Writing an essay often seems to be a dreaded task among students. Whether the essay is for a scholarship, a class, or maybe even a contest, many students often find the task overwhelming. While an essay is a large project, there are many steps a student can take that will help break down the task into manageable parts. Following this process is the easiest way to draft a successful essay, whatever its purpose might be.
According to Kathy Livingston’s Guide to Writing a Basic Essay, there are seven steps to writing a successful essay:
1. Pick a topic.
You may have your topic assigned, or you may be given free reign to write on the subject of your choice. If you are given the topic, you should think about the type of paper that you want to produce. Should it be a general overview of the subject or a specific analysis? Narrow your focus if necessary.
If you have not been assigned a topic, you have a little more work to do. However, this opportunity also gives you the advantage to choose a subject that is interesting or relevant to you. First, define your purpose. Is your essay to inform or persuade?
Once you have determined the purpose, you will need to do some research on topics that you find intriguing. Think about your life. What is it that interests you? Jot these subjects down.
Finally, evaluate your options. If your goal is to educate, choose a subject that you have already studied. If your goal is to persuade, choose a subject that you are passionate about. Whatever the mission of the essay, make sure that you are interested in your topic.
2. Prepare an outline or diagram of your ideas.
In order to write a successful essay, you must organize your thoughts. By taking what’s already in your head and putting it to paper, you are able to see connections and links between ideas more clearly. This structure serves as a foundation for your paper. Use either an outline or a diagram to jot down your ideas and organize them.
To create a diagram, write your topic in the middle of your page. Draw three to five lines branching off from this topic and write down your main ideas at the ends of these lines. Draw more lines off these main ideas and include any thoughts you may have on these ideas.
If you prefer to create an outline, write your topic at the top of the page. From there, begin to list your main ideas, leaving space under each one. In this space, make sure to list other smaller ideas that relate to each main idea. Doing this will allow you to see connections and will help you to write a more organized essay.
3. Write your thesis statement.
Now that you have chosen a topic and sorted your ideas into relevant categories, you must create a thesis statement. Your thesis statement tells the reader the point of your essay. Look at your outline or diagram. What are the main ideas?
Your thesis statement will have two parts. The first part states the topic, and the second part states the point of the essay. For instance, if you were writing about Bill Clinton and his impact on the United States, an appropriate thesis statement would be, “Bill Clinton has impacted the future of our country through his two consecutive terms as United States President.”
Another example of a thesis statement is this one for the “Winning Characteristics” Scholarship essay: “During my high school career, I have exhibited several of the “Winning Characteristics,” including Communication Skills, Leadership Skills and Organization Skills, through my involvement in Student Government, National Honor Society, and a part-time job at Macy’s Department Store.”
4. Write the body.
The body of your essay argues, explains or describes your topic. Each main idea that you wrote in your diagram or outline will become a separate section within the body of your essay.
Each body paragraph will have the same basic structure. Begin by writing one of your main ideas as the introductory sentence. Next, write each of your supporting ideas in sentence format, but leave three or four lines in between each point to come back and give detailed examples to back up your position. Fill in these spaces with relative information that will help link smaller ideas together.
5. Write the introduction.
Now that you have developed your thesis and the overall body of your essay, you must write an introduction. The introduction should attract the reader’s attention and show the focus of your essay.
Begin with an attention grabber. You can use shocking information, dialogue, a story, a quote, or a simple summary of your topic. Whichever angle you choose, make sure that it ties in with your thesis statement, which will be included as the last sentence of your introduction.
6. Write the conclusion.
The conclusion brings closure of the topic and sums up your overall ideas while providing a final perspective on your topic. Your conclusion should consist of three to five strong sentences. Simply review your main points and provide reinforcement of your thesis.
7. Add the finishing touches.
After writing your conclusion, you might think that you have completed your essay. Wrong. Before you consider this a finished work, you must pay attention to all the small details.
Check the order of your paragraphs. Your strongest points should be the first and last paragraphs within the body, with the others falling in the middle. Also, make sure that your paragraph order makes sense. If your essay is describing a process, such as how to make a great chocolate cake, make sure that your paragraphs fall in the correct order.
Review the instructions for your essay, if applicable. Many teachers and scholarship forms follow different formats, and you must double check instructions to ensure that your essay is in the desired format.
Finally, review what you have written. Reread your paper and check to see if it makes sense. Make sure that sentence flow is smooth and add phrases to help connect thoughts or ideas. Check your essay for grammar and spelling mistakes.
Congratulations! You have just written a great essay.
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Jerz > Writing > Academic
If you’re facing a timed essay very soon, this handout offers some very basic, very quick tips.
- Plan your time wisely.
- Answer the right question.
- Collect your thoughts.
- Leave time to revise.
- Revise your thesis statementbefore you turn in your paper, so it looks like the conclusion you stumbled across was the one you planned from the start. (This small step can often make a huge difference.)
1. Plan your time wisely.
If you are, at this moment, frantically cramming for tomorrow morning’s exam, that first tip may not sound all that useful. Procrastination is probably the biggest reason why bright students sometimes get poor grades. (Start early!)
You can also plan your time during the test itself. Your professor knows which paragraphs are harder to write, and will evaluate them accordingly. Does the question ask you to “evaluate”? If so, don’t fill your page with a summary. Likewise, if the question asks for “evidence,” don’t spend all your time giving your own personal opinions.
