General Essay Writing Tips
Despite the fact that, as Shakespeare said, "the pen is mightier than the sword," the pen itself is not enough to make an effective writer. In fact, though we may all like to think of ourselves as the next Shakespeare, inspiration alone is not the key to effective essay writing. You see, the conventions of English essays are more formulaic than you might think – and, in many ways, it can be as simple as counting to five.
The Five Paragraph Essay
Though more advanced academic papers are a category all their own, the basic high school or college essay has the following standardized, five paragraph structure:
Paragraph 1: Introduction
Paragraph 2: Body 1
Paragraph 3: Body 2
Paragraph 4: Body 3
Paragraph 5: Conclusion
Though it may seem formulaic – and, well, it is - the idea behind this structure is to make it easier for the reader to navigate the ideas put forth in an essay. You see, if your essay has the same structure as every other one, any reader should be able to quickly and easily find the information most relevant to them.
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The principle purpose of the introduction is to present your position (this is also known as the "thesis" or "argument") on the issue at hand but effective introductory paragraphs are so much more than that. Before you even get to this thesis statement, for example, the essay should begin with a "hook" that grabs the reader’s attention and makes them want to read on. Examples of effective hooks include relevant quotations ("no man is an island") or surprising statistics ("three out of four doctors report that…").
Only then, with the reader’s attention "hooked," should you move on to the thesis. The thesis should be a clear, one-sentence explanation of your position that leaves no doubt in the reader’s mind about which side you are on from the beginning of your essay.
Following the thesis, you should provide a mini-outline which previews the examples you will use to support your thesis in the rest of the essay. Not only does this tell the reader what to expect in the paragraphs to come but it also gives them a clearer understanding of what the essay is about.
Finally, designing the last sentence in this way has the added benefit of seamlessly moving the reader to the first paragraph of the body of the paper. In this way we can see that the basic introduction does not need to be much more than three or four sentences in length. If yours is much longer you might want to consider editing it down a bit!
Here, by way of example, is an introductory paragraph to an essay in response to the following question:
"Do we learn more from finding out that we have made mistakes or from our successful actions?"
"No man is an island" and, as such, he is constantly shaped and influenced by his experiences. People learn by doing and, accordingly, learn considerably more from their mistakes than their success. For proof of this, consider examples from both science and everyday experience.
DO – Pay Attention to Your Introductory Paragraph
Because this is the first paragraph of your essay it is your opportunity to give the reader the best first impression possible. The introductory paragraph not only gives the reader an idea of what you will talk about but also shows them how you will talk about it. Put a disproportionate amount of effort into this – more than the 20% a simple calculation would suggest – and you will be rewarded accordingly.
DO NOT – Use Passive Voice or I/My
Active voice, wherein the subjects direct actions rather than let the actions "happen to" them – "he scored a 97%" instead of "he was given a 97%" – is a much more powerful and attention-grabbing way to write. At the same time, unless it is a personal narrative, avoid personal pronouns like I, My, or Me. Try instead to be more general and you will have your reader hooked.
The Body Paragraphs
The middle paragraphs of the essay are collectively known as the body paragraphs and, as alluded to above, the main purpose of a body paragraph is to spell out in detail the examples that support your thesis.
For the first body paragraph you should use your strongest argument or most significant example unless some other more obvious beginning point (as in the case of chronological explanations) is required. The first sentence of this paragraph should be the topic sentence of the paragraph that directly relates to the examples listed in the mini-outline of introductory paragraph.
A one sentence body paragraph that simply cites the example of "George Washington" or "LeBron James" is not enough, however. No, following this an effective essay will follow up on this topic sentence by explaining to the reader, in detail, who or what an example is and, more importantly, why that example is relevant.
Even the most famous examples need context. For example, George Washington’s life was extremely complex – by using him as an example, do you intend to refer to his honesty, bravery, or maybe even his wooden teeth? The reader needs to know this and it is your job as the writer to paint the appropriate picture for them. To do this, it is a good idea to provide the reader with five or six relevant facts about the life (in general) or event (in particular) you believe most clearly illustrates your point.
Having done that, you then need to explain exactly why this example proves your thesis. The importance of this step cannot be understated (although it clearly can be underlined); this is, after all, the whole reason you are providing the example in the first place. Seal the deal by directly stating why this example is relevant.
Here is an example of a body paragraph to continue the essay begun above:
Take, by way of example, Thomas Edison. The famed American inventor rose to prominence in the late 19th century because of his successes, yes, but even he felt that these successes were the result of his many failures. He did not succeed in his work on one of his most famous inventions, the lightbulb, on his first try nor even on his hundred and first try. In fact, it took him more than 1,000 attempts to make the first incandescent bulb but, along the way, he learned quite a deal. As he himself said, "I did not fail a thousand times but instead succeeded in finding a thousand ways it would not work." Thus Edison demonstrated both in thought and action how instructive mistakes can be.
