An Arbitrary List of Things Anathema to Good Essay Writing (According to Lydon)
Writing an essay is easy, so long as its author isn’t particularly invested in the quality of the writing. But should the writer care to care about the writing (or at least the reader), then the business of writing a good essay is actually quite difficult. It is also, unfortunately, a practiced skill. There is no simple checklist for a good essay. I sincerely wish there was - teaching it would simply be a matter of going down the list! No, even if a particular essay had all the pieces of what might be considered “good,” it might still end up being “rather terrible” in the same way that a mannequin might technically have all the pieces of an ideal dance partner - in both cases, when you get out in front of people with it, it just isn’t going to move in a way that arouses the envy of your audience.
Lacking the ability to clearly identify the good in a particularly meaningful way, I can at least identify the bad, or at the very least the things that arbitrarily make me grumpy when I see them on the page. To be clear, this is no official list from the gods of grammar, but are the whims of an English teach with an inflated sense of self and the arrogance to believe he can decide what should or should not be done.
That’s your Title?
You wrote an essay and didn’t title it? Or, worse, the title is the name of the assignment? But didn’t you work hard at this? This is the very first impression with your essay I will have; why must you declare so boldly that “this is a thing I had to do and put only the minimum level of thought into”?
You worked hard to write this essay! It is a concentration of creative thought and technical execution! Like art! And it has a particular argument to be made, an idea that fills every phrase and clause with meaning. So, like a fine painting or great musical anthem, give it a title that speaks to its central argument and your effort. Title it such that I know there is brilliance between the first and last sentences.
An academic essay is an argument that attempts to convincingly state THIS IS THE TRUTH! It does this by laying out a thoughtful thesis that can be supported by reasoned arguments that rely on evidence made compelling by detailed commentary.
But as soon as you say that something is your opinion, or that you think something, or that you believe something to be true, you are disregarding the fundamental goal of the essay, which is to reveal a convincing TRUTH. An opinion can be disregarded; we are comfortable assuming opinions are irrelevant.
So do not use these three words or even suggest them. A critical reader might find weaknesses in your argument anyway. Do not make it easier on them!
“Makes it More Interesting”
No it doesn’t. Do not say that something is made “more interesting” because it is not actually an interesting thing to say. It is what you say when you aren’t sure what is actually happening. When you can’t say how it is interesting.
Try to figure out why it is more interesting and say that instead. THAT is actually interesting.
Authors, narrators, and characters often say things. They exclaim, express, state, declare, ask, and demand. They can even imagine and suggest.
But they almost never quote.
This is because quoting is when someone else’s words are taken and repeated in part or as a whole. So you - the essay writer - quote. But you should not suggest that “when the character says this quote” something happens, because the statement didn’t become a quote until you used it again, and they didn’t quote your quote. So don’t accuse authors, narrators, or characters from stealing from you.
The other use of “this quote” is to refer back to a quotation that was used in the essay, which is an accurate way to use the phrase but it isn’t very interesting. When you say “this quote” you are telling your reader to go back, make sure they know which quote you mean, and then return to the sentence they were just reading. It is like the worst choose-your-own-adventure story ever. Instead, revisit the quote and make what you mean clear by reminding us what the quote was about: “In making this statement about the importance of…”
“This” reminds me: I need to talk about “this.” I’ll get to it a bit later.
Do not do it. Ever. You monster.
Maybe Could Have Hypothetically, Possibly
Remember that the essay is about expressing THE TRUTH, so expressing doubt is pretty much the exact opposite of what we want. This is an extension of avoiding “my opinion” (and similar) in your writing. Do not suggest possibility.
Suggesting that maybe this or maybe that was the motivation for some choice by the author or the character is not useful. It is, instead, shrugging your shoulders and deciding that, yes, certainly there is meaning to be found somewhere, if only there was someone brave enough to explore a bit and find it! Your job is to declare what is THE TRUTH, not present the possibility of there hypothetically maybe being a kind-of truth that could have been around somewhere.
Now, there is a way to use the hypothetical, but it should be used sparingly. Presenting the possible can be an effective way of making an argument, so long as you then challenge the possibilities you have provided until a conclusion can be arrived at. For example, Mr. Lydon might have created an Arbitrary List of Things Anathema to Good Essays (According to Lydon) because he is tired of repeating himself in class or because he wanted it as a resource for his students or even because he can’t sit back and enjoy a summer break because he still feels like he needs to do something that feels teachery. Or, more likely, all three. [A three-page analysis of Mr. Lydon follows in support, which includes conclusions about his use of the third person.]
