Writing a great essay is one of the most challenging, but also most rewarding things you can do.
You may dread it right now, but after reading this article you’ll become an essay-writing-machine. It doesn’t matter if you’re writing a college assignment, or if you’re seasoned pro – by following these simple steps you can improve your skills and succeed.
Primer – What is an essay and how is it formatted?
An essay is a piece of writing in which you build an argument about something. The definition is quite vague and essay can overlap with other types of writing such as a short story, a paper, a pamphlet or an article.
Essays can be classified as formal and informal.
The formal essay is the one you have to write in an academic setting.
It’s usually an argumentative essay or an expository essay. It’s more serious, dignified, bordering on stiff, highly logical, purposeful, analytical, argumentative and supported by large amounts of research.
It also has some restrictions when it comes to the format:
- Usually no more than a couple of pages long.
- Broken down into three main parts – introduction, body, and conclusion.
- It has to have the main thesis – the thing you’re arguing for.
- Each argument is contained in one paragraph where you also give supportive evidence.
- You need to give it a proper structure and format.
Also, if you’re writing an essay for academic purposes or to apply to college, I recommend you read A Professor’s Guide To Writing Essays:
Click to see it on Amazon.
The informal essay is something different altogether.
Instead of stating the thesis and giving arguments to support, you can write about anything and in any way you please. This is usually a descriptive or narrative essay.
- It can be an account of an event and its consequences.
- It can be musings about cultural forces that shape our society.
- It can be a personal story.
- It can be a description of a place.
You could think about the informal essay almost as a letter written to a close friend. You’re free to show emotions, use humor, talk about unconventional topics and you don’t have to stick to any formal structure or theme.
Here are some examples of great informal essays.
And here’s a nice template (map) you can use to outline your essay:
Top 8 Rules of Essay Writing
Let’s talk about the rules to keep in mind when writing your essay. Here I’ll mostly address the formal essay type, but the rules apply to the less formal type of writing as well:
1. Clearly state your thesis
Why are you writing the essay in the first place? What is the purpose behind it? What do you argue for?
You need to state it in a clear and confident manner in the introductory paragraph.
The thesis statement should be:
- Picking a side
- Making a claim
An example of a thesis for an argumentative essay could be:
Americans should exercise at least three times a week because it prevents serious diseases, weight-gain and decline of the cognitive abilities.
If you need more examples I recommend this article about crafting a good thesis.
2. Give a good introduction to the topic
Get to the point right away and be concrete in your language. Imagine that you only have two minutes to put the reader in the right frame of mind and ready for your arguments.
In your essay, just like in a presentation you should follow Aristotle’s rule of rhetoric:
- Tell them what you will tell them.
- Tell them.
- Tell them what you just told them.
3. Focus on the topic at hand – don’t ramble
It’s easy to stray off topic in a flight of creative inspiration. You should, however, save your digressions for the time you drink wine among friends.
When writing, follow your plan and give only essential information that will confirm your arguments. (This rule doesn’t apply to informal essays).
4. Outline a paragraph-by-paragraph plan for your essay
One paragraph should contain one argument. Each argument should be supported by evidence, research, hard facts, quotations from academic papers etc.
Before getting down to writing, make sure you have it all planned.
5. Use linking words at the beginning of each paragraph to help the readers move along and bridge the gap between ideas
Here are some good examples of linking words you can use:
6. Cite your sources either in the body or in the footnotes of the essay
If you share an idea that’s not yours, and it’s not common knowledge, you should give a citation.
There’s a whole guide about citing sources, but for now, let’s just go with this simple approach:
Usually, you just need to cite the name of the author and the pages from their work where the ideas can be found.
For example, in the paragraph you would say:
Physical exercise leads to a 10% better performance on cognitive tasks (G. Kingston 15-16.)
And then in the footnotes, you would include the full source:
G. Kingston – Physical Exercise and Cognitive Function, 2018, p. 15-16.
7. Check the spelling and grammar of your essay
This is a crucial step especially if you write a college admission essay. Teachers and professors abhor simple grammar and spelling mistakes so avoid them at all cost.
If you’re naturally detail-oriented, that’s good for you. But if you’re not, you need to develop a system for checking your work before submitting it. Make sure you put this revision step on your to-do list.
8. Make sure you include a well thought-out conclusion
At the end of your essay, you should give a quick conclusion and say how the evidence you presented in the other paragraphs support your thesis and make your reasoning perfectly logical.
All writing is about persuasion to some degree. Have you persuaded the reader to agree with you and to take action on the ideas you’ve outlined in the essay?
