The Perfect Essay

Is there such a thing?  The simple answer is no.  Expository writing is by nature a subjective exercise, and therefore vulnerable to criticism.  But can there be your best essay, i.e., an articulate expression of understanding and harmony between you and your subject?  Naturally, yes.

As this blog concerns writing in the social sciences, the first step is to distinguish between that and the kinds of written assignments you might have in your other classes.  The social sciences include subjects like history, government, economics, anthropology, psychology, sociology, and what we used to call “civics” back in my day.  Civics usually involved learning the rights and responsibilities of citizenship and how to exercise those rights responsibly, e.g., casting a ballot on election day, serving your community, paying taxes, and the like.  In these subjects, you will not usually be writing poetry (unless you are composing a patriotic hymn in your civics class), prose fiction, or analyzing the literary style or plot of one of the great novels.

You may, however, be asked to write on the historical context in which that novel is set.  For that, you will need to start with source documents.  If I were writing an essay on why my German-born great-great-grandfather decided in 1861 to enlist in the Union Army and fight for President Lincoln, for example, I might begin with photographs or extant letters written by him or his friends and relatives during the period.  If available, I would order his veteran’s pension records from the National Archives.  I followed this same procedure when I was compiling my genealogy scrapbook in the 1990s.  Start with primary source material.  But if primary sources cannot be found (which often happens in genealogical research), then good secondary sources can be used to establish historical context.

I would research German immigration to Ohio in the first half of the nineteenth century and see what moved his parents to leave their ancestral home near Stuttgart and cross the Atlantic to face an uncertain future in a new land.  I would look at letters written by prominent German American leaders at the time, most of whom supported the Lincoln administration’s dual objectives of first preserving the Union and later emancipating the slaves.  I would look at the regimental history of my ancestor’s unit and the surnames on the company rosters to see how many Germans were there.  I would look at what Southerners at the time thought of German immigrants and why so many Germans living in Texas, Missouri and other largely Confederate areas remained staunch Unionists throughout the Civil War.

Establishing context is the first important step in crafting the best historical essay.  This type of writing may be structured similarly to an essay for your English class, in that you have an introductory paragraph stating your thesis and outlining your three main supportive points, followed by body paragraphs developing those points and a fifth paragraph wrapping up the essay with a conclusion.  But social science writing goes a step further.  Historical writing in particular is, by nature, interpretive.  As the writer, you are more advocate than artist.  What you are doing is something called polemic.  Think of yourself as the attorney presenting your case to judge and jury.  You build your case, gather your evidence and witness testimony, assess the possible arguments presented by the opposing side, shore up your alliances, and enter the fray.

Thomas Paine’s Common Sense (1776) is the perfect example.  This is one of the most famous historical essays in American history.  Paine was an Englishman who abandoned his mother country because America offered him new political and economic freedom to pursue the life of his choice.  When the thirteen colonies rose up in revolt, he offered the American people a compelling argument.  Here is his main thesis:  America, you don’t need a king.  Quoting liberally from the Bible and other primary sources which were valued by his potential audience at the time, he launched into a persuasive diatribe against the idea of monarchy and reminded the colonists that they had been presented with an historic opportunity to create a government by, of, and for the people.  Common Sense was a best seller and boosted enlistment in the Continental Army.  Tom Paine was the cheerleader of the American Revolution.

Thomas Paine’s Common Sense was published in 1776.

During my twenty years in the classroom, I assigned a lot of essays.  Some were three paragraph summary prompts attached to the back of unit tests.  Others were opinion pieces submitted as part of a Socratic seminar packet.  Most of my units also included DBQ (Document Based Question) essays, once exclusive to Advanced Placement classes but disseminated into college preparatory courses with the advent of the Common Core Standards.  All of these writing assignments had several things in common:  do your research, gather your evidence, craft your argument, present your thesis, develop your points, cite your sources, connect to historical cycles and patterns.  These requirements were uniform for my World History, American History, Government, and Economics classes.  I even used them when I taught world religions and church history at a private school. 

Just like in your language arts classes, you have to find your voice.  Creating your personal take on a topic takes what the real estate business calls due diligence.  Before you buy a house, you need to look at similar homes in the area, the history of pricing and ownership of the home you want, property taxes and schools in the neighborhood, the current state of the home as determined by a qualified home inspector, and many other factors.  This takes time.  Sometimes an essay is assigned plenty of time in advance and allows you a week or more to put it together.  Just as often, though, you will only have a limited number of minutes to complete the essay in class.  The more time you have put into understanding the unit you are studying and writing about that unit ahead of time, the better you will do under pressure.

Find your voice.  Take copious notes.  Write many drafts, even if the teacher does not require it.  Read what others have written on the same subject (but avoid plagiarism).  Have others read what you write before you turn it in for a grade.  The more you read, the better you will write.  With the right effort and discipline, you can be the Tom Paine of your generation.     

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