socials curriculum (for the third time!) Teachers also coach, sit on committees, and supervise student clubs. I prefer to have my lunch in my classroom, so I can do some extra work, but I also open my classroom to students so they have a safe place to relax. Because I work with students with special designations, I must also meet with parents, caregivers, social workers, and probation officers regularly. I often do that during my lunch hours, or before or after school. I've had a few other jobs, both in and out of unions, but this is the first job where I didn't get a lunch break and two coffee breaks everyday. I can't even go pee except at lunch because I work in a portable classroom and I don't have time to go between classes.

Would I like to get paid more? By all means! I do editing every afternoon and weekend so I can add a little extra to my income to make ends meet. I know many many teachers who work part-time jobs as well as teach. We sell shoes, tutor, work in restaurants, and work on our summer breaks so we can provide for our families. As much as the mother in Waiting for Superman, I am doing what I can to make sure my daughter can go to college. But I also love teaching. I love it when I see that light bulb go on over a student's head and they say "I get it!" I love it when I see a kid who was on the verge of dropping out walk across the graduation stage. I love it when a kid I haven't seen in years comes up to me on the subway and says "I'll never forget you." The idea that more money will attract better teachers is wrong. Yes we deserve more money, but attracting people who are in it for the money won't get us better teachers. Teaching comes from the heart, and the Beatles said it right "Can't buy me love."

Another issue that Waiting for Superman did not address is how charter schools cope with students with special needs such as learning disabilities. It's easy to set a goal that every child should be up to state standards in reading, but some students have brains that don't process language at a standard rate. These students need special instruction, which is one of my jobs. There's always more to a problem than meets the eye.

Beware of simple solutions to complex problems. That's my conclusion.

How to Avoid Plagiarism

Plagiarism is when you copy or use someone else's ideas and present them as your own. Sometimes people do this on purpose: they cut and paste a whole chunk of text from Wikipedia or another source directly into their essay without quote marks or a footnote. They buy or download free essays from the internet. This article is not for them. Here's an interesting article on buying an essay on-line.

This article is about how to avoid accidental plagiarism. For an on-line check of your essay for accidental plagiarism, click the link below.

Plagiarism also includes purchasing an essay (or getting it for free) and handing it in as your own work. Many schools consider it plagiarism to hand in all or part of the same essay for two different classes even if you wrote it yourself, unless the teacher agrees first. The point of any essay assignment is for you to do the research and writing yourself.

Plagiarism is a form of cheating. Most schools take plagiarism very seriously and academic discipline ranges from getting a zero grade for the assignment to automatically failing the course and even expulsion.

More often, plagiarism happens by accident. When you are reading a lot and looking through a lot of information in your research, it's easy to accidentally use a phrase or more in your essay that should be attributed to the original source.

Plagiarism is particularly a problem for on-line educational institutions. On-line colleges can't sit you down in a class for a written assignment. On-line classes can't tell it you wrote something yourself. As a result on-line course go to great lengths to ensure you don't engage in plagiarism.

On-line colleges have the advantage of having everything you write in electronic format. This means it is very easy for them to analyze the originality of your writing through services such as This web service analyzes your writing against all known texts, looking for similarities. You must be extremely careful with your citations to ensure you don't plagiarize by accident.

The time to begin is when you are reading and taking notes.

  1. Always make a note of a source when you are taking notes. Even bookmarking a link can make it easy to go back later to note the source when your are writing your reference section.
  2. When you take notes put quotation marks around any direct quotes so you will know later that the words are not your own.
  3. Make sure every paragraph has at least one reference in it. If you have a paragraph with no reference, either you have not said anything substantial in the paragraph, or you have not documented the reference source. Even if two or three paragraphs in a row talk about ideas from the same source, document the source again.
  4. For direct quotes you must note the page where the quote is to be found. For paraphrases or basic references you simply need to note which work you used. One of the big differences between MLA style and APA style is how you document sources.
How do you know when to use quotes and when to simply footnote? How do you know when it's OK to just use the information without any risk of plagiarism. Let's look at the second question first.
Is the information freely available from a variety of sources? We call this information "common knowledge." Plagiarism does not apply to information that is available from many sources. For example, today I can pick up any newspaper and see that Barak Obama is the President of the United States. I don't have to footnote that.

