How to Write an Essay Paper Step-by-Step: A Student’s Perspective

by Karen O’Connor

From left: Michael Kenneth Williams as Omar Little, Dominic West as Detective Jimmy McNulty, Aidan Gillen as Mayor Tommy Carcetti and Idris Elba as Stringer Bell

From left: Michael Kenneth Williams as Omar Little, Dominic West as Detective Jimmy McNulty, Aidan Gillen as Mayor Tommy Carcetti and Idris Elba as Stringer Bell

Recently, I was given an essay prompt by my “History of Television” professor. It read:

“Write a two-page essay outlining the work of a television notable.”

The first step to essay-writing is making sure you understand the assignment. I felt it was a little vague, so I approached the professor to ask him to clarify what he was looking for. Did he want an evaluative/critical essay, or an informative account? In other words, did he want to know my feelings about the television notable, or did he prefer a historical, factual account? He said he was interested in what I thought about the topic, but also wanted background information on the television notable. He went on to stress that traditional essay format was important to him, meaning an introduction that included a thesis statement, body paragraphs and conclusion. He also told me that I could choose a writer, an actor, a producer or a whole show, as long as I believed it fell into the category of “notable.”

The next step in my process was to choose a topic. Since I know that the more interested in the topic I am, the better my paper will be, I thought about what I appreciated in a television show. I decided that equal rights for minorities was a great topic. Now I had to narrow it down to a television show, preferably one that I was already familiar with, because I didn’t have time to watch an entire series.

To begin, I did a Google search on “TV shows that advanced equal rights for minorities.” My topic brought up the usual lists and articles with names such as “The Top Ten TV Dramas that Made a Difference.” I noticed one thing as I skimmed over the article summaries. One show that came up again and again was HBO’s The Wire by David Simon. I had enjoyed a few episodes in the past, and decided I had found my topic.

Over the next few days, I alternated between watching episodes of the show and doing online research. If it had been a longer assignment, say a 7 – 10 page paper, I would have looked into interviews and documentaries, but since it was only a 2 pager, I contented myself with articles. I needed to narrow the topic down to two or three areas I could base my body paragraphs on.

When I am researching a topic that is as interesting to me as this one is, the research is the fun part. If I’m not careful, I can procrastinate the writing and do way too much research. I realized that I was doing exactly that, and that it was time to pull the plug.

The next step was the outline. For a 2-page paper, I knew from experience that I needed an introduction, two or three body paragraphs and a conclusion. To develop my thesis, I asked myself what was the most interesting thing I had read about The Wire. I was fascinated by the fact that so many people claimed it was the best show ever made. When someone makes a blanket statement like that, they can only be voicing their opinion. For some people, the funniest show might be considered “the best” while someone else wouldn’t consider anything but a reality show. So I started to ask myself in what ways the show really did stand out and what made it different from other TV shows in the Crime Drama genre.

For one thing, President Obama loved the show. That tipped me off that the show was about America and not just Baltimore, Maryland, where it takes place. My observations from reading about and watching the show convinced me that there was a lot of truth in the way the show depicted the plight of inner-city African American kids brought up in poverty in the projects, where much of the series takes place.  I also noticed the show points out the frustrations of the police department in dealing with the authorities who are in charge, and how the bureaucracy would at times actually stop them from being able to do their jobs. The politicians were more interested in looking good for the press conference than actually “doing good.” At this point, I realized I had enough to create my outline.

Many people think that an outline is a waste of time, because it’s an extra step. For me, I find it helps me to organize my thoughts and saves time. The end result is a better paper because of that organization. The outline for “The Wire” looked something like this (although I cleaned it up for this presentation):

  1. Introduction/thesis: If the criterion for the “best television show ever” were gritty realism and unflinching honesty about the real problems in American society, The Wire would stand head and shoulders above other shows of its kind.
  2. First Body Paragraph: “The drama repeatedly cuts from the top of Baltimore’s social structure to its bottom, from political fund-raisers in the white suburbs to the subterranean squat of a homeless junkie” (Weisberg). Talk about the gritty realism and the different levels of society the show examines.
  3. Second Body Paragraph: Discuss how the war on drugs and other American systems are set up to protect the rich and powerful while hurting the poor minorities, and how The Wire demonstrates this.
  4. Conclusion: mention some of the other television shows that have attempted to expose the plight of the underprivileged, but stress that the way The Wire tackles the broken systems head-on. Within this context, it is reasonable to claim that The Wire is one of the best television shows ever created.

At this point, I was ready to write. Here’s the paper I came up with on The Wire.

TheWirePaper – KOC – 11715



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