Do you feel passionate about something and want to share it? Write an essay! Do you disagree with a popular opinion and wish to convince others to join you? Write an essay! Need to write something because the college you dream of attending is making you? Write an essay!
“Essay” is a form of writing that asserts the author’s opinion on a topic, whether academic, editorial or even humorous. There are a thousand different approaches to essay writing and a million different topics to choose from, but excellent essay writing tends to follow the same framework. Below we discuss that framework and how you can apply it to your essays, whatever types they may be. But first, let’s start with the nucleus of any good essay: the topic.
What is your essay about?
There are three things to consider before writing your essay: thesis, type, and audience. Of these, the most important by far is your thesis or the main point of your essay.
Your thesis, encapsulated in your thesis statement, is the central point you’re trying to make. The thesis of Bertrand Russell’s essay “In Praise of Idleness,” for example, is that people focus too much on work and don’t value time spent idly. Essays can occasionally stray and go into related tangents, but they always come back to that one core idea in the thesis.
You should always pinpoint your thesis before writing. If you’re having trouble nailing it down, ask yourself, “What’s the one thing I want my reader to remember when they’re done reading my essay?”
The best practice is to include your thesis as soon as possible, and I strongly recommend it in your introduction. You’ll want to reiterate it throughout the essay as well, especially when driving it home in the conclusion.
The rest of your essay, then, supports your thesis. You can include empirical evidence, testimonials, logical deductions, or even persuasive rhetoric—whatever gets the job done. The point is that you’re building upon your initial thesis, not switching to completely different topics.
Types of Essays
Like any form of writing, essays come in many different types. Sometimes the assignment dictates the type, as with admissions essays, and other times the thesis will determine it. Regardless, it helps to know what your options are, so here are some of the most common essay types:
Argumentative essays assert or defend a position. This is the most common type of school paper, so keep that in mind when writing your first college essay.
Most colleges request an admissions essay in applications, which typically revolve around why you’re interested in their school.
A persuasive essay is just as it sounds: an essay to persuade or convince the reader of a certain point. It’s similar to an argumentative essay— they both strongly favor a particular point of view, but the difference is the end goal: Argumentative essays just have to present their case, while persuasive essays have to present their case and win over the reader.
When you want to devote equal attention to two opposing things, a compare-and-contrast essay works better than argumentative or persuasive essays, which lean to one side over the other.
Personal essays are often anecdotal or real-life stories of the authors, like the works of David Sedaris. Since they tend to follow narrative structures, the thesis can be flexible or interpretive. These essays are often called “journals”, or “Reflections”.
An expository essay thoroughly explains a certain topic to expand the reader’s knowledge. It is similar to an argumentative and persuasive essay in format, but with one key difference: expository essays don’t have a bias. The job of an expository essay is to fully explain, not to persuade or convince.
Essay writing for an audience
Your final consideration is who will read your essay—a teacher, an admissions counselor, your peers, the internet at large, etc.
No matter what you’re writing, your audience should influence your language. For one thing, your readers determine whether the essay is formal or casual, which has an enormous impact on language, word choice, and style. If the person reading your writing is a professor, you may want to reconsider writing things with a “texting” tone or using emojis.
Your audience also affects the essay’s tone, or how you sound on an emotional level (enthusiastic, cautious, confident, etc.).
The essay writing process
If you’re writing an essay, it’s crucial to follow an efficient writing process. Even if you prefer the stream of consciousness style for writing your rough draft, you still need to have an orderly system that allows you to revise and refine. A word of caution is important – unless it is a timed essay, give yourself a break between each stage of the writing process. Since you are transitioning between different tasks in each step of the writing, it is good to give yourself a time break (I find I need at least 15 minutes between each task). You will see the process as falling into three general stages: 1) Brainstorming and Preparing 2) Writing, and 3) Revising and Proofreading. I suggest taking a break to help you transition between each of these three phases.
It always helps to collect your thoughts before you begin writing. Based on your prompt or thesis, try to generate as many ideas as possible to include in your essay. Think of as many as time allows, knowing that you’ll be able to set aside the ideas that don’t work later.
1B) Preparing or Researching
The preparation phase consists of both structuring and collecting resources for evidence. Take a look at the results of your brainstorming session. First, isolate the ideas that are essential to support your thesis and then organize them in a logical and progressive order. In this stage, you’ll incorporate your essay structure, which I explain below. If you want empirical evidence or complementary citations, track them down now.