Still, your goal is to support what is, so try not to spend too much effort on what could be.
SHHH!!! No Talking!
Not from anyone [in your essay].
Please do not write about “what I’m talking about” in your essay. Or what “the author is talking about.” Or even what “the novel says.”
You, the author, and the novel are not saying anything! The narrator doesn’t even always talk! They narrate, but unless they are a character specifically engaging verbally with the scene, they are NOT talking.
Characters talk. It is one of many essential components of a character (and so, even if they do not talk, they are still telling you something important). But conversation only really happens in the text itself.
There is one exception here, and that is the rhetorical analysis, where the point is to analyze how the author is trying to argue a point. But even then, the author is not just talking or saying, but arguing. And the text itself is still silent, just a vessel for the case being made by the writer.
The Comma Is a Terrible Matchmaker
One of the most frequent grammatical errors my students make is called a comma splice. You should really look it up, but it is when two sentences (well, independent clauses) are joined with a comma instead of more appropriate punctuation.
Why is this a problem? Because 100% of sentence marriages officiated by a comma end in divorce. You cannot have a lasting marriage of ideas if you are using a comma to join them. Use a period (.), an exclamation (!) or question (?) mark. Heck, a semi-colon (;) is a great way to marry the ideas in those two sentences together and allow them to keep their identities (if you can do it well), but the comma mushes the sentences together and, suddenly, the meaning that they each could have had is gone, and together they mean even less.
Give those sentences the sense of identity they need. They are stronger together when they are independently strong [clauses].
So: every time you use a comma, read what is to the left of it, then what is to the right. If both sound like complete sentences, that comma needs to go!
You are not buddies with the author
You know how I know this? The first hint was that you are a teenager and the second was that the author is dead.
Because you are not a close friend, you should avoid at all costs using the author’s first name only. First and last name is fine or just the last name is swell, but unless the author only goes by one name (like Prince! … although even he had a first name for a while: “The Artist Formally Known As”), let’s be a bit more formal, yeah? Same rules apply to poets, directors, actors, musicians, artists, scientists… all that.
Note: first names are totally ok with characters and are even preferred. As a rule, refer to characters in a novel/film/poem however the text does!
It is also possible the author doesn’t exist (you and I certainly don’t), but I’ll get to that later.
The word “very” is comfortable in our conversations. It is easy. It isn’t especially specific, but it does a decent job of expressing roughly how much more a thing is than is typical. How sad? Very sad. How hot? Very hot. How boring? Very boring.
It is not, however, interesting, especially when writing. A writer should be specific, and “very” is exactly the opposite of specific. So why not describe him as despairing, the sidewalk as an inferno, and the Arbitrary List of Things Anathema to Good Essays (According to Lydon) as tedious? Sure very sad, hot, or boring would work, but only just barely.
Do not use the word “essay” in your essay. In fact, don’t talk about the fact that what is being read is a piece of writing at all. Your reader knows it is writing.
I do not exist (Neither Does this class)
It can be cute when a student refers to me or the class in their writing. Sometimes it is a little joke on the side: "The author use a variety of allusions (I didn’t say a lot because Lydon hates it, HA").” Sometimes it is a little too much honesty: “I know this isn’t my best work, but I’m struggling to get all my homework done.” In any cases like these, acknowledging your teacher or the class weakens the essay itself.
I really do enjoy these notes though, so please write them on the side, at the top, on the bottom or on the back. But write them in pen. Make them feel passed directly to me and not part of the essay. Let me know that this assignment was hard or that you are struggling with a skill. Annotate the choices you made based on this Arbitrary List of Things Anathema to Good Essays. I really will enjoy it! But keep me and the class out of the essay itself.
(at a glance)
I often look at a whole essay before reading the first words and I can often arrive at a couple tentative conclusions based solely on the paragraph lengths. Here are things I might think:
“This is a huge first paragraph; the student probably put analysis in here that belongs in the body of the essay.”
“This paragraph is short and either doesn’t develop its ideas enough (a problem) or it introduces an idea that is explored in greater depth and specificity in the next paragraph (pretty good, actually).”
“The paragraphs get shorter as the essay goes on; they likely started to run out of ideas as they went.”
“There are no paragraphs breaks at all and now I want to die a little bit.”
“This paragraph is huge; the student probably has more than one main idea here and struggled with how to clearly organize the essay.”