5 Steps to Writing a Great Essay
Now that you have a general understanding of the rules, let’s move on to the writing process.
Just imagine you get this assignment to write:
Has social networking improved the quality of relationships in society?
How would you approach this task in a systematic manner?
1. Come up with your thesis
First, you need to make up your mind and think carefully about which side of the barricade you want to stand on. This is time reason, weigh all the pro’s and con’s and then make a stance.
Your thesis statement should appear early in the essay (in the introduction or maximum in the second paragraph).
Some tips for creating a good thesis:
a) Don’t bury it somewhere in the middle of your essay
b) Be super specific – avoid any type of confusion or vagueness
c) Avoid saying: “the point of my paper is to…”. Be more creative than that and introduce it in a seamless manner.
Let’s come back to our social networking example above.
Has social networking improved the quality of relationships in society?
Example of a negative thesis:
The social networking sites are robbing us of our privacy, selling human attention to the highest bidder, cause loneliness in society, and spread misinformation on a national scale.
Example of a positive thesis:
The social networking sites help people to connect and build relationships. They help to mobilize large groups of people in support of common causes and help family members to keep each other updated.
You can also use the quick method from this infographic:
2. Take notes and create an outline for your essay
Now, you should collect information that will support the chosen thesis.
Make sure you have answers to these questions:
a) Which three to five arguments can I present in support of my thesis?
b) Which five to fifteen sources can I use to bolster my arguments?
c) What are specific ideas can I share that will have the biggest impact on the reader? And in which order should I present them?
3. Write the first draft and make sure you maintain the correct structure
Break your essay down into three main components and write the first draft:
Introduction – here you creatively introduce the topic and give your thesis statement.
Body – each paragraph should contain one argument. You can give three to five arguments (depending on the type of assignment you’re facing). First, you give the argument, and then you support it with research and logical reasoning.
Conclusion – here you sum up the contents of your essay and end strong by confirming your thesis once more. If you need inspiration, you can find great examples of essay conclusions on this page.
4. Edit and read through your essay at least twice
Now be on the lookout for any potential grammar, spelling errors and punctuation errors. These will lower your grade like nothing else.
Next, it’s best to read the essay out loud once you finish the first draft. If you’re in a classroom, you can read it to yourself silently.
This will help you to catch most of the syntax errors. Remember that your essay should read lightly, smoothly, like a summer breeze. Avoid any bumps in the road by ensuring that your sentences and paragraphs are well connected to each other.
5. Polish the rough edges and finish the job
If you followed all the tips described above, your essay should already be a masterpiece. Just give it one more look (if possible, after a few hours), make some final amendments, and then submit it – knowing that you’ll score big.
10 Mistakes to avoid when writing an essay
1. Getting off-topic and writing about random facts
Don’t let your readers lose the thread. Make sure your train of through is on solid tracks.
2. Being ambiguous
If you’re writing an argumentative essay – don’t hedge your bets. You need to be bold in your statements and take a position. There’s no if’s, and’s and maybes.
3. Failing on grammar, spelling, structure, and formatting
One of that most important parts tested by your assignment is attention to detail. Have your I’s dotted and T’s crossed and it will let you pass the exam even if your arguments suck.
4. Writing about obvious things
Essays need to be structured and well-organized. But it doesn’t mean they have to be boring. Think for a moment about how to approach the subject in a creative manner.
5. Failing to use advanced vocabulary
Using advanced words will impress your professors. But don’t put them in just for this reason. Clarity of the language should always be a priority.
6. Writing never-ending sentences
This is one of the most common mistakes of rookie writers. Fortunately, it’s solved by remembering a simple rule: one thought should equal one sentence.
Your sentences should be swift and powerful – like bullets.
7. Not linking your ideas well
Have you ever seen one of these multi-tier fountains? Your writing should be like water – one idea flowing to the next without any break or interruption.
8. Not presenting enough evidence
Your opinion is fine, but it doesn’t count much if you don’t provide solid evidence to support your views. Use sources, and quotes as much as possible.
You can also take a look at the list of the most popular academic papers and see that each one of them cites at least fifty different sources of information.
9. Don’t write for the admission officer or a teacher
You may guess what would tingle their senses, but above else, maintain your own integrity and stick to your guns.
10. Don’t drop the ball at the very end
The ending of your essay is the icing on the cake. You’ve been working hard to present all the hard facts, and build arguments in support of your thesis. Now it’s time to end with a bang. This will leave a lasting impression.
PS: Here you can read about 25 more essay writing mistakes.
How did you like this article about writing a great essay? Do you feel it will help you with your next assignment? Please let me know your thoughts in the comments section below.