The components of a good essay

At high school, particularly here in New Zealand, ideas are always assessed in the form of essays.

With so many rules surrounding ‘proper’ essay form, it’s easy for ideas to get lost to the format, or for you to lose sight of what they’re arguing for in the first place.

Sadly, this means that students often can’t get their thoughts across effectively, and are marked down for things that have no bearing on their ideas or intelligence.

However frustrating they might be, research has shown that learning how to compile an argument in written form is a skill that does great things for your grades, employability and general life-confidence.

As a soon-to-be graduate of high school – whatever you choose to do – the importance of strong communication skills cannot be understated.

If you choose to head straight into the workforce, you’ll be expected to demonstrate this skill in your cover letters and CV’s during job applications, and at University, essays are pretty much the stock standard assignment in most courses (otherwise there are always reports, reviews and reflections).

Writing skills will even get you further in your travels: Visas can involve lengthy letters and application processes, and administrators are always impressed by a well-written application.

Considering all the evidence, it’s a smart move to get a good feel for essay writing now – the seeds you plant now will help you out big-time in the long run.

How can I write a good essay then?

Contrary to popular opinion, anyone can write a good essay.

It’s a skill, not a trait, and like any other skill, it only improves with practice.

The tricky thing is getting your head around all the niggly bits, like structure, and themes, and ideas, and topic sentences, and punctuation, and clarity, blah blah blah, etc. That’s what we’re here for.

This guide will help you to break through the sludge of essay writing and help you to get to the heart of their purpose: communicating an idea. We’ll decipher the intimidating jargon and wordy standards for you, and give you solid, smooth steps to follow so you can smash an essay for every topic, any time. The guide will cover:

Deciding on an “idea”

Planning your argument

Essay structure

Introduction

Body paragraphs

Conclusion

Proofreading

THE BIG “IDEA” AND WHY IT MATTERS

The term ‘idea’ in the context of essay-writing causes a lot of confusion – and rightly so – it’s unfairly vague!

Simply put, an idea is the argument you’re making in your essay. While definitions may vary across standards and subjects (“hypothesis”; “argument”; “thesis statement”; “theme” etc.) your idea is your overarching claim that the rest of your essay will prove or justify.

An idea could be anything from “Romeo and Juliet’s relationship demonstrates the difficulty of defying familial expectations” to “The use of guerilla warfare helped the Viet Cong to defeat America in the in the Vietnam war.”

Ideas can be universal, personal, fundamental, controversial or challenging. They don’t necessarily have to be ‘good’ or ‘moral.’

Writing an essay isn’t about agreeing with the message of the text, or the topic you’ve been asked to engage with.

Teachers are more concerned with your ability to look at a topic or text critically, interpret it, and relate that interpretation to the outside world in one way or another.

The idea is the spine of your essay. The rest of it will work towards demonstrating how and why you’re arguing for this claim. So before you start writing an essay, it’s smart to get a firm grip on your idea first.

Brainstorming is a good start. On a piece of paper, jot down all the observations you’ve made about your essay topic. You’ll usually have a question or a demand in the guidelines to narrow things down. If you can’t think of any ideas, do some extra revision!

Once you’ve done this, try to think of one connection to bind your ideas about the text/topic/event together.

Then make it into a statement – e.g: “In Bend it Like Beckham, Jesminder’s character explores the tension between cultural expectations and social belonging.”

Make sure you’ve got a good amount of supporting points to bolster whatever your claim says.

Pro tips: Don’t overcomplicate it! Fancy wording doesn’t matter. It’s more about the insight of your claim, and showing that you can develop a perceptive opinion on something.

Don’t fall into the trap of the one-word-idea. “Love” is not an idea. Instead, your idea should take the form of a firm statement about love.

If your essay is given to you in the form of a question, think of the idea as an answer to that question.

Example question: “Should the Hunger Games be considered a feminist text?”

Idea/claim/argument/thesis: “Despite The Hunger Games having a female protagonist, the character of Katniss reinforces masculine notions of strength, therefore it should not be considered a feminist text.

