The Humble Essay introduces student writers to the basics of college writing in down-to-earth language that students writers understand — even if they aren’t English majors. The materials below give you a pretty good idea of how this book works and whether or not it will work for you.

Part One: What the College Essay Expects from You

Chapter 1: Stick to One Main Idea

  • Commonly Misunderstood Terms
  • The College Essay and What It’s Not
  • Free Advice: Wait for the Idea

Chapter 2: Follow the Rules of Formal Writing

  • Formal and Informal Sentences
  • Formal and Informal Paragraphs
  • Opening Paragraphs
  • Body Paragraphs
  • Closing Paragraphs
  • Free Advice: Do as I Say, Not as I Do

Chapter 3: Learn Something New

  • How to Not Learn Anything
  • How to Learn Something New
  • Free Advice: Make the Process Work for You

Part Two: How to Write the College Essay

Chapter 4: Educate Yourself about Your Topic

  • Step 1: Get to Know Your Topic
  • Step 2: Narrow Your Focus
  • Step 3: Research the Focus
  • Free Advice: Write More about Less

Chapter 5: Find and Improve Your Main Idea

  • Find Your Main Idea
  • How to Develop a Writerly Thesis Statement
  • Improve Your Main Idea
  • Free Advice: Practice the Writerly Thesis Statement When It Matter Less

Chapter 6: Plan the Body of Your Essay

  • Build a Topic Sentence Outline Before You Draft
  • Or Build a Topic Sentence Outline After You Draft
  • Organize Your Paragraphs
  • Free Advice: Start Organizing with Easy Patterns

Chapter 7: Present Your Idea with Detailed Information

  • Summaries and Details
  • Drafting the Body of Your Essay
  • Give Credit to Your Sources of Information
  • Free Advice: Don’t Worry about Too Many Details

Chapter 8: Guide Your Readers

  • Topic Sentences
  • Transitions
  • Obvious and Possibly Engaging Openings
  • Complete and Possibly Triumphant Closings
  • Free Advice: Please Finish Your Essay

Chapter 9: Proofread Your Essay

  • How to Proofread Your Essay
  • Be Good to Yourself by Being Hard on Your Essay
  • Free Advice: Keep Proofreading in Its Place

Free Advice: Keep Writing

To Student Writers

Even though it’s now in its fourth edition, The Humble Essay still lacks all of the fancy doodads that students and faculty have come to expect from a top-flight composition book like this. It lacks photographs, for example, plastic tabs, and even colored ink. There’s no interactive PDF or links to videos or links to anything else, either.

You might wonder why all the usual stuff is missing. The answer is simple — you don’t need it. You don’t need it to learn how to write, and your professor doesn’t need it to teach you how to write. It’s only there so that textbook companies can pretend they have good reason to charge you five times the price of this book.

To learn how to write an effective college essay, you only need a few things. First, you need a set of simple, sensible guidelines. That is exactly what you’ll find in The Humble Essay — and in language you can understand without becoming an English major. If this little book has anything going for it, that’s it.

It’s also a good idea to work with someone who’s more experienced at writing than you are, someone who can help you use these guidelines and check your progress. A writing professor comes to mind.

The most important requirement, however, is simply that you write, and write a lot, so that you can see for yourself what it means to follow these guidelines. Learning to write the college essay is like learning to French kiss. Reading about it will only take you so far. To learn how to do it, you have to actually do it — again and again and again. That’s how ideas about writing turn into actual writing skills.

If you’re reading this book because it’s part of a class you’re taking, pause now and give quiet thanks for all the writing assignments that will soon be coming your way. They, more than anything, will help you put these guidelines into practice. Embrace these assignments with the blind faith that they will do you some good — because they will.

Don’t be afraid of struggling, either. You will struggle. But so what? Whenever you learn something new — roller-blading, trigonometry, veganism, a stupid board game that forces you to cooperate with others, anything — struggling is an important part of the learning process. In fact, struggling shows that you’re getting somewhere, pushing past the edges of what you already know. So don’t take it personally when you screw up. Make your mistakes, correct them, and then move on to more sophisticated errors. It’s not a big deal.