“All of these paragraphs are the exact same size; the student likely wasn’t sure when their ideas were complete and instead ended their paragraphs guessing what “looked like enough.”
It is worth noting that these initial assumptions are not always correct, but I would say that they often are.
It might sound that there is nothing to be done - too long, too short, too consistent, everything is wrong! Don’t freak out just yet. These are always just initial ideas because the real work of critical reading is evaluating what is actually in front of you. Similarly, the real work of effective writing is in the revision. If you are asking yourself these questions before handing in your work to me, you will likely be making changes that prevent my initial impressions from coming true.
No Matter How Great it Is, It Isn’t Great
Your English teacher likely loves literature (and if they don’t, leave the class immediately - if possible - or get tutoring from another English teacher), and because of this love, they likely try to give you top-shelf texts to work with. The good stuff. They probably hope you enjoy these texts and recognize their quality, too.
But, no matter how great the texts are, please do not ever talk about how great they are! Same for the author (so don’t say they do a “good job” or are a “masterful author”).
In fact, never praise the author or the text in your essays. There are writing modes (like reviews or personal reflections) where this is appropriate, but the essay is not the place for it.
One of the first reasons is that I almost always assume the student is lying. In my experience, the students who hated the short story or novel assigned to them are more likely to offer praise, describing the author as a “genius” and the text as “fantastic,” “brilliant,” or even “awe-inspiring.” I even had a student specifically thank me for assigning a text once. Uh huh. Sure.
While I hope that students really do enjoy these texts, the purpose of the writing is to thinking critically about them, and this kind of praise is not critical. And, even more to the point, it is not on topic! The Prompt - being Life - is basically never going to be, “In a short response, explain how super neato this story is.”
Remember your goal: reveal THE TRUTH. Praise isn’t the truth. Not ever. So ditch it.
The Author May Not Exist
When you write a letter to grandma (or ask your parents for a favor) you are the sweetest version of yourself. Not you as you are, but you as you want to be seen. By performing in this way, you are trying to imply who you are as a speaker. You are creating an authorial persona.
Authors (of all sorts, to include poets) do this all the time. Musicians live and breathe on their personas. We don’t expect Billie Eilish’s “Bad Guy” to represent who she is sitting down for Thanksgiving dinner any more than we expect Lizzo’s “Juice” to reveal who she is in church. Authorship is performative!
Because authorship is performative, we have a type of writing dedicated to analyzing how the tools of authorship are used to make a point (rhetorical analysis), but most essays are not the place to do this!
For this reason, do not talk about what the author says in your essays! You may certainly explain the literary choices they make, but any conclusions you reach are the result of what the text says (THE TRUTH), not what the author says. They are separate.
If you are exploring the content of what is written, refer to what the speaker, narrator, or character says. Leave the author out of it.
You, Me, and I do not exist
A quick check: are you writing a personal narrative? No? Then you do not exist.
Well, YOU, do, but the personal second-person pronoun “you” as well the first person pronouns “me,” “I,” “we,” and “us” do not - or at least should not - in your essay.
If ever you write about “you” (referring to the reader), you begin to make assumptions about your audience, and in essay writing this is almost always a mistake. Your job as writer is to present the material in a way that is both engaging and convincing to your audience. As soon as you start writing about your audience, you can easily alienate or lose them. What if you state that they should arrive at a conclusion that they haven’t already arrived at? Suddenly your audience is confused or, even worse, somewhat insulted by your preconceptions of their perspective.
As for using those first-person pronouns, the reality is that a thoughtful reader is aware that you, the writer, are writing and presenting a perspective that is your own. It is unnecessary to talk about yourself, because your audience already knows you exist and are providing information based on your own understanding.
Another reason not to use any of these pronouns is that doing so is informal and not well-suited to essay writing. They both have cases where they work well (the personal narrative and reflections for I/me; arguments specific to a particular audience for you/we/us), but the essay just isn’t it.
Usually Generals Often Sometimes
For some reason, I regularly have students that want to talk about things that occur “in general.” I’m not sure why. There isn’t anything wrong with talking about what generally happens, but you cannot make this your point. This isn’t a point. This is an observation about a larger pattern. What you must still do is talk about what it means that this often, usually, generally happens. This can actually be used effectively if you compare it to an instance where this often-usually-generally thing doesn’t happen, or something different happens instead.
