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An Essay Guide for Academic Writing

If you are a student, you are writing essays and papers – lots of them!  As your education progresses, moreover, the topics become more complex and the expectations much higher.  No longer are you writing a one-page narrative on what you did over summer vacation or what you want to be when you grow up.  Now, you are charged with producing essays and papers on a large range of topics, and you find that simply putting your thoughts on paper will no longer suffice.  You need a plan – a method by which all academic writing can be solidly produced.  This guide will provide the generic essentials of how to write an essay or paper for any course and/or topic.


The nature of pre-writing activity depends upon the type of essay one is producing, and the largest factor in this is the requirement of research.  Thus, there are two types of pre-writing plans.

When No Research is Required

These types of essays are generally shorter – one to two pages in length and require that you draw upon knowledge, ideas, or opinions you already have.  Some of them will be in response to something read or viewed; some will be in response to specific essay prompts you have been given by an instructor; others will require that you form an opinion and provide justification for that opinion.  Essays of this variety fall into categories, and the specifics of the pre-writing activities may vary according to the category.

In order to organize your thoughts for such essays, you must be certain that your understand any essay prompt provided or that you have chosen a topic that will fall within the breadth and depth requirements of the instructor.  The most traditional organizer is the outline, for it allows you to structure your thoughts into 3-4 sub-topics, each of which will form a body paragraph.  Other organizers may also be effective.  With a comparison/contrast essay, for example, a Venn diagram may prove better than an outline.  Narratives may best be organized by listing events in chronological order.  Each of us must discover the organizer(s) that work best for our own needs, but there are many options.  Once your graphic organizer is complete, you will be able to develop a thesis statement for your essay.  Write/type this at the top of the paper on which you intend to begin your rough draft.  The most important factor in how to write an essay is a thesis that is clear, focused, and provides you purpose for your writing.

When Research is Required

Obviously, the pre-writing activity for a research work involves locating the appropriate resource materials, reading them and taking notes that will form the information/data for the paper.  Note-taking must be carefully accomplished, because the in-text and end-of-text citations will depend upon the writer having noted the specific source from which such information has come.

Once the note-taking is completed, the information/data from several sources must be consolidated and synthesized into structurally sound sub-topics, each of which will form a section of the final piece.  Constructing a detailed outline based upon these sub-topics is critical, for this outline forms the spinal cord for all that is ultimately written.  Once you have your sub-topics organized, you will be able to develop the thesis statement, the research question, or the hypothesis you will be testing.  Write or type this at the top of what is to be your rough draft, so that you have a constant visual reminder to guide your writing.  Any essay guide you consult will not fail to repeat several times the importance of the thesis before you being any writing.

Writing the Rough Draft

A rough draft is exactly what it states.  You will produce the body of your work, whether that work is a basic essay or a lengthy research work.  During this phase, do not be too concerned with the grammar and mechanical details.  Your goal is to get your thoughts and/or information into logical and fluent order.  Keep referring to your thesis or question – you want to be certain that all of your writing supports it!   

Editing the Draft

Once the body of your work is in rough form, it is time for the time-consuming task of editing.  This involves three major focuses.

  1. Read the entire piece with a holistic view toward such things as organization, coherency, fluency, and soundness.  Does it flow well?  Will a reader be able to summarize each paragraph or section you have written?  Is the language style appropriate?  The language used for a narrative essay may be far less formal than one for a research work in psychology.
  2. Edit paragraph by paragraph.  Is the topic sentence clear?  Are the sentences varied in length?  Are there good transitions between paragraphs?  Eliminate run-ons and fragments.  If you have used a grammar check program, most of these will have already been caught, but review by hand to be certain.
  3. Proof for spelling, punctuation, agreement, and verb tense errors.  Again, spelling and grammar check programs will have caught most of these, but they are not 100% accurate.

Writing the Introduction and Conclusion

You are now ready to write these two important parts of your work.  The introduction must of course introduce your thesis, question, or hypothesis.  It must also be intriguing enough to motivate a reader to continue.  Length of introductions varies with the type of work.  A basic essay will require a one-paragraph introduction in which you “hook” the reader with a short attention-grabbing sentence, an astounding piece of information, or a short anecdote.  Be creative!  For a major research work, the introduction is an entire section of the piece and may involve several paragraphs during which the purpose of the research is set forth.  If you struggle with an introduction, seek assistance from a “veteran” or read several published introductions that can be used as models

The conclusion should wrap up your piece.  For a short essay, you may want to reflect on the point you have made in a creative or meaningful way.  For a research work, you must summarize your findings succinctly, without adding any new information/data.  The conclusion may, of course, make suggestions for additional research based upon your findings.


Your instructor or professor will have a required format style.  Be certain that you fully understand the style and that you adhere to it in producing your title page, your pagination, and your in-text and end-of-text citations.  Incorrect formatting will immediately lower your grade!

Review Again

You are probably too “close” to your work and are by now somewhat emotionally involved with it.  It is therefore a wise move to have someone else review the entire final draft.  S/he may find structural issues that you have not seen; s/he may point out sentences, paragraphs, and/or sections that are difficult for a reader to follow.  Take these suggestions and consider revising again.

A Final Word

Students learn how to write an essay or paper through practice.  Understand that the more you tackle these assignments on your own, the better you will become.  This essay guide serves as a general recommendation for the process of effective writing; you may discover that additional steps “work” better for you.


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