A Short Essay Demo Using a Structured Essay Writing Template


In the last video we looked at a Scrivener template for what I’m calling a “structured approach” to essay writing. In this video I’m going to put some flesh on the bones of this template and show you what a short essay project might actually look like using this template in Scrivener.

Here’s our document where we’re looking at the draft folder in cork board view. The three sub-folders are visible in the binder. Let’s open up the Preliminary folder.

We’ve got the Assignment folder, a timeline and scheduling folder, and the structure brainstorm folder.

I’ve got at least one text document inside each of these folders. Let’s look at the assignment document.

This is where you would put a copy of the essay assignment. I just made this one up for demo purposes, but you can see that the assignment is to write a 1000 to 1200 world essay on the topic called “Am I Dreaming Right Now?”

It’s a philosophical topic, not likely something you’ll encounter outside of a philosophy class, but again, this is just for demo purposes.

The second bullet item clarifies the issue, which is whether it’s possible to know for certain that you’re not dreaming right now.

So we’re being asked to write about this topic and take a stand on the issue.

Now let’s look at the timeline and scheduling document.

Here I’ve made notes about the timeline. If there were specific deadlines you’d put those here. For the sake of this demo let’s say that you’ve got two weeks to research, write and submit the essay.

I’m telling myself that I’ll break the writing into two phases, a research and outline phase and a draft writing phase. I’ll plan to complete the research and outline for the essay before the end of week 1, and get a draft written, circulated for feedback and a revision written by the end of week 2. The feedback could come from your teacher or a classmate or a friend or family member, or even yourself, if you find that after a break you can come back and read your own work with fresh eyes.

If you use a task manager of some kind, or a calendar app, or a day-planner, it’s often helpful to input these tasks into that system. Anything that helps you keep track of your time and remind you of what needs to be done.

Now, in the Structure Brainstorm folder I’ve put two documents. The first is a reminder of the organizational structure of any good argumentative or persuasive essay. What the introduction and conclusions should include, and what belongs in the main body.

The key to any good argumentative essay is that it has an argument-objection-reply structure. You need an argument for your central thesis, but you then need to consider the most obvious natural objections to that argument, and you need to offer replies to those objections.

This structure applies to any argumentative essay on any topic. It helps with the organization of the essay, but more importantly, it helps to direct your research and frame the questions that you need to ask yourself as you become more familiar with the topic.

Now, at this stage I need to go and do some research. Google is a perfectly good place to start, but in a real classroom assignment you’ll probably have some reading suggestions and sources to look at.

But let’s assume that I’m googling phrases like “how do I know I’m not dreaming?” to see what comes up. And let’s say I encounter some promising blog posts on this topic.

I’ll use the Research folder in the binder to collect and organize any relevant web links. So let’s look at that.

I’ve got a sub-folder for links, one for documents, one for final versions of your essay, and I’ve got an outline document here which I’ll get to shortly.

If you open the links folder you’ll see four links that I’ve added just by dragging and dropping the url from the browser into this folder. Scrivener imports a copy of the web page, and includes the actual link at the bottom of the display window so you can open the link in your browser at any time.

I can click on the items in the binder to preview the web documents.

We’ve got three entries on the topic from a blog by a professional philosopher, Eric Schwitzgebel, and a link to an online encyclopedia of philosophy entry on the philosophy of dreaming.

So I’ve got these research items, they all seem relevant to my topic. The next step in my research process is to read these documents and take notes for myself.

I’ve come to discover that a lot of students just don’t take notes. They’ll read or skim a document looking for relevant information, and maybe highlight sections of the document, but they don’t have the habit of making written notes on the document they’re reading. With so many sources of information being consumed digitally I think it’s even more important to cultivate a habit of taking notes. Here’s the system I use with Scrivener.

You can see that there’s a disclosure triangle beside each of these links in the binder. That means there’s a document nested inside. That’s where I put any notes I make on the source document.

So if I click on this “Notes” item you’ll see the notes document associated with the blog entry. To take note you create a blank document and then split the view pane so you can see both your source document and your notes document at the same time.

Here you can see them displayed one above the other. You can also toggle the display to view them side-by-side.

It can be a little scrunched in this view, but here’s a trick I use to give me lots of space.

There are two buttons up here on the toolbar. This one opens up the selected document in full screen composition mode.

This other one opens up the selected document in a separate panel, called a Quick Reference panel.

With these two buttons you can open take notes in full screen mode while previewing your web page.

I can move the notes document over the left hand side to give room on the right, and now I can resize the quick reference panel and put it on the right. And I can type notes in the document while scrolling the web page on the right. It’s a beautiful system.

Now, let’s back out of full screen mode.

You’ll see that I’ve got notes on all of the research documents. When you nest them under the source link you’ve always got your notes associated with the right source.

The really cool thing about taking notes this way is that when I’m actually writing my draft I can split the editing pane and put my notes up side-by-side with my draft document, so I can refer to them while I’m writing. This is a really nice feature in Scrivener.

Okay, let’s close up the links folder. Now I’ve done my research, taken some notes, thought about the topic, and let’s say that I’m now ready to sketch an outline for my essay.

You can use an ordinary text document in Scrivener to do this, and that might be the most convenient way to do it. For the sake of this demonstration I’ve used the mind-mapping tool in Inspiration 9 to sketch an outline.

