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
ESSAY GUIDELINES and English Literature Assignment Miscellany…
The following is intended to give you basic direction in essay writing for this class. It is important that you follow the main idea of what I have listed below.
*** Note: My “late” essay policy is the same as Mr. Hinrichs’ is for Great Books courses. You have a week to turn an essay in “late”. Beyond a week, the paper will not be graded or counted in any way. Your evaluation will note when you turned an essay in late.
*BASIC ESSAY STRUCTURE: Use the following as a “skeleton” upon which to build your argument or exposition.
Title of Essay (should not be the same as the piece you are writing about. For example, if you are writing about Beowulf, your essay should not be called Beowulf, unless you wrote the original work.)
I. Introductory Paragraph: This should have an interesting beginning and taper down into your thesis, or the main idea you plan to explore in the essay.
II. Body Paragraphs: Each body paragraph should have a clear topic sentence, several examples from the text and your commentary about them. Work on using good transitions from paragraph to paragraph.
Basic Paragraph Structure: This is a good basic way to ensure that you are using enough of the text and that you are giving enough of your opinion about it.
1st sentence: Topic sentence: This is like a mini-thesis statement. You should focus on one point of your thesis (remember? The one you have in your introduction? :)) in the topic sentence. For instance: "Beowulf's heroism is revealed in his generosity to others."
2nd sentence: Concrete Detail (CD): This is a fact, quote, example, etc. Basically, it is evidence from the text supporting your topic sentence.
3rd sentence: Commentary (CM): This is further explanation, connection or illumination of your CD. A good way to start is to use the phrase "this shows that." However, ONLY use this in your rough draft-- it is a "think starter", not a lovely phrase worth keeping in your final draft. If you eliminate it, your sentence will still make sense and also sound much better.
4th sentence: CM #2: This is even further explanation, connection, or illumination. I encourage you to go beyond two sentences of commentary, but you should start with at least two. You can start this thought with "furthermore" (which you can keep in your final draft here and there. I don't want to see 10 "furthermores" however! Be more creative.)
5th sentence: CD #2 (see sentence 2)
6th sentence: CM #1 (see sentence 3)
7th sentence: CM #2 (see sentence 4)
8th sentence: Concluding/transitional sentence: this ties up your ideas in a neat package and should also lead the reader into the next thought you plan to explore.
III. Conclusion Paragraph: This paragraph should briefly restate what you have revealed to us in an interesting manner.
1. Use your vocabulary. Oftentimes, your meaning can be more accurately conveyed with the proper choice of words. Instead of saying someone “walked”, you could say he or she “sauntered”, “strutted”, or “shuffled”. Each of these words paints a different picture. Ask yourself if there is a better way to say what you mean.
2. Support your statements. If you believe that the epic hero Beowulf represents Christ, use some support from the text to buttress your belief. Avoid making blanket statements about the literature without using the text as a basis.
3. Avoid clichés when at all possible. They are often so overused that they become meaningless to the reader. Create your own descriptions.
4. Double-check your work for grammatical and spelling errors. Nothing more quickly detracts from well-expressed ideas than a paper fraught with misspellings and other such errors. If you are not a good speller or grammarian, have someone who is help you work on this problem.
5. Do not use “a lot”. This is overused and non-descriptive.
6. Use well-structured sentences, avoiding fragments and run-ons.
7. PLEASE make corrections on your essays when you get them back from me. Go through each comment and do your best to change the sentence or paragraph in order to rectify it. Also, write out each misspelled word five times. I spend much of my time grading papers and to think that you will miss out on the benefits that come from fixing your errors is a depressing thought. Keep your teacher happy. J
8. Plan ahead so that you have enough time to send in a well-written paper that has been proofread several times.
9. Do not plagiarize someone else’s work. Whether you “borrow” an entire essay, a few paragraphs, or even main ideas from someone else, it is still considered plagiarism and this is a despicable form of cheating. You will receive no credit for plagiarizing and your semester evaluation (which may be seen by colleges you are interested in attending) will include the fact that you cheated. If you are really struggling with an essay, you may email me for help. If you struggle with writing, make sure to give yourself enough time to contact me (or someone else who can help with writing).
*ESSAY CORRECTIONS: Oftentimes, I tend to abbreviate as I grade papers. Hopefully, this guide will help you decipher my comments. (Be thankful you don’t have to decipher my handwriting plus these abbreviations as my former students had to!)
S-V: Subject/Verb Disagreement: “He walked down the street looking for his dog and when he sees Rover, he is relieved.”
Correct: “He walked down the street looking for his dog and when he saw Rover, he was relieved.”
WW: Wrong Word: “Their are five trees in our yard.”
Correct: “There are five trees in our yard.”
“ I am defiantly interested in having some ice cream.”
Correct: “I am definitely interested in having some ice cream.”
*Please do not depend on spell check. It will not catch many errors. “Their” and “defiantly” are both legitimate words, but they are obviously the wrong words.
J: That’s funny. (Or interesting—basically, it made me smile when I read it.)
SP: Misspelled word.
R-O: Run-on sentence
FRAG: Fragmented (incomplete) sentence.