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How to write an effective essay

9 Key steps and an essay checklist 

Ah, the dreaded academic essay. Like flexed arm hangs in gym class or immunization day, it reigns as one of the least popular parts of high school. Unlike having to perform feats of strength or bravely suffering in front of peers, writing an essay is neither embarrassing nor painful. But it is hard work.

Drafting an effective academic essay requires research, focus, effort and time. However, if you break things down into manageable chunks, you may find that writing an essay is not only doable but also gratifying and maybe even enjoyable. (Well, parts of it. Let’s face it, doing references is always a drag.)

What is an essay?

Fittingly, the word ‘essay’ comes from the French verb essayer, meaning to attempt or to try. As with a paragraph, an essay focuses on one topic, often in an attempt to prove an opinion or argument. Unlike a paragraph, an essay is made up of, well, paragraphs. This is handy because that allows for expansion of the central idea.

Following is the format of a five-paragraph essay – ally of teachers and students everywhere. The first paragraph consists of an introduction to the general topic as well as the presentation of the key point or argument (thesis statement). The body of the essay consists of three paragraphs (expanded sub-ideas), which back up the thesis. The concluding paragraph reiterates the central concept and summarizes and synthesizes the supporting sub-ideas.

Various styles of essay writing

Even though Wikipedia lists 15 different forms and styles of essays at the time of writing, for most high school and undergrad-level writers, academic essay forms are typically limited to the following: compare and contrast; descriptive; narrative; expository; persuasive; and critical (literary) analysis. Regardless of what kind of essay you need to write, the following tips offer beneficial information to help make your next one a goody.

How to write an effective essay – step-by-step

Step 1: Determine your form and choose your topic. Unless you’re the kind of person who does critical-analysis essays for kicks, often an instructor determines the essay’s form. Either way, knowing how to present the information can help determine your choice of topics. It’s fine to have a general idea in mind, such as dogs, but knowing if it’s a persuasive essay (dogs are the best pets) rather than a compare-contrast (what are the differences between dogs and cats) will help narrow your topic.

If you’re having trouble coming up with a specific topic, try some brainstorming techniques, such as those noted in “How to Prepare to Write.” Now is also a suitable time to nail down other particulars, such as word count, style format (e.g., APA, MLA, CP, Chicago Manual, etc.) and due dates.   

Step 2: Research your topic. Once you have narrowed your topic, start to do research. Knowing more about your topic makes it easier to write about it, and research helps you find evidence to support your argument. Thanks to the internet, it has never been easier to find information, but it has also never been easier to get incorrect or false information. Ensure your sources are credible; substantiate facts or data when possible. Make sure to use both primary sources (first-hand evidence, such as transcripts, statistical data, news accounts, original works) as well as secondary sources (second-hand info or commentary, such as reviews, analysis, biographies). Keep track of sources used along the way, and start a reference page early in the process.

Step 3: Write a thesis statement. A thesis statement explains what your essay is about and provides a focus for everything that follows. It occurs in the opening paragraph, usually in the middle or near the end, and answers the questions WHAT and WHY/HOW. The conventional format involves a clear, conclusive statement about the main topic point with some specific supporting details, e.g., Dogs make the best family pets because they provide companionship, protection and improved well-being. In compare-and-contrast essays, both subjects need to be mentioned equally without any bias toward one or the other, e.g., Despite having distinct personality traits, dogs and cats both make great family pets.

Having trouble coming up with a thesis statement? Start by asking a question about your topic and answering it. Keep your language strong and concise.

Step 4: Create an outline. I have to write an outline? Uuugggh…. Yeah, well, suck it up. Outlines keep you organized and on point, which ends up saving time! As noted earlier, essays start with an introductory paragraph that includes the thesis, have two or more body paragraphs that support the thesis and end with a concluding paragraph, which reaffirms the thesis. (Picking up that the thesis is important?) A standard five-paragraph outline looks like this:

  1. Introduction
    1. Interesting opening (fact, question, quote)
    1. Background info
    1. Thesis statement
  2. Body paragraph
    1. Point 1 topic sentence
    1. Evidence/Examples (stat, quote or info that supports your point)
    1. Explain (describe how the evidence/example provides support)
    1. Link (connect with thesis and link to next point with a transition)
  3. Body paragraph
    1. Point 2 topic sentence
    1. Evidence
    1. Explain
    1. Link
  4. Body paragraph
    1. Point 3 topic sentence
    1. Evidence
    1. Explain
    1. Link
  5. Conclusion
    1. Thesis statement
    1. Synthesis/summary
    1. Solid closing statement

Step 5: Write the introduction. The introductory paragraph of an essay has three main objectives: to hook the audience, provide information about the topic and present the point or thesis of the essay. Examples of effective hooks include a relevant quote, interesting facts, a pertinent question, a dramatic scene or even a joke. Whatever hook you choose, make sure it suits the tone of the rest of the essay. If you can’t produce something that feels right, leave it to the end and try again. Next, provide some background information that gives your topic context. If your subject relates to dogs, fill in details such as when and where they originated, how they became domesticated. Then, hit your audience with your thesis. Finally, end with a transition that leads to your first paragraph.

Step 6: Write the body paragraphs. The paragraphs that make up the body of the essay follow the same PEEL structure, that is, they cover the Point of the paragraph (noted in the topic sentence); Evidence that supports that point; Explanation of how that evidence relates to and supports that point; Link both to the essay’s thesis and to the next point with a transition. For example, in our essay about why dogs make the best family pet, the first point is about companionship:

Point: One of the reasons dogs make great family pets is because they provide companionship.

