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
Do you know a student who doesn't lack sleep? It's amazing how exhaustion is perceived as something normal when you're a student. You don't sleep for days because the exams are approaching and you have a huge essay marked with red on your schedule. That's normal; you're a student after all. Wait! No; it's not normal! If you're a student, that doesn't mean you shouldn't have a life, does it?
So, you just decided to sleep from time to time. Finally, you're doing something normal. You start a daily exercise routine, you cook yourself some healthy meals, and you devote reasonable hours of the day to studying. But, what about that essay? When the deadline is dangerously close, you have no other option: you freak out! You start looking for essay writing tips that tell you the same thing over and over again: always start ahead of time. Yeah, like that's an option now.
Let's see what options you have in this situation:
- You can pull an all-nighter. But, you have to be ready for Murphy 's Law to hit you: just when you need to be really productive, you won't be able to write a single word because of all that stress you're going through.
- You can buy an essay. Outsourcing the project to a paper writing service may be the solution you need, but you don't always have money for that. What happens if it's the end of the month and you're completely broke? OMG! That perfect solution slipped away and you feel more miserable than ever.
- You can follow our guide with practical tips that help you write a great essay in a matter of hours. Now we're talking!
Step By Step Guide to Last-Minute Essay Writing
Step 0: Calm Down. Breathe!
When you're trying to figure out how to write a college essay really fast without sacrificing its quality, there is something preventing you to achieve that goal: stress. You're extremely anxious and you don't believe that the process will turn out well. So, you commit to writing a paper of mediocre quality because you think that's the best you can do with the time you have at hand. Wait; you're wrong!
Close your eyes for a moment and take few deep, deep breaths. Say to yourself: "I can do this. I CAN do this!" It sounds silly when someone tells you to do that, but it really works and you have to believe yourself when you say that. You need to approach this essay writing process with the right mindset, so don't even try to skip step 0.
Visualize the final result: it will be awesome. When you get relaxed, you create the space your mind needs for developing fresh ideas. The sense of control will enable you to get through each of the following steps easily, and it will make the entire process more actionable and less intimidating. Now that you're calm and confident, you can proceed further.
Step 1: Compress All Your Thoughts on Paper. Create a Killer Essay Outline!
Are you aware of the most common step of the essay writing process that students love to skip? It's the outline. Do you know what their biggest mistake is? - Skipping the outline. It may seem like a waste of time, since you're writing down the essential frame of the paper, which you'll then expand into an actual college essay format. No one will see the outline and your professor won't grade it. Does that mean you don't need it? Absolutely not!
Every guide on how to write an essay will tell you the same: start with an outline. There is a reason for that! You need to be aware of the essay structure, which will organize the chaos in your mind. Plus, mind-mapping is fun!
- Take a plain piece of paper and write down all ideas that come to your mind.
- Don't try to categorize the ideas as silly or awesome; just write them down.
- Then, the process of selection will come on stage. Observe those fragments of ideas and connect them into a single outline. Don't be too attached to them; some of them will be silly so you'll need to get rid of them and focus on the productive ones.
- Craft a clean mind map and follow its structure when you write the paper. For this purpose, you can use online mind-mapping software, such as MindMeister or MindMup.
Here is a sample of a plain mind map, created with online software. It should represent the basic features of the essay, so it will guide your thoughts in an organized manner.
When you have a mind map in front of you, you'll know exactly what you're trying to achieve. The essay writing process will be much faster thanks to the 10-15 minutes you spent in outlining.
Step 2: Research Now, Write Later
You thought you were ready to start writing? Not so fast! The best essays have a common feature: they are well-researched. The lack of time is not an excuse for lack of research. Your professor won't appreciate a repetitive paper based solely on your vague, unconvincing arguments.
Don't worry; the research process for a college essay doesn't take long. Here are a few tips that will help you conduct a research in less than 15 minutes:
- The important thing to keep in mind is the goal of writing a paper under the specific outline you have in mind.