Your idea should show some critical thinking. For example: “The Hunger Games should not be considered a feminist text” is not a strong enough observation – you need some substance behind it.

If you’re too vague or short with your idea, your supporting evidence will lose structure, and could go on forever. Think about your idea as if you were explaining the main point of your essay to another person.

If you read your idea aloud – ask yourself: Does it make sense? Does it answer the question or fulfill the demand? Does it summarise most of your essay’s argument?

If the answer is no to any of these three questions, refine and try again.

2. GET PLANNING
Essays almost always follow the same linear structure:

Introduction.
Body Paragraphs
Conclusion.
We’ll break down the anatomy behind each element later on – but for now – it’s useful to know how they work together to make an essay.

The introduction is the clincher: its job is to contextualise your argument, interest the reader, briefly explain your argument and of course, introduce the idea.

The body paragraphs are the supporting points to hold up your main idea, with evidence from the text.

The conclusion brings together everything you’ve argued in a neat summary, reinforcing the idea one more time.

Whether you’re writing under time pressure or doing a take-home assignment, it’s important to know (at least in part) where your argument is going to go.

Planning is a sure way to do this – and it doesn’t have to be boring. While ‘fluking it’ might work for some people, having no plan makes it easy to get lost in your own train of thought and go off on long tangents.

There are loads of different ways to plan, and you should give yourself enough flexibility so that you have the freedom to incorporate new points or ideas as you’re writing.

A great, easy and flexible way to plan is the Box Plan. This plan can be adapted for a range of subjects; it’s a neat and easy visualisation of your essay’s skeleton and key points; and also serves as a great resource for revision – because who wants to spend hours rewriting the same essay over and over?

See the table below for an easy template of the Box Plan. Feel free to print it out, and if you’re feeling extra-motivated for revision, spend some time making it colour co-ordinated or adding some visual doodles to help memorise the content and make things fun.

DIY BOX PLAN

Introduction:

Clearly state your main IDEA.

What are the THREE MAIN POINTS that you will use to support this idea?

Body Paragraph One:

Clearly state the main POINT you will discuss in this paragraph.

Record all of the EVIDENCE you will use to prove this point.

Connect this evidence back to the MAIN IDEA or the OUTSIDE world.

Body Paragraph Two:

Clearly state the main POINT you will discuss in this paragraph.

Record all of the EVIDENCE you will use to prove this point.

Connect this evidence back to the MAIN IDEA or the OUTSIDE world.

Body Paragraph Three:

Clearly state the main POINT you will discuss in this paragraph.

Record all of the EVIDENCE you will use to prove this point.

Connect this evidence back to the MAIN IDEA or the OUTSIDE world.

Conclusion:

Clearly state the main ARGUMENT you have made or IDEA you have explored.

Review how all of your points have supported this IDEA.

3. ANATOMY OF AN INTRO
There’s lots of advice out there that tells you an introduction is the least important part of an essay, something you can rush over to get to the ‘good stuff’. They’re wrong.

Writing a killer introduction is the magic ticket to an excellent essay.

A great intro lays out your ideas concisely and persuasively, and can provide focus and momentum for the rest of the essay.

Plus having something concrete to come back to can be really helpful when you’re feeling stuck or lost – and remind you of your overarching argument or idea.

Our best advice for nailing the intro is to start broad and then narrow down.

Here’s a quick formula to follow for writing an introduction that’ll blow your teacher out of the water.

Pro tip: Get a hook, start broad and narrow down. Finish on by going SUPER broad (society/the world/the universe) to be extra fancy.

Hook (rhetoric question/quotation/exclamation to engage the reader)
Context (the boring but important contextual bits like the author/director/poet/setting/title/characters/etc.)
Idea (see our first chapter for a definition)
Brief explanation of how you’ll prove this idea (whatever points/evidence you’re putting in your body paragraphs)
For extra points, round up your intro by making a connection to the outside world (some profound and relevant moral lesson about society usually works)
Here’s an example of a great introduction for a basic English text analysis essay. Each colour in the paragraph corresponds with the formula above (Hook = purple; Context = red; and so on).

