Additionally, they’re also very important: even in high school, turning in a great paper instead of an average one can make all the difference to your grades. But while we can’t vouch for your professor’s preferences (all writing is subjective, even the academic kind), we can provide a few tips and tools of the trade to help you craft a brilliant essay.
From the introduction to the conclusion, whether you’re writing a freshman-year essay or a graduation thesis, here are a few steps to follow to get you a gold star.
First things first: planning
The first rule in the book of ‘how to write an essay’ is to spend time crafting an outline. We know, we know, it’s not part of the assignment. But you know what? It really does help. It doesn’t have to take a long time, but getting the bare bones down on paper will help you infinitely when it comes to writing your first draft. To make it a bit more palatable, we’ve broken down the planning process into several key steps.
1. Define your topic
You may already have been given an assignment, or your professor might have asked you to choose a topic. In either case, it’s very important to make sure you understand the scope of your essay. Deadline and word count are essential, of course, but also be sure you understand the aim of the assignment. Is your essay supposed to be argumentative, or is it geared more towards analysis? In both cases the writing approach will be quite different, so be sure to get this clear in your mind – it will save you plenty of headaches later.
2. Research, research, research
Research is one of those pesky tasks that’s pretty open-ended. For that reason, it can seem quite scary – but trust us, there’s no need to panic. Start with a couple of primary sources: depending on your subject and the type of essay, these might be first-person interviews or case studies, statistics or other mathematical data, books or paintings, even court transcripts, and legal texts.
As a rule of thumb, primary sources are first-hand evidence, something about which you can write a direct analysis. A secondary source, on the other hand, is anything that tells you more about that document/artwork/set of statistics. It’s likely to be an essay or book by another researcher, or an article published in a newspaper or journal.
When finished, your own essay will be this kind of source too. As you research, be careful to note down details such as source title, author, page number, and (if it’s on the internet) date of access. You’ll need all this information when you come to citations – more on that later.
3. Outline your essay
Many people view this as one of the driest steps in the process of how to write an essay, but you can make it fast and fun for yourself. Use sticky notes and colored pens to jot down the main points of your thesis. If it’s an argumentative essay, you may want to divide them into simple categories such as ‘for’ and ‘against’.
Spread them out on the floor, move them around, and create a logical structure that allows you to introduce the topic, present various arguments, and wrap it all up in a conclusion. Of course, you can do this on the computer too, but we find that sometimes going back to basics can get the creative juices flowing.
If you’ve followed these steps, you’re now ready for the crucial part: the writing. But don’t sweat it – armed with a solid outline and plenty of research, you’ll find it easier than you thought to write a high-quality academic essay.
Putting pen to paper
Every essay looks different, depending on the topic and length, but in essence, they all follow the same structure: introduction, main body, conclusion. Think of it as a house, if you will. The introduction is a big front door, the walls are made of informative arguments and analysis, and the conclusion is the roof that keeps it all in. The planning steps you did before? That was digging the foundations.
1. The Introduction
The introduction begins with what’s known in the business as a ‘hook’. This is meant to engage your reader and make them want to find out more. Found a surprising statistic or noted down a catchy quote? Brilliant – use this. Then go on to provide some background to the topic (a general introduction, in case the reader isn’t familiar), and outline the argumentative stance (or ‘thesis’) you’re taking. Remember, there’s no such thing as a spoiler in an essay. Your reader needs to be clear from the start about the conclusion you’re going to be drawing.
2. The Body
This is the bulk of your essay, and so you’re going to spend the longest time writing it. To give your brain a break (and save too many edits later) it’s best to break this down into sections using the handy outline you created earlier. Use one paragraph per argument – or two at the most, if there’s lots of material – and make sure each flows from the one before. This section of your essay is meant to be informative, with plenty of analysis and reference to your primary and secondary sources. It can be argumentative, too – just be sure to discuss opposing viewpoints (even if only to disprove them) and make sure any claims you make are backed up by solid evidence.
3. The Conclusion
In the final paragraph or section of your academic essay, the conclusion brings all your arguments together in a fast analysis that leaves your reader in no doubt about your stance on the subject. You might be agreeing with other researchers or trying to say something entirely new, but in either case, you should try to show why your thesis is correct and meaningful.
Refer back to evidence you included in the body, but don’t provide any new arguments or sources. Wrap it all up with a powerful statement (a bit like the hook you used at the beginning) to leave your reader with a memorable impression.
At this point, you deserve a cup of coffee, or maybe a nap. In all seriousness, it is a good idea to leave your essay to ‘stew’ overnight. Coming back to it another day with a clear head will help with the next steps, so be sure to factor in enough time to do that.
Revising and refining
The final stage in the process of how to write an essay is all about making your work as good as it can be. Nothing is perfect the first time around – that’s a fact you just have to accept about writing. The good news is there are several tools at your disposal to improve your first draft, which go by the names of editing and proofreading.
There are several editing steps to follow, but we’ll try to make it brief. First, check your structure: have you followed the outline you set yourself? Does your essay make argumentative sense? And, most important, does it answer the question or fulfill the assignment?
Next, go through it paragraph by paragraph to ensure you’ve made it as informative as possible. Finally, you need to analyze your language. Have you struck the right tone? Avoided repeating words too often? Included a mix of short and long sentences, with no unnecessary ‘filler’ words?
If you’re writing an academic essay, you’ll need to carefully cite your quotations. The exact style to follow will vary depending on your college – your professor should be able to provide a guide for this – but it usually involves a mixture of footnotes and a final bibliography. If you made detailed notes on your sources during the research stage, you should find it quite fast and easy to attribute all your quoted material.
The final stage in the writing process will polish your essay to perfection. Go through it with a fine-toothed comb to make sure it doesn’t contain any spelling, grammar, or punctuation issues. Even small mistakes can make your work look sloppy, so be sure to iron them out before submitting. Perhaps get a friend or family member to help by reading it – two pairs of eyes are better than one! There are also several online tools to assist with spelling and grammar, plus free plagiarism checks to make sure your work is 100% original.
Working out how to write an essay can seem daunting at first, but when broken down like this it’s quite straightforward – right? If you follow these steps each time you’re assigned a paper, you’ll get rid of a lot of the hassle, and maybe even find yourself enjoying it! Remember, given enough time and careful planning, even an academic essay can be fun to write.