Essay writing is often a daunting new task for middle school students. For so long, they’ve been focused on building comprehension and vocabulary skills that analyzing a story or article seems strange.
It doesn’t help that most students only have a murky idea of what it means “to analyze.”
If you add the constraints and pressure of a timed test such as for state exams or for a high school admissions test like Bergen County Academies’, students only feel more lost when it comes to effectively examining and discussing a piece of literature.
For a student to truly become adept at writing critical essays, he or she must practice consistently with guidance from a teacher. However, there are some big mistakes students make that, if fixed, will easily take their grade or admission chances to the next level!
Here are the 3 most common essay writing mistakes students make and how best to fix them:
Essay Writing Mistake #1: Using 1st or 2nd person.
This is a very common problem, but is also one of the easiest to fix!
Students need to eliminate the use of you in their critical essays and limit their use of I or we.
The more egregious of the two offenses is the use of you. Students often don’t realize that directly addressing their audience in a critical essay is overly informal. More to the point, the word immediately gives students an immature voice and reveals to their grader that they don’t understand this rule. So even if the student’s content is great, the you can give a poor impression.
Furthermore, students should avoid the use of I or we. It’s overly informal as well and usually very redundant.
- I believe the author is trying…
- I think the metaphor means…
The entire essay consists of the student’s opinions, so there is no reason to include “I believe” or “I think.”
They should simply begin the sentence:
- The author is trying…
- The metaphor means…
There are exceptions to this rules; for example, if students are asked to relate the story or article to themselves through a personal connection. However, by and large, 1st person should be avoided as much as you.
By eliminating 1st and 2nd person from his or her essay, your child’s essays will immediately sound more polished and mature.
Essay Writing Mistake #2: Summarizing, rather than analyzing.
One of the biggest growing pains for students is to progress from summarizing what happened in a passage to analyzing it. Summary requires comprehension and some inference skills. Students must be able to tell you who, what, where, and when.
Analysis, however, requires a student to also tell you why.
- Why did the author choose this setting?
- Why did the story end this way?
- Why did the author include this character?
- Why did the author write this story?
- Why did the author use this tone/ironic twist/mood/imagery/metaphor?
On a test or a more specific essay assignment, many students struggle because they can’t see the why question lurking behind the what questions of the essay prompt.
- In the story, what lesson did the main character learn?
- What is the central theme?
- What does this article say about human’s interaction with nature?
In order to properly answer these questions, students must be able to analyze the text by asking, “why did the author write this?” or “why did the character respond in that way?”
Once students start asking “why?”, they are able to transition from telling you what happened to telling you why it happened. Asking why allows them to also understand the text and the author’s purpose on a much deeper level. This leads to a substantial analysis rather than a mere summary.
Example of A Summary
“In the fairy tale “Cinderella,” the young girl Cinderella is treated poorly by her stepmother and stepsister. When the Prince of the kingdom invites everyone to a ball, Cinderella is not allowed to go. After her stepfamily leaves, she cries and wishes she was allowed to attend. Suddenly, her fairy godmother appears and magically gives her a dress, carriage, and glass slippers. She tells Cinderella that she must return by midnight when the spell will break and all will become as it previously was. Cinderella goes to the ball and catches the Prince’s eye. They dance all evening and quickly fall in love. However, when Cinderella hears the bells strike twelve, she runs away, leaving behind a glass slipper. The next day, the Prince searches all throughout the kingdom looking for the maiden who fits the shoe. When he arrives at Cinderella’s house, she is able to try the slipper on despite her stepsisters’ efforts to prevent her. It fits and she shows the Prince the other slipper too. The Prince marries Cinderella and they live happily ever after.”
While this is a good synopsis of the plot, there was no analysis present.
Example of Analysis
Here’s an example of how this student could have analyzed the story instead by asking “why does the story happen this way?” or “why did the author write this story?”