Here’s the mind-map. I decided to structure the main body of the essay in three parts. I’m going to defend the CON position, which I’m calling “dream skepticism”, which says that we cannot know for sure that we’re not dreaming right now. The first part will talk about the philosophical significance of the dream question, the second part will present the two most common arguments against dream skepticism, along with my replies, and the third section will talk about the implications of this position for more general skeptical questions. Some of these ideas are my own, and some were inspired by the discussions I read in my research materials.

I’ve added a text note on the bottom node, which you can see if you open up the text notes symbol. You can use these text notes to elaborate on ideas and arguments you might have on the topic.

So that’s my initial outline. In Inspiration you can view this mind-map in outline mode, just by clicking on the outline button in the toolbar.

I can continue to work on this outline in outline mode, but I’ve decided that this is enough for now and I want to return to Scrivener.

So what I did is I exported a pdf version of the mind-map diagram, and a pdf version of the outline, and imported these into the research folder in Scrivener.

And that’s what I have here, in the Mind-Map Outline folder. Here’s the diagram … and here’s the outline.

Just a reminder, this is all part of the structure brainstorming stage of the writing process. I like to have a structure document up in the Preliminary folder, so what I did was copied and pasted the text of the outline … that’s here in this document that I titled “brainstorm”. It’s editable now, so I can continue to play around with this outline in Scrivener if I want to.

So, now that I have an outline in mind, I can go ahead and add some structure to the main body section of the draft folder.

As you can see, I added folders for each of these sections. Within each of these I added a text document. This is the stage where you start writing your draft, using whatever notes or other resources you have as references to help with the writing.

As I click through you can see the text I’ve added for each of these sections. I added the section headings because I wanted them to show up in the final document.

Remember that in Scrivener, these text documents aren’t separate pages, they’re just sections of text. They might be just a few paragraphs long, or several pages long. When you compile the document for export they’ll just show up as separate sections of text on the page.

I can see multiple sections in the editor window either by selecting the top level folder, which displays all the sections nested within it, or by selecting individual text documents.

Here’s what the document looks like when I’ve selected all the parts, including a title section. It looks like a real essay!

Don’t let the lines distract you, those are just a visual indication of when a text section starts and stops. You won’t see them in the printed version.

Notice the word count at the bottom of the editor window. Our target was an essay between 1000 and 1200 words, this document has 1262 words, so we’re in the right ballpark. If this was a real assignment and my instructor was a stickler for word limits I’d need to do some editing.

I’m not going to go through the essay itself with you, this is just a demo to show how the writing process might work using a template like this. I’ve tried to make it sound reasonable, but I wasn’t really trying to write a great essay on this topic. My goal, again, is just to walk you through the essay writing process, using this particular set of tools.

But I will show you how the structure tips can help to remind you about good essay form. Look at the introduction, for example. When I click on the folder you can see the document, but in cork board view you can see the synopsis for the folder. And the synopsis reminds us of what you want to see in an introductory section of an essay.

Now look at the introduction. The first paragraph frames the issue. The first line of the second paragraph states the main thesis of the essay — “I will argue that we cannot be sure that we’re not dreaming right now”. The final two sentences provide a brief roadmap of the rest of the essay. So we’re following good essay form.

We can quibble about whether it’s appropriate for your audience to use the first person pronoun they way I do here, but that’s a question of writing style, not structure. The point of using a template like this is to help students produce essays with a sound organizational structure. Good writing style is a topic that we’ll cove in later videos.

To finish up, let’s see what this document looks like when you export it for print.

Click the “compile” button in the toolbar. You can also find this under the “File” menu.

There are a lot of options here. If you just want to print out the document using the formatting you’ve used in the editor, then all you need to do is tell Scrivener which sections you want included in the document.

Click on “All options”. Select the “Contents” tab. Select “Essay Draft”. Now you can select the sections you want to include within this folder, which in this case are the primary text sections, not the folders.

I don’t have any references in this document, so I won’t include those.

Now, go down to the Page Settings tab. By default, Scrivener likes to print the Scrivener project title in the header, but I don’t want that, so I’ll delete that. In the footer section there’s a page number tag, which I like, so I’ll leave that.

Now click “Compile”. A print settings box opens up. I like to use the “Open pdf in Preview” option on the Mac, so when I select that … this is what our document looks like as a pdf document.

You can see that the separator lines no longer show up, everything is nicely formatted, and there are page numbers running along the footer.

You can save or print this as-is, or you can compile your essay as a Word document if you need a copy in that format. You can make all kinds of formatting changes in the compile stage, but this the simplest way to print your essay. It just borrows the style settings you were using in the text editor to format the printed document.

So, I hope I’ve given you some sense of how a template like this can help to support what I’m calling a structured approach to essay writing.

If you’re not using Scrivener you can still implement a lot of the elements of this approach.

You can create a project folder on your computer for storing and organizing your essay assignment details, your timeline, your research materials and notes, your outlines, your drafts, and so on.

You can print out materials, or open up multiple windows that will let you see your notes while you’re writing.

You can implement the concepts any way you want. What’s important is having a system that forces you to think about structural issues and that makes it easy to write with those structural issues in mind.