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.

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