DO – Tie Things Together
The first sentence – the topic sentence - of your body paragraphs needs to have a lot individual pieces to be truly effective. Not only should it open with a transition that signals the change from one idea to the next but also it should (ideally) also have a common thread which ties all of the body paragraphs together. For example, if you used "first" in the first body paragraph then you should used "secondly" in the second or "on the one hand" and "on the other hand" accordingly.
DO NOT – Be Too General
Examples should be relevant to the thesis and so should the explanatory details you provide for them. It can be hard to summarize the full richness of a given example in just a few lines so make them count. If you are trying to explain why George Washington is a great example of a strong leader, for instance, his childhood adventure with the cherry tree (though interesting in another essay) should probably be skipped over.
A Word on Transitions
You may have noticed that, though the above paragraph aligns pretty closely with the provided outline, there is one large exception: the first few words. These words are example of a transitional phrase – others include "furthermore," "moreover," but also "by contrast" and "on the other hand" – and are the hallmark of good writing.
Transitional phrases are useful for showing the reader where one section ends and another begins. It may be helpful to see them as the written equivalent of the kinds of spoken cues used in formal speeches that signal the end of one set of ideas and the beginning of another. In essence, they lead the reader from one section of the paragraph of another.
To further illustrate this, consider the second body paragraph of our example essay:
In a similar way, we are all like Edison in our own way. Whenever we learn a new skill - be it riding a bike, driving a car, or cooking a cake - we learn from our mistakes. Few, if any, are ready to go from training wheels to a marathon in a single day but these early experiences (these so-called mistakes) can help us improve our performance over time. You cannot make a cake without breaking a few eggs and, likewise, we learn by doing and doing inevitably means making mistakes.
Hopefully this example not only provides another example of an effective body paragraph but also illustrates how transitional phrases can be used to distinguish between them.
Although the conclusion paragraph comes at the end of your essay it should not be seen as an afterthought. As the final paragraph is represents your last chance to make your case and, as such, should follow an extremely rigid format.
One way to think of the conclusion is, paradoxically, as a second introduction because it does in fact contain many of the same features. While it does not need to be too long – four well-crafted sentence should be enough – it can make or break and essay.
Effective conclusions open with a concluding transition ("in conclusion," "in the end," etc.) and an allusion to the "hook" used in the introductory paragraph. After that you should immediately provide a restatement of your thesis statement.
This should be the fourth or fifth time you have repeated your thesis so while you should use a variety of word choice in the body paragraphs it is a acceptable idea to use some (but not all) of the original language you used in the introduction. This echoing effect not only reinforces your argument but also ties it nicely to the second key element of the conclusion: a brief (two or three words is enough) review of the three main points from the body of the paper.
Having done all of that, the final element – and final sentence in your essay – should be a "global statement" or "call to action" that gives the reader signals that the discussion has come to an end.
In the end, then, one thing is clear: mistakes do far more to help us learn and improve than successes. As examples from both science and everyday experience can attest, if we treat each mistake not as a misstep but as a learning experience the possibilities for self-improvement are limitless.
DO – Be Powerful
The conclusion paragraph can be a difficult paragraph to write effectively but, as it is your last chance to convince or otherwise impress the reader, it is worth investing some time in. Take this opportunity to restate your thesis with confidence; if you present your argument as "obvious" then the reader might just do the same.
DO NOT – Copy the First Paragraph
Although you can reuse the same key words in the conclusion as you did in the introduction, try not to copy whole phrases word for word. Instead, try to use this last paragraph to really show your skills as a writer by being as artful in your rephrasing as possible.
Taken together, then, the overall structure of a five paragraph essay should look something like this:
- An attention-grabbing "hook"
- A thesis statement
- A preview of the three subtopics you will discuss in the body paragraphs.
First Body Paragraph
- Topic sentence which states the first subtopic and opens with a transition
- Supporting details or examples
- An explanation of how this example proves your thesis
Second Body Paragraph
- Topic sentence which states the second subtopic and opens with a transition
- Supporting details or examples
- An explanation of how this example proves your thesis
Third Body Paragraph
- Topic sentence which states the third subtopic and opens with a transition
- Supporting details or examples
- An explanation of how this example proves your thesis
- Concluding Transition, Reverse "hook," and restatement of thesis.
- Rephrasing main topic and subtopics.
- Global statement or call to action.
