You are here
A Helpful Guide for Writers
In order to succeed in college, students must be able to author essays that are well argued and well written. This feat is not really all that difficult as long as a few basic principles are kept in mind. By following this guide, any student should have no trouble putting together a well-written and persuasive essay.
Understanding the Assignment
Creating a well-thought-out and well-written essay depends first of all on understanding the assignment that has been given. Any written instructions for the assignment and even the ones heard on an answering service should be read carefully so as to make sure the student gets off on the right foot and does not waste any time in preparing to write the piece. Students should pay attention to what kind of essay has been assigned. For example, is it an opinion piece that may require little research or a research paper that will require research, footnoting, and a bibliography? Key words like evaluate, critique, and assess should be noted if they appear in the essay’s instructions. Such words tell the student to engage carefully with the research material, understand counterarguments, and present a case for their thesis that has been weighed from as many angles as possible. If there are any questions about the assignment, the student should consult the professor for help immediately.
Overview of Academic Essay — Thesis, Argument, and Counterargument
When it comes time to write an academic essay, students should be aware that there is a basic format that should be followed in most disciplines. A good academic essay will begin with an introduction and a thesis. In this section, the student is tasked with providing a brief overview of the problem or topic that is to be addressed and then developing a thesis related to the problem or topic that will be covered in the essay. Following the introduction and thesis, the student will present their best argument in favor of the thesis, marshalling research evidence, observations, and so on to serve the argument. While the argument is being given, students should also note any counterarguments and highlight their strength and weaknesses. If any of these three parts of the essay format are neglected, the student will lose points on the final grade.
In an academic essay, the basic format of thesis, argument, and counterargument can be implemented in a variety of structures. Every essay, of course, will begin with an introductory section or paragraph that will include the thesis. The essay will also have a concluding section or paragraph that summarizes the argument and makes a final appeal for its acceptance. The body of the essay between these sections that contains the argument can be structured in different ways. Students can present the argument and counterargument concurrently, raising and answering the counterargument to each of the various points of the argument as they are presented. It is also possible to give an extended argument, followed by an extended counterargument, and then an extended response to the counterargument. This second way of doing things will probably require more summarizing of points already made and thereby increase the word count, so it should probably not be used when the word limit is low. Some schools have an answering service to aid students in this area.
Developing a Thesis
Developing a thesis is one of the most important parts of writing an academic essay, and it can be done only after completing research or thinking through the issue upon which the student has been asked to opine. In the course of doing research, students should note carefully which of their sources have been most persuasive and which positions have been largely accepted within the academic community. The student can then use this information to develop a thesis as to why these arguments are best or why they have been so widely accepted. Students are also free to disagree with these positions if they have not found them persuasive, although those who do so must be sure that they have a strong case for their disagreement. In cases where no research is required, students should state their opinion forcefully but respectively. Either way, a thesis statement should be brief and to the point, and it should only deal with one thing.
Outlining the essay will greatly increase the student’s odds of producing a coherent, well-written, and well-argued essay. An outline organizes the facts that have been collected in research into an orderly sequence, so a good outline begins with the separation of notes and note cards into different categories. Once the notes have been separated, students can write an outline that incorporates the different categories into an order that will back up the essay’s argument strongly. There is no need for the student to make one point in the outline for every note, just broad groupings or main points under which the notes will be utilized. An outline for an opinion essay works much the same way, although the outline will just be a listing of main points to be covered in sequence. After the sequences is established, following it will usually lead to a better essay than if an outline was never written. Therefore, it is wise not to skip this important step in the writing process.
Beginning the Academic Essay
Good writing on both an academic and a popular level strives to hook the reader immediately when they read the first paragraph. Students should strive to make this paragraph interesting even if it might be on a topic that would ordinarily not fascinate many people. At the same time, students should not go over the top and make too many grand pronouncements. Well-written quotes gathered from the research process are a good way to begin the introduction, as they can be both informative and engaging. In any case, an effort should be made in the introduction to explain the importance of the topic to be covered briefly and succinctly, and it is generally wise to make the last sentence of the first paragraph the thesis statement. If there is any space left over in the introduction, the student can briefly explain how the essay is going to present the argument. Students should also remember that an introduction is to be brief, with the bulk of the essay devoted to arguing the point of the thesis statement. An overly long introduction with little space devoted to the argument will not earn a good grade.
