People approach essay writing in so many different ways. Some spend a long time worrying about how to set about writing an informative piece, which will educate, or even entertain, the readers. But it is not just the content that's the issue; it is also the way the content is - or ought to be - written. More may have asked the question: what should I use, the first-person point of view (POV) or the third-person?
Choosing between the two has confused more than a few essay-writing people. Sure, it can be easy to fill the piece up with healthy chunks of information and content, but it takes a deeper understanding of both points of view to be able to avoid slipping in and out one or the other - or at least realize it when it happens. Sure, a Jekyll and Hyde way of writing may be clever, but it can be very confusing in non-fiction forms, like the essay.
Why is all this important?
Continually swapping from the first-person to the third-person POV may leave the reader confused. Who exactly is talking here? Why does one part of the essay sound so detached and unaffected, while the next suddenly appears to be intimate and personal?
Indeed, making the mistake of using both points of view - without realizing it - leaves readers with the impression of the essay being haphazardly written.
Using first-person: advantages and disadvantages
The use of the first-person narration in an essay means that the author is writing exclusively from his or her point of view - no one else's. The story or the information will thus be told from the perspective of "I," and "We," with words like "me," "us," "my," "mine," "our," and "ours" often found throughout the essay.
Example: "I first heard about this coastal island two years ago, when the newspapers reported the worst oil spill in recent history. To me, the story had the impact of a footnote - evidence of my urban snobbishness. Luckily, the mess of that has since been cleaned up; its last ugly ripple has ebbed."
You will see from the above example that the writer, while not exactly talking about himself or herself, uses the first-person point of view to share information about a certain coastal island, and a certain oil spill. The decision to do so enables the essay to have a more personal, subjective, and even intimate tone of voice; it also allows the author to refer to events, experiences, and people while giving (or withholding) information as he or she pleases.
The first-person view also provides an opportunity to convey the viewpoint character or author's personal thoughts, emotions, opinion, feelings, judgments, understandings, and other internal information (or information that only the author possesses) - as in "the story had the impact of a footnote". This then allows readers to be part of the narrator's world and identify with the viewpoint character.
This is why the first-person point of view is a natural choice for memoirs, autobiographical pieces, personal experience essays, and other forms of non-fiction in which the author serves also as a character in the story.
The first-person POV does have certain limitations. First and most obvious is the fact that the author is limited to a single point of view, which can be narrow, restrictive, and awkward. Less careful or inexperienced writers using first-person may also fall to the temptation of making themselves the focal subject - even the sole subject - of the essay, even in cases that demand focus and information on other subjects, characters, or events.
Using third-person: advantages and disadvantages
The third-person point of view, meanwhile, is another flexible narrative device used in essays and other forms of non-fiction wherein the author is not a character within the story, serving only as an unspecified, uninvolved, and unnamed narrator conveying information throughout the essay. In third-person writing, people and characters are referred to as "he," "she," "it," and "they"; "I" and "we" are never used (unless, of course, in a direct quote).
Example: "Local residents of the coastal island province suffered an ecological disaster in 2006, in the form of an oil spill that was reported by national newspapers to be worst in the country's history. Cleaning up took two years, after which they were finally able to go back to advertising their island's beach sands as 'pure' and its soil, 'fertile.'"
Obviously, the use of the third-person point of view here makes the essay sound more factual - and not just a personal collection of the author's own ideas, opinions, and thoughts. It also lends the piece a more professional and less casual tone. Moreover, writing in third-person can help establish the greatest possible distance between reader and author - and the kind of distance necessary to present the essay's rhetorical situations.
The essay being non-fiction, it is important to keep in mind that the primary purpose of the form is to convey information about a particular subject to the reader. The reader has the right to believe that the essay is factually correct, or is at least given context by factual events, people, and places.
The third-person point of view is more common in reports, research papers, critiques, biography, history, and traditional journalistic essays. This again relates to the fact that the author can, with the third-person POV, create a formal distance, a kind of objectivity, appropriate in putting up arguments or presenting a case.
Whenever you read an essay, use the following questions to guide your response.