On the other hand if I don't know who the President of Zambia is, I can look it up and I don't have to footmark that either because it is available from lots of sources. But I might want to footnote it to make sure my readers believe me. More importantly if I was to tell you the population of Zambia, I would probably want to footnote that because it is a specific statistic and to be credible, I should state where I got that fact from.

When you write a college research essay it's a little more challenging to avoid plagiarism. First, all the information you are getting is from a special source, not general knowledge. Second, there are a lot of ideas to keep straight. What you should do is do your research in note form. Just compile facts from each source in point form. If you find a complete sentence, or most of a sentence, with a really good point, then copy down that sentence with quotation marks.

The reason it's important to make notes in point form is to avoid using another person's words as much as possible. When you use the points in your sentences, you will be constructing original sentences from the points and you will be sure that you don't need to put things in quotation marks. However, you will still need to acknowledge the source of the ideas.

In your essay as you discuss the points you should just include acknowledgement in the body of the essay (in APA format: Smith, 2009). Each paragraph in which you discuss points from some author should have acknowledgement of that author's work. Either put in a reference, as above or incorporate it into a sentence like this: "According to Smith (2009) the...." When you use a direct quote, enclose it in quotation marks followed by the reference with a page number. "Ten species of terrible toads took twelve trips" (Smith, 2009, 46). Note that the period ending the sentence comes after the parenthetical reference.

5 Great Essay Introduction Ideas

1. Use a quote. This can be from any famous person or maybe even an infamous person. You can often find something related to your topic on various sites on the internet. This is effective for an introduction to a persuasive essay because you can quote an authoritative source who believes the same thing you are arguing for. There are plenty of internet sources for quotes. Use Google to search for “quote” and a keyword from your essay and you’ll find some of the sources. The quote gives you something to talk about for a sentence or two before you conclude your introduction with your thesis statement. You can even quote the internet itself! Start an essay about on-line dating with: "Find the love of your life" claim some on-line dating sites.

2. Start with a general statement in your essay introduction and move toward your thesis statement. This is a tried and true method; it can be a little dull, but it’s effective. You might write an introduction to a persuasive essay about charter schools with a general statement like “Most parents want their children to get a good education.” Then you could make some statement defining what a good education is and conclude with a thesis statement: “Charter schools provide a great option for improving educational outcomes” or “Charter schools rob the public system of needed funds for education.”

Also see How to write a great thesis statement.

3. Use a statistic. “Two out of three people believe essay writing is a waste of time.” This may or may not be true, but next you could start by defining whether or not it is a waste of time and if so, suggest another way of teaching writing skills. It’s helpful if you can find a source for statistics. So an essay that begins “According to the United Nations” and a statistic will have a good impact on the reader.

4. Say the opposite of what you intend to prove. In a persuasive essay, this is a rhetorical trap to lure readers into doubting the opposite argument. When you begin a persuasive essay with an introduction that suggests the opposite of your thesis statement you can expose logical fallacies that other people might believe. This is called “framing the argument.” You challenge the way of thinking that people have whose minds you want to change. If you are arguing for the benefits of playing video games, you might begin by stating “Playing video games dulls the mind.” This is going to get people who are against video games to be sympathetic to you. Next you might start showing that video games enhance hand-eye coordination. You might talk about the importance of logic in role playing games. You might talk about cooperation in multiplayer games. You can even talk about physical activity in games using Wii or Kinnect. And the future is potentially even more physically active for video game players.

5. Quote from the best source you can find on the topic. This has to be directly related to your topic, unlike the first suggestion. This is really putting you best foot forward which can be persuasive, but also means that everything to follow will be weaker. Sometimes, if you have found a great source, you can quote it at the beginning of your essay and use the whole essay to show that they were exactly right. This can be effective in a literary essay because once you have an expert’s opinion on a literary work, you can then use the literary work and your own skills to prove your point. Of course the point of writing about a literary work is to impress your teacher and get a good mark. It shows your teacher that you have done some research and that you also have a good grasp of the literary work itself.

