The Academic Essay
The academic essay is merely a specific writing genreas is the love letter, newspaper editorial, or pop-fiction. As a genre, it functions within a set of norms, rules, and conventions. The purpose of this discussion is to make clear to you what those rules and norms are, and how to use them to express your argument clearly.
The purpose of the academic essay is to persuade by reasoned discourse. Scholars use the essay amongst themselves to advance ideas. Its value as an instructional tool is to assist students in developing their critical thinking skills. As you recall, critical thinking is defined as: the ability to read theory accurately, appropriate it meaningfully, apply it independently, generate results based on that application, analyze the results, and form a clear argument based on those results that can be defended with a specific line of reasoning.
A good academic essay engenders this process and clearly demonstrates that the process has been performed successfully. With this in mind let's examine how to write an academic essay.
Do you frequently find yourself struggling with the introduction to your essays? Do you not know how to begin the essay? Do you find yourself searching for a generalizing statement that will get things going, and trying to find a delicate balance between BS'ing and saying something meaningful? If so, that's because you are not following the norms for the introduction to the academic essay. Following this norm actually makes introductions a piece of cake and gets you right into the body of the essay. Here is the norm:
The purpose of the introduction is two-fold:
1. To introduce the theoretical framework that will guide your analysis
2. To introduce the thesis statement that will organize your paper.
Following this norm allows you to cut to the chase. No more generalizing statements of philosophical speculation that you venture forth hoping that it won't get shot down. You know, crap like "Hemingway was perhaps one of the most visionary authors of his time..." or "The Western is perhaps the most uniquely American of all the genres..." Rather, if the purpose of the essay is to demonstrate that you have appropriated a theory and applied it independently to produce results, then the function of the introduction becomes more focused: to introduce the theoryor theoretical frameworkthat you have decided to use. Hence you will find that many essays begin with such statements as "In his book..." Or, "In her essay..."
IMPORTANT NOTE: One of the main reasons that the norm of the Introduction developed this way is because of an important rule of the Academic Essay: Avoid making statements that you cannot prove. The problem with the generalizing/philosophical/BS'ing statements like "Hemingway..." and "The Western..." is that they cannot be proven through reasoned discourse. Moreover, to even try and do so would require voluminous amounts of discourse for something that is not even your thesis: what you actually ARE setting out to prove. As a result, the genre of the Academic Essay has evolved into the above norm. It still meets an introduction's purpose of orienting the reader, it just does so in a very specific manner.
Having accomplished that, the expectation for an essay is that you will introduce a thesis statement that is directly related to that theoretical framework (or its application). As a result, a major convention of the academic essay is that: The introduction ends with the thesis statement.
Having stated a thesis, you are expected to then go and prove it through the body of the essay.
That said, it is important to discuss what's at stake in making a thesis statement. There are four basic logical forms for a thesis statement:
A banal thesis statement
A simple thesis statement
A complex thesis statement
An impossible thesis statement
Let's discuss each of these quickly before moving on.
A banal thesis statement is a statement that does not really say anythingit is in fact meaningless because it is either so overly general or so evident as to not be of significance. Here's an example from literature. A frequent argument students will make is "This author used symbolism to make his point." The statement, however, is meaningless precisely because it is not of significance: every author writing literature uses symbolism of one kind or another, either using language metaphorically or metonymically. Thus, to attempt to single out or make a distinction of a piece for using "symbolism" is to not say anything that even needs proving to begin with.
A simple thesis statement is not quite what it may sound like. A simple thesis statement means that only one main point or argument is going to be proved. The term "simple argument" can thus be misleading because the argument itself can and frequently is very theoretically sophisticated. What makes them simple is that in terms of their logical structure, they only take on one line of proof, and hence, their organization of proof will be simple. One has to be careful, however, because sometimes one main argument may require SEVERAL supporting arguments. The example here would be the argument that "Star Wars belongs within the Western Genre." Here the writer has only one thing to prove, but in order to do so will have to establish the elements that comprise the Western Genre and demonstrate how the film embodies them--not a small task.