First, keep in mind that, although you may not be a writing expert, you are THE reader of this essay and your response is a valid one. I have found that almost every reader, regardless of experience, can identify the primary strength and weakness in an essay, although their method of describing those issues may be different. The author will welcome your response and your ability to explain your reaction in a new way. Although the author is not required to, and really shouldn’t, respond to everything you say, he or she will take your comments seriously and consider how the essays has enlightened or confused you. Therefore, comment freely, although respectfully. Keep in mind that it is better to begin by noting the strengths of the essay before pointing out the areas that need improvement. I would always include a personal response to questions like the following: What about the essay most connects with your experience? Moves you? Provokes you? Entertains you?
So that is how to respond. So how do you critique? For every essay, regardless of the mode, consider the broad categories of content, organization, style, and correctness.
- Content: Consider the topic (its appropriateness and interest for the assignment as well as a clear focus suitable to essay length) and the way the topic is developed (clarity sufficiency of its argument, its scope, subcategories, amount and type of examples, anecdotes, evidence, etc.).
- Organization: Consider how the essay is introduced and concluded (especially looking for a “frame” to the essay, where the intro and conclusion refer to the same idea), whether the thesis is located in the most helpful place (direct or implied), how the essay is structured, whether the order or extent of development is successful, as well as how individual paragraphs are organized (clear topic sentences, appropriate and concrete evidence, logical organization of evidence).
- Style: Style can refer to the overall style of an essay: whether the tone is appropriate (humorous, serious, reflective, satirical, etc.), whether you use sufficient and appropriate variety (factual, analytical, evaluative, reflective), whether you use sufficient creativity. Style can also refer to the style of individual sentences: whether you use a variety of sentences styles and lengths, whether sentences are worded clearly, and whether word choice is interesting and appropriate.
- Correctness: Correctness refers to grammar, punctuation, and form of the essay. You do not need to know the exact grammatical term or rule to know when a sentence is not correct. Even though you may not know the term dangling modifier, you could identify that the following sentence is not correct:
Rolling around in the bottom of the drawer, Tim found the missing earring. [certainly the earring was rolling, not Tim!]
You could also easily tell that the following sentence actually contains two sentences that need punctuation between them:
The new manager instituted several new procedures some were impractical. [You need to add punctuation (period) after “procedures” and capitalize “some.”]
Feel free to mark the essay at the point of the error with a specific recommendation (“run-on sentence”) or a general comment (“this sentence sounds wrong to me”). You can also simply put an “X” by any sentence that seems incorrect. See the back of WR for commonly used Correction Symbols.
Further Directions for Specific Assignments
Below are more detailed questions to consider when responding to individual types of essays. First, make sure that you have reviewed the description of the essay mode in the Essay Assignment Guidelines. Use at least one or two of these when responding to an essay. Do not simply answer yes or no; offer specific evidence from the text and elaborate on the reasons behind your answer.
Personal Essay Critique:
- Does the writer have a clear but understated purpose to the essay?
- Does it avoid being overly moralistic or heavy-handed?
- Does the essay contain suspense or tension that is resolved in some way?
- Do you have any suggestions for organizing the essay, such as focusing in on one event rather than many, providing more background, turning explanation into action, etc.?
- Does the essay make good use of concrete description, anecdote, and dialogue?
- Does the essay help you to feel the emotions rather than just describe the emotions of the author?
- Does the essay reveal a significant aspect of the writer’s personality?
- Does the writer seem authentic?
- Is this a passionate piece? Is it creative?
Critical Review Critique
- Does a direct thesis convey both the subject and the reviewer’s value judgment?
- Does the review provide a summary or description to help you experience the film, music, event, etc.? Note places where the author provides too much or too little detail.
- Does the essay clearly identify relevant criteria for evaluation? Are they appropriate, believable, and consistent?
- Are any important features of the reviewed subject omitted?
- Logos (logic, content): Does the essay provide sufficient, relevant, and interesting details and examples to adequately inform and entertain?
- Ethos (author): Does the author’s judgment seem sound and convincing?
- Pathos (emotional appeals): Does the author responsibly and effectively utilize emotional appeals to the audience?
- Does the author include adequate reference to the opposition and respond to that opposition appropriately?
Information Essay Critique: The questions posed about an informative essay will vary, depending on the purpose and strategy of the essay. The SMGW suggests evaluating for the following issues:
- Is topic clearly explained and sufficiently focused?
- Does the content fit the audience?
- Is it organized effectively?
- Are definitions clear?
- Are other strategies (classification, comparison/contrast, analysis) used effectively?
- Are sources used sufficiently, effectively, and appropriately?