Why do bad things happen to good people? The majority of society believes that there are no logical answers to this question. Terrible things can happen to the best of us, for no particular reason. However, in William Shakespeare’s “King Lear”, the main character, King Lear, who claims to be “a man more sinned against than sinning”, is fully responsible for his own downfall. In fact, the sins committed against King Lear are a result of his personal faults of rashness, blindness, and foolishness. Though a good king, Lear’s actions cause his family and kingdom to fall apart. Furthermore, he is personally punished for disrupting the natural order, with his poor decision-making. King Lear’s downfall demonstrates how good people can still make terrible decisions – inviting the reader to consider the complex nature of humans, and emphasising the importance of taking responsibility for your own actions.

4. BREAKING DOWN THE BODY PARAGRAPH

The body paragraph makes up the “flesh” of the essay “skeleton” you have at the moment.

Three body paragraphs is enough for a strong essay, however you can add as many more as you need to strengthen or fully unpack your overall argument (provided you’re not ranting).

It’s important that each body paragraph is sharp and clean, and backed up by some relevant evidence.

The point of a paragraph is to indicate a break – so make sure that each paragraph has only ONE predominant focus.

If you find yourself going off topic from your original focus, consider making a new self-contained paragraph to explore that idea in full depth.

WHAT’S THE POINT?

Your main point should be introduced at the beginning of your body paragraph, and take form in what the experts call a “topic sentence”.

This is similar to your big idea, but it’s a bit more specific. Similarly, it should make some sort of definitive claim about the text or topic, and help to support your main idea.

If your main idea is the spine of your essay, your topic sentence is the spine of your body paragraph.

Let’s have a look at F. Scott Fitzgerald’s novel The Great Gatsby for some ideas:

Main Essay Idea:

“Through the use of motifs and symbolism, The Great Gatsby explores the disintegration of the American dream in 1920’s America.”

Point of Body Paragraph 1:

“Geography is used as a motif to illustrate the different classes of the decaying nation, and their clashing social values.”

Point of Body Paragraph 2:

“The distant Green Light is used to symbolise the ideal of the American Dream – relentlessly pursued but never realised up close.”

Focus of Body Paragraph 3:

“The Valley of the Ashes symbolises the moral and social decay of the nation, figured literally by its desolation and pollution, but also by the poor citizens who live there.”

SHOW ME THE EVIDENCE

It’s all very well and good to be able to make big claims – but you have to be able to back them up, otherwise for all we know, you’re just peddling conspiracies.

The evidence is all the stuff you need to show your reader that your argument has some validity to it.

The evidence can be a quote, technique, event, plot point, character, excerpt, symbol, motif, etc. – so long as it’s relevant to the point you’re making and taken directly from whatever your essay is about.

Remember that it has to be factually correct too, don’t ever think you can get away with making up a quote!

Your marker knows more than you think, and chances are they’ll sense something fishy and look it up.

ROUND IT UP

To finish your body paragraph in style, throw in one or two sentences that link back to the main idea of your essay.

Better yet, reflect on something bigger to show your ability engage critically with the world around you.

This final element is your chance to give an opinion on something, it can be as abstract or far-fetched as you like, provided your body paragraph is strong enough to support the claim.

Connecting your essay to wider forces in the world shows that you’re thinking about what you’re writing, rather than simply regurgitating content you’ve learned in class.

Markers love this part – especially in NCEA – and it often makes the difference between a Merit and an Excellence essay.

Here’s a quick table showing the anatomy of a body paragraph:

Focus of Body Paragraph One:

“Geography is used as a motif to illustrate the different classes of the decaying nation, and their clashing social values”

Evidence:

“I lived at West Egg, the – well, the least fashionable of the two, though this is a most superficial tag to express the bizarre and not a little sinister contrast between them[…]Across the courtesy bay the white palaces of fashionable East Egg glittered along the water, and the history of the summer really begins on the evening I drove over there to have dinner with the Tom Buchanans.” (1.14)

Explanation:

This quote from Nick demonstrates how he envisions class distinctions geographically – drawing a literal and figurative contrast between the two sides of the lake and economic status.