By , HGPublishing Editor

Check out How to Write a Great Conclusion

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3 Great Persuasive Essay Topics

Students often go to the library to research persuasive essay topics and then they go to a computer and type in "Persuasive Essay Topics" into Google and end up here. What a waste! They could have just picked up a newspaper and seen what people are arguing about these days. Not only that, if you read the editorial page, you will see some pretty good persuasive writing. However, you're here not there, so let's see what we can do. A persuasive essay is one that persuades someone to agree with you. It needs to have a clear topic that you can argue for. It should also have some reasonable arguments against your point of view. The reasons that the topic is controversial is that there are reasonable people who see different sides of the issue. You need to be able to be very logical in order to be persuasive.

Here are three topics with pro/con stances and clear thesis statements on either side.
  1. War in Afghanistan: Should we continue to participate?
  2. Environment: Should we tax carbon to fight global warming?
  3. United Nations: Should we continue to participate?
If you want to know about how to structure a persuasive essay, click here.

Next, can you forget about gun control, abortion and reality TV? I think these are the three most common topics. Choose a challenging topic and you will have your teacher's sympathy right from the start. I'm going to offer some ideas below; however, do not plagiarize these arguments word for word. Think about them and try to develop some of your own.

War and Peace

Please note, arguing against war does not mean not supporting our troops. We support our troops by paying taxes so they can be adequately equipped and can support their families. We support our troops morally by thanking them for the difficult job they do. But we discuss, in a democracy, the choices made at a political level about which job we ask the troops to do; when we ask them to fight and when we keep them at home.


1: The war in Afghanistan is not our fight; we should withdraw immediately; OR
2: The war in Afghanistan is vital to our self-interest as a democratic nation and we should not withdraw until the job is finished.
Pro 1/Con 2:
  • There has been conflict in Afghanistan for a long time and it's not possible for an outside force to come in and settle things;
  • There is too much corruption in the Afghan government for it to be possible to hand over full administration;
  • Continued participation hurts our chances to be seen a positive force in the world.
Con 1/ Pro 2:
  • The war was started because Afghanistan was a corrupt rogue state which did not respect human rights and allowed attacks on democratic states to be planned and executed from there.
  • An early withdrawal would allow the Taliban to move back into control and all the lives spent would have been wasted.
  • The principle is that the fight is for democracy and stability.

Environmental Topics


1: It is necessary to tax carbon to raise money to fight global climate change and to persuade people to consume less fossil fuel; OR
2: Taxing carbon is an unnecessary drain on the economy, a global carbon trading market would encourage business to use less carbon for the right reasons.
Pro 1/Con 2:
  • People respond when they get hit in their pocketbooks;
  • The global carbon trading market has a lot of potential for fraud, just like the stock market;
  • There will be a big need for funds for remediation when we start feeling more of the effects of climate change (eg: hurricane Katrina), so it's wise to begin amassing some funds now to avoid the shock to the economy later.
Con 1/Pro 2:
  • People have little choice, they need to do what is practical for them; businesses have to be persuaded to change and that means a business model is necessary;
  • Although there may be potential for fraud, just like in the stock market, the stock market has show itself to be a good way to raise capital and has worked perfectly well for most of the last century;
  • Hurting the economy now to avoid hurting it in the future doesn't make sense. The best defense for future shocks is to encourage a healthy economy now.

International Topics


1: The United Nations is a toothless organization which should be disbanded in favor of another multilateral body which is not mired in the politics of the developing world; OR
2: There has not been a world war in the 60 years since the founding of the UN, it should be strengthened and supported to continue doing a great job bringing stability to the international community.
Pro 1/Con 2:
  • Decades of UN resolutions against South Africa did not end apartheid; changes took place because of international investment and courageous leaders;
  • The UN general assembly is controlled by a majority vote from many small developing nations, unless the whole structure can be changed it will continue to debate and pass motions that are largely irrelevant;
  • The UN has had many charges of corruption leveled against it, officials have been duped into supporting warlords in Somalia and have been wasting money on ill-conceived development projects.
Con 1/Pro 2:
  • The United Nations is the first time in human history that we've had an international body where talk can replace war. It's vital that it continue.
  • The "small developing nations" actually represent a large part of the world's population. The UN is the only international body where the wealth of a country isn't the sole measure of its value;
  • Although there may be some corruption, the UN is a wonderful opportunity for talented individuals from many countries to work together and demonstrate that government and corruption do not have to be synonymous.

