Writing an essay often seems to be a dreaded task among students. Whether the essay is for a scholarship, a class, or maybe even a contest, many students often find the task overwhelming. While an essay is a large project, there are many steps a student can take that will help break down the task into manageable parts. Following this process is the easiest way to draft a successful essay, whatever its purpose might be.
According to Kathy Livingston’s Guide to Writing a Basic Essay, there are seven steps to writing a successful essay:
1. Pick a topic.
You may have your topic assigned, or you may be given free reign to write on the subject of your choice. If you are given the topic, you should think about the type of paper that you want to produce. Should it be a general overview of the subject or a specific analysis? Narrow your focus if necessary.
If you have not been assigned a topic, you have a little more work to do. However, this opportunity also gives you the advantage to choose a subject that is interesting or relevant to you. First, define your purpose. Is your essay to inform or persuade?
Once you have determined the purpose, you will need to do some research on topics that you find intriguing. Think about your life. What is it that interests you? Jot these subjects down.
Finally, evaluate your options. If your goal is to educate, choose a subject that you have already studied. If your goal is to persuade, choose a subject that you are passionate about. Whatever the mission of the essay, make sure that you are interested in your topic.
2. Prepare an outline or diagram of your ideas.
In order to write a successful essay, you must organize your thoughts. By taking what’s already in your head and putting it to paper, you are able to see connections and links between ideas more clearly. This structure serves as a foundation for your paper. Use either an outline or a diagram to jot down your ideas and organize them.
To create a diagram, write your topic in the middle of your page. Draw three to five lines branching off from this topic and write down your main ideas at the ends of these lines. Draw more lines off these main ideas and include any thoughts you may have on these ideas.
If you prefer to create an outline, write your topic at the top of the page. From there, begin to list your main ideas, leaving space under each one. In this space, make sure to list other smaller ideas that relate to each main idea. Doing this will allow you to see connections and will help you to write a more organized essay.
3. Write your thesis statement.
Now that you have chosen a topic and sorted your ideas into relevant categories, you must create a thesis statement. Your thesis statement tells the reader the point of your essay. Look at your outline or diagram. What are the main ideas?
Your thesis statement will have two parts. The first part states the topic, and the second part states the point of the essay. For instance, if you were writing about Bill Clinton and his impact on the United States, an appropriate thesis statement would be, “Bill Clinton has impacted the future of our country through his two consecutive terms as United States President.”
Another example of a thesis statement is this one for the “Winning Characteristics” Scholarship essay: “During my high school career, I have exhibited several of the “Winning Characteristics,” including Communication Skills, Leadership Skills and Organization Skills, through my involvement in Student Government, National Honor Society, and a part-time job at Macy’s Department Store.”
4. Write the body.
The body of your essay argues, explains or describes your topic. Each main idea that you wrote in your diagram or outline will become a separate section within the body of your essay.
Each body paragraph will have the same basic structure. Begin by writing one of your main ideas as the introductory sentence. Next, write each of your supporting ideas in sentence format, but leave three or four lines in between each point to come back and give detailed examples to back up your position. Fill in these spaces with relative information that will help link smaller ideas together.
5. Write the introduction.
Now that you have developed your thesis and the overall body of your essay, you must write an introduction. The introduction should attract the reader’s attention and show the focus of your essay.
Begin with an attention grabber. You can use shocking information, dialogue, a story, a quote, or a simple summary of your topic. Whichever angle you choose, make sure that it ties in with your thesis statement, which will be included as the last sentence of your introduction.
6. Write the conclusion.
The conclusion brings closure of the topic and sums up your overall ideas while providing a final perspective on your topic. Your conclusion should consist of three to five strong sentences. Simply review your main points and provide reinforcement of your thesis.
7. Add the finishing touches.
After writing your conclusion, you might think that you have completed your essay. Wrong. Before you consider this a finished work, you must pay attention to all the small details.
Check the order of your paragraphs. Your strongest points should be the first and last paragraphs within the body, with the others falling in the middle. Also, make sure that your paragraph order makes sense. If your essay is describing a process, such as how to make a great chocolate cake, make sure that your paragraphs fall in the correct order.
Review the instructions for your essay, if applicable. Many teachers and scholarship forms follow different formats, and you must double check instructions to ensure that your essay is in the desired format.
Finally, review what you have written. Reread your paper and check to see if it makes sense. Make sure that sentence flow is smooth and add phrases to help connect thoughts or ideas. Check your essay for grammar and spelling mistakes.
Congratulations! You have just written a great essay.
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Guidelines for Grading An Essay
This exercise intends to take the mystery out of grading papers. It is true that many teachers and professors have their own “style” of grading. But all follow some general rules of thumb when they grade your papers.