Reflection:

The geographic illustration of class in The Great Gatsby mirrors the growing disparity between rich and poor that was taking place in America in the 1920’s.

5. CONCLUSIONS – MAKING A LASTING IMPRESSION

By the time you’ve made it here, you’re probably sick to death of your topic.

At this point, it’s tempting to just spurt out whatever your mind can muster, and hope that the rest of your essay holds you afloat when it comes to marking.

Avoid thinking like this! Your conclusion is the your final chance to leave an impression on your reader.

If anything, it’s a golden opportunity to boost the quality of your essay by tying it all together with a sparkly bow.

This doesn’t mean the conclusion has to be a difficult or particularly long process. All the work is pretty much done for you, now it’s a matter of selecting the most important points to drive home.

At bare minimum, your conclusion must accomplish three things:

Restate the main idea of your essay.
Summarize the three points in your body paragraphs.
Leave the reader with an interesting final thought or impression.
Excellent conclusions will convey a sense of closure while also providing scope for other trains of thought – like an appetizer of a main dish at a different restaurant.

This is a tricky balance to strike, but it makes a world of difference.

6. PROOFREADING – YOUR FINAL SAFETY NET

At this point, after so much energy has been spent dutifully perfecting your work, it’s probably likely that the sentences in your essay are looking less and less like words and more like meaningless drivel on a page.

You might be itching to hand it in so that you can treat yourself to a well-deserved Big Mac Combo and never ever look at The Great Gatsby again in your life.

This is why proofreading is so crucial. When you’ve spent a while writing something, it’s really difficult to pick up on the mistakes you may have made during the process.

You may feel attached to certain parts that took you ages to spit out, when really, they’re unnecessary waffling.

Your mind may have convinced itself that some sentences are elegant masterpieces, but when you get your marks back, you realise they made no sense at all.

We all know too well the shameful feeling of getting an essay back and realising all the obvious errors you failed to pick up on in your frenzied state.

BUT, a great essay riddled with linguistic and grammatical errors will instantly make your ideas seem less valid than they are.

That’s why it’s really important to allow yourself time for proofreading, and even better, for reading it over with fresh eyes.

If you’re writing from home – take a break! Go for a walk, get some food, try a guided meditation, watch an episode of GoT, whatever – but come back to the essay later.

It’s amazing what a short break can do for your detection of mistakes. Even if you’re really strapped for time and you’re pulling an all nighter, go to sleep now and wake-up a bit earlier to proofread.

If you’re writing under pressure in an exam environment, make sure to plan for 5-10 minutes of proofreading. When you’ve finished the writing, go to another question or take a very short breather to clear your mind.

One great way to ensure your essay is pristine for hand-in is to run through this mental checklist for each individual sentence of your essay:

Read the sentence aloud (or at least in your head). Does it make full sense when you hear it?
Can it stand in isolation and still hold up as a sentence?
Does it support the point that you’re making, or is it waffling to fill up space?
Could it be articulated in a clearer way?
Do the commas, full-stops and speech-marks “flow” properly when read aloud?
Does it repeat a point that you’ve already made?
Does it go on for too long? Could it be split into two separate sentences?
Does it begin with a capital letter? Does it end with correct punctuation?
ROUND UP

Next time you’re assigned an essay for an internal or exam, don’t put it off until the night before and put yourself through a half-hearted, exhausting, unproductive all nighter.

Bookmark this page, breathe, and walk through the guide step-by-step. You might even enjoy the process.