Copyright 2011 HyperGraphix Publishing Services. All rights reserved. Publication, citation, or reference on a webpage granted if link to original is provided. Article submissions from guest authors are welcome; publication subject to our terms and conditions. Visit for details.

How to Write a Great Essay Conclusion

Having presented your evidence, you use your conclusion to sum it all up. Superficially, the conclusion looks a lot like the introduction; there are no detailed arguments. There may be general statements, quotes, or brief explanations. What makes a conclusion great, like what makes an essay great overall, is to clearly link it to the thesis statement.

In fact, each part of the essay should relate to the thesis statement, but let’s not discuss the thesis statement here. A great conclusion needs a great essay, but an essay can’t be great without a great conclusion. As the arguments are presented, references should be made to the thesis statement. If the essay is written in this way, then you can make the summing arguments in the conclusion very smoothly.

Let’s see how this works. Let’s say you are writing a literary essay on “To Kill A Mockingbird.” Your thesis is that a unifying theme of the novel is “coming of age.” You might present evidence documenting Scout’s emerging maturity: she begins to see the town in a different light after the trial; she learns about life from her father; she learns the truth about Boo Radley. In each paragraph, as you present and reference this evidence, you will make reference to the thesis. You might write: “Another way Scout’s growing maturity is shown is when…” In the next paragraph you present other evidence and again make reference to the thesis, but use somewhat different words. “Scout’s outlook changes when she realizes…” This way you keep presenting evidence and also tie it back to the thesis statement.

When you have presented all your evidence you are ready for your conclusion. Making reference to the thesis topic all the way through the essay prepares the reader for your conclusion. Now you want to sum up that evidence. Do not present new evidence in your conclusion. Anything you cite in your conclusion was previously presented and explained. Therefore you will not need page references for text evidence. If you are citing outside sources or paraphrasing outside sources, they will need to be attributed. Using the “To Kill A Mockingbird” example, your great conclusion might read like this:

Changes that Scout goes through indicate a growing maturity. Not only does she age three years in the course of the novel, but her point of view changes. She sees how Calpurnia and the other black people have real lives separate from her own. She sees how the town’s prejudice against black people corrupts the trial of Tom Robinson. She learns that innocent people can be wrongfully harmed through no fault of their own. All of these changes are ones that indicate a maturing point of view as Scout comes of age in the novel “To Kill A Mockingbird.”

Got a question about essay writing? Ask a question about writing an essay.

How to Write a Compare and Contrast Essay

By Peter J. Francis, HGPublishing Editor
The key to writing a compare and contrast essay is that you must do two things. You must find similarities and you must find differences. Now, obviously there are going to be differences, but you must contrast differences that are significant. It's not going to fly if you say that one poem has different words than another poem. If you find that both poems have a similar theme, then you must say how the themes are handled differently.

Compare and contrast essays are standard fare for state and provincial exams at the high school level, so it's important to know how to handle them. Typically, we ask students to compare themes between two literary works--sometimes two poems, sometimes two novels or short stories, or even between two genres. It doesn't really matter. Compare and contrast essays are also given in social studies courses. I recently answered a question for a reader about comparing and contrasting the reasons the US got involved in WW1 and WW2.

 Click here to ask a question about any type of essay.

In that case, I suggested that in both cases the US only joined in the war after it had been attacked. However, it was clear before that point that the US was supporting one side with materials.
When you compare, you want to find similarities. For a literary essay, the similarities might be thematic, they might be symbolic or they might be historic. Perhaps both works were written as a response to some event, either public or privately within the life of the writer. In any case, an outline is a useful starting point. I'd make two lists, for brainstorming purposes. Obviously, one list would be similarities and the other list would be differences. It's not helpful to say one work is a poem and the other is a short story, nor is it helpful to say WW1 started in 1914 and WW2 started in 1939.

You could compare and contrast two characters in the same novel. You might compare and contrast Napoleon and Snowball in Animal Farm. They both begin by promoting the benefits of the revolution; however, Napoleon becomes corrupted and forces Snowball to flee. Snowball was an idealist and Napoleon was a cynic.