More tips to make your essay shine
Although it may seem like a waste of time – especially during exams where time is tight – it is almost always better to brainstorm a bit before beginning your essay. This should enable you to find the best supporting ideas – rather than simply the first ones that come to mind – and position them in your essay accordingly.
Your best supporting idea – the one that most strongly makes your case and, simultaneously, about which you have the most knowledge – should go first. Even the best-written essays can fail because of ineffectively placed arguments.
Aim for Variety
Sentences and vocabulary of varying complexity are one of the hallmarks of effective writing. When you are writing, try to avoid using the same words and phrases over and over again. You don’t have to be a walking thesaurus but a little variance can make the same idea sparkle.
If you are asked about "money," you could try "wealth" or "riches." At the same time, avoid beginning sentences the dull pattern of "subject + verb + direct object." Although examples of this are harder to give, consider our writing throughout this article as one big example of sentence structure variety.
Practice! Practice! Practice!
In the end, though, remember that good writing does not happen by accident. Although we have endeavored to explain everything that goes into effective essay writing in as clear and concise a way as possible, it is much easier in theory than it is in practice.
As a result, we recommend that you practice writing sample essays on various topics. Even if they are not masterpieces at first, a bit of regular practice will soon change that – and make you better prepared when it comes to the real thing.
Now that you’ve learned how to write an effective essay, check out our Sample Essays so you can see how they are done in practice.
Essay Writing Center
This page continues from our page: Planning an Essay, the essential first step to successful essay writing.
This page assumes that you have already planned your essay, you have taken time to understand the essay question, gathered information that you intend to use, and have produced a skeleton plan of you essay – taking into account your word limit.
This page is concerned with the actual writing of your essay, it provides some guidelines for good practice as well as some common mistakes you'll want to avoid.
Structuring Your Essay
An essay should be written in a flowing manner with each sentence following on logically from the previous one and with appropriate signposts to guide the reader.
An essay usually takes the following structured format:
- The introduction
- The main body: a development of the issues
- A conclusion
- A list of references of the sources of information you have used
The function of the introduction is simply to introduce the subject, to explain how you understand the question, and describe briefly how you intend to deal with it.
You could begin by defining essential terms, providing a brief historical or personal context if appropriate, and/or by explaining why you think the subject is significant or interesting.
Some people are far too ambitious in writing their introductions. Writing a lengthy introduction limits the number of words available for the main body of the assignment.
Keep the introduction short, preferably to one or two paragraphs and keep it, succinct, to the point.
Some students find it best to write a provisional introduction, when starting to write an essay, and then to rewrite this when they have finished the first draft of their essay. To write a provisional introduction, ask yourself what the reader needs to know in order to follow your subsequent discussion.
Other students write the introduction after they have written the main body of the essay – do whatever feels right for you and the piece of work you are writing.
The Main Body: A Development of the Issues
Essays are generally a blend of researched evidence (e.g. from additional reading) and comment.
Some students' essays amount to catalogues of factual material or summaries of other people's thoughts, attitudes, philosophies or viewpoints.
At the opposite extreme, other students express only personal opinions with little or no researched evidence or examples taken from other writers to support their views. What is needed is a balance.
The balance between other researchers’ and writers’ analysis of the subject and your own comment will vary with the subject and the nature of the question. Generally, it is important to back up the points you wish to make from your experience with the findings of other published researchers and writers.
You will have likely been given a reading list or some core text books to read. Use these as your research base but try to expand on what is said and read around the subject as fully as you can. Always keep a note of your sources as you go along.
You will be encouraged and expected to cite other authors or to quote or paraphrase from books that you have read. The most important requirement is that the material you cite or use should illustrate, or provide evidence of, the point you are making. How much evidence you use depends on the type of essay you are writing.
If you want a weight of evidence on some factual point, bring in two or three examples but no more.
Quotations should not be used as a substitute for your own words. A quote should always have an explanation in your own words to show its significance to your argument.
When you are citing another author's text you should always indicate exactly where the evidence comes from with a reference, i.e. give the author's name, date of publication and the page number in your work. A full reference should also be provided in the reference list at the end.
See our page: Academic Referencing for more information.
At the end of an essay you should include a short conclusion, the purpose of which is to sum up or draw a conclusion from your argument or comparison of viewpoints.
In other words, indicate what has been learned or accomplished. The conclusion is also a good place to mention questions that are left open or further issues which you recognise, but which do not come within the scope of your essay.
Neither the conclusion, nor the introduction, should totally summarise your whole argument: if you try this, you are in danger of writing another assignment that simply repeats the whole case over again.
You must include a reference list or bibliography at the end of your work.