The thing you definitely shouldn’t do is go on and on trying to prove something happens often or, even more frustrating, talk about how things often-usually-generally occur outside of your specific topic. An example that makes me cry is this: “In general, authors want to tell stories that matter.” This kind of big, broad statement that is totally unrelated to the specific content of the essay doesn’t help the essay’s argument at all, it just exists to suggest that something happens in some situation, and it happens often. Usually. Generally.
Students absolutely LOVE to start sentences with “This [noun]”! They can’t get enough of it. It is the ice cream of bad essay writing. They talk about something a character does, then start the next sentence with “This action…” or use a quotation and begin the next sentence with “This quote…” But.
This choice to start a sentence with such a simple, uninformative structure is a mistake. There are two reasons: 1) beginning in this way requires your reader to understand “this” in exactly the same way you do and; 2) this basic structure doesn’t actually do any work for you.
The first reason might seem counter-intuitive. The whole point of “this” is to point a finger and say “hey, that right there!” Unfortunately, our readers can’t see our fingers pointing just upward on the page. So if you mentioned just one thing, maybe they know roughly what you are talking about, but they may have missed what was important about it. And if you mentioned two or more actions or details, then “this” could mean one, the other, or both!
The second reason is less clear, but you should consider every sentence in your essay an opportunity to be clear. When you say “This [thing]” you are choosing not to provide specific, useful information. You are wasting words to say nothing.
Instead, do what I did in the second paragraph of this explanation and offer a detailed replacement for the [thing]. Try “This choice to take an action with little hope of success” rather than “This choice.” Your writing will be more specific and your reader will be happy. I will be happy.
Correctly Identify Your Titles
Here is the basic rule: if it is a long text or a collection, put it in italics (or underline it when hand-writing); short texts or anything part of a collection should be in quotation marks. “Long text” might sound vague, but we are talking long for the medium, so a long written text is a novel while a long filmed work is a feature-length movie.
Underline (hand-written) or Italics:
Beauty and the Beast (film)
The Great Gatsby (novel)
The Collected Works of Robert Frost (collection)
Game of Thrones (show name and a collection of episodes)
When We All Fall Asleep, Where Do We Go? (album title and a collection of songs)
“Paperman” (short film)
“The Cask of Amontillado” (short story)
“Fire and Ice” (poem found in a collection)
“The Iron Throne” (episode from Game of Thrones)
“Bury a Friend” (song title from a Billie Eilish album)
There is some weirdness you should be aware of. I hear mixed things about epic poems that have been printed by themselves and as part of a collection (usually italics). Same for novellas (also usually italics). Then there are titles for franchises, like the Harry Potter series. Notice what I did? No italics or quotation marks! Because it is a title for the series it must be capitalized, but it is not the formal name for a released work so it is neither in quotation marks or italics.
Still, the long/short/collection criteria is a good basic principle.
“Uses Diction” and Friends
You have, at some point, said that an author “uses diction” or any of its friends: syntax, tone, perspective and a few others.
And then you never did it again. Right?
Because these are the inescapable devices of language. If you use words, you use diction; if you organize those words, you have used syntax; if you did or did not feel anything about those words (or your audience), you used tone… You see where this is going.
You can and should talk about how authors manipulate these foundational devices, but you must do so in a way that doesn’t state the obvious - “Mr. Lydon used and organized words to make his point!” Thankfully, there is an easily solution to this: adjectives. What kind of diction? How about stern, epic, witty, or colloquial? What kind of syntax? How about stunted, flowing, jarring, or bombastic? Not only does this actually mean something, but it also shows you actually know what the heck you are talking about! WIN!
There are some literary devices that, technically, don’t need classification by using an adjective, but even these can be spiced up. Isn’t “unexpected juxtaposition” or “sonorous alliteration” better than just the devices used by themselves?
“It Paints a picture”
NO IT DOES NOT! Students often write that something “paints a picture” of something else, often noting that this picture is painted “in the mind.”
Maybe at one point it did, but this phrase has been used so many times that it is wildly uninteresting and English teachers the world over die a little bit whenever they see this phrase. Please. Think of the English teachers.
It is not “alot.” It is “a lot.” As in a generous but non-specific quantity, which is known as a “lot.”
The best way to avoid this is to be more specific. By its nature, “a lot” is vague. Approximate. Instead, give us precise or useful details. You might fairly say that your AP Lit teacher gave you a lot of homework, and I wouldn’t mind, but should you explain how the author used a lot of allusions, we are going to have a problem.
