by KC Wade
As a tutor, I worked with high school freshmen struggling to master the formal essay. You may think that English is the only class that will require you to write essays, but strong writing is important in many academic subjects. Science courses require lab reports written in a clear, logical style, and those attempting Advanced Placement history courses know that the DBQ essay is no joke!
[Continue reading to learn about formal essay writing]
But transitioning to formal high school writing can be difficult. Formal essays have a more rigid structure than creative writing assignments– an essay filled with descriptive personal experiences may be well-written, but not necessarily a high-scoring formal essay. Formal essays and creative essays use writing to achieve different objectives, and learning when to use a formal essay is the first step toward becoming an effective high school writer.
- Creative essays explore questions and use specific details to illustrate
- Formal essays argue questions and use specific details as evidence
Creative essays and formal essays treat the writing topic, or question, very differently. Let’s say you were reading the Charles Dickens’ book Great Expectations for class, and you were asked to write an essay to answer the question: does wealth corrupt personal character? A good creative writer would explore this question from many angles, first detailing how it feels to be rich, then retelling events from the lives of the book’s characters and their attitudes toward money. These details would illustrate a few common themes that Dickens uses to connect money and personal character, and the ending paragraph would suggest which themes the author thought were most important.
A formal essay on the same topic would look very different. In the first few paragraphs, a formal essay would propose an answer to the question—for example: “According to Charles Dickens, money corrupts personal character, even in young, innocent people.” The rest of the essay would argue that this conclusion is true, based on several smaller conclusions about parts of the book. This essay would continue like a criminal case, mounting evidence in the form of quotes or specific events in the story to support the primary conclusion that “money does corrupt personal character.” The end paragraph would summarize all the evidence you put forward, reassert the conclusion, then rest the case.
The outline I’ve described is an example of formal writing for English class, but this same structure can apply to papers in other subjects. In a lab report, especially the discussion section, you should assert your conclusions about the experiment up front, then systematically explain which results led you to your answer. In a history DBQ, you create a central thesis statement and then use the “documents” provided, along with classroom knowledge, as your supporting evidence.
As you gain experience, your formal writing may become more complex than the basic example I’ve given. However, in the beginning it is important to ask, “Does my assignment ask for exploring and illustrating or an argument and evidence?” If it’s the second option, it’s a formal essay!
About the author: KC Wade is a graduate of Princeton University’s Woodrow Wilson School of Public Policy (Class of 2011) and was a high jumper for the varsity track & field team. She has interned at the U.S. Department of State and studied abroad in India during her time at Princeton, and completed a 118-page senior thesis on wind and solar power in India. KC was a campus Peer Advisor and led camping trips for freshmen alongside her tutoring work with Princeton Tutoring.