Tips for creating a coherent paper

Before the Exam: Prepare and Practice

Writing a good essay requires synthesis of material that cannot be done in the 20-30 minutes you have during the exam. In the days before the exam, you should:
Anticipate test questions. Look at the question from the last exam. Did the question ask you to apply a theory to historical or contemporary events? Did you have to compare/contrast theories? Did you have to prove an argument? Imagine yourself in the role of the instructor–what did the instructor emphasize? What are the big ideas in the course?
Practice writing. You may decide to write a summary of each theory you have been discussing, or a short description of the historical or contemporary events you’ve been studying. Focus on clarity, conciseness, and understanding the differences between the theories.
Memorize key events, facts, and names. You will have to support your argument with evidence, and this may involve memorizing some key events, or the names of theorists, etc.
Organize your ideas. Knowledge of the subject matter is only part of the preparation process. You need to spend some time thinking about how to organize your ideas. Let’s say the question asks you to compare and contrast what regime theory and hegemonic stability theory would predict about post-cold war nuclear proliferation. The key components of an answer to this question must include:
A definition of the theories
A brief description of the issue
A comparison of the two theories’ predictions
A clear and logical contrasting of the theories (noting how and why they are different)
In the exam

Many students start writing furiously after scanning the essay question. Do not do this! Instead, try the following:
Perform a “memory dump.” Write down all the information you have had to memorize for the exam in note form.
Read the questions and instructions carefully. Read over all the questions on the exam. If you simply answer each question as you encounter it, you may give certain information or evidence to one question that is more suitable for another. Be sure to identify all parts of the question.
Formulate a thesis that answers the question. You can use the wording from the question. There is not time for an elaborate introduction, but be sure to introduce the topic, your argument, and how you will support your thesis (do this in your first paragraph).
Organize your supporting points. Before you proceed with the body of the essay, write an outline that summarizes your main supporting points. Check to make sure you are answering all parts of the question. Coherent organization is one of the most important characteristics of a good essay.
Make a persuasive argument. Most essays in political science ask you to make some kind of argument. While there are no right answers, there are more and less persuasive answers. What makes an argument persuasive?
A clear point that is being argued (a thesis)
Sufficient evidenct to support that thesis
Logical progression of ideas throughout the essay
Review your essay. Take a few minutes to re-read your essay. Correct grammatical mistakes, check to see that you have answered all parts of the question.
Things to Avoid

Essay exams can be stressful. You may draw a blank, run out of time, or find that you neglected an important part of the course in studying for the test. Of course, good preparation and time management can help you avoid these negative experiences. Some things to keep in mind as you write your essay include the following:
Avoid excuses. Don’t write at the end that you ran out of time, or did not have time to study because you were sick. Make an appointment with your TA to discuss these things after the exam.
Don’t “pad” your answer. Instructors are usually quite adept at detecting student bluffing. They give no credit for elaboration of the obvious. If you are stuck, you can elaborate on what you do know, as long as it relates to the question.
Avoid the “kitchen sink” approach. Many students simply write down everything they know about a particular topic, without relating the information to the question. Everything you include in your answer should help to answer the question and support your thesis. You need to show how/why the information is relevant — don’t leave it up to your instructor to figure this out!

5 practical tips for writing a killer essay

For many such students, each essay brings with it the challenge of making it that little bit better than the last one. The problem is that when you write essays regularly, it’s easy to get stuck in a rut of repeating the same formula each time – particularly when you already receive good feedback from the teachers who read them. So how do you take your essays to the next level and go from great to brilliant? Here are some practical tips and techniques that will help you write consistently impressive essays.

1. Read other people’s essays
Just as the books you read subconsciously help mould your own writing style, so reading other people’s essays can help you develop and build on your own essay-writing style. Try to read a range of other essays, including those of your peers and of academics. Read essays on a wide variety of subjects, not necessarily just those that you’re studying; different disciplines might apply different kinds of arguments or styles, so the wider you read, the more possible techniques there are for you to pick up and use in essays of your own.

As you read other people’s essays, don’t just take them at face value. Be critical: what do you like about them? What don’t you like about them? How persuasive do you think they are? Is the argument a balanced one, with points adequately supported with evidence? Has the writer used any techniques you’ve not seen before?

