Reading an Essay

Depending on the essayist, reading this type of literature can be complicated or very simple. Although the social commentary is easy to understand because its purpose is for you to be able to relate to the opinions it proposes, when you get to the academic essay you may have to spend a little more time analyzing the information.

Someone can write an academic essay about any topic such as art, literature, history, music, or science. You will also find essays in the form of social commentary, as you may have seen in the works of Mark Twain. Here are the steps you should take when reading an essay containing complex writing style and/or content:

1. Read the essay once. Concentrate on the main idea and the author’s point. Don’t worry about details.
2. Focus on key words and phrases. If key words and phrases are used repeatedly, they are probably pertinent to the point the author is trying to make. Underline them and go back to them later if you don’t understand them.
3. Read the article again, slowly and carefully this time. Find the thesis—the central ideas of the essay. Get a sense of structure of the essay and how it builds around the central theme. If you don’t understand the thesis, the structure of the essay may lead you to its central idea. Sometimes it helps to look for key words such as for example or for instance—these will be terms used to back up the central idea. Follow the backup examples and you will locate the thesis.
4. Ask yourself questions. What is the author trying to prove? What does the author do to prove the thesis? Does he or she build an argument on the topic helping you see other sides? Does he or she disprove other theories to build his or her own? Is there one single statement that will qualify the entire essay? For example: “Creativity is not innate but environmental” or “Dogs are loyal but will attach to more than one master” or “If a tree fell in the woods and nobody heard it, it would still make a sound.”
5. Underline the main points. Make notations in your own words as to what these main points are. Don’t be surprised if there is more than one main point. They should all fit together to one main thesis (if it is a well-written essay). When looking for structure in an essay, this is what you should find:
1. The introduction. If the thesis statement is not here, keep reading. Make a note where the introduction ends and the body of the argument within the text begins.
2. The body of the essay. Here you will see a series of paragraphs that will begin to explain the introduction by using various main ideas.

• Subdivisions: All these paragraphs should be subdivisions of the main topic. (This is especially true in longer essays.) If the essay is the concept of nature in romantic portraiture, for example, notice where the author talks about nature in general, nature as specific to the concept of romanticism, the general purpose of portraiture, and how landscape is used as a romantic ideal, etc. Notice where the essayist breaks up his points—label these points.
• Find the paragraphs that back up a point—these paragraphs will usually give examples and will fit into one of the subdivisions. Within each subdivision, find the author’s central point. Find the “topic” sentence in each paragraph, where the author brings you back to the major issue.
3. The conclusion. Check again to see whether the thesis statement is made here for the first time, or whether it is reiterated to bring the essay full circle. Sometimes the thesis will not be stated at all, only implied. When you’re done with the final reading, ask yourself these questions, write them down, and then write down your answers so you are clear:
• What is the main thesis of this essay?
• Why did the author write this?
• Who did he or she write it for?
• What is the tone of the essay? Is it hostile or empathetic? Kind or indifferent?
• Did the writer convince me?

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