Never been taught how to write an essay? You're not alone. You've probably been told that essays need to be clear, well-evidenced and well-argued, but those things describe the final product. What steps do you need to do along the way? Where should you start? Many final year students say that no one has ever explained this to them. So, our tutors have put together some step-by-step instructions to guide you through the process of planning and writing a good essay.
Read through your text quickly once. Decide on the central themes or arguments and note these down. Now reread the text, highlighting and making note of page numbers where pertinent points occur for each theme or argument. E.g., if you are asked to write on a given topic in a work of literature, you may identify three relevant themes after your first read through and then locate three quotes or points to paraphrase for each theme on your second read through. You can use these to evidence your claims when you write your essay.
The more precise you can make your thesis at this stage, the better. An overly ambitious thesis statement will mean that you can only give superficial explanations and arguments in the space that you have. No-one can write a really good 2000-word essay on, say, ‘the purpose of dreams’ or whether ‘nature is more important than nurture’. Choose a narrow thesis, tied closely to your designated reading(s).
Make sure you are clear on exactly what your thesis is and what it rules out. If a thesis doesn’t rule out any interesting positions, you might be arguing for something that is too obvious. Who are your 'opponents'? What would their arguments against you look like? If you start to plan your essay without a clear idea of your thesis, you risk it being disorganized and unpersuasive. Craft your thesis statement carefully and write it down somewhere you can see it. Make sure you consistently have this at the front of your mind as you plan and write your essay.
When you have given your argument, you will want to show that you can respond to at least one possible objection to it. Before you plan your essay outline, spend some time thinking about what an objector might say about your position or arguments. This is a good exercise to do anyhow when choosing a good thesis statement. An interesting thesis statement will not rule out any possible objection – it will likely invite a number of sensible objections that you can address. You do not need to include all of these objections - the more focused you can make your essay, the better. Select the strongest one (or two, if you have room), and decide how you would respond. Do not select any weak objections - this will just serve to undermine your argument. The stronger the objection you can answer, the more persuasive your essay will be.
After your introduction, your first paragraph(s) of your essay will typically involve some exposition. If you are being asked to critically assess an argument, here is the place to explain what that argument is (with textual support). Plan out the most important points to include here: which elements of the material are essential details, and which can be left out? Make a list of bullet points for your exposition paragraph(s) - later you will add your textual evidence next to them. For more information of how to write an exposition, check out How to Write an Exposition for an Essay.
Next, think about the best order to present the points you want to make in support of your thesis. Think hard about logical order and flow. If you were explaining this argument to someone who had not read the same things that you just have, how would you make your idea clear to them? Which things do they need to know first? What are your premises (your starting claims) and what is your conclusion? Make sure that you have a clear idea of how this logical connection works in a more abstract form and put it down in bullet points. This will help you with how to order the paragraphs of your essay: your reader will assume that you have presented things in a logical order.
After presenting your argument, anticipate at least one objection to your thesis and note down how you will respond to it. Finally, plan to summarize what you have shown in your conclusion.
Estimate in advance how many words to write for each section of your essay. This will prevent you from running over the limit and having to radically rewrite or cut out important sections at the end. You might find it useful to create temporary section headers in your document to guide your writing (you can delete these when your essay is finished). For example:
Introduction [100 words]
Exposition of the material [200 words]
My main argument(s) for my thesis [500 words]
First possible criticism of my argument [100 words]
My reply to this criticism [200 words]
Second possible criticism of my argument [100 words]
My reply to this criticism [200 words]
Conclusion [50 words].
Using the notes you made when reading (step 1), assign supporting quotes and paraphrases from the reading(s) to any exposition in your outline. Many students make the mistake of including lengthy quotes in their work. Your professor wants to read about your understanding so keep quotations nice and short. Remember that not all textual evidence needs to be in the form of a quotation: it's important to show that you know how to paraphrase some central points yourself. Provide a citation after each of your paraphrases. This will show your grader that you have done a close reading of the text.
Now that you have your outline and your textual evidence ready to go, you can begin to write the body of your essay. The aim of your writing is to convince the reader of your thesis using rational persuasion. Make sure to substantiate and explain all of your claims. Assume that your reader is constantly asking questions like "Why should I accept that?"
The most common mistake that students make with an introduction is to make it too long and rambling. Never start your essay with statements like, "Since the beginning of time, people have been thinking about [topic]." This is a pet peeve of most professors and is a waste of your word budget. Get right to the point: quickly introduce the topic of your essay and provide your thesis statement. If you are writing a 1000-word essay, your introduction should typically not be longer than 100 words. For more tips on how to write an introduction, have a look at How to Write an Introduction for an Essay.
It's easy to miss this step if you are working to a deadline but it is one of the most impactful stages of the writing process. The overall impression that your essay makes is very influential on a grader. Lots of typos, grammatical errors, and unclear sentences will exhaust your grader and can potentially undermine your hard work. One great way to check for clarity is to ask a peer who is not in your class to read through your essay: if they can understand it all without guidance, that's a good sign. If they can't, ask them to highlight which sentences are unclear.
Try to get some distance from your work before reading through it yourself. Leave your draft alone for a day or two and then edit it with fresh eyes. If you're running short on time, one way to quickly create distance from your work is to read it aloud and imagine that you have an audience.Do your explanations sound clear? Are any of your sentences too long? Does your paper fulfill the promise of the introduction?
If the essay writing process still feels mysterious or confusing, don't hesitate to seek advice and support. Your professor has office hours just for this purpose. Don't wait until the week before the assignment is due to seek them out - go early in the semester when they'll be less busy and explain that you want to better understand what they are looking for. Tutoring may also be a great option for you. At Grade Doctor Tutoring, our tutors all have PhDs and experience teaching university classes and grading essays. Working closely with a tutor on how best to do steps 1-9 for your topic can help you to understand the process more thoroughly and learn how to do it on your own. If you're interested in essay writing tutoring, contact us to set up a chat about what you're struggling with. We'll have you set up with a tutor within 24 hours.
If you're interested in how to avoid some of the most common mistakes that students make with essay writing, have a look at The Fifteen Most Common Mistakes that Students Make with Essay Writing.