This is the main stage of essay writing where you roll up your sleeves and actually write the first draft. Remember that everything doesn’t have to be perfect; this is your first draft, not your final draft, so give yourself the freedom to make errors. If you’re focusing on getting every single word right, you’ll miss the big picture.
The revisions stage involves your second draft, your third draft, or even your twelfth draft if necessary. Address all the nuances and subtleties you glossed over in the first draft. If writing an essay is like creating a map, think of revising as preparing the essay for the reader so the reader can get from their starting point on the map to the destination you want them to arrive at. Revising is making sure that you have taken them as clearly as possible through all the twists and turns they will encounter along the way; revising is making sure that the reader avoids all the possible pitfalls and making the path as smooth as possible on their journey.
Pay attention to both word choice and clarity and more sophisticated writing techniques dealing with sentence structure, verb tense, and whether you are writing in passive or active voice. Consider also how well you transition between separate points in your essay. Does your essay flow easily from one point to the next? Or could a point you make in a different part of the essay be moved to help progress your points more sensibly?
If you’re not confident in your writing skills yet, you can use the spelling and grammar suggestions in word processing programs like Apple Pages, Microsoft Word, Google Documents, or an online resource like Grammarly. The best resource that King’s University has is the writing instructor who is located in the Academic Enrichment Centre. They will clarify and make it more concise by offering sentence structure and word choice suggestions, plus clarity revisions as you write. You may even find that the instructor will help you clarify your own thoughts.
When all the heavy-duty revisions are finished, it’s time for the final polish. Go through your essay and correct misspellings, formatting issues, or grammatical errors. My biggest advice is to read your essay out loud to yourself. When you write, you often miss entire bits of information or punctuation which the reader needs to have for the essay to make sense. By reading it out loud, you give yourself another checking mechanism (your ears) to catch any last errors.
Your essay structure almost always follows a simple beginning-middle-end format, or in this case, an introduction-body-conclusion format. However, it’s what’s contained within those sections that make all the difference.
Essays follow the same guidelines for introductions as any other piece of writing, with an extra emphasis on presenting the thesis prominently ideally near the end of the introduction. By the end of your introduction paragraph, your reader should know without a doubt what your essay is about, why it is important, and what your perspective or opinion is.
The majority of your essay is body paragraphs, all of which support your thesis and present evidence.
Pay close attention to how you organize your body paragraphs. Some arguments benefit from a logical progression, where one point leads to a second, and that second point leads to a third. Remember that the reader doesn’t understand the topic like you do (that’s why you’re writing the essay), so organize your paragraphs in the way that’s best for their comprehension.
What if you’re writing an argumentative essay where you compare and contrast two or more points of view? Do you present your argument first and then share opposing points of view, or do you open with your opposition’s argument and then refute it?
Serious writers can get pretty technical about how to organize an argumentative essay. but for a simple essay, a basic structure will do just fine:
- Your point
- Evidence supporting your point and/or disproving counterpoint
Essay conclusions wrap up or summarize your thesis in a way that’s easy for the reader to digest. If you get the chance, you can add a new perspective or context for understanding your thesis, but the conclusion should not present any new evidence or supporting data. Rather, it’s more of a recap.
For quick and simple essays (think: essays that you write as part of an exam, or shorter essays of up to 500 words) you don’t need to get too technical with your essay structure. The five-paragraph essay structure works well in a pinch. This contains:
- One introduction paragraph
- 3 body paragraphs
- One conclusion paragraph
While this essay structure might not be flexible enough for more advanced topics, it comes in handy when speed is a factor, like during timed tests.
Essay writing tips
Master the fundamentals
Especially for University essays, your professors will scrutinize how well you handle the fundamentals. Knowing about essay structure and the writing process is one thing, but can you demonstrate an understanding of language style? Can you develop your thesis logically and coherently? Are your references and citations trustworthy?
Remember: Be kind to your reader
It’s not always about what you say, but how you say it. You could have the most obvious, objectively agreeable thesis in the world, but if your writing is incoherent, confusing, and full of mistakes, it’s tough to engage with your reader.
For when your writing needs to make the right impact, split long sentences, cut extra words, or rearrange key phrases, not only catch common grammar mistakes. Refining your writing with these elements in mind is key to relaying your point to your reader—and asserting your thesis as effectively as possible.