How to Write a Good (Theological) Essay by Jason Goroncy
One of the things that I've found most challenging as a teacher is the un-even ability of my graduate students to write a good research essay. Partly it's on account to the fact that my students come to seminary from all sorts of educational backgrounds. Some come from the humanities, others from the sciences, still others from the vo-tech or business or kinesiology departments.
Some come to graduate school after a long absence from the academic world. My heart always goes out to these students in particular. I've been there.
And even if they come from the humanities, that doesn't mean that they were actually trained to write well. Few of my students were taught how to craft clear and simple sentences, how to build paragraphs that hold together logically and convincingly, how to create transitional statements that deftly take the reader from one thought to another, or how to generate arguments that are equal parts critical and charitable.
It goes without saying, moreover, that writing well in general and writing good (theological) essays in particular are difficult tasks. Nobody comes by that skill overnight, even if they possess an innate talent for writing. I can attest to that fact firsthand, as somebody who needed decades, not years, to learn how to write well.
As a professor I try to give my students all the advice that I can at the start of the term: the lessons I've learned along the way, the sorry papers I've written, the pink slips I've received, the essays I regret making public. To help my students know what to expect from me, I also write up a handout that I give to them at the start of the term. I likewise try to provide exemplar papers to show and not just to tell what I mean by an excellent essay.
I offer friendly reminders along the way, chiefly to tell them not to wait till the last moment to write the essay. And I tell them that as often as not, despite their best efforts to produce good school work, life will interrupt them with unforeseen illness, family problems, financial challenges, work demands or personal trauma, and that God's grace is sufficient to cover these often disappointing, frequently disorienting experiences.
And I tell them the good news that may be hard to hear in the moment: that in the end, all shall be well, and all shall be well, and all manner of thing shall be well, to borrow Julian of Norwich's phrase.
Still, as a teacher these days, you often feel like you're climbing an impossibly tall mountain of negative inertia and that you're fighting against a history of bad habits that students have acquired along the way. Or perhaps you're simply fighting an impossible fight against the era of social media communication and internet neurology.
I was immensely pleased, then, to find this marvelously helpful video tutorial by the Aussie theologian Jason Goroncy (known to some of us for his work editing the multi-author volume, 'Tikkun Olam' —To Mend the World: A Confluence of Theology and the Arts). It's an excellent introduction to writing a decent essay. It's clear, it's concise, it's full of inspiring quotes, and it's immensely practical. I heartily commend it to all teachers and students, and I thank Jason for taking the time to produce it.