Essay Writing: Overcoming a Student's Nightmare

by Sharon G. Boddy

The most common form of writing is the essay, and knowing how to write one effectively is a fundamental skill for writers of all ages. The essay is not only used for academic papers. Feature articles, business reports and even "letters to the editor" follow the same pattern: introduction, body, conclusion. Unfortunately, few are taught the essay format thoroughly in high school, and when students enter university they may be writing them for the first time. Never fear! Essay writing may seem an insurmountable obstacle, but once you learn the "tricks of the trade," writing them becomes easier, even enjoyable. The method used is almost identical for freelancers, so if you are an aspiring writer, learning the essay format can put you ahead of the competition.

All essays follow the same pattern of production: choosing a topic and focus, preparing an outline, researching, drafting, and producing a final version.

Choosing a Topic

You will develop more passionate, well argued essays if you write about a subject that sincerely interests you. Developing your own ideas is also a good exercise as it is the freelancer's job to sell an idea to an editor. If specific topics are assigned, however, look for these key words that can narrow the type of essay you must write:

Define:Give a concise meaning of the topic.

Compare/Contrast: Examine the similarities/differences between topics or ideas.

Analyze: Show the nature and relationship of the topic.

Explain: State the how and why, where possible, state causes.

The most common error students make is choosing a topic which is far too broad to explore in a standard essay. For example, writing about propaganda in World War II could not be adequately discussed in a ten page paper, but it could be narrowed to discuss the propaganda efforts of British print media.

Once you've chosen a topic, a thinking or "incubation" period gives you time to get used to the subject. Professors may touch on essay topics during lectures, so listen for clues.


You must develop a thesis statement. A thesis statement is one sentence which states the central idea of your essay - it is your point of view, not a statement of fact - and it 1) tells the reader exactly what you intend to accomplish in your paper, and 2) keeps you on track. Write your working thesis statement on an index card and keep it on hand as you research and write your paper. You may not finalize your thesis until you have written the first draft, so feel free to amend it if you develop new ideas during your research.


Brainstorm a list of questions about the topic. Group those ideas that seem to relate to each other, give them subheadings, and prepare an outline. Try to list your questions in a logical flow that builds information.


Prepare a working bibliography - this is a list of the types of resources you will need and the places you expect to find them. A working bibliography cuts your research time substantially by making only one trip to each resource centre. Resources include: texts, magazines, newspapers, films, experts, computer databases. Places include: libraries, resource centres, charitable or volunteer organizations.

Take your working thesis and bibliography, questions, outline, and a pack of index cards with you and begin locating your sources. As you find each one (in a database or other indexing system), write down all the bibliographical information on a separate index card and number each one. Use a style guide and cite the bibliographical information correctly as you go - it saves time when compiling your bibliography. The Modern Language Association (MLA) is the authority on correct citations, and although it is handy to have a print copy of this invaluable guide, it is also available on the Web (

Once you retrieve your sources, quickly double check the bibliographical information. Many students prefer to research at home, but by developing a working bibliography, and conducting your research at the source, you save time and energy by not lugging a dozen books home!

Always skim the table of contents, headings, subheadings, appendices, index, and glossary of a textbook FIRST to determine its relevance. If current data is required, always check the publication dates. Write your notes on the back of the relevant bibliography card - this forces you to take very precise notes that focus only on the most important information. If you copy a lengthy quote, use a separate index card, note the page number, and staple it to its matching bibliography card.

Once your research is complete, review your questions. Does the material gathered answer them? did you add or delete questions? Review your thesis statement - does it still make sense? does it still express the view you wish to take? Write the number of each bibliography card beside the relevant subheadings on your outline. You may want to rewrite your outline to include new information or ideas.

The First Draft

Use triple spacing when writing your first draft so that you have plenty of room for revisions. The introductory paragraph includes background information that sets up your thesis statement. Unless otherwise specified by your professor or course department, the thesis statement is the last sentence of your introductory paragraph.

Write the body, or argument, of your essay in the same order as your outline. Concentrate on getting the key points down, and always back up your opinions or conclusions with facts or examples. Document any ideas that are not your own by referring to your bibliography cards (footnote, endnote or MLA style). MLA style citations are made within the body of the paragraph. At the end of paraphrased material or quotes, write the author's last name and the page reference in brackets; if you have already used the author's name or the title in the paragraph, bracket only the page number. Refer to a style guide while you write and list your citations correctly the first time.

Any direct quotes of less than four lines can be included within the paragraph; for longer ones, indent ten spaces from both left and right margins and use single spacing. Quotation marks are not required for indented quotes.

An English professor once advised me that, while revising the first draft, ask "So what?" after each paragraph. If you can't answer this question after each one, the information probably doesn't support your thesis. No matter how wonderfully you write, if the information does not support your focus, it does not belong. Before you revise the first draft, ALWAYS read your essay out loud - even if your formal grammar skills are weak, you can often pick up errors by ear much easier than by eye.

Now check for the following: Are there grammar, spelling or punctuation errors? Do the paragraphs flow naturally and build information? Is there only one idea per paragraph? Have you written in the 3rd person? Have you avoided using contractions (e.g., don't, won't, etc.)? Have you used the correct words for what you want to say? Are there better ones? Never use colloquial speech or jargon. The concluding paragraph summarizes how you proved your thesis statement in your essay. Rework your thesis statement into a concluding paragraph.

The Final Cut

Continue to revise until you have a version you are satisfied with. Prepare your bibliography page from your index cards, listing only those sources you used in your essay. All you need to do now is type up a final copy. Check for the following: If there was a style sheet provided by the department, have you followed their guidelines? Is it double spaced, typed on only one side of the page? Have you used 1" margins? Have you numbered the pages at the top right hand corner? Do not number the title, first, or bibliography pages of your essay. Your bibliography page is last.

Finally, read your essay out loud again to check for spelling, grammar and punctuation, and to ensure that it flows logically. Keep a complete copy for yourself - professors, like the rest of us, sometimes misplace things! Writing an essay may seem like the hardest task in the world, but to succeed as a student, and as a writer, it is a format that should be learned thoroughly and well. A tried and true method of researching and writing any type of assignment helps you organize your thoughts, your time, and alleviates that anxious "How do I begin?" phase. Writing essays well is a valuable skill for both school and business. And who knows? All that time you spend writing your A+ essays just might get you a job as a writer. It worked for me.

Sharon G. Boddy is a freelance writer in Ottawa, Canada. Her fiction has been published in Zygote and NorthWords, and she has written articles for a variety of Canadian publications. Sharon also runs Boddy Language, a home business specializing in all things "wordy," as well as information on study skills tips for high school and post-secondary students.

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