Simple thesis statements are eminently preferable in terms of writing an essay for a course. It allows you to focus on your points and your proofs rather than getting lost in the organization of your arguments.
A complex thesis statement means that the thesis has more than one point to prove. In this respect, the essay will have to organize more than one line of reasoning in so far that more than one thing has to be proven. Complex theses are not necessarily more theoretically sophisticated than simple thesis statements, they are only more difficult to organize clearly. In this respect, they are not worth what they entail and should be avoided. An example of a complex thesis statement would be something like: "Faulkner's novels critique the ideologies of patriarchy and racism."
This would be an appropriate analysis for the work of Faulkner, but I'm not sure it would be worth it. To begin with, it is not clear what the writer has to gain in terms of proving BOTH of these aspects of the work rather than just the one. Instead, with this complex thesis, there are going to be long sections of the essay where half of what needs to be proved will be left suspended while the other half gets discussed. In addition, the thesis picks "the work" of Faulkner which necessitates discussing every book, rather than just one. Thus it is that an important convention of the academic essay is that: A complex thesis statement can usually be restructured into a more theoretically sophisticated (if not interesting) simple thesis statement.
The impossible thesis statement is a kind of corollary of the banal thesis statement insofar as you want to stay away from it. Rather than saying something which is evident or meaningless, however, the impossible thesis statement puts forward something which cannot reasonably be proved, as a result of there being no agreed upon or stable criteria from which to render conclusions. Examples of impossible statements abound, but the one most related to this course would be "The Plague is great art," or "The Plague is the most realistic of all Camus' novels." In each case, there is no stable criteria. Take the first one. What distinguishes between "good" art and "great" art? Furthermore, the essay would not be able to point to a stable definition of "art", a concept that art historians, artists, and cultural critics have been arguing over for centuries. The latter thesis has a similar problem since "realistic" is not a stable concept with firm criteria.
Making an Argument
As stated earlier, the academic essay is an exercise in reasoned persuasion. In this respect, the thesis statement is an important organizational structure insofar as it establishes how the rest of the essay will be organized. Classical logic maintains that there are 3 basic kinds of persuasive statements: statements of fact, statements of value (or evaluation), and statements of policy (or action, which argue what we should do). Unless otherwise specified, the first of these, the statement of fact, is the form that the thesis statement for an academic essay should takethe obvious exception being when you write evaluative criticism (which you will NEVER do in my course).
Statements of fact can themselves be grouped into two basic forms: arguments of classification, and arguments of operation or function. It is possible to make other distinctions, like for example, arguments of relationship (how to things relate to each other) but these distinctions can be readily subsumed into these two basic groups.
Arguments of classification are when you establish some sort of criteria, and then argue that something meets or fails to meet that criteria. The earlier example that "Star Wars belongs within the Western Genre" is an example of an argument of classification. Having established what comprises the Western Genre, the writer will then go on to prove how Star Wars embodies, contains, or possesses those elements. The writer will, in other words, prove that Star Wars meets that criteria.
Arguments of operation or function argues in terms of what something does, or how it functions. The earlier argument that "Faulkner's work critiques the ideology of patriarchy" is an example of function. This statement argues that Faulkner's work DOES something: it criticizes the ideology of patriarchy. Note that unlike the argument of classification, the writer of this essay SEEMS to have to do more to prove their thesis. They will not only have to define what the ideology of patriarchy isand thus establish criteriathey will also have to demonstrate that Faulkner's work DOES something with that criteria. The question of HOW leads to a discussion of the body of the essay.
The Body of the Essay
From a conceptual standpoint, the function of the body of the essay is to prove the thesis statement laid out in the introduction. Easy enough. This section discusses how the writer accomplishes that proof.