Another good source of essays is the broadsheet newspapers. Read the opinion pieces and dissect how the writer has supported their points with evidence, and again, be critical; note where they’ve left things out to try to persuade you to a particular opinion. Essays should be balanced, so you can learn from the best of these writers and pick up some techniques to help you shape a balanced piece.

Dictionaries
Using accurate language helps a lot.

2. Build your vocabulary and use it properly
A good vocabulary will allow you to express exactly what you mean, as clearly and concisely as possible. Economy with words is a characteristic of all good essays, because readers (and essay-markers) don’t like having their time wasted with long, rambling points that could have been expressed in half the number of words.

One way of ensuring that you can communicate clearly and to the point is through accurate and effective use of advanced vocabulary. A good essay writer should never rest on their laurels when it comes to vocabulary; it’s something you should be working on continually, as there are always new words to learn that could help convey a point more effectively. What’s more, deploying a good vocabulary displays intelligence and allows you to be more persuasive in your essay-writing. Here are some ways in which you can build your vocabulary:

– Subscribe to a ‘word a day’ email (such as this one from Merriam-Webster). Create a folder in your email account for new word emails, so that you can file each email away and have them all in one place ready to flick through and learn from in an idle moment.

– Read widely, and refer to a dictionary for words you don’t know as you go along; this way, you’ll learn the new word as well as seeing it in context so you know how to use it properly. Read different genres of fiction, and non-fiction covering a range of topics, and you’ll have the added bonus of widening your general knowledge as well as your vocabulary.

– Use a thesaurus – if you find yourself using the same words over and over again, add variety to your language by looking up those words in a thesaurus and finding other words that mean the same thing. A word of warning: words you find in a thesaurus can’t always be used interchangeably; even words with similar meanings can differ subtly in a way that makes them inappropriate in certain contexts, so find examples of a word used correctly before you use a new word for the first time.

– Learn prefixes, suffixes and roots – it sounds boring, but this shortcut will help you learn a great many more words. Many roots come from Latin and Greek words, such as “bene” in Latin, meaning “good”, which gives rise to words such as “benefactor”, “benevolent” and “benefit”. It’s often possible to deduce the meaning of a new word if you know its root and read it in context. Prefixes are added to the beginning of a word to change the meaning, such as “semi” or “ante”, while suffixes are added to the end, such as “-able” or “-ance”.

– Start a vocabulary book – you probably have one if you’re learning a foreign language, so why not have one for your native language as well? Buy yourself a nice notepad and use it to collect new words and their meanings. The act of writing down the definition will help you remember it, and you could include an example of how the word is used to increase your chances of memorising it for use in essays. It may help to have different sections for words on particular themes; you could have a general section, and then further parts of the notebook could be dedicated to words of use in history essays, science essays and so on.

3. Elevator pitching your essays
We’ve probably all had it hammered into us that we should write an essay plan before we start writing, but before you even do that, you need to know what the argument you’re going to make actually is. Only then can you start writing the structure for an essay that builds up to your overall conclusion. To condense what you’re trying to say into a short, snappy summary for you to work from, try making an ‘Elevator Pitch’ style summary of what you intend to write and why readers should be interested in it.

The Elevator Pitch is a technique used by salespeople when condensing the arguments for buying a product into the shortest possible summary of why a customer should consider a purchase. The salesperson is told to imagine themselves in a lift; in the time it takes for that lift to reach the desired floor, they should have given a compelling argument in favour of that product that would result in the customer buying it, or at least wanting to know more. Your Elevator Pitch for your essay should sell the idea of it to a reader, leaving them wanting to read the essay in question. This is quite a tough exercise, as it forces you to be ruthlessly concise in your thinking and choice of words; but you can use this summary to help you write your introduction, and it’ll help you achieve clarity in what you’re trying to say.

