Mini-Essays

Introduction

Every so often, instructors ask students to write either a very short essay or a long paragraph (say roughly 250-500 words). For convenience’s sake we’ll call this a mini-essay.

The purpose of such an assignment is not merely to shorten the pain of marking student papers. A mini-essay is like a miniature painting or an intricate sketch–it forces you to concentrate on a few select details that capture a single impression.

Obviously most of the rules of essay writing will apply to a mini-essay. Nevertheless, mini-essays have a few unique features worth emphasizing.

Key Features

A Snappy Introduction

Don’t waste time introducing your thesis. If you’re writing a longer paragraph (of say 250 words), use just a sentence or two to state your argument. Even if you’ve got a bit more space, keep it short. The art of a mini-essay is to let the details do the talking.

Compare the following two sentences:

Many of us don’t like to be told how to behave, and Friedrich Nietzsche was no exception.

The son of a Lutheran minister, Friedrich Nietzsche came to despise Christian moralism.

The second is much more specific. So make sure you zoom in as quickly as possible.

A Nuanced Argument

Just because your essay is super short, it doesn’t mean that you should settle for a simple thesis. Although mini-essays often require you to take one side of an argument, it’s important to avoid generalizations or black and white arguments. Try at least to recognize the existence of other perspectives:

Weak: It would be too dangerous to allow robots to develop their own code of ethics.

Better: While we might like to treat robots with respect–and even grant them some level of autonomy–it would be too dangerous to give robots the right to develop their own code of ethics.

Your teacher will be pleased to know that you’ve thought about the issue from all sides.

Variable Paragraph Structure

In a mini-essay you’re not restricted to the classic essay format (introduction–body–conclusion). You can write one long paragraph (if your word count is quite low), or you can blend in your intro and conclusion with your first and last paragraph. You can also use very short paragraphs–say if your intro or conclusion consists of just one or two sentences.

While paragraph breaks are still useful, don’t waste too much time with elaborate topic sentences, summary statements, or transitions. Let your ideas flow naturally so that the reader gets as much quality content as possible.

Short Quotations

As a rule of thumb, three to four short quotations are better than one long block quotation. Choose your quotations carefully and make sure each one makes a unique and essential point.

Listing

To add depth to your mini-essay, try list a number of other details or examples that further prove your point.

Other fairy tales that use a “restoration” plot are “Snow White” and “The Frog Prince.”

After revolutionizing the vacuum cleaner, James Dyson invented (among other things) the Airblade hand dryer and a fan without blades. He is now working on creating an electric car.

Garth Williams’ illustration of the stereotypical schoolhouse is part of a larger attempt to depict a kind of American identity. The schooner Stuart Little sails on has an American flag, there’s a Cornell flag on George’s bedroom wall, and the little town of Ames’ Crossing represents the laid back attitude of rural America.

Do make sure, though, that these details illustrate your main point, and are not just a meaningless digression.

Concise Conclusions

In a short essay, your reader really does not need an elaborate reminder of what you’ve argued. If you do want to repeat your main point, at least try to vary your word choice. Your final sentence or two should create closure, but in a way that remains detailed and specific.

 

Annotated Bibliographies

Introduction

An annotated bibliography is simply a list of citations with notes about the contents of each source (book, article, etc.). Your annotated bibliography can consist of one item, or it can be a carefully curated collection of sources on a particular topic or text.

Scholars often create such bibliographies so that other researchers can quickly determine if a particular work of criticism is relevant to their own interests. When students are given the same task, it’s meant to teach the ability to read and summarize effectively.

Types of Annotated Bibliographies

There are generally two schools of thought on what the ideal annotated bibliography should look like. One camp argues that the bibliographer should be completely dispassionate and neutral. Each summary should capture the author’s argument without providing any evaluation of its merit. The other camp suggests that the job of the bibliographer is to separate the wheat from the chaff and help readers understand whether the source is worth their time.

Neither side is necessarily right. Go with whatever the assignment requires, or, if you’re creating an annotated bibliography for your own purposes, do whatever you like. In the latter case you can even add all sorts of notes about how you might use a particular source in your own writing.