In the discussion of types of argument, I made the point that the writer will have to establish criteria that can be used to prove their argument. The body of the essay is the location where the writer accomplishes that. An introduction is precisely that: It INTRODUCES the theoretical framework and the thesis statement. It does not DESCRIBE or DISCUSS these two things. This is a fairly common mistake that beginning essay writers make. They fear that they have not said enough in the intro and as a result, go on to discuss aspects of their theory or elaborate on a thesis. The problem with doing so is that it screws up your organization. What comes next is no longer clear to the reader.
If you keep it clear to yourself that the purpose of the introduction to your essay is to only INTRODUCE your theoretical framework, and your thesis statement, then the function of the body of your essay will also become evident to the reader. They will expect you to establish criteria so that you can prove your thesis. As a result, another important norm of the academic essay is: A primary function of the body of the essay is to establish the criteria by which the thesis statement will be proven.
Thus it is that having argued that Star Wars is a Western, the body of the paper is going to have to first establish the elements that comprise the Westernit will have to establish the criteria by which the thesis can be proven. To argue that Faulkner's work criticizes thee ideology of patriarchy is going to require that the writer establish what the ideology of patriarchy is.
Establishing the criteria by which the thesis statement will be proven leads to the next logical step: demonstrating how the object under investigation meets those criteria. Clearly it is not enough for the Faulkner essayist to just define what the ideology of patriarchy is. Their thesis is that Faulkner's work criticizes that ideology. As a result, they will have to point to specific things within the text and argue that they relate to those criteria IN A SPECIFIC WAYin this case through a process of criticism. This process of relating the object of investigation back to the established criteria is another fundamental component of the body of the essay. Without it, the proof is not complete. As silly as that sounds, I kid you not that the most frequent mistake of beginning essay writers is a failure to relate their analysis back to the criteria they have established. Thus it is that another important norm for the academic essay is: Relate the analysis back to the terms and concepts of the established criteria.
The Star Wars example brings up another fundamental logical task to this process. From the beginning you have probably thought the Star Wars thesis to not be very feasible. The film is not set in the West, and it occurs in the future. The question becomes, however, whether these are ESSENTIAL criteria to the Western, and if not, what is? In terms of proving that thesis statement, the writer is going to have to clearly establish what the elements of the Western Genre are, and then relate aspects of the film back to ALL of those criteria. Herein lies the essential importance of "completeness" to that process. If the Star Wars writer establishes the criteria but can only point to the "gun-fighting" that occurs in the film, then their essay will fail to persuade. Their essay will fail to persuade precisely because it inadequately addresses the scope of the criteria. Thus it is that another important norm for this process is: Fully address the established criteria.
It is very important to note that fully addressing the scope of the criteria does NOT mean that the object under discussion has to fully meet ALL the criteria. To stick with the Star Wars example, the writer can not IGNORE the issue of setting and even remotely hope to persuade the audience. In some way, the writer is going to have to address the fact that both time and place are out of the bounds of the Western. This is the point precisely. The author will have to ADDRESS that pointthose criterianot necessarily MEET those criteria. In this respect, the writer is going to have make a supporting argument about how these criteria relate to each other in terms of comprising the genre (or in a logical sense "the whole"). The important point is that all criteria are addressed adequately. Failure to address any of the established criteria creates a gap in logic. Subsequently, the reasoning process (and its ability to persuade) fails.
Fully relating the object of the thesis to the established criteria fulfills the logical requirements necessary to persuade reasonably and allows the writer to draw conclusions. Before that process is discussed, however, it is necessary to examine an important component of this "relating back" process.
The Role of Description
Relating "the object of investigation" or the "object of the thesis" back to the established criteria is necessarily going to involve description. Description is frequently an unclear and thorny issue for writers of the academic essayespecially in terms of scope (how much is enough?). The purpose of description, however, clarifies the issue of scope. The purpose of description to is to make clear, or establish WHAT in the object of investigation (the film, the scene, the shot) relates to the criteria being used. It therefore becomes important for the writer to use description in such a manner as to establish the basis of the relationship between the object and the criteria. Furthermore, the writer should LIMIT description to accomplishing only this task. Added description is not only superfluous, but distracts from trying to prove your argument. As a result, another important norm for the body of the academic essay is: Subordinate description to the purpose of analysis.
