Isn’t it wonderful when you can write an essay focusing on something you actually care about?
Let’s face it—not everyone is thoroughly invested in preparing a persuasive essay for living in the country or the city, or comparing and contrasting heat and cold. Sometimes, however, you are given the opportunity to write about something that personally applies to your life, and it’s thrilling! At the same time, this can be a tricky issue to handle in academic circles.
Topics like analyzing a favorite novel, explaining a religious stance, or persuading a reader to agree with a political opinion are all fabulous for essays, and students are often highly invested in them, but these can also lead to pitfalls in writing.
Because you have a personal connection to the subject matter, approaching it in an academically appropriate manner may be difficult.
As a scorer for EIW’s Scoring Service, I have received dozens of essays about topics like Christianity, Judaism, Islam, gun control laws, environmentalism, origins of the universe theories, and even uncontroversial topics like beloved family members and favorite hobbies. These can be the best essays—and they can also be the worst. Not because I do or don’t agree with the student, but because they don’t know how to write academically about the subject matter. While it’s wonderful to see my students so passionate and invested in various aspects of their cultures and countries and families, their voice could be better heard if they knew how to communicate personal viewpoints well.
This applies to other issues as well, such as mental health and opinions about art, films, and literature.
Let’s say, for example, a student is writing an expository essay about an art piece. Which of the following excerpts is more appropriate for an academic paper?
The vibrant colors applied in thick coats across the canvas captivated me. Once I was paying attention, I saw the smaller details, like the abstract figures interlaced throughout the swirling colors. To me, the piece was about the beautiful mess of humanity, intertwined yet distinct.
The painting was amazing and beautiful; people simply can’t see this work and not be changed by it. It speaks to the soul with a powerful message about humanity. I was inexplicably joyful after my visit to the museum. Truly, it was a life-changing experience.
Both passages are first person accounts of an impactful artwork, but only the first one uses concrete details and explanations; the second uses only vague terms like “amazing,” “powerful,” and “life-changing.” While these may be accurate, they are not informative. The first sample is much better fit for an academic paper.
How are you, a homeschool student, supposed to write academic essays about things that are personal to you?
About faiths you do or do not adhere to, political topics you do or do not agree with, health struggles you may or may not experience firsthand? Here are three basic guidelines:
1) Be informed.
Just because you have personal knowledge of the matter does not mean you have all the knowledge. Several of the essays I have graded in the past contained no information about the topic beyond the writer’s limited personal experience; therefore, the student came across as uninformed. This will discredit the writer very quickly in high school and college circles. You must be informed about an issue to approach it convincingly, especially if you are required to write about something you don’t believe in or don’t agree with—which is almost a certainty if you go to college.
2) Be specific.
Like I said earlier, “amazing” and “life-changing”—or, in the negative, “ridiculous” and “awful”—are not informative adjectives, and they often make your writing seem elementary. Even if you have had a life-changing experience with the matter at hand, describe that experience specifically, not vaguely. This is true for all academic papers; just because you have a personal connection to the topic doesn’t mean you should be less specific. In fact, you should be more so. Using a thesaurus to find fresh and elevated vocabulary will help bring clarity to your writing, but remember that an effective description is more than fancy adjectives and verbs. Find words and craft phrases that pinpoint exactly what you want to communicate.
3) Be academic.
Obviously, right? When writing an academic paper, be academic! But what does that mean? It means that you aren’t writing a blog post or a memoir; you aren’t writing a devotional or propaganda; you aren’t writing a journal entry or a personal letter. You’re writing an academic paper. Be formal. Be respectful. Be more focused on mind than on heart, more focused on facts than on feelings. This can be difficult when writing about a topic that really means something to you, but it is very important.
In other forms of writing—blogs, fiction, journals, devotionals, memoirs, etc.—feel free to throw #3 out the window! The first two points will help your writing be stronger in any circumstance, but the third is just for school settings. It is important, though! When writing for academics, write for academics!
On a final note, I want to say, YES! Write about topics you are personally invested in!
Do it! I don’t want to scare anyone off from writing about such things. I only want to help you write about such topics properly. The goal, as always, is to write well and communicate clearly.
By Athena Lester
Curriculum Development and Scoring Services