“Throughout the fairy tale of “Cinderella” the author makes clear the character differences between the stepsisters and Cinderella. Cinderella is patient, hardworking, and kind, while the stepsisters are selfish, lazy, and cruel. Cinderella’s eventual triumph over her sisters illustrates that the oppressed will triumph over their oppressor. In fact, the fairy godmother’s appearance represents almost a divine intervention. Through this magical character, the author demonstrates that higher powers are with those who are mistreated and will step in to ensure that the virtuous are rescued and the unjust are punished. Overall, “Cinderella” is a moral tale as much as it is a fairy tale. It teaches its readers to be patient and retain their integrity during times of mistreatment because the world will avenge and reward them for their righteousness.
Essay Writing Mistake #3: Not having a clear thesis statement.
In essay introductions, students often aren’t sure how to write a clear thesis statement, one that would set the rest of their paper up for success.
Here are the most common struggles that students have while writing a thesis statement:
#1. They don’t include a thesis at all.
A thesis statement is one or two sentences usually near the end of an introduction that communicates the main argument of the essay. Without it, a reader doesn’t know what the rest of the essay will be about. The absence of a thesis can make the remaining paragraphs confusing and unclear.
However, writing a thesis statement doesn’t have to be complicated. If a student is given an essay prompt, his answer to the question(s) is usually the thesis statement.
- Essay prompt: What is the lesson of the story?
- Thesis statement: The lesson of the story is that civil war horrifically and unnaturally severs even the closest of family bonds.
- Essay prompt: How are the two main characters alike? How are they different? Why do they end up becoming friends?
- Thesis statement: While the characters have a clear economic disparity, they share a common bond over cooking. This bond becomes the basis for their friendship and demonstrates that common interest can overcome class difference.
If a student has, instead, a more general assignment from the teacher, they can still easily create a thesis statement by considering the main theme, characters, or literary devices of the author. From there, they can write a clear thesis statement:
- Assignment: Write a 3-5 page paper on a topic of your choosing, focused on the short story “The Gift of the Magi”.
- Thesis statement: The central theme of the “Gift of the Magi” is that the wealth of love is more important and powerful than the poverty of material possessions.
While it takes practice to write strong thesis statements, simply including one is easy.
#2. Their thesis statement doesn’t align with the rest of their paper.
Some students always include a thesis statement that speaks to the central message of a story even if it doesn’t actually represent the focus of the essay. This makes for a weak and misleading thesis.
- Essay prompt: What is the significance of the forest in “Red Riding Hood”?
- Off-topic thesis statement: The fairy tale “Red Riding Hood” demonstrates the dangers of disobeying your parents and trusting strangers.
- On-topic thesis statement: The dark and mysterious imagery of the forest in “Red Riding Hood” symbolizes the dangers that await children outside of the safety of home.
Both thesis statements are clear arguable statements, but only one answers the essay prompt question and is aligned with what the rest of the essay will cover.
#3. Their thesis statement is not an arguable statement.
Here are a few examples:
- “Cinderella” is about a girl who is rescued from her evil stepfamily through the help of her fairy godmother.
- “The Gift of the Magi” shows a loving young couple who ironically give each other worthless gifts, but don’t care.
- “Red Riding Hood” depicts a young girl who is almost eaten by a wolf.
These statements are just simple summaries of facts. They don’t make an argument. At its heart, a literary analysis essay is a persuasive essay. A student is using textual evidence and critical thinking skills to make an argument about the meaning of a text and to persuade the reader that his or her argument is correct.
So it’s important that a thesis statement actually states an opinion.
#4. Their thesis statement is too vague.
As students start to include clear arguable thesis statements in their essay, they will sometimes drift to writing a statement that is too general to be meaningful.
- “Cinderella” shows that good wins over evil.
- “Red Riding Hood” illustrates that life is dangerous.
- “The Gift of the Magic” is about how life can be unexpected sometimes.
These statement aren’t specific enough to the story. They are technically true, but mostly because they are very general platitudes that could be said about almost any story. A good thesis statement needs to show a clear and specific interpretation of the text.
If a student eliminates 1st or 2nd person, asks why instead of just what, and writes a clear, compelling thesis statement, they will already be on their way to writing a great literary analysis essay.
Take the next step by taking advantage of our proven MEK Learning Circles program that helps students dramatically boost their critical thinking and writing skills.
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