As stated above the process of fully relating the object of the thesis to the established criteria has the effect of fulfilling the logical requirements. It is THAT task which ultimately persuades, not the conclusion itself. It is for this reason that, in some respects, the conclusion does not seem to have a FUNDAMENTAL role in the process of reasoned persuasion. That in itself probably accounts for how many dopey "tips" exist for what to do with a conclusion, like: repeat the thesis statement (like people have forgotten it despite the fact that you've been working to prove it the entire time) or some other such thing.
What to do with a conclusion if the work of proof is already done? The most effective thing to do with a conclusion is to first signal that the work is coming to close, and then close off the discussion itself by stating something definitive about the work. Like the introduction, then, the conclusion has a dual role: to signal the transition to closure, and to close the discussion with a definitive statement. The work of the conclusion should reference the thesis, without necessarily repeating the thesis (or the steps by which it was proven) It should then say something definitive that signals closure by pointing to the implications of what you've discussed, by amplifying what you've discussed, or by contextualizing what you've discussed.
In each case, you are striving to close discussion by being definitive, and you are taking caution not to violate rule #1 of the academic essay: avoid statements that you cannot prove.
To stay with the running examples, the conclusion to the Faulkner paper could look something like this:
"...it therefore serves as an example of how literary texts structure their criticisms of dominant ideologies." (pointing to the implications of proving your argument).
"Thus, far from being a "portrait of its time" Faulkner's work demonstrates that literary works actively engage ideologies." (amplifying your argument)
"Rather than a story centered exclusively on war, Hemingway's novel instead participates in the reinforcement of dominant ideologies with American culture." (Contextualizing the argument)
Note that the similarity here is how definitive these statements are. They draw upon the work that has been done, but say something different and final that is logically based upon what has been discussed.
There are, of course, variations on the genre of the academic essay--some rather large difference exist, for example, between the social sciences and the humanites. This discussion is based on the humanties approach. Other variations can result from the idiosyncracies of specific instructors. To the degree that what is written here sounds heavy handed and inflexible, I caution instead that such tone is trying to reflect the manner in which your own analysis and writing will need to sound precise and rigorousthe standards by which the academic essay is evaluated.
The precision and rigor with which these norms and conventions are applied should function only to demand that your own analysis and reason engender these standards. They are thus meant to elevate your thinking, not control it. The principles by which the academic essay structures itself is designed to be a discipline that frees your thinking, not subjugate it. Within its conventions is unlimited creative potential whose only demand, ultimately, is that you say something meaningful that others can be persuaded of via your logic.
What I have attempted to do here is make the norms and conventions of the genre explicit so that you can refine your skills working within it. Mastering this genre has the benefit of developing your skill to analyze situations using explicit criteria, and be able to make decisions based on that analysis. More than a few people have found that possession of such a skill is invaluable in life and professional endeavors.
Panic (noun) 1. sudden uncontrollable fear or anxiety, often causing wildly unthinking behavior
“A wave of panic washed over him as he realized he didn’t have a topic for his definition essay.”
If this definition applies to you right now, and you’re panicking because you have a paper due tomorrow (okay, so you’ve procrastinated just a little bit on this paper), take a deep breath. This post lists 20 definition essay topics to help you get started.
The Definition Essay Defined
The definition essay is deceptively simple. All you need to do is define a term or concept.
But a definition essay is more than a simple dictionary definition. A definition essay extends the definition by providing examples to help readers understand the term or concept being defined.
Let me say that again: a definition essay uses an extended example.
A definition essay is typically based on a single word or concept, so don’t chose an object like a dog or a potato. You don’t need an entire essay to define these types of objects. You can define them in a few sentences.