- Try using Google Scholar instead of the good old Google. Let's take the example from the mind map above: imagine you're writing an essay on global warming. If you search Google, you'll have to dig deep to find authoritative sources you could use. You'll need to try searching with different phrases and keywords, and you don't have time for that, so you'll end up using the first random results you run into. They might help you get ideas for writing, but they won't convince the teacher you conducted a thorough research. If you search the web through Google Scholar, you'll find sources worthy of referencing solely by typing global warming.
- Don't neglect Wikipedia. It's an underestimated online source because it can be updated by the users, but it offers great information that you can use in your paper. That doesn't mean you can reference Wikipedia in an academic paper, though. Use it to find the information you need, and then locate that same information in a more authoritative online source.
How can you do that? By checking the citations on the Wikipedia page. They will quickly lead you to all the research you need. Choose few of those references, search the books, journals, research, and authors online, and voila - you just conducted a brilliant research in a matter of minutes.
Step 3: Write Like You Mean It
The mere fact that you're being forced to write an essay makes you hate the topic, no matter how hard your professor tried to make it intriguing. That's the wrong mindset to have. With all preparations you did by following the previous three writing tips, you already know how to start an essay and you have confidence that you can handle the process within the timeframe you have.
Now, all you need to do is write the content itself.
- Find a really interesting aspect that will intrigue you to write the best essay ever. Even the most boring topics have something interesting in them; you just need to discover it and add your own personality in the writing process. Let's take the same example again (we hope you're not getting bored by it): global warming.
- The introduction has to be amazing! Make it fun by using quotes or real-life experiences. Then, wrap it up with a powerful sentence and write it like you mean it!
- The body of the essay should provide arguments and evidence that prove the thesis statement.
- Finally, you need an outstanding conclusion. It needs to connect all loose ends of the paper's body, restate the thesis statement, and end with a bang. The conclusion is the part that leaves lasting impressions.
- Take care of the citations as you write! Whenever you use a certain resource as inspiration or support for your claims, make sure to reference it in accordance with the citation standard you follow.
Everyone will keep writing about the same things, but you're expected to offer something different. You can search for information and facts provided by scientists who don't believe in global warming. You can write a really fun essay making a case for them, but you can also use those claims just to shed light on the side of the issue that students and teachers rarely think of.
The reader should end up being satisfied, knowing that he learned something new from your essay and he just spent quality time with it. Leave some space for further research and intrigue the reader to dig deeper into the topic and find out more about the things you tackled.
Step 4: Tweak Your Text
You must be extremely happy about putting that last sentence of the conclusion in place, but you're not done yet! You'll need at least another half an hour to edit and proofread your essay. Every sentence has to make sense in terms of the thesis statement, and you cannot leave a single misspelling in the paper. You invested a lot of effort into this project; you can't ruin everything by submitting the first draft. A smart essay writer always edits!
Don't worry; the editing part is not that hard.
- Read the essay you just wrote. Take side notes of the corrections you intend to make. Don't start with the proofreading yet; that part will come a bit later.
- Are there any parts that don't fit in? Take them out. Are there gaps in the logical flow? Maybe you didn't support some of your claims with facts? Add the needed information wherever necessary.
- Once you're sure that the structure of the paper is fine, you can go with the final proofreading.
- Grammarly - a nifty tool that identifies more spelling and grammar mistakes than your usual word processor.
- Hemingway Editor - it marks the complex sentences and it encourages you to make the essay as readable as possible.
Here are two tools you can use during the editing and proofreading processes:
Step 5: Own Your Essay
Remember when you did all that research? Maybe you got too inspired by some of the sources so you copied the ideas without being aware of what you were doing? You really need to check the paper for plagiarism before submitting it. These are the right tools to use during this stage:
- Plagtracker - plagiarism tracking engine that warns you about the suspicious parts of the content. When you identify the sections that are not entirely unique, you can either paraphrase them or reference the sources.
- Citation Machine - You really need to proofread and format the references as a final step of the process. Thanks to Citation Machine, you can automate the process.
Over to You
If you followed all these steps, you have an essay that's ready for submission. Whoa, that wasn't easy, but you did it! Now, take long, deep breaths. Congratulate yourself and go to sleep!
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