You might compare and contrast how the theme of racism was dealt with in To Kill A Mockingbird--exposed through the eyes of a young white girl--and how it was depicted through the eyes of a black girl in The Color Purple. You might look at greed and lust for power in Macbeth and compare/contrast it with how power is depicted in Lord of the Flies.

The thesis of your essay includes the statement that generalizes how the two works are both similar and different. What you want to do for the reader is show an interpretation that creates a relationship between the two works and leads to a greater understanding of both.

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How to write a great thesis statement

By Peter J. Francis, HGPublishing Editor

The thesis is the point that you are trying to make with your paper. It says to the reader "Here's the conclusion of the paper, now get ready for a bunch of facts to support it." This means you need to know what you want to say. To see how a thesis statement is linked to the arguments, see the article on persuasive essay topics.

A good thesis statement should be specific. You want to say something is good or bad; that should or shouldn't be done; that it is or isn't a cause of something else. In a literary essay, it's a statement of interpretation. In a history essay, it's a statement about cause and effect. A weak thesis statement is one that is too general or doesn't take a stand.

Good Thesis statements Bad Thesis statements
Gun control laws are needed. Gun control is controversial.
Abortion should be banned. Abortion happens often.
School uniforms are beneficial. School uniforms are expensive.
To Kill A Mockingbird is about America recognizing its own racism. To Kill A Mockingbird is a story of racism.
World War 2 was necessary to fight fascism. World War 2 was bad.

Although you want to be specific in your thesis statement, don't be too specific. You want to leave yourself room for some logic to support your position. For example, if you were writing about school uniforms and you used the thesis statement that "School uniforms are beneficial because they make all students equal" then you would have to restrict your essay to ways that uniforms make students equal. You wouldn't be able to address the effect of uniforms on modesty, or behavior.

A good thesis statement in a persuasive essay is very clear about the stand you are taking. In a research essay, the thesis statement is important in directing the research you will do to write the essay. If your topic is the Civil War, then your thesis statement would include the specific point you want to make. If you were to Google "the Civil War" you would get a result with millions of pages. But if your thesis statement was "The US Civil War was more about states' rights than freedom for blacks" then you would be able to research the controversy over states' rights before the civil war; you could show the Emancipation Proclamation came after the war was well underway; you could look at other issues related to states' rights to show what the priorities were of the country at that time.

A good thesis statement addresses an issue for which there is a reasonable point of view for each side. Arguing that the earth is round is specific and leaves you lots of room for evidence to support your thesis, but what are the serious arguments against your thesis?

Remember a good thesis statement is a statement of judgment. It is a statement that says what you believe. It is a statement of what you want me to believe when I finish reading your persuasive essay.

Got a question about essay writing? Ask a question about writing an essay.

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Wednesday 9 May 2012

Persuasive Essay on Nuclear Power

I know nuclear power is much in the news right now because of the recent accident in Japan, so many teachers are assigning persuasive essays on the topic of nuclear power. I've had two inquiries recently through my form for asking questions about essays. Here are some ideas for other persuasive essay topics. One student, in Illinois, asked "im writing a paper on why nuclear power plants are bad but im having trouble stating my points can you help me."

 I'd have to start by teaching him/her to write "I'm" instead of "im." Next, use a question mark.

So I decided to write a little sample persuasive essay. I thought this might be useful for those who are looking to find out how to structure a persuasive essay. The structure is pretty basic. You put in some of the arguments for your thesis; you put in some of the arguments against your thesis; and then you explain why the for arguments are better than the against arguments. Read through the sample persuasive essay to see how I do this.

First this sample persuasive essay needs an introduction. Visit my Five Great Ways to Write an Introduction page for some ideas on how to begin this essay. What follows is the body of this sample persuasive essay. By "sample" I mean: Don't copy this and hand it in as your work. These are some ideas for you to research and document. I could be full of s**t when it comes to reasoning about nuclear power. Get some quotes from experts to back up these statements.

But seriously, I can give many reasons to be opposed to nuclear power. But in a persuasive essay, you have to consider both sides. So let's look at the reasons why some people believe nuclear power is a good solution to the growing need for energy.