- Start with the larger essay questions, so that you answer them before you burn out or run out of time.
- If one essay question is worth 50% of the test score, spend 50% of your time on it.
- If you finish early, you can always go back and add more detail. (As long as your additions and changes are legible, your instructor will probably be happy to see signs of revision.)
2) Answer the right question.
Before you begin your answer, you should be sure what the question is asking. I often grade a university composition competency test, and sometimes have to fail well-written papers that fail to address the assigned topic.
If the question asks you to “explain” a topic, then a paragraph that presents your personal opinion won’t be of much help. If the question asks you to present a specific example, then a paragraph that summarizes what “some people say” about the topic won’t be very useful.
3) Collect your thoughts.
Resist the urge to start churning out words immediately. If you are going to get anywhere in an essay, you need to know where you are going.
To avoid time-consuming false starts, jot down an outline, or draw anidea map. An idea map is like a family tree for your thesis. Start with the “trunk” (a circle in the center of your paper). Draw lines that connect that central idea to main branches (circles that represent subtopics), and keep fanning out in that manner. If one particular branch is fruitful, cut it off and make it a separate entity.
If a branch doesn’t bear fruit, prune it off. You should identify and avoid the deadwood in advance — before you find yourself out on a limb. (Sorry… I’ll try to leaf the puns alone… I wood knot want you to be board.)
Get right to the point. Don’t bury your best points under an avalanche of fluff.
The Great Depression was an important time in our nation’s history. Unemployment, urban decay, and a sense of hopelessness filled almost every part of human life. Yet, even in the midst of great misery, people needed to entertain themselves. People tried many different ways to relieve their tensions, from religious revivals, to Jazz music, to membership in the Communist party. But a whole lot of average people who were suffering in their daily lives often sought escapist entertainment in the form of movies. One such movie was Charlie Chaplin’s Modern Times. In Modern Times, “The Little Tramp” symbolizes the simple human values that are threatened by industrialism.
The author of the above passage not only wastes time composing six sentences before getting to her thesis (the very last sentence), she also clouds the issue by bringing up topics (religion, music, and Communism) that she has no intention of ever mentioning again. She could have spent that time on more depth, or on proofreading, or even on some other section of the test. If she had at the very least crossed out the unnecessary introduction, she would not have mislead the instructor.
In Charlie Chaplin’s Modern Times, “The Little Tramp” symbolizes the simple human values that are threatened by industrialism — leisure, self-reliance, and compassion.
The revised example is simply the [slightly edited] last sentence of the original wordy and vague paragraph. This clear, direct thesis statement helps the student focus on the communication task at hand.
Too often, the only revision students do is crossing out their false starts, or explaining their way out of a corner by adding to the end of their essay.
4. Leave time to revise.
Note: simply tacking on additional paragraphs or inserting words is not revision (see: “Revision vs. Editing“).
Sometimes, in the middle of a difficult paragraph, students will glance back at the question, and get a new idea. They will then hastily back out of their current paragraph, and provide a rough transition like: “But an even more important aspect is…”. They continue in this manner, like a builder who keeps breaking down walls to add new wings onto a house.
- To avoid this problem before it starts, see the previous tip, or this nifty handout on “Blueprinting.”
- To handle this problem when it occurs, don’t automatically add to the end of an essay — write in the margins, or draw a line to indicate where you want to insert a new paragraph.
- Leave space to revise too — write on every other line and leave the backs of pages blank, so you will have room to make legible insertions if you need to.
- Obviously, if you are writing your test on a computer, you should just insert and rearrange text as you would normally.
5) Revise your thesis statement
If inspiration strikes while you are in the middle of an essay, and your conclusion turns out to be nothing like you thought it would be, change your thesis statement to match your conclusion. (Assuming, of course, that your unexpected conclusion still addresses the assigned topic.)
When a writer realizes that an essay is veering off in a new direction, and handles it by tacking more paragraphs onto the end, the result can be extremely awkward.
- Joe Student writes a thesis statement that examines the relationship between “independence” and public morals.
- Midway through his essay, Joe hits upon a different idea that relates to “prosperity.”
- To mask the transition, he writes a sentence that refers to “independence and prosperity”, as if the two concepts are interchangeable.
- After writing a few more paragraphs on “prosperity”, Joe realizes he needs to unify the two ideas in his conclusion. He writes a new paragraph that examines the connections between independence and prosperity.
- He then writes a conclusion that “proves” that independence and prosperity are inseparable.
Unfortunately, Joe started out by making a claim about independence and public morals. If Joe tacks yet another paragraph onto the end of the paper, he will further dilute his conclusion. If he ignores the problem, his essay will appear disorganized. Such hasty additions will rapidly obscure the original structure.
Joe will have to wrap up his essay with something ghastly like “Therefore, this essay has discussed such important issues as A, B, C and D, all of which shed an important light on [rephrase essay question here].”
To avoid linear additions, you should ideally avoid going off on tangents. But even a very short paper is a result of a process. If you stumble onto a good idea in the middle of your paper, go back and change your thesis statement to account for your new ideas. Then, revise the subpoints and transitions so that your whole essay points towards that conclusion. Your professor will be pleased to see that you were able to make the connection, and your whole essay will be much stronger.
Dennis G. Jerz
04 May 2000 — first posted
26 May 2000 — typos corrected; puns added
26 Jul 2000 — minor edits
04 Dec 2002 — revision