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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Building the Essay Draft
Building a strong essay draft requires going through a logical progression of stages:
Tip: After you have completed the body of your paper, you can decide what you want to say in your introduction and in your conclusion.
Once you know what you want to talk about and you have written your thesis statement, you are ready to build the body of your essay.
The thesis statement will usually be followed by:
- the body of the paper
- the paragraphs that develop the thesis by explaining your ideas by backing them up
- examples or evidence
Tip: The "examples or evidence" stage is the most important part of the paper, because you are giving your reader a clear idea of what you think and why you think it.
- For each reason you have to support your thesis, remember to state your point clearly and explain it.
Tip: Read your thesis sentence over and ask yourself what questions a reader might ask about it. Then answer those questions, explaining and giving examples or evidence.
- Compare and contrast: Show how one thing is similar to another, and then how the two are different, emphasizing the side that seems more important to you. For example, if your thesis states, "Jazz is a serious art form," you might compare and contrast a jazz composition to a classical one.
- Show your reader what the opposition thinks (reasons why some people do not agree with your thesis), and then refute those reasons (show why they are wrong).On the other hand, if you feel that the opposition isn't entirely wrong, you may say so, (concede), but then explain why your thesis is still the right opinion.
- Think about the order in which you have made your points. Why have you presented a certain reason that develops your thesis first, another second, etc.? If you can't see any particular value in presenting your points in the order you have, reconsider it until you either decide why the order you have is best, or change it to one that makes more sense to you.
- Keep revisiting your thesis with three questions in mind: 1. Does each paragraph develop my thesis?
2. Have I done all the development I wish had been done?
3. Am I still satisfied with my working thesis, or have I developed my body in ways that mean I must adjust my thesis to fit what I have learned, what I
believe, and what I have actually discussed?
It is important to link your paragraphs together, giving your readers cues so that they see the relationship between one idea and the next, and how these ideas develop your thesis.
Your goal is a smooth transition from paragraph A to paragraph B, which explains why cue words that link paragraphs are often called "transitions."
Tip: Your link between paragraphs may not be one word, but several, or even a whole sentence.
Here are some ways of linking paragraphs.
- To show simply that another idea is coming, use words such as "also," "moreover" or "in addition."
- To show that the next idea is the logical result of the previous one, use words such as "therefore," "consequently," "thus" or "as a result."
- To show that the next idea seems to go against the previous one, or is not its logical result, use words such as "however," "nevertheless" or "still."
- To show you've come to your strongest point, use words such as "most importantly."
- To show you've come to a change in topic, use words such as "on the other hand."
- To show you've come to your final point, use words such as "finally."
After you have come up with a thesis and developed it in the body of your paper, you can decide how to introduce your ideas to your reader.
The goals of an introduction are to:
- get your reader's attention/arouse your reader's curiosity
- provide any necessary background information before you state your thesis (often the last sentence of the introductory paragraph)
- establish why you are writing the paper
Tip: You already know why you are writing, and who your reader is; now present that reason for writing to that reader.
Hints for writing your introduction:
- Use the Ws of journalism (who, what, when, where, why) to decide what information to give. (Remember that a history teacher doesn't need to be told "George Washington was the first president of the United States." Keep your reader in mind.)
- Add another "W": Why (why is this paper worth reading)? The answer could be that your topic is new, controversial or very important.
- Catch your reader by surprise by starting with a description or narrative that doesn't hint at what your thesis will be. For example, a paper could start, "It is less than a 32nd of an inch long, but it can kill an adult human," to begin a paper about eliminating malaria-carrying mosquitoes.
There can be many different conclusions to the same paper (just as there can be many introductions), depending on who your readers are and where you want to direct them (follow-up you expect of them after they finish your paper). Therefore, restating your thesis and summarizing the main points of your body should not be all that your conclusion does. In fact, most weak conclusions are merely restatements of the thesis and summaries of the body without guiding the reader toward thinking about the implications of the thesis.
Here are some options for writing a strong conclusion:
- Make a prediction about the future. You convinced the reader that thermal energy is terrific, but do you think it will become the standard energy source? When?
- Give specific advice. If your readers now understand that multicultural education has great advantages, or disadvantages, or both, whatever your opinion might be, what should they do? Whom should they contact?
- Put your topic in a larger context. Once you have proven that physical education should be part of every school's curriculum, perhaps readers should consider other "frill" courses which are actually essential.
Tip: Just as a conclusion should not be just a restatement of your thesis and summary of your body, it also should not be an entirely new topic, a door opened that you barely lead your reader through and leave them there lost. Just as in finding your topic and in forming your thesis, the safe and sane rule in writing a conclusion is: neither too little nor too much.
Revising and Proofreading the Draft
Writing is only half the job of writing.
The writing process begins even before you put pen to paper, when you think about your topic. And, once you finish actually writing, the process continues. What you have written is not the finished essay, but a first draft, and you must go over many times to improve it -- a second draft, a third draft, as many as necessary to do the job right. Your final draft, edited and proofread, is your essay, ready for your reader's eyes.
A revision is a "re-vision" of your essay -- how you see things now, deciding whether your introduction, thesis, body and conclusion really express your own vision. Revision is global, taking another look at what ideas you have included in your paper and how they are arranged;
Proofreading is checking over a draft to make sure that everything is complete and correct as far as spelling, grammar, sentence structure, punctuation and other such matters go. It's a necessary, if somewhat tedious and tricky, job one that a friend or computer Spellcheck can help you perform. Proofreading is polishing, one spot at a time.
Tip: Revision should come before proofreading: why polish what you might be changing anyway?
Hints for revising and proofreading:
- Leave some time -- an hour, a day, several days -- between writing and revising. You need some distance to switch from writer to editor, some distance between your initial vision and your re-vision.
- Double-check your writing assignment to be sure you haven't gone off course. It's alright if you've shifted from your original plan, if you know why and are happier with this direction.
- Read aloud slowly. You need to get your eye and your ear to work together. At any point that something seems awkward, read it over again. If you're not sure what's wrong -- or even if something is wrong -- make a notation in the margin and come back to it later. Watch out for "padding;" tighten your sentences to eliminate excess words that dilute your ideas.
- Be on the lookout for points that seem vague or incomplete; these could present opportunities for rethinking, clarifying and further developing an idea.
- Get to know what your particular quirks are as a writer. Do you give examples without explaining them, or forget links between paragraphs? Leave time for an extra rereading to look for any weak points .
- Get someone else into the act. Have others read your draft, or read it to them. Invite questions and ask questions yourself, to see if your points are clear and well developed. Remember, though, that some well-meaning readers can be too easy -- or too hard -- on a piece of writing, especially one by someone close.
Tip: Never change anything unless you are convinced that it should be changed.
- Keep tools at hand, such as a dictionary, a thesaurus, and a writing handbook.
- If you're using word processing, remember that computers are wonderful resources for editing and revising.
- When you feel you've done everything you can, first by revising and then by proofreading, and have a nice clean final draft, put it aside and return later to re-see the whole essay. There may be some last minute fine tuning that can make all the difference.