4. Tell the reader what other people say
We’ve mentioned this on a previous article on essay writing, but it seems pertinent to mention it here too. Essays are a chance for you to show off how widely read you are, so make sure you quote other people’s opinions, and original sources, on what you’re writing about. For example, if you were to write a history essay on early religious practices in Britain, you could quote original texts on that topic (such as Bede’s Ecclesiastical History of the English People) and also mention what a range of modern scholars have to say about the topic. Contrasting views should be sought; it’s unlikely that everyone agrees on the topic, so show you’ve looked at all the possible angles.

For each of the subjects you’re studying, start a page in a notebook for important people in that field, with a summary of when they lived and what their views are. That way, you’ll have something to refer to when you’re writing an essay and want to consult appropriate scholars or other writers whose opinions you might wish to include.

Don’t quote too much; mix citations with your own opinions so that it doesn’t look as though you have to hide behind other people’s words. It’s fine to disagree with a scholar you quote, provided you can give evidence and reasoning for doing so. This shows that you have thought about it and made your own mind up, rather than blindly accepting what that scholar has said; this demonstrates strong critical reasoning skills, one of the hallmarks of brilliant students.

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Essays aren’t always exciting! Writing lucidly is a valuable skill.

5. Syntax, punctuation and tone of voice
You may not consciously realise it when you’re reading, but sophisticated sentence structures make the world of difference to how intelligent you sound. As we’ve already said, the most important consideration when you’re writing is making yourself easy for readers to understand; but you can still do this and utilise a range of interesting syntax at the same time. Employ a variety of sentence structures, long and short, but don’t let your sentences become too long and rambling, or they become difficult to read. Effective punctuation is vital in conveying your arguments persuasively; the last thing a teacher or lecturer wants to read is an essay riddled with poor grammar. What’s more, the reader shouldn’t have to read a sentence more than once to understand it.

You probably already have a tone of voice you use for writing essays, but is it interesting and engaging? Read through some of your old essays and ask yourself honestly whether you find them absorbing. If they’re not, it could well be because you’ve not established the right tone of voice. Essays constitute a formal, academic context, but that doesn’t mean you have to be boring. A confident tone of voice will help show the reader that you know what you’re talking about and reassure them that they’re in safe hands.

Writing in the active rather than the passive voice is a well-known trick of the trade that writers use to give their writing a sense of immediacy and make it more compelling; you too can deploy this technique in your essays by steering clear of the passive voice (for example, rather than writing “Much work is being done to…”, say “Scholars are putting a great deal of effort into…”). Over the course of an entire essay, you’d be surprised what a difference this makes to your tone.

How to write an essay

Writing an essay is like making a hamburger. Think of the introduction and conclusion as the bun, with the “meat” of your argument in between. The introduction is where you’ll state your thesis, while the conclusion sums up your case. Both should be no more than a few sentences. The body of your essay, where you’ll present facts to support your position, must be much more substantial, usually three paragraphs.

Like making a hamburger, writing a good essay takes preparation. Let’s get started!

Structuring the Essay (aka Building a Burger)
Think about a hamburger for a moment. What are its three main components? There’s a bun on top and a bun on the bottom. In the middle, you’ll find the hamburger itself. So what does that have to do with an essay? Think of it this way:

The top bun contains your introduction and topic statement. This paragraph begins with a hook, or factual statement intended to grab the reader’s attention. It is followed by a thesis statement, an assertion that you intend to prove in the body of the essay that follows.
The meat in the middle, called the body of the essay, is where you’ll offer evidence in support of your topic or thesis. It should be three to five paragraphs in length, with each offering a main idea that is backed up by two or three statements of support.
The bottom bun is the conclusion, which sums up the arguments you’ve made in the body of the essay.
Like the two pieces of a hamburger bun, the introduction and conclusion should be similar in tone, brief enough to convey your topic but substantial enough to frame the issue that you’ll articulate in the meat, or body of the essay.

Choosing a Topic
Before you can begin writing, you’ll need to choose a topic for your essay, ideally one that you’re already interested in.

Nothing is harder than trying to write about something you don’t care about. Your topic should be broad or common enough that most people will know at least something about what you’re discussing. Technology, for example, is a good topic because it’s something we can all relate to in one way or another.