Instead, choose an abstract term that leaves room for interpretation.
For example, if you define happiness, readers can argue your definition because everyone defines happiness differently. Happiness to you might be a day sunbathing at the beach. Happiness to your roommate might be a day fishing on the river.
One last tip about choosing the right topic: choose a term or concept that you’re familiar with.
Don’t choose a word like quixotism from a word list just because it sounds cool and just might relate to Don Quixote. If all you have is a dictionary (or Wikipedia) definition to go on, you’ll struggle to write a definition essay about the term.
Now that you’re armed with a better understanding of a definition essay, you can move on to deciding on your definition essay topics.
20 Definition Essay Topics That Go Beyond the Obvious
Here is a list of 20 definition essays topics to help you write the perfect paper. Some of the items are linked to example essays to give you even more inspiration.
Think about being a senior with only months left before graduation. Think about not wanting to go to class, about wanting to skip all things resembling homework, and daydreams of what your future holds. What makes a senior fall victim to senioritis? Is it even real, or do people simply feel as though they should act this way before graduation?
2. The perfect shopping experience
Does the perfect shopping experience mean an afternoon trying on countless pairs of shoes? Does it mean finding a great bargain? Maybe the perfect shopping experience is being first in line for the new iPhone. Or maybe you hate to shop, so a perfect shopping experience means a few clicks, and packages arrive at your door in three days.
Would you say a college graduate is successful if he makes $50,000 per year? Does success mean that he needs to make $100,000 or more? Do you think money has nothing to do with success?
What if someone has failed many times? Can he or she still be successful? Can failure actually be a success story in disguise?
As you try to define laziness, keep in mind that this definition can vary greatly from one generation to the next. Do your grandparents have a completely different view of what it means to be lazy?
Maybe it’s your parents or your boss who has a different definition of lazy. I’m guessing that on at least one occasion in your life one of your parents uttered the phrase, “Don’t be so lazy!”
If someone is lazy, do they lack ambition? Maybe what some perceive as lazy isn’t even laziness at all. Perhaps they just have different priorities and didn’t bother to clean their room not because they’re lazy, but because they just don’t care about a spotless environment.
5. The American Dream
The definition of the American Dream has shifted over time. The current American Dream isn’t always a spouse of the opposite gender, a home, 2.5 kids, and a white picket fence. While this definition certainly may be true for many, chances are others (like singles and childless couples) have a completely different definition of the American Dream. How does an American immigrant define the American Dream compared to a natural born citizen?
Anyone who has been in a relationship has a definition of cheating. Ever catch your significant other flirting with some old flame on Facebook? Is that cheating? (Most likely, the person doing the flirting will say “no.”)
Cheating doesn’t have to only refer to relationships. You might define cheating as it relates to academics. Does having your roommate “help” you write your paper mean you’re cheating?
Billy Rowlinson (flickr.com)
The definition of marriage changes by generation and by culture.
Today, the term marriage doesn’t necessarily mean only one man and one woman. Some might define marriage as inclusive of same-sex couples, and still others might define marriage as allowing for polygamist relationships. How do you define marriage?
Does a family have to be a mother, father, and child? Can a childless couple be a family? What role does extended family play in people’s lives?
In some cases, non-relatives, such as friends, stepparents, and mentors are considered family.
If a blood line isn’t necessarily the only criteria for being family, what characteristics or actions define a person as family?
Remember that guy who cut in front of you at the convenience store? Or how about that lady who bumped into you and didn’t even say “excuse me”? It’s pretty easy to think of examples of rude behavior in our society, so decide what you feel is rude and get to work defining it!
What makes a house a home? To some, home is always the place where you grew up. To others, home is where they’re living at the time.
But what makes a home so special? People usually feel calm, relaxed, and happy at home. Why is your own home more than just a place to live?
