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essay writing tips

How to Write an Essay 101

August 2020



Article by Herman Barnes

Article by Herman Barnes

Northeastern's Human Services program graduate, Herman Barnes contributes to our blog pro bono. He sees his mission in helping students prepare for academic careers by providing them with experience and skill-based background required for successful studying and research.

At high school and college, essays are the most popular way to assess students’ knowledge about the subject and their ability to analyze data and think critically. Unfortunately, essays aren’t as popular on the receiving end of this assessment – that is among students.

Either because they don’t get enough guidance and tips on essay writing or out of the sheer number of writing tasks students often loathe essays and rely on custom essay writing to help them out. This is why we have compiled this friendly essay-writing guide: to make this often-dreaded task easy for you.

Before we go straight to the tips to writing a good essay, let’s find out what an essay is exactly. An essay is a relatively short piece of writing with a narrow focus that presents the writer’s perspective on a subject or a story. As an academic paper, an essay usually explores serious topics and builds an argument based on factual evidence and interpretation of this evidence.

Steps to Writing an Essay

How to write an academic essay? The basic essay-writing stages are similar for papers of various types and length:

1. Pre-writing consists of coming up with the topic and deciding on the focus of the paper, researching and outlining.

2. Writing starts with a thesis statement that you bring forward in the introduction, then you give your arguments to support this claim in the main body of an essay, and draw a line under it in the conclusion.

3. Revision involves proofreading your essay for clarity, structure, grammar, and spelling.

Note that this is a process in its most general form. For a simple 500-word essay written during a timed exam, all three stages will take about 30 minutes, while for an 10-pages long grad-school essay they will stretch over weeks and even months.

Different types of essays (narrative, descriptive, expository, etc.) also have certain details to consider on every stage. If you need a specialized step-by-step guide for a particular kind of essay, look it up among our other posts. Meanwhile, below you will find the best tips for writing an essay that are universal and apply to all types.

Choosing your topic and focus

When it comes to choosing a topic, there are three rules you should follow:

1. The topic must comply with the requirements given in your assignment sheet.

Many students overlook this obvious thing. Read your assignment carefully. If the prompt is given in the form of a question, your essay must answer it. If it says, “Compare the protagonists of Jane Eyre and Rebecca” then you should focus on finding similarities and differences between the two characters and leave the other aspects of the books aside.

2. The topic must be disputable.

If you need to come up with a claim about your subject, make a statement that can be argued with. If it is too obvious, then there is no need in developing an argument about it. On the other hand, make sure that you have enough evidence to back up your claim.

3. The scope of the topic must fit the word count.

Usually, students err on the side of being too broad and end up with an overwhelmingly huge scope they cannot handle. Remember, an essay is a focused piece of writing by definition. Will you be able to tackle “The impact of Black Death on humanity” in a two-page essay? Unlikely. Better narrow it down, for example, “The impact of Black Death on English literature” or “How Medieval artists pictured death before and after the 1346-1353 pandemic”.

Making an outline

Too often students skip this step to save time or because they don’t see the point in outlining. However, it is an important stage of working on your essay. Before you start writing, you need to organize the information you have found during the research and plan your paper. Seeing the structure of your future essay laid out helps to determine if anything is lacking.

If you cannot outline your essay and say in complete sentences what each of its parts is about, you aren’t ready to write it either. Take a few minutes to organize your thoughts – it will help you to avoid many mistakes.

Writing the introduction

An introduction is the first paragraph of your essay. Usually, it isn’t long (about 4 to 6 lines) and serves the purpose of attracting attention to your topic and persuading the reader that your essay is worth their attention.

The essay format is less rigid compared to other academic papers and leaves a place for creativity. However, it is a good practice to include in your introduction the following things:

  1. The hook (or attention-grabber): the very first sentence that should engage your reader. Bold statements, jokes, rhetoric questions, interesting quotes, and surprising facts are just a few of the tactics you can employ to that end.
  2. The thesis statement (or the main claim): this is the gist of your paper summed up in one sentence. This is what you are saying, your take on the issue, an argument you are making.
  3. Relevance (or the significance of your essay): the explanation of why your main claim must be made, why this problem must be explored, why it’s important for your reader to learn this information.

Writing the body paragraphs

The main part of your essay should answer the questions “what?” and “how?”

  1. What evidence you have to prove that your thesis statement is true?
  2. How does your thesis stand up to counterarguments?

The number of paragraphs (or even chapters) you will need to answer those questions depends on the length of your essay. However, the rule of thumb is that the body of paragraphs should take up 60 to 80 percent of the entire essay. Also, you can never go wrong by following these rules:

  1. Keep paragraphs focused and give only one argument/idea per paragraph.
  2. Maintain paragraph structure:
    • topic sentence to introduce the idea
    • evidence to support it
    • explanation of the evidence with concrete examples
    • summary sentence that closes the argument presented in this paragraph and makes a transition to the next one

Writing the conclusion

The conclusion summarizes all the evidence you have presented and ties it together with the thesis statement. However, it is not a simple restatement of the introduction. A good conclusion should answer a big question: “why?” Why is this topic important? Why your interpretation should matter? This gives your essay closure and a good, finished feel. Follow these rules when you write a conclusion:

  1. Explain the broader implication of your thesis and its significance
  2. Don’t add new arguments or evidence here – they belong in the body
  3. End your essay on a strong note. Don’t downplay your arguments (“there are, of course, other interpretations”), don’t apologize for your opinions (“this is only my theory”). Be confident. There is a difference between intellectual humility and not being sure of what you are saying.

Editing your essay

Before you can consider your essay finished, you should edit and proofread it. Here are the areas you should focus on:

  • Compliance with assignment requirements: make sure you have answered the main question, addressed the issues you were supposed to address, met the required word, etc.
  • Grammar and spelling: use spell-checkers and reread it once again after you’ve corrected the errors
  • Coherence: does your essay reads like a finished piece of writing, with a clear message and smooth transitions between the structural parts?
  • Formatting: check if you have set the required spacing, font size, and gave your citations in the required style (APA, MLA, Chicago, etc.)
  • Originality: your essay contains your own original interpretations, observations, and conclusions. All the evidence you have sourced elsewhere is cited properly even if paraphrased.

Congratulations! You have now officially finished our crash course in essay writing and are ready to produce impressive A-worthy papers.

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