Top Tips: How to write an essay

When we talk about stress, it often is in association with tests or exams. Essays, however, can also be an extremely difficult challenge for budding writers, especially when the essay is lengthy and requires footnotes, authority sources and smooth, flowing language which does not come naturally to some students.

Essay writing

The purpose of this blog post is to provide you with some practical tips on how to write an essay, and put to rest some of you fears.

You will find that the more you prepare for your essay, the more confident you will be about where you are heading and the more essays you write, the less you will feel a sense of panic when you sit with your pen and a blank piece of paper in front you, knowing you have a specific word count to fulfil.

What follows are 8 tips to writing a great essay.

1. Clarify what you are being asked to do

Are you being asked to persuade your audience (a persuasive essay), to analyse a theory or article (an analytical essay), to provide the results of your research on a topic (an expository essay) or compare and contrast two works, people or theories (a comparative essay, also considered a type of expository essay)?

Each of these essay types will have a different type of structure. A persuasive essay, for instance, will begin with a statement, it will provide arguments both for and against your stance and will end with a conclusion. An expository essay, on the contrary, will often begin with a statement of intention of your research and a taster of what your conclusion will be. In the main body of the essay, you will be presenting facts and figures that will allow you to come to the final part of your essay, the conclusion.

In an effort to best understand the type and complexity of essay you are expected to write, communication with your teacher/professor is key. Ask them whether or not footnotes are expected (and to what degree) and inquire whether you need to provide a bibliography. Most essays in the final years of secondary school and at university will expect you to back your statements with authority sources.

2. Make an essay plan

Some people find it useful to brainstorm first and jot down or map all ideas which may be of interest; if you already know which general direction you are heading in, however, you can get straight to the task of creating an essay plan. The latter may take on a written or map form. The idea is to start with a main thesis or idea, write down sub-branches/sub-headings for each main idea and include smaller details at the end of the branches of your map/ beneath your sub-headings. You will need to go through your notes for this.  If you are using a variety of sources (books, articles, class notes), it is useful to spend time creating a summary of each source. This process begins the first time you read the material; highlight important points or take down notes. These will help when you come to the stage of summarising.

3. Start at the beginning

Once you have determined your structure, go for it. A good introduction will grab your readers, prompting them to discover the fascinating information you are about to share. Don’t worry if your first go isn’t perfect, though; the aim is to get the momentum going. Come back later, after you have finished your essay, and sharpen your introduction with an interesting quote, anecdote or news story.

4. Be disciplined

When it comes to footnotes, write them down neatly or type them out while you are writing the essay; if you leave citation to the end, you may find it difficult to find the precise sources for various statements. Discipline will also come in handy when, after writing a couple of paragraphs, you are tempted to take a long break (e.g. by watching a television show or going out with friends for a break). Unless you are writing a thesis, taking a long break in the middle of an essay may not be the best idea. This is because essay writing is one of the most demanding tasks you will encounters as a student in terms of concentration. For your ideas to flow and for you as a writer to get into the zone, try to write from start to finish (or take only one or two short coffee breaks).

5. Use appropriate language

Don’t write in the first person unless you are specifically asked to. There are a wealth of online resources which provide excellent examples of language to be used in academic writing. Language varies considerably depending on whether you wish to point out a problem, discuss controversial themes or simply establish the importance of an idea or fact. Additionally, avoid colloquial language or informal expressions, unless, for instance, you are writing a narrative essay where the latter might be appropriate, bearing in mind the characters/situation.

6. Leave an impact in your conclusion

Your conclusion should definitely summarise your key findings but should not state them in the same language you have used to argue key points. This is the part of the essay that will leave a lasting impression on your readers so try to make it a good one.

7. Proofing / editing your essay

If you have already written your essay and time permits, put it aside and return to it in a day or two. This mental break will enable you to spot any grammar mistakes, illogical statements or awkward sounding language in your essay. This is also a good time to tweak key components of the essay like your introduction, conclusion and the first sentences of each paragraph. It is likewise the idea moment to watch out for key points or sources which you may have left out. Watch out for typical spelling mistakes (such as whose and who’s, lie and lay), since these can detract from the quality of your work. Make sure that your essay looks professional, selecting an aesthetically pleasing yet easily readable font and using tools provided on Word, like headings, bold print, italics and underlining.

I hope that you have found these tips useful. If you would like to tell us what works for you, please feel free to tell us via the comments.

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