A Good Essay
Every essay must contain three essential elements. First, the essay must provide a thesis statement (in the introductory paragraph). The thesis statement must encapsulate the main argument for the paper. It must be clear and coherent, and it must answer the question that the professor has put forth to the class. Second, the essay must offer supporting evidence. The writer must provide the supporting evidence in paragraph (not “bullet” or list) form. Each paragraph must contain evidence that supports one idea or concept that proves the thesis statement. The writer must provide citations (in footnote, endnote, or paranthetical form) for all evidence presented. Third, every essay must follow basic rules of format and grammar. Every paper must contain a beginning (introductory paragraph), a middle (several supporting paragraphs that comprise the body of the paper), and an end (concluding paragraph). Grammar is vital for essay composition. Sentence fragments, misspellings, and improper punctuation denote a carelessly-written and poorly-conceived paper.
Here is an outline for the paragraph above:
A Good Essay
A. Topic Sentence“Every essay must contain three essential elements.”
This is the main concept of the paragraph.
B. Thesis Statement
- clear and coherent
- answers the question
C. Supporting Evidence
- paragraph form
- evidence supports one concept that helps prove the thesis statement
- includes citations
D. Paper Format and Grammar
- paper includes a beginning, middle, and end
- Proper utilization of grammar, including punctuation, spelling, subject and verb usage.
Now you must play the part of the professor. Here is a standard guideline, adapted from several dependable sources (see footnote on previous page), that you must follow as you grade a fellow student’s paper.
Take a record of each item missing, and subtract the total number of points from 100 (a perfect score). Not all professors grade papers by deducting points in this fashion. But for classroom purposes, we will assign point values. I have devised these point values to show you the relative importance of the different elements of essay-writing.
Grading an Essay
A. Identify the Thesis Statement. Does this paper have a thesis statement? Does that thesis statement answer the question put forth in class by the professor? Is the thesis statement clear? Do you understand it?
No thesis statement: -15
Thesis statement unrelated to question: -10
B. Supporting Evidence. Examine each paragraph for the information below.
- Identify the topic sentence for each paragraph. This topic sentence (usually the first or second sentence of the paragraph) should resemble a mini-thesis statement. It should contain one idea or concept. The rest of the paragraph must present the evidence that proves that topic sentence (one idea or concept.) Does each paragraph have a topic sentence? If not, -5 for each paragraph.
- Does each paragraph contain just one idea or concept? –5 for each paragraph that does not.
- Does this author use evidence to support his/her argument (thesis statement)? -5 for each paragraph that lacks evidence.
- Has the author provided citations for his/her evidence? -3 for each supporting paragraph that lacks a citation.
C. Examine the paper’s format and grammar.
- Does this paper have a beginning (introduction), a middle (body), and an end (conclusion)? If it does not have all three of these, -10
- Examine grammar. Circle every violation. –2 for every single violation. If you find more than 5 violations, -15.
a. Does this paper have proper punctuation?
b. Are words spelled correctly?
c. Does the author provide full and complete sentences? There should be no sentence fragments or run-on sentences.
d. Does this paper have consistent verb tense, voice, and third-person usage?
e. Are proper nouns capitalized?
At last, you must recommend a grade for this paper. On your notecard, write a one or two sentence statement that explains this paper’s argument. If this paper is so poorly organized, conceived, and written that you are unable to determine the main idea presented here by this author, then you must assign, automatically, a failing grade (F).
Otherwise, write your statement. Then, total the points and subtract from 100. Write this number on the note card, and then paper clip the note card to the paper. This is your recommended grade. Please include your name on the note card. Do not write your name on your fellow student’s paper.
Explanation of writing symbols on marked papers
awk -- awkward: sentence is clumsy, difficult to read and comprehend
frag – sentence fragment
w/c – word choice doesn’t express what you seem to mean
-- paragraph; or, you need to insert new paragraph
sp -- spelling error
cs -- comma splice
ro -- run-on sentence (2 independent clauses in 1 sentence without punctuation or conjunction)
rep. – repetitive
? -- in margin means passage is confusing or obscure; over word or phrase means I don’t understand its meaning.
p. – punctuation error
agr. -- agreement. Form of pronoun doesn’t agree with antecedent; verb form doesn’t agree with subject
vf -- incorrect verb form
-- strike out
For more information on writing essays, see Peter Charles Hoffer and William B. Stueck, Reading and Writing American History: An Introduction to the Historian’s Craft; and William Strunk and E. B. White, Elements of Style. Other resources for writers include The Chicago Manual of Style : The Essential Guide for Writers, Editors, and Publishers (14th Edition); Marjorie E. Skillin and Robert Malcolm Gay, Words Into Type; and Kate L. Turabian, Student’s Guide for Writing College Papers.