Once you’ve chosen a topic, you must narrow it down into a single thesis or central idea. The thesis is the position you’re taking in relation to your topic or a related issue. It should be specific enough that you can bolster it with just a few relevant facts and supporting statements. Think about an issue that most people can relate to, such as: Technology is changing our lives.

Drafting the Outline
Once you’ve selected your topic and thesis, it’s time to create a roadmap for your essay that will guide you from introduction to conclusion. This map, called an outline, serves as a diagram for writing each paragraph of the essay, listing the three or four most important ideas that you want to convey. These ideas don’t need to be written as complete sentences in the outline; that’s what the actual essay is for.

Here’s one way of diagramming an essay on how technology is changing our lives:

Introductory Paragraph

Hook: Statistics on home workers
Thesis: Technology has changed work
Links to main ideas to be developed in the essay: Technology has changed where, how and when we work
Body Paragraph I

Main idea: Technology has changed where we can work
Support: Work on the road + example
Support: Work from home + example statistic
Conclusion
Body Paragraph II

Main idea: Technology has changed how we work
Support: Technology allows us to do more on our own + example of multitasking
Support: Technology allows us to test our ideas in simulation + example of digital weather forecasting
Conclusion
Body Paragraph III

Main idea: Technology has changed when we work
Support: Flexible work schedules + example of telecommuters working 24/7
Support: Technology allows us to work any time + example of people teaching online from home
Conclusion
Concluding Paragraph

Review of main ideas of each paragraph
Restatement of thesis: Technology has changed how we work
Concluding thought: Technology will continue to change us
Note that the author uses only three or four main ideas per paragraph, each with a main idea, supporting statements, and a summary.

Creating the Introduction
Once you’ve written and refined your outline, it’s time to write the essay. Begin with the introductory paragraph. This is your opportunity to hook the reader’s interest with the very first sentence, which can be an interesting fact, a quotation, or a rhetorical question, for instance.

After this first sentence, add your thesis statement. The thesis clearly states what you hope to express in the essay. Follow that with a sentence to introduce your body paragraphs. This not only gives the essay structure, it signals to the reader what is to come. For example:

Forbes magazine reports that “One in five Americans work from home”. Does that number surprise you? Information technology has revolutionized the way we work. Not only can we work almost anywhere, we can also work at any hour of the day. Also, the way we work has changed greatly through the introduction of information technology into the workplace.

Notice how the author uses a fact and addresses the reader directly to grab their attention.

Writing the Body of the Essay
Once you’ve written the introduction, it’s time to develop the meat of your thesis in three or four paragraphs. Each should contain a single main idea, following the outline you prepared earlier.

Use two or three sentences to support the main idea, citing specific examples. Conclude each paragraph with a sentence that summarizes the argument you’ve made in the paragraph.

Let’s consider how the location of where we work has changed. In the past, workers were required to commute to work. These days, many can choose to work from the home. From Portland, Ore., to Portland, Maine, you will find employees working for companies located hundreds or even thousands of miles away. Too, the use of robotics to manufacture products has led to employees spending more time behind a computer screen than on the production line. Whether it’s in the countryside or in the city, you’ll find people working everywhere they can get online. No wonder we see so many people working at cafes!

In this case, the author continues to directly address the reader while offering examples to support their assertion.

Concluding the Essay
The summary paragraph summarizes your essay and is often a reverse of the introductory paragraph. Begin the summary paragraph by quickly restating the principal ideas of your body paragraphs. The penultimate (next to last) sentence should restate your basic thesis of the essay. Your final statement can be a future prediction based on what you have shown in the essay.

In this example, the author concludes by making a prediction based on the arguments made in the essay.

Information technology has changed the time, place and manner in which we work. In short, information technology has made the computer into our office. As we continue to use new technologies, we will continue to see change. However, our need to work in order to lead happy and productive lives will never change. The where, when and how we work will never change the reason why we work.

Top essay writing tips

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.