Back to Basics – Essay Writing

I don’t know about you, but I usually end the first semester somewhat in a frenzy, jump into the holidays without (rightly) thinking about work, and begin the second semester with thoughts of regrouping and refocusing. Enter the #aplitchat two weeks ago which focused on basic essay components; this proved to be just what I needed to help me refocus and think about what it truly important in terms of writing the AP essay. The responses have been summarized by questions (here’s a list of all of the answers) and some application activities follow. As an added bonus, a list of favorite winter poems from our community is at the bottom of the post; I definitely see this list being a great resource for a class activity on a cold day.  Now to essay writing – 

What is the purpose of an introduction in an AP Lit. poetry or prose essay? What should be accomplished before a student moves on to the body paragraphs?

Karla Hillard says it best: “Establish voice; make a claim.” Questions from the prompt should be answered with a clear claim thus providing the reader a sense of direction for the essay. Really, does an AP essay (or any essay) introduction need to be any more complicated than this? Students should not regurgitate the prompt or just identify a theme or devices but rather bring an observation they make about the passage to the reader’s attention so they can spend the remainder of the essay providing examples of how they came to this conclusion.

What belongs in an introduction?

A thesis is a definite must in an introduction; no introduction no matter how long or short is complete without one. Brian Sztabnik coaches his students to include the TAG – title, author, and genre – for some context. Kristin Runyon uses FATT – focus, author, text type, title – to provide context. The introduction should be a place for students to use strong language with special attention to verbs which can showcase student voice. Finally, an introduction should include some type of big picture idea making a statement about humanity and answers the So What questions which students often save for the conclusion.

What doesn’t belong in an introduction?

After being a reader, there’s a long list of things that do not belong in an introduction such as personal praise for the author or ridiculous and silly one-liners like “Get Thee behind me Satan” (for real, this happens). Students should avoid offering text support or providing evidence in the introduction. Students should also refrain from giving a summary of the passage (or book) or a lengthy connection to a historical event which many do thinking it will provide context for the reader. Finally, students should not give generalizations about theme or cheesy hooks.

What is the purpose of a body paragraph and how will it differ in style and structure from the introduction?

Body paragraphs are where the real analysis of the passage occurs; Leah Bender likens it to the “meat and potatoes” of the essay with the intro being the appetizer. While the intro provides a thesis, the body paragraphs are “not just a means to identify a something in the text” but rather spend time unpacking HOW the evidence supports the claims made by the writer. Students should use “specific evidence connected to complex ideas” while providing further claims and insight to support the thesis, provide detailed support, and showcase sophisticated writing. Students often fall into the trap of using body paragraphs to identify something in the text or summarize a passage rather than present and develop why something in the text happens. Karen Swortzel tells students that “body paragraphs are our stop offs on our journey.  Why have we stopped to look at this specific item ( quote, lit element, etc)?  How does it prepare me for more the journey and where we are headed next.” Jennifer Isgitt says, “Body paragraphs are little arguments that support the one main argument. Each should develop an observation based on a pattern in the text evidence–connect that observation to the argument.

How should body paragraphs differ from another in an AP essay? What similarities should exist?

Body paragraphs should build upon each other and present new ideas in each paragraph instead of circling around the same idea. The use of transitions and different text evidence is essential to make paragraphs different. Susan Barber (quoting myself makes me feel like Shakespeare) equates body paragraphs to layers of an onion going deeper and deeper until you reach the core while Roy Smith tweets “A good lawyer provides various pieces of evidence to support the validity of the claim being made, but each piece must be connected to the desired verdict.

What DOES NOT belong in a body paragraph?

Plot summary, repetition of ideas, and personal anecdotes do not belong in body paragraphs. References to pop culture (I read an essay this week with a bad Star Wars connection about the force), literary device definitions, and long quotes can be included in this list. Students should also avoid cliches, first-person pronouns, and a different thesis.

Once a student has said all they have to say in the intro and body paragraphs, what should happen in the conclusion?

Conclusions should not simply sum up the essay but rather offer an insight as to why this piece of literature is still important and significant.

Application Activities: 

1 – Discuss this post with students either after writing. Have students choose one specific area they can make stronger through revision based on the advice given by teachers.

2 – Students can review previous essays and make observations about their writing as a whole using this post to guide them. Use FlipGrid to record observations.

3 – Provide students with Taylor Swift’s Confessions on “Reputation” to analyze for analysis then compare to the depth of analysis in their essays. (Shout out to Karla Hillard for providing this).

4 – Ask students to highlight and list every verb from a past essay then replace verbs with stronger choices. I use this list in my class to give students options and get them thinking about their verb choices.

5 – Have students read and review the responses from teachers on their own. Sometimes, students just need to hear something explained a different way or with different word choices.

Winter poems

“Those Winter Sundays” – Hayden

“Snow Day” – Romond

“The Sun and Her Flowers” – Kaur

“Rain, New Year’s Eve” – Maggie Smith

“Stopping by the Woods on a Snowy Evening” – Frost

“Birches” – Frost

“Snowbound” – Whittier

“Pine Tree Tops” – Synder

“In the Dead of Winter, We” – Villanueva

“The Curator” – Williams

“Year’s End” – Wilbur

“One Evening” – Stafford

“The Snow-Storm” – Emerson

“Depression in Winter” – Kenyon

“Winter Poem” – Giovanni

“Rime of the Ancient Mariner” – Coolridge

“Desert Places” – Frost

“Snow Day” – Collins

“Snow” – MacNeice

“Winter” – Shakespeare

“My Old Aunt Plays Canasta in a Snow Storm” – Saiser

“February” – Atwood


Susan Barber is a high school English teacher and department chair at Northgate High School in Georgia. In addition to reading, writing, and investing in the next generation, she loves watching college football with her family especially when Alabama is playing. In addition to serving as editor and frequent contributor for APLitHelp, she writes a personal blog Teach with Class.