Why not describe when it happens: “The author initially uses allusions to…” or “the regular use of allusions by the author…”; why not describe the type of usage: “the reliance on Biblical allusions” or “allusions to pop culture.” If you can avoid the situation where “a lot” shows up, you can avoid writing “alot” a lot.
No real arguments here, just what you should be doing (in MLA, for English classes):
1” margins around the page
12 point font (FOR ALL TEXT)
Ariel, Times New Roman, Calibri (or similar) (FOR ALL TEXT)
1.15 or 1.5 inch spacing (technically, MLA is double, but this wastes paper)
Title centered on page; no big space between title and first paragraph
In the top left, a heading:
Class name (I’d accept assignment name as well or instead)
The best quote you will ever make use of in an essay is going to be about five words long. Maybe less.
Don’t tell me how I know. I just do.
And yet students love long quotes. They quote whole sentences or multiple sentences. I’ve had students quote an entire paragraph, so rich was the love for the long quote. In almost every case, this has been a mistake. Seriously. I have seen thousands of quotes, and 99% of the long ones have not been useful.
Instead, keep your quotes short. This allows you to more easily fit them into your sentence (“Mr. Lydon’s weird list of things ‘Anathema to Good Essays’ can actually be useful”), but it also shows your teacher you did something important: you made a choice. Quoting a whole sentence tells your teacher the following: “I’m vaguely aware that there is something important here.” Quoting five words (or less) says, instead, “These are clearly important and I thought carefully about their selection.”
There are cases where quoting more is appropriate, but you should know that there are fewer cases in which you should and there are many more rules to doing so grammatically. So maybe don’t?
The Prompt is Life
As Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson once said: live by the prompt; die by the prompt. This might have been Jesus and may be liberally paraphrased.
The point is the prompt is everything.
So write your thesis, then check the prompt. Does it respond to everything the prompt wants?
Write your introduction. How ‘bout that prompt?
Your first body paragraph? Is every part of it answering a portion of the prompt?
Your second? Your third?
When you finish your body paragraphs, has every part of the prompt been thoroughly explored?
Does your conclusion explore, briefly, how your body paragraphs and thesis answered the prompt?
Have you spent enough time with your prompt that your friends taunt you, saying, “If you love it so much why don’t you just marry the prompt?!” and you respond with “Yeah, well, maybe I will!”? Because that’s the stuff good responses are made of. Anything anywhere in your essay that is not in service to your prompt is going to cause a rift between you and… your grade. Actually.
Please answer the prompt.
It may seem absurd to start an item that is so near the end with “Firstly,” but I will go a step further and say that it is equally absurd to ever use “Firstly” in an essay.
And it isn’t because it is not a word. “Firstly” is as much of a word as “First” and don’t let anyone tell you otherwise (grammarians and dictionary-writers have been complaining about it for less than 200 years, but it has been in use for about 700).
That doesn’t mean it is an especially effective word. Neither is “First,” as a matter of fact, so let’s just stop using both - in one particular situation: paragraph heads.
Beginning body paragraphs with “First,” “Second,” “Third,” - and so on - is a safe and simple manner of showing organization in an essay, and the same is true of “Firstly,” “Secondly,” and “Thirdly,”. It is not, unfortunately, especially useful or interesting. Every English teacher has seen this strategy employed hundreds (or even thousands) of times because of its simplicity.
“Ah, yes, this paragraph is the beginning of the writer’s second point, as it has been labeled as such!” the reader [teacher] is imagined to response on seeing “Second,” but what the teacher actually does is sigh, take a deep breath, and try to imagine the word isn’t there at all because - and here’s a trick - literally every body paragraph is improved by removing these boring transition words. I promise, the reader already knows this is a new, concurrent idea. Just putting it in a new paragraph has made this clear!
The question then is, “How do I transition between paragraphs?” to which I’ll provide a too-brief-but-still-useful suggestion: make a connect to the previous paragraph. Keep it brief, but just state their relationship in the first sentence of the new paragraph. Go up to my introduction at the very top of the page and you’ll find the second paragraph briefly mentions the focus of the first paragraph (the difficulty of saying what should be done in good essay-writing) before introducing the focus of the second (the ease of identifying what not to do). This will take practice, but it is well worth it!
Note*: First, Second, and Third are fine transition words if you are specifically describing a sequence or ranked list, so should you find yourself writing instructions to buried treasure or how to safely feed your pet velociraptor, please use them. Getting those instructions wrong would… well, I’d rather not.