Evidence: An Australian study published in 2019, found that dog ownership reduces loneliness.

Explain: While most pets are capable of providing joy and companionship, the study’s authors note that dogs “act as catalysts” for interactions, in that dogs allow owners to get out and create social connections with other dog owners. Until communities start building cat parks and fish play areas, dogs have a distinct advantage with this aspect of alleviating isolation.

Link: Although companionship is an important part of what makes dogs the best pet, the protection they provide is just as distinctive and valuable.

Step 7: Write the conclusion. Now that you’re on the last stretch, it’s time to finish strong. Let’s wrap things up and bring this baby home! Think of the conclusion as the reverse of the introduction – it starts focused and then moves to a broader overview. A good approach is to restate the thesis (using different words), touch on how you proved your argument and end with a general comment that offers a final perspective on the subject. While it’s not the time to introduce new points or facts, you may want to look to the future, have a call to action, share a quote or ask a question. Avoid using tired phrases like “in conclusion” or “to summarize.” Finally, keep it positive and to the point.

Step 8: Pull together your reference material. Because you’ve been keeping track of things all the way along, this shouldn’t be a big deal. You must list all the sources you have referred to in a “Works Cited” or “Reference” page. You may also want to include a “Bibliography,” which lists all the sources and materials you consulted during your research, even those materials not actually cited in the essay. Check with your instructor to clarify which style format to use and what specifics are necessary.

Step 9: Edit, revise and polish. Phew…hard part done. Now comes the fine-tuning. Hopefully, you’ve given yourself enough time to let the finished draft sit for a day (or at least a few hours) before you review. Fresh eyes catch more mistakes. Next, print it out. It’s easier to see errors and typos on the printed page rather than a computer screen. Then, read it aloud – a sure-fire way to catch faulty construction and repetitive words.

When revising, you will read your essay at least three times, each round getting more focused on specifics. With the first read-through, pay attention to the overall organization and purpose of the essay. Does it all fit together and do connections flow? Does it stay related to the thesis throughout and build logically? Does it meet all the requirements of the assignment? Are the tone and style consistent?

The second read-through focuses on the various parts of the essay. Is the introduction clear and interesting? Is there enough background info, and is the thesis obvious? Does each body paragraph have a topic sentence? Do paragraphs link smoothly to the next? Is any of the content confusing or repetitive? Don’t be afraid to add or delete information to clarify things.

On the third reread, pay attention to spelling, grammar and word choice. Read it sentence by sentence to make sure that everything makes sense. Ensure variety in sentence structure and length. Focus on subject-verb agreement and consistent tense. Cut lingo, jargon and fluffy words. Watch for passive voice. Look for missing punctuation (particularly in the references section).

Once you’ve made all your corrections and changes, print it out again for a final proofread. If you have a chance, let someone else read it to catch anything you may have missed.

Ultimate essay-writing checklist

Reviewing your work involves several read-throughs progressing from general organization, cohesion and clarity to the specifics of sentence structure. Following is a comprehensive checklist that addresses common essay-writing issues.

General essay revision

  • Essay’s thesis (main idea) and purpose (educate, persuade, compare/contrast) are clear.
  • Essay flows well with the use of transitions.
  • Essay builds logically and stays focused on supporting the thesis statement.
  • Answers What, Why and How.
  • Tone and style stay consistent throughout.
  • Meets length, format and style requirements.
  • Introduction starts with an interesting hook (quote, question, fact, etc.).
  • Supporting body paragraphs all start with a topic sentence, provide evidence, explain relevance of said evidence and link to the next paragraph (PEEL format).
  • Single idea/focus per paragraph.
  • Conclusion restates thesis, synthesizes support given and answers the question, “So what?”
  • Order of the content makes sense.
  • No extraneous information, new arguments or tangents.
  • All technical or potentially unknown terms defined.
  • Any quotes or information obtained from other sources cited within the text.
  • References (Works Cited) page complete with sources noted in appropriate style.

Line-editing specifics

  • Concise, clear, complete sentences throughout.
  • Good variety of sentence structure and length.
  • All subjects and verbs agree.
  • Consistent verb tense.
  • Consistent style/formatting, e.g., capitalization, dashes vs hyphens, in-text citations.
  • No passive voice.
  • No lingo, jargon, cliches and fluffy words.
  • No misplaced modifiers.
  • No spelling errors. (Use spell-check and read out loud to catch errors like from/form.)
  • No punctuation errors and inconsistencies. (Use an on-line grammar checker.)
  • No use of “I” (unless in a personal reflection/anecdote).
  • No redundant or repetitive words or phrases.
  • No unnecessary adjectives or adverbs.
  • No (or limited) contractions.

Once you’ve checked all these items and addressed any issues, print out a clean version to review. Then, take a break. On the final proofread, read aloud and have one last look for typos, missing punctuation and any formatting inconsistencies.

Last thoughts on writing a superior essay

Forgotten lunch bags in lockers, missing homework assignments, writing essays – it’s all part of the school experience. Whether you write a bad essay or a good one, it still takes effort. But with the right approach, a decent outline and proper revision, any essay can go from blah to yeah! So, make it easier on yourself, stay focused and allow for the necessary time to go through all the steps.

Or at least give a decent amount of notice to the person you’re paying to write it for you. We’d really appreciate it.

Nancy Miller
Nancy Miller

Owner and editorial rockstar at Rock.Paper.Copy Writing Solutions

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