During the course of your postsecondary education, you’ll likely be assigned dozens upon dozens of essay–writing assignments on a range of topics. For some topics, the information will be easy to access, understand, and put into words. In other cases, however, sources will be more difficult to come by, and the whole writing process could ultimately be fraught with confusion and sticking points. This academic writing guide from Ultius professional writing services teaches students the seen basic writing stages:
- gathering information
- formulating an argument
- writing a thesis statement
- outlining the contents
- writing the body
- writing the introduction
- writing the closing
Gathering info for the essay topic
Traditionally, libraries have been the accepted source of quality information on virtually all academic topics. Whether you use your campus library or a local public branch, libraries are a free source for books and journals written by qualified experts. Additionally, a lot of central branches have microprint archives of local and national newspapers, from which you can get eye–witness reports on historical essay topics like World War II and the attack on Pearl Harbor.
These days, there’s also a wealth of knowledge to be culled from the Internet. If an essay concerns a recent topic—such as a newly released movie or a scandal that’s currently making headlines—there’s likely to be more information readily available online for such topics than there would be at a library. As a card–carrying student, you can also gain online access to peer–reviewed scholarly articles and academic journals through the password–restricted academic database of your university.
However, a lot of basic online sources are considered unacceptable for essay research. Sources such as blogs and low–quality news aggregates are generally deemed untrustworthy and insufficient by most professors. Likewise, Wikipedia is usually not accepted as a primary source of information, though it can be used as a primer on many topics; and from there you can research further by following the source links on a given Wiki page.
As you gather the info for your essay, be sure to arrange a bibliography of your sources in whichever style guide format your professor has specified (i.e MLA, Chicago, APA, Turabian, AMA). Putting this off until the end could be confusing and far more time–consuming because you’ll then have to retrace numerous steps in your research.
Formulate your own argument
As you gain knowledge of the topic, it’s only natural for observations, questions, and theories to formulate in your mind; these are the building blocks of an argument. While it would be easy to regurgitate the claims of other writers, your own understanding of the topic should allow you to come up with something original. It’s a matter of brainstorming; think of all the concerns that are raised by a body of info, and zero in on something that other writers have neglected.
Over the course of researching the topic, write down any ideas that come to mind. Whenever you’re out shopping or walking, have either a notepad or smartphone voice recorder on hand; an idea can come at any random moment. Gather all your ideas and narrow them down to the best one; this will be your thesis.
If you’re finding it difficult to come up with a topic, organize various ideas that come to mind in the form of a site map. In site–map form, the main idea is listed at center–top in a rectangle; directly related ideas are linked in an underlying row of rectangles, and each of these are linked to tertiary ideas. Some rectangles are liable to spawn more children than others; those that do are likelier to be the source of stronger ideas.
Alternately, a site map can be arranged in molecular form, with a primary sphere that spawns secondary and tertiary idea bubbles. Depending on your time table, give the map a few hours or days to mature. Afterward, look it over for the strongest possible threads and then select the best one.
Compose your thesis
Now that you’ve armed yourself with knowledge on a topic and examined pertinent ideas to find a proper argument for your essay, it’s time to formulate the thesis. A thesis should summarize the gist of your argument in a single sentence. For example, if you’re writing an essay that weighs the pros and cons of omnivorous vs. vegan diets, the thesis statement could read as follows:
Though the human digestive system is designed for generalized food intake, humans lack the sharp molars that give carnivorous animals the ability to take down prey, which calls into question whether human meat consumption is natural in the first place.
From that sentence, a reader can tell which facets of the topic are going to be explored, and will likely get a sense of which conclusion the writer will draw at the end. While the above thesis points to a pro–vegan essay, a reverse argument could just as easily be drawn from the following thesis statement.
Even though images of meat processing are disquieting to most folks, humans—like their counterparts in the wild—have had the natural instinct to hunt down game since the dawn of time.
Ideally, a thesis should never be combative or meander from the overall topic of an essay. Therefore, the following statements would make poor alternatives to the thesis statements above:
Combative: While most people love to gobble down burgers, hot dogs, and chicken nuggets, animals are suffering in farms and slaughterhouses so that the meat industry can feed into this grotesque human habit.
Meandering: Even though most people remain omnivorous, vegetarian and vegan diets have become so popular that most major cities now have restaurants that cater to this dining niche, such as the acclaimed Midtown–Manhattan diners Blossom and Candle 79.
Furthermore, a thesis should not be written in the first person, because that can make your argument sound less authoritative and more like a personal rant:
While I acknowledge that human meat consumption has persisted throughout history, I assert that this is an unhealthy, inhumane, and ecologically unsound practice.