Reasons for nuclear power

Nuclear power creates no greenhouse gasses. The amount of CO2 has almost doubled in the atmosphere since the beginning of the industrial revolution. Most scientists today believe that carbon dioxide in the atmosphere is trapping heat and slowly causing the average global temperature to rise. Since heat is really a form of energy, the increased energy in the atmosphere is experienced by us not only in the form of higher temperatures, but also as more severe storms and extreme weather events. These are generally bad things. Burning coal and oil adds to greenhouse gasses. Nuclear power is a means of using the energy of radioactive decay, and thus does not burn coal or oil.

The sources of oil that we are using today are often either in difficult to reach places, such as undersea, or in the high Arctic. The oil extracted from these places is expensive. Oil from the middle east, or other places around the world may be a source of money for governments that are anti-democratic or corrupt. Oil from Canada's tar sands may have other environmental costs. Increasing the development of nuclear power may reduce the use of oil from all these sources. Unlike oil, uranium can be sourced in North America, bypassing the possibility of sending money to potentially unfriendly or unpleasant governments.

Reasons against nuclear power

Now that's about all the good stuff I can think of for nuclear power. In my opinion, there are many more reasons to be against nuclear power than to be for it. Before I specifically look at why I don't think the two arguments supporting nuclear power are valid, I will look at other arguments against nuclear power.

Nuclear power is not safe. In just over 30 years three major accidents have caught the world's attention. The most recent, Japan's Fukushima's reactor, is still ongoing. We do not yet know how many have or will die as a result of this disaster. But at Chernobyl, in 1986, hundreds died, and thousands were affected by radiation. The thing about radiation is that there is no safe level.

That doesn't mean we can be absolutely safe. We are exposed to radiation every day. Every place on the planet has natural background radiation. Radioactivity produces energy waves not unlike light waves from the sun. However, some forms of energy waves produced by radioactivity can pass through our bodies. Most of the time, this is harmless, but occasionally, an energy wave passing through a body can hit a strand of DNA, damaging the DNA. In some cases, this can cause the cell to become cancerous. Even sunlight can do this.

But obviously, the more someone is exposed to radiation, the more likely they are to suffer some bad consequences, like cancer. Therefore increasing the radioactivity in the air or water as a result of even tiny leaks from a nuclear power plant will increase the risk of people getting cancer. Often we can't even identify which people were harmed by a radioactive leak; all we can say is that statistically, the cancer rates went up.

Nuclear power is not economical either. Since the costs of a nuclear accident could be so high, insurance companies will not insure a nuclear power plant. Therefore the only organization that can insure a nuclear power plant is the government -- us. We are the insurers of all the nuclear power plants in our country. (Doesn't matter which country you live in.) The government of Japan will have to pay for all the cleanup and damages from the Fukushima accident. They are already raising taxes. The nuclear power industry is already subsidized; government grants, loan guarantees, and other incentives make nuclear power cheaper than it would be if the real costs were calculated. The costs of storing or disposing of wastes are not calculated either. Nuclear waste can be toxic for up to 240,000 years. It must be kept from leaking into the environment for that long. This is an unimaginable time scale from a human perspective.

Greenhouse gasses

Now, let's look at the greenhouse gas issue. Yes, it is true that nuclear plants do not use fossil fuels to generate electricity, as do coal plants, natural gas plants, or oil burning plants. But why not measure the CO2 produced during the many years it takes to build a nuclear power plant? Why not calculate the greenhouse gasses produced by mining, refining, and transporting uranium? These are substantial, as well.

A final thing that should be pointed out when writing about nuclear energy is about who is promoting it. Nuclear power is promoted by very big corporations. It is a very centralized form of energy production. Alternative energy sources are naturally more widely distributed. No one alternative source can answer all of the energy needs the way that oil or nuclear have tried to. Whether you are talking about solar power, wind power, geothermal power, tide power, or small hydroelectric projects, decentralized energy systems are more democratic because they don't require such vast concentrations of capital to come into play. It should be clear that if democracy is really our highest value (and aren't we constantly asking our young people to give up their lives to defend it?) then democracy in energy production should be our model.

What does this need to be a proper essay? For one, it needs some original research. Don't quote me, I'm just a grumpy old anti-nuclear activist. Get some solid statistics from actual organizations that have done research on nuclear power. A persuasive essay must be ... well, persuasive. And it needs an introduction and a conclusion. Here are some suggestions on ways to write a conclusion.

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