Top Three Essay Tips Students Need to Know

Happy New Year! School is back in session and to start off right, here are the top three essay tips students need to know for literary analysis. As a writing tutor, I see the good, the bad and the ugly of essay writing across all grade levels, from elementary school to graduate school.

These three core principles form the foundation for a clear, persuasive literary analysis essay and should be committed to memory as well as be included in a writing rubric or checklist. In my tutoring, I find that students who do not write well suffer from either not knowing or failing to use these simple, yet powerful tools.

  1. TAGS
  2. Thesis = Opinion + Why
  3. 2:1

Explanation of Terms

TAGS stands for Title, Author, Genre, Short Summary. For literary analysis, students must include TAGS in the introductory paragraph. Students who forget TAGS leave the reader lost. What are we reading? Who is the author? What are the basic plot details?

For example, I recently reviewed an essay with the following introduction: “Troy Maxson is a bitter man in Fences…” Although the student was in Honors English at an award-winning high school, the teacher had forgotten to correct the lack of TAGS in the intro. TAGS was not included in the teacher’s lengthy rubric nor ever discussed in class. Oops.

What the student should have written was the following: “Troy Maxson is a bitter man in the play Fences by August Wilson.” An even better TAGS would have added the 3Ws of Who, When, and Where. “Set in 1950s Pittsburgh, the play Fences by August Wilson features the main character Troy Maxson, a former baseball player now turned bitter by his life experiences.”

Students need to memorize TAGS and automatically include it every introductory paragraph for a literary analysis essay including AP English essay responses. TAGS is a basic writing requirement that should be in every teacher’s checklist. For the 3Ws of the Short Summary, students should focus on the basic plot details relevant to the literary analysis that follows.

Thesis = Opinion + Why. The thesis can be more than one sentence but it is rarely more than three sentences. Other synonyms for “opinion” are: “claim”, “argument”, “belief” or “perspective.” The “why” are the reasons to support the opinion and will become the topic sentences organizing the body paragraphs. The number of reasons can range from two or more, depending on the length of the essay. I have yet to find a student who has a better or more succinct definition of a thesis. Most will parrot back vague, meandering definitions of “what your essay is about” or “a roadmap of your main idea with subtopics.” Huh? If anyone has a better definition, please send it to me. So far, I have not found anything comparable.

2:1: This ratio comes from the Schaffer writing method. By giving students a minimum guideline of writing 2 comments for every 1 quote, teachers can ensure that students do not just regurgitate the plot but will include sufficient analysis. One student told me his teacher had the class chant “2-to-1” and “Commentary-Quote-Commentary” in English class. He was lucky as most students I have tutored have never heard of the 2:1 ratio, which may explain why they need tutoring. Applying 2:1 will greatly improve any essay. (564 words)

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