Clear transitions between the different sections and paragraphs of the essay also distinguish good writing from that which is average or poor. If readers cannot see how one point flows into another, it will be hard for them to pick up on the argument and evaluate it. There are different ways to accomplish transitions and various words that can be helpful in making them smoothly. A student help line or answering service can aid you if you run into problems. One kind of transition is used at the end of the paragraph and gives hints to the reader as to what should be expected in the succeeding section or paragraph of the essay. A concluding sentence that begins with something like “as we will see” or “as will be demonstrated” can be a good way to tie up the loose ends of the preceding section or paragraph and pave the way for the next one. If transitions are done at the beginning of a section or paragraph, words like “consequently,” “however,” “still,” “nevertheless,” “therefore,” and so on are good for transitioning from the earlier paragraph into the present paragraph. Having clearly designated section headers in an essay is another good way to make use of transitions, but they should be used in conjunction with transition sentences in each paragraph. When section headers are used without transitions, the essay will be overly choppy.
Topic Sentences and Signposting
Within the essay body, topic sentences and signposts help the reader anticipate what a paragraph will be about and what is to come structurally in the essay. Every paragraph or essay section should begin with a topic sentence that introduces the subject of the topic or section. The rest of the paragraph will flesh out the topic introduced in that sentence. Like the introductory paragraph or section for the essay, it is always good if the topic sentence is interesting and engaging. Signposts are markers within the essay that alert the reader to the underlying structure of the written work. They can often function as transitions: “as we will see.” Signposts can also remind the reader of what came before and what still lies ahead. These can be as simple as something like “There are three main ideas in Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet. First . . . . Second . . . . Third . . . .” Not every discipline requires signposts for written work, so students may want to avoid them if they are not commonly used in the subject they are writing about.
Ending the Essay
All essays should have a concluding section or paragraph that ends the essay. Because of its nature and purpose, this can be the most important part of the writing. In this section, the thesis is restated, the arguments are summarized, and the reader is reminded that the thesis has been proven. The conclusion is not the place to introduce a new argument in favor of the student’s position, which is a mistake that can be made easily. It is also not a place to introduce any new data or facts. Depending on the type of essay or project, it may be appropriate to list some suggestions for how to apply the conclusion, but care should be taken in noting any potential applications. Either way, there should be some space left for readers to draw their own conclusions; otherwise, readers may think their intelligence is being insulted. The conclusion will be the part of the essay their reader will probably remember most vividly, so students should keep that in mind.
Revising the Draft
Using the guidance of their outline or answering service, students will write a first draft of the essay that incorporates all of the elements previously mentioned. This draft should be revised several times in order to create the best end product for handing in to the professor. During revisions, students will want to pay attention to the cohesiveness of the essay’s argument and try to discover any weaknesses not caught when writing the essay. They should also look for any paragraph or section in the essay that seems out of place. These should be either moved to where they fit better in the essay or deleted entirely. Students are also wise to read over the assignment directions while they are revising the draft to make sure they have followed the instructions given. Getting a friend or family member to read through the draft is also helpful because they can find errors the writer does not catch. Students should revise the draft at least once, but they will be wise to revise it as many times as they can.
After all the revisions to the essay are made, the draft should go through a full editing before it is submitted for a grade. This is the time to check for spelling and grammatical errors, not only with spell check but also through the student’s personal reading of the draft. Reading the essay backwards can be a good way to catch spelling mistakes that the human eye might otherwise miss. Many students have turned in an essay with mistakes because they have not read it themselves. If there are any footnotes in the essay, now is also the time for the student to make sure they are formatted correctly. Uniformity of style is key, so spacing between lines, proper formatting of long quotes, and other matters should be addressed as well. Students should be keen to note any unnecessary repetition of words or facts and to catch common errors like split infinitives. Again, having someone else read the essay is the best way for the student to find errors that might be overlooked.
Tips on Punctuation, Grammar, and Style
Throughout the writing process, students are wise to keep a few basic punctuation, style, and grammar tips in mind to avoid making mistakes that will later need to be corrected. Stylistically, it is still better to use an active voice while writing and to stay away from the passive voice as much as possible. Exclamation points should be used rarely, if at all, and commas should be placed before independent clauses that begin with “and,” or “but.” Good writers will also vary the way they speak and look for synonyms so that there is a variety of expression in their essays. Unless the subject is highly technical, the writing style does not need to be too technical, but neither should it be colloquial. Phrases like “everyone knows” are wisely avoided as common knowledge does not need to be acknowledged as such. Most importantly, students should write in their own voice and not try to imitate others too closely. Writing that tries to imitate others does this sound inauthentic, and readers will not appreciate it.
HELPFUL WRITING RESOURCES
• Essay Writing Tips — some good information on the subject from Villanova University
• Essay Writing Workshop — a helpful page on good writing from the Empire State University
• OWL at Purdue — the online writing lab for Purdue University
• Ten Steps to Writing an Essay — American University in Cairo offers ten easy steps for writing an essay
• Writing an Essay — a page from the BBC on essay composition