Organizing Your Bibliography

Each item in an annotated bibliography starts with a proper citation, using whatever citation style is appropriate for your discipline (MLA, APA, etc.). This is followed by a description of the contents of the source:

Cassal, Steve. “Shakespeare’s Much Ado About Nothing.” Explicator, vol. 64, no. 3, 2006, pp. 138-40.

Cassal argues …

You can repeat this pattern for each source in your bibliography. The typical length of an annotation is one paragraph (ranging from one sentence to about half a page), though you can spend a bit more time on longer works such as books.

How you organize the entries is up to you. You can simply place them in alphabetical order, you can split them up into primary and secondary sources, or you can organize them by type (e.g., methodology, biography, editorial history, textual analysis, etc.). If you want more options, just go talk to a librarian for a while.

To clarify the purpose of your annotated bibliography, you can add some general commentary, as well as brief descriptions of the individual sections.

Sample Summary

Good annotated bibliographies do more than just list the contents of a text. They explain what the author is actually arguing. Here is an example:

Cassal, Steve. “Shakespeare’s Much Ado About Nothing.” Explicator, vol. 64, no. 3, 2006, pp. 138-40.

Cassal argues that by comparing the slander of Hero and Dogberry in Shakespeare’s Much Ado About Nothing, we can understand the connections between language, power, and justice. In the play, Claudio describes Hero as a “stale” (a whore), and Conrade calls Dogberry an “ass.” Cassal points out that their cases are not exactly identical. Not only is the slanderous description of Dogberry true, but he lets everyone know about it. Despite these differences, both Hero and Dogberry are excluded from the world of power and language: “Like Hero, Dogberry lacks the verbal facility to defend himself” (140). Dogberry is thus “feminized” (140), and both characters lack recourse to justice. In fact, the play creates a tension between the sophisticated, yet superficial banter of those in power, and the non-linguistic and intuitive sense of truth as felt by marginalized characters such as Dogberry and Hero. By placing the Church scene (Hero’s slander) between the scenes about Dogberry’s defamation, the play both points out the fate of the marginalized and diffuses the darker implications of Hero’s slander by providing a comic counterpoint.

Note that the bibliographer does not simply state that Cassal talks about slander or language, but describes in detail how Cassal develops his argument. To force yourself to capture the author’s thesis, try use verbs such as “argues” or “claims.”

This particular summary provides no comment on the quality of the article. Some annotated bibliographies (as described above) do allow the bibliographer to critique the merits of the author’s argument.

While writing annotations may seem boring, there is an upside. As you write more summaries, you will become a better reader. You’ll look for a clear statement of the thesis, you’ll underline representative quotations, and you’ll ignore digressions and irrelevant details. In short, you’ll be a more effective scholar.

Tips

Here are some more tips to craft a great annotated bibliography:

  • Most of the time you can use just the last name of the author in your summary (e.g., Jones argues).
  • For long and complex bibliographies you may want to create a system of abbreviations to streamline individual entries. For instance, you can abbreviate literary texts (e.g., The Wind in the Willows becomes WW), organizations (e.g., World Health Organization becomes WHO), or places (e.g., Hong Kong becomes HK).
  • Vary your verbs. Instead of always writing Smith argues, try verbs such as suggestsbelievesdemonstrateswritesnotespoints outclaimsconcludes, emphasizesreveals, asserts, etc.
  • Try include one or more brief quotations to capture something of the author’s own words.
  • Do not rely on the abstract attached to an article. Always summarize in your own words.

Conclusion

Many annotated bibliographies are easily accessible online. For instance, if you’re studying medieval literature you might consult the Online Chaucer Bibliography or the Online Gower Bibliography. The great thing about these online databases is that they are fully searchable. At the same time, this adds another dimension to the task of writing an annotation. It now becomes crucial to include key words in the summary, or else code each entry in such a way that it can easily be found under specific subject headings. Writing a good annotation thus becomes an important critical skill that is highly valued, both in the world of academia and beyond.