11. A good wife/girlfriend or husband/boyfriend
The definition of these terms are as varied as individuals. Ever meet your friend’s new significant other and wonder, “What does she see in him?” or “Why in the world would he want to date her?”
Your friend might feel he’s the perfect boyfriend because he always texts to see how she’s doing. You might think he’s too nosey or even too controlling.
Defining a good partner means you’ll have to decide what qualities a person must have in order to be right for you.
This is one of those grey-area terms (at least to many people). Does honesty mean telling the truth no matter what? If you hate your friend’s new haircut, do you tell her? If your friend’s girlfriend is cheating on him, do you say something? If you have knowledge of something and lie by omission, can you still be considered honest?
Do you respect your parents, your teachers, your significant other, and/or your friends? If you said “yes,” how can you prove it? What does it mean to show respect to someone? What type of actions demonstrate respect, and what makes someone deserving of respect?
Fashion is another one of those terms that varies with time. Remember that outfit you wore a few years ago for your school picture? I bet you wouldn’t be caught dead in that outfit today, right? Ever look at a picture of your mom or dad when they were teens and wonder who could ever think those haircuts were in style?
Of course, all of those things were fashionable at the time. Consider why fashion changes, who decides fashions, how fashion influences us, and how fashion makes us feel about ourselves.
Did you grow up sharing a room with your brother or sister and wish you had even a little bit of privacy? Have you yelled at someone for snooping through your phone or your computer? If so, these might be good places to start your discussion on privacy.
If you’re thinking of privacy on a larger scale, your discussion could include internet privacy or whether or not the government is trying to invade our privacy through monitoring of phone calls and emails.
Is beauty only skin deep? Sure outward appearance is the easy choice to describe someone’s beauty, but what about inner beauty? What does it mean to possess inner beauty?
Of course beauty doesn’t always apply to people. Beauty can apply to nature or even an inanimate object (like a car, a guitar, or even a new pair of shoes).
We’ve all heard those stories on TV about a guy who rescued someone. The neighborhood calls him a hero, but he declines the title, saying he just did what any other person would do. Military veterans are generally considered heroes, also, yet many feel they’re undeserving of the honor, too.
What characteristics do these type of people have in common? Bravery, honor, and selflessness are good places to start.
Which characteristics are inherently male or inherently female? Can you define someone as masculine or feminine simply based on appearances? Does a haircut or personal style make someone masculine or feminine?
Can masculinity or femininity be partially determined by voice and body language. Maybe you need to look beyond appearances and examine a person’s actions and character. Or, perhaps, you can’t define masculinity or femininity without examining all of these attributes.
Poverty is a relative term. If someone is uber rich, the middle class seems poor. To the middle class, minimum-wage workers are likely poor.
But what does it mean to live in poverty? Sure the government sets poverty thresholds, but is poverty simply measured by income?
Insomnia Cured Here (Flickr.com) Bert Lahr as the Cowardly Lion, “The Wizard of Oz”, 1939
In The Wizard of Oz, the Cowardly Lion asks the Wizard for courage. Why does he feel courage is so important? What does it mean to be courageous?
Society often says that soldiers, those suffering illness, and those facing adversity are courageous. Think about what characteristics these people possess and how they demonstrate courage.
Turning a Definition into a Definition Essay
As you know, just because you have a definition essay topic and a few examples doesn’t mean you have an essay.
So where do you start?
Sometimes it’s easiest to start at the beginning and write the introduction first.
Your introduction should grab readers’ attention, so you might pick one of these example hooks to begin your paper. A clever, funny, or interesting story or example from your own experience is a tried and true strategy to get your readers interested.
Have lots of ideas for your introduction but are still stumped on where to go from there? Try outlining. Read How to Write a 5-Paragraph Essay Outline for more help.
Kibin editors are, by definition, amazing people who have savvy editing skills and will provide insightful tips and comments about your writing. Why not have an editor review your final paper?
Psst... 98% of Kibin users report better grades! Get inspiration from over 500,000 example essays.