Write an essay outline
With your argument prepared and your thesis now in place, it’s time to create an outline for your essay. For starters, create an introductory sentence for the topic. From there, jot down a working idea for the subheadings, and outline the points you intend to cover under each one. Each subheading should explore an area of the overall topic and be backed with at least three key points. Therefore, if you were writing an essay on the arrival of talking pictures and its impact on the cinematic art form, part of the outline could read like this:
The Initial Impact of Talkies
- instantly popular with audiences
- quickly adapted across the industry
- made films more relatable/easier to understand
The Downside of Talkies
- ended careers of actors/actresses with poor voices
- made acting more challenging; you now had to remember lines
- led to decades of neglect toward pre–1930s movies
Once you’ve hashed out the basic idea behind each sentence and paragraph, it’s a lot easier to expand them into fully formed bodies of text.
Write the essay paragraphs
Now that you have a general outline of the topics that each subsection and paragraph will cover, writing out the body paragraphs should be easy. Depending on your fluidity as a wordsmith, you could opt to fine–tune each sentence as you go along, or it might be more productive to blast write each paragraph and tighten things up during the editing stage.
Throughout an essay, it’s best to maintain an objective, third–party voice. Statements that resort to personal opinion (I don’t believe the U.S. had a just cause to enter that war) or hyperbole (Clifford Brown was the greatest jazz performer of the mid 1950s—even greater than Miles Davis or Charlie Parker—because his run of perfect 1954–55 albums was a lot more intense) are often considered unpersuasive and are generally frowned upon by professors.
For instance, if a reader disagrees with an opinion at the top of your essay, he or she might disregard your argument outright. The more persuasive route is to present the facts and allow readers to draw their own conclusions. Granted, you might have strong feelings borne from research on the topic at hand, but readers are likelier to come to your side if presented the same facts as you.
Therefore, if you’re convinced that the U.S. shouldn’t have entered a particular war, allow the facts that brought you to that conclusion—foreign destabilization, bloodshed, environmental damage, economic ruin—speak for themselves. Instead of saying a performer was the greatest in his or her field, describe the qualities and accomplishments that convinced you of that greatness.
Write the essay intro and title
For a lot of writers, the most self-conscious part of any assignment is the introduction, because that’s where an article makes its first impression. As a student, your professor will no doubt read your essay; but even when you don’t have to worry about locking in an audience, the intro can still be daunting as you brainstorm for a powerful opening paragraph. Likewise, choosing a title can also be difficult, because you’re straining to summarize the gist of your essay in under 10 words.
Such difficulties can be bypassed, however, if you put off writing the title and intro until after you’ve finished the body text. The reasons for this are simple: when you first begin a writing assignment, you’re busy trying to figure out how to approach the topic; but once you’ve completed the body text, most of the work is complete and the approach anxiety is long overcome. With all the knowledge that you’ve mastered and put into words, writing the opening is simply a process of taking that information and summarizing things in an introductory manner that doesn’t give away too much.
Intro construction can all be accomplished with a single paragraph in which the first sentence offers a basic introduction of the topic; the second and third sentences touch upon the positives and negatives, and the thesis statement closes the paragraph. In a sense, the intro can be viewed as an inverted pyramid where the broadest statement sits at the top and the finer point appears at the bottom.
Choosing a title is often more difficult because it’s hard to convey an essay’s overall scope in an evocative and intriguing manner with only a few words. However, there’s a trick to title selection that pleases a lot of professors: the semicolon, as you just saw right there. The format works like this: state the topic in three or fewer words before the semicolon, and make a brief observation or summary afterward, such as in the following examples:
Vietnam: The 7,200–Day War
The Rolling Stones: Rock’s Ultimate Survivors
Elephant: The Tallest Creature on Land
In effect, the semicolon relieves the burden of title–making by splitting the task into simpler halves: one that simply names the topic and another that cleverly describes it.
Write the essay conclusion
With the body completed and the opening now wrapped, the last thing to do is compose a closing for your essay, providing you didn’t already make concluding statements as you finished writing the body. All it takes is a small paragraph where you summarize the points covered during the essay, along with a closing statement designed to bring the reader to a conclusion and possibly get him or her to continue thinking further on the topic. The penultimate sentence could serve as a bookend to your thesis, while the closing words could make an observation—humble or profound—that hints at the implications of your argument proving true.
For example, if your essay concerns the plight of tigers, the closing sentence could read as follows:
If deforestation and poaching continue at their current rates, the majestic cat with orange, black, and white stripes might soon live on only in memory.
There you have it; a profound closing statement that encourages the reader to think about the consequences of things as they are: the noblest goal of a probing essay.
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