You might also assess the following criteria:
- Does the author utilize vivid detail, interesting examples, and lively language?
- Does the essay avoid emphasizing judgment over explanation?
- Does the essay have a clear focus or implied thesis?
Comparison/Contrast Essay Critique
- Is the purpose for a comparison or contrast evident and convincing?
- Does the essay identify significant and parallel characteristics for comparison?
- Does the author adequately explain, analyze, or reflect on the comparison or contrast?
- Does the author provide appropriate transitions words to indicate comparison and contrast?
- Is the treatment of each side of the comparison or contrast in balance?
- Does the essay provide sufficient, relevant, and interesting details?
Feature Article Critique
- Does this article interest you? Do you think it will interest the intended audience? Can you suggest ways to increase interest?
- Can you tell what the “angle” or implied thesis is? Does the author avoid editorial judgment on the subject while still keeping the purpose clear?
- Has the writer done sufficient research? What questions have gone unasked or unanswered? Whose point of view or what information would add further to the completeness of the feature?
- Is the subject presented vividly with sensory images, graphic detail, and figurative language? Do you have suggestions of details or images to include?
- Does the writer use an appropriate mixture of anecdote, quotation, description, and explanation? Would more or less of one of these improve the essay?
- Are the beginning and ending paragraphs interesting and appropriate for the specific audience? Consider the need for a “lead sentence” if intended for a newspaper.
Documented Argument Critique
- Is the thesis clear, argumentative, and effective? Why or why not?
- Are the topic and thesis are reasonable for the assignment, audience, and context of the essay?
- Does the author define his or her terms and provide sufficient background information? What ideas or terms are undefined or inadequately explained?
- Is the thesis supported by clear reasons? Are the reasons clearly worded and supported sufficiently?
- Do the reasons fit logically together and are they placed in the right order?
- Does the author adequately address the opposition? What is another opposing argument he/she should or could have addressed?
- Has the author done adequate research?
- Are the works cited adequately introduced and explained before citing from them?
- Does the paper contain an appropriate blend of well-placed quotations within a context of the author’s own words and paraphrases from other sources?
- Is the writer clearly in charge, naturally introducing and interacting with sources rather than merely reporting on them?
- Do you find the argument convincing? What might you add or omit?
Business Writing Critique
- Does the memo begin with the most important information?
- Does the memo build rapport by involving the reader in opening paragraph?
- Does the memo provide sufficient, relevant, and interesting details? Is it focused and brief?
- Does the memo focus each paragraph on one idea?
- Is the memo informed, accurate, demonstrating the author’s grasp of the situation?
- Is the final paragraph calling for a specific action? Is it brief? Does it build good will?
- Is the memo form correct, with concise subject line, initialed name, correct spacing?
- Is the information arranged (indentations and numbering) in a way that makes it easy to skim and still get central information?
- Does the first paragraph identify who the author is, briefly state why he/she is writing, and refer to how he/she found out about the job?
- Does the second paragraph highlight specific strengths, special abilities, or features of the résumé to be noted?
- Does the third paragraph make a specific request of the reader or address what action is to be taken?
- Does the letter provide sufficient, relevant, and interesting details to make the request convincing?
- Is the letter brief and focused? What elements could be eliminated?
- Does the writer achieve his or her purpose? Does it make you want to consider the résumé more carefully?
- Is the tone of the letter courteous without being too formal, relaxed without being too familiar?
- Is the letter’s form appropriate (heading, spacing, greeting, salutation)? Is the letter addressed to a specific person rather than a general “Dear Madam/Sir”?
- Does the résumé contain the necessary features for the position (name/address, position desired, education, work experience, achievements, relevant personal information, references)?
- Does the résumé contain only essential, relevant information for the position required?
- Does the résumé emphasize the applicant’s strengths?
- Does the résumé emphasize what is unique about this person’s experience? Does it demonstrate a common interest or ability (leadership, teaching experience, dedication, creativity, etc.)?
- What additional information might you like to have about this applicant?
- If you were leading an interview based on this résumé, what are two questions you might ask?
- Does the résumé look neat (appropriate spacing, clear headings, good quality paper)?
- Is the résumé easy to read?
- Is the information presented as concisely as possible?
- Are the elements of each section of the résumé presented in a parallel format and style (begin w/ active verbs, put date in consistent place, use of parallelism for elements, consistent underlining or italics)?