One common downfall is to not reference adequately and be accused of plagiarism. If you have directly quoted any other author's text you should always indicate exactly where the evidence comes from in a reference. If you have read other documents in order to contrast your argument then these should also be referenced.
See our page: Academic Referencing for a more comprehensive look at the importance of referencing and how to reference properly.
Signposting or Guiding your Reader
When writing an essay it is good practice to consider your reader.
To guide the reader through your work you will need to inform them where you are starting from (in the introduction), where you are going (as the essay progresses), and where you have been (in the conclusion).
It is helpful to keep the reader informed as to the development of the argument. You can do this by using simple statements or questions that serve to introduce, summarise or link the different aspects of your subject.
Here are a few examples:
- There are two reasons for this: first,... second,...
- Moreover, it should not be forgotten that...
- With regard to the question of...
- Another important factor to be considered is...
- How can these facts be interpreted? The first point...
- There are several views on this question. The first is...
- Finally, it is important to consider...
One important way of guiding the reader through your essay is by using paragraphs.
Paragraphs show when you have come to the end of one main point and the beginning of the next. A paragraph is a group of sentences related to aspects of the same point. Within each individual paragraph an idea is introduced and developed through the subsequent sentences within that paragraph.
Everyone finds it easier to read a text that is broken into short paragraphs.
Without paragraphs, and the spaces between them, the page will appear like an indigestible mass of words.
You should construct your essay as a sequence of distinct points set out in a rational order.
Each sentence and paragraph should follow logically from the one before and it is important that you do not force your reader to make the connections. Always make these connections clear signposting where the argument or discussion is going next.
Although the points you are making may seem obvious to you, can they be more clearly and simply stated?
It is also worth bearing in mind that the marker of your work may have a lot of other, similar pieces of work to mark and assess. Try to make yours easy to read and follow – make it stand out, for the right reasons!
There are two general misconceptions about essay style:
- One is that a good essay should be written in a formal, impersonal way with a good scattering of long words and long, complicated sentences.
- The other misconception is to write as we talk. Such a style is fine for personal letters or notes, but not in an essay. You can be personal, but a certain degree of formality and objectivity is expected in an academic essay.
The important requirement of style is clarity and precision of expression.
Where appropriate use simple and logical language and write in full or complete sentences. You should avoid jargon, especially jargon that is not directly connected to your subject area. You can be personal by offering your own viewpoint on an issue, or by using that view to interpret other authors' work and conclusions.
Drafts and Rewriting
Most essays can be improved by a thorough edit.
You can cross out one word and substitute another, change the shape or emphasis of a sentence, remove inconsistencies of thought or terminology, remove repetitions and ensure there is adequate referencing.
In short, you are your first reader, edit and criticise your own work to make it better. Sometimes it is useful to read your essay out loud.
Another useful exercise is to ask someone else to read the essay through. A person proofreading the essay for the first time will have a different perspective from your own and will therefore be better placed to point out any incoherence, lack of structure, grammatical errors, etc.
Ideally find somebody to proofread who has a good grasp of spelling and grammar and at least a casual interest in your subject area.
One or two edits should be sufficient. It is best not to become involved in an unproductive multiplicity of drafts. The remedy is to analyse the question again and write another, simple, plan based on how to organise the material you are not happy with in the draft of your essay. Rewrite the essay according to that revised plan and resist the tendency to panic in the middle, tear it up and start all over again. It is important to get to the end and then revise again. Otherwise you will have a perfect opening couple of paragraphs and potentially the rest of the essay in disarray.
You will learn and improve much more through criticising and correcting your work than by simply starting again.
A few students can get so anxious about an assignment that they find themselves unable to write anything at all.
There are several reasons why this can happen. The primary reason is usually that such students set themselves too high a standard and then panic because they cannot attain it. This may also be due to factors such as the fear of the expectations of others or placing too high an expectation on themselves.
Whatever the reason, if you cannot write an assignment, you have to find a way out of your panic. If you find yourself in this position, do not allow the situation to drift; try to act swiftly. Discussing your worries with your tutor and/or peers, or simply writing them down, will help you clarify why you might feel stuck.
Another trick is to dash off what you consider to be a 'bad' essay, hand it in and see what happens, or decide to write the assignment in two hours without notes or references and see how that goes. You can always come back to enter the references later.
Students often say that their hurried and most casual essay got a higher mark than one which they struggled with for weeks; in fact this happened because they got down to essentials and made their points quickly. The experiment might be worth a try.
If, despite study and good intentions, you cannot seem to get your essay written, or even started, you should let your tutor know as soon as possible.
Your tutor will have encountered such problems many times, and it is part of his/her job to help you sort them out.