Once in first grade, I got a frowny face on a math test. My class had moved from addition to subtraction without any warning, and I’d missed seven of nine problems. Seven of nine! I was a mess the rest of the day, barely able to hold it together during the longest afternoon recess of my life. How was I going to tell my mother?

When I came home from school, my mother was in her bedroom watching Queen for a Day, so I wasn’t allowed to bother her, but my big sister Nadine was in the living room practicing for her interpretive dance recital. I dropped onto the couch and began crying.

“What now?” she asked.

I blubbered to her about the frowny face.

“Oh brother,” she said, waving her arms like a willow tree enlivened by a summer breeze. “It’s just math. Anyone can learn math.”

That was one of the more supportive things Nadine ever said to me. It gave me the courage to return to school the next day and begin the hard work of learning take-aways. And she was right, too. It was just math, and with a little help and enough practice, anyone really can learn math. I did.

The college essay might feel overwhelming at first, but what do your feelings know? Nothing! The truth is that writing is just another thing you’re going to learn how to do, so tell your feelings to knock it off. You don’t need a criminally overpriced book to learn how. You don’t need a fancy website or online videos. You just need a few basic ideas, and you need to practice.

Anyone can learn how to write, and that includes you.

​To My Colleagues

This fourth edition is more of a step back toward the second edition than a step forward from the third edition into a bold, new future. The third edition added a full suite of chapters on the mechanics of formal writing. Practical as that seemed at the time, it made the book cumbersome and less friendly to students.

Most of that material has since been improved and added into Your Guide to College Writing (Chemeketa Press), Daniel Couch’s terrific handbook for college writers, so this edition removes all but one of the chapters on mechanics. The chapter that remains focuses on paragraphing. It begins with a quiet introduction to the rules of formal writing and then follows up on the first chapter by showing what it means to stick to one main idea, paragraph by paragraph. Most importantly, it shows students in some detail how formal paragraphing works. I don’t find enough of that in most writing handbooks.

Otherwise, this edition continues the proud, possibly misguided work that The Humble Essay has been doing in one form or another for more than twenty years. It explains the basics of formal writing in the language of informal writing. I don’t know about your students, but mine are new to college, and most are under-prepared. They haven’t developed an appetite for formal prose, much less for the comp-rhet jargon du jour. They will get used to formal writing eventually and, God forbid, may even become English majors. However, for the short time that I have them, I want to make these ideas as accessible as possible so they can get their hands on those ideas and starting putting them to good use. That increases their odds of becoming successful students and citizens.

So I write to them with prose that they can not only understand but that they enjoy — yes, enjoy. I make fun of myself. I use dumb examples, including family stories for which I have been uninvited from more than one holiday gathering. I slip in mild crudities from time to time to keep them awake. It’s not at all dignified, but it seems to work. This is a composition textbook that regularly makes students laugh out loud. Most of my students read it cover to cover — and not because they know I wrote it, either. They don’t know that I wrote it because of the nom de plume.

If you have succeeded in bringing your students to the ideas of traditional rhetoric with a more formal approach, I salute you. Sincerely. However, if like me you have struggled to make these ideas useful to your students through traditional writing textbooks and the short time you have with these new writers, then perhaps this little book will be a useful addition to your classroom. Perhaps it can be a bridge over which your students travel more easily into their futures as college writers.

Either way, I wish you the best. This is important work, and our efforts do change lives, often for the better.

Roy K. Humble
Chemeketa Community College
Salem, Oregon

Check out a couple of chapters. If you’re a student, learn for free! If you’re a writing professor, see if this is something that will help your students out.

Chapter 1: Stick to One Main Idea
This chapter introduces students to the world of college writing they are about to enter. It does so by presenting the number one expectation for the college essay.

Chapter 4: Educate Yourself about Your Topic
This chapter starts students off on the writing process with the most important work of all, educating themselves about a topic before they start writing.

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