Review: How to Write an Essay in Five Easy Steps

How to Write an Essay in Five Easy Steps
Scribendi (Karen Ashford), $2.99 (Kindle e-book)

I’m always on the lookout for good sources of writing advice that I can pass on to my students. So when given the opportunity to review How to Write an Essay in Five Easy Steps I jumped at the chance. (Like most reviews, I get a free copy.) Unfortunately, while this book is adequate, it does not offer much that is new or that makes it stand out from the crowd. It is filled with run-of-the-mill advice that you can find just about anywhere.

First, let me start off by questioning the utility of a book about how to write undergraduate essays. I’m not certain this is the right format. How many of the target audience will sit down and read a book about how to write an essay? Granted the book is short and the e-book format is welcome, but my experience is that students will not read such a book, or at least the ones that need it won’t. I have a secret suspicion that the real market for books like this is people who already know how to write.

Okay, on to the pluses. The biggest is the price. At $2.99 this book is priced well, especially as its chief competition is free web sites that offer essentially the same advice. (Another drawback of the book format.) As I mentioned, the book is short and concise, with little wasted verbiage. Ms. Ashford has boiled essay writing down to some basic points, and that is welcome.

In the space between pluses and minuses, the book offers conventional advice. For example, the five steps are: determining the requirements; researching; organizing; writing; and revising. Not exactly a bold and innovative approach. On one hand this conventional approach isn’t bad. Writing advice isn’t exactly cutting edge research. There is little that can be said on the subject that hasn’t been said a thousand times before. On the other hand, there is little that makes this book stand out.

At one point Ms. Ashford offers up a list of “general resources,” which include: The Oxford Companion to Politics of the World; CQ Researcher; Political Handbook of the World; Index to International Public Opinion; and World Opinion Update. These are fine resources if you are writing an essay for a political science class, but aren’t very useful for other disciplines. I suspect that the material was originally targeted for political science classes. Perhaps it would have been better to retain that narrower focus. Writing for different academic disciplines requires different approaches, and it’s more likely the book will say something new and innovative if it restricts itself to a particular type of academic writing.

(The book is also Canadian, and readers in the States may become confused when Ms. Ashford discusses grades, as the standard Canadian grading scale is different from that south of the border. For example, she says that a grade of 92% is an A+, which is true in Canada, but would be an A– in the States. Like the offering of political science resources, this is another example where a tighter focus, or smarter editing, could make the work more useful.)

Where the book fails is in its offering of absolute advice. There are few absolutes in good writing, but this book continually makes them. The thesis statement “needs to be approximately 15 words or less,” and “you MUST explain what the paper is about and give a preview of your arguments.” And one should “NEVER start the body of your essay without having explained your thesis.” In the main body, “you should use three arguments.” These are reasonable pieces of advice, but they’re not hard and fast rules. A thesis statement should be concise, but limiting to fifteen words may only serve to produce an essay that makes a simplistic argument. Sophisticated theses may need to be considerably longer. While most good essays do state the thesis up front, sometimes it is effective to build the argument and only reveal the thesis in the conclusion, or at a point in the middle. Such essays are harder to write, but when they work they can be extremely effective. (Be suspicious of any writing advice that uses “never” or “always,” for there will always be exceptions.) As to using three arguments, you should use as many arguments as you need to make your point.

So what this book aims to produce is the “hamburger” essay—consisting of layers of introduction, three-point argument, and conclusion. Like the food, a hamburger essay is palatable, but hardly gourmet. There is nothing wrong with offering the hamburger essay as a basic approach (and the format is especially useful for in-class tests and assignments, where time is limited), but the book should stress that this is a basic, fast-and-dirty approach, useful if you’re shooting for a B.

On occasion the book confuses grammatical terms, at one point writing “stick to the rule that personal pronouns should always be avoided.” That’s a howler. It might be easier, and just as arbitrary, to write an essay avoiding the letter E than write one without any personal pronouns (e.g., he, she, it). I think what Ms. Ashford meant was to avoid first-person pronouns (e.g., I, me, my). While it’s true that academic essays should avoid being personal reflections on the subject, the idea that first-person pronouns are verboten is outmoded, if it ever really applied at all. For example my favorite example of academic writing, which I usually use to express the value of understating a conclusion, uses personal pronouns. It’s from Watson and Crick’s 1953 “Molecular Structure of Nucleic Acids” in Nature: “It has not escaped our notice that the specific pairing we have postulated immediately suggests a possible copying mechanism for the genetic material.” Sometimes first-person pronouns (and understatement) pack punch. Of course, if one’s professor or TA arbitrarily forbids their use, it would be wise to obey the stricture. But otherwise, judicious use of the first person is a perfectly legitimate way to go.

How to Write an Essay in Five Easy Steps isn’t a bad book, it’s just not a particularly good one. Like the hamburger format it proffers, the book has taken writing advice, run it through the grinder, and produced a mediocre product. At $2.99 it may be worth a shot for a student who is having trouble writing, but there are probably better resources out there for free.

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