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
- The body paragraphs are where you present your paper’s main points.
- Your body paragraphs should contain ample textual evidence, be correctly formatted, and have seamless transitions.
The body is the meat and potatoes of your essay. As such, it needs to contain lots of juicy textual evidence and meaty support, not fluff.
Each body paragraph contains one main idea, backed up by textual evidence and your own analysis. Your analysis should make up the majority of your paragraph.
Remember that (unless your teacher specifically says so), there’s nothing magic about having three body paragraphs. Have as many as you need to get your ideas across. The topic sentences of your body paragraphs should be determined by how you grouped your notes when you were outlining.
With your outline in hand, it’s time to draft your essay.
1) What makes a good quote
- The best quotes contain in-depth analysis, opinion, or interpretation, not facts.
When choosing quotes to put in your final paper, keep in mind that some information works better in quote form and some is better as an indirect quote (paraphrased).
Take the following example: According to the CIA Factbook, “all of China falls within one time zone” (CIA Factbook).
How exciting of a quote is that? Not very.
The best quotes contain analysis, opinion, or interpretation. When quoting directly from a source, be sure that the quote is interesting. Take the following example:
According to Lina Song, a professor of economic sociology and social policy at the University of Nottingham, “Local government debt in China is a time bomb waiting to go off” (A Time Bomb, NY Times). In China, local government debt has swelled to 14 trillion yuan (People’s Bank of China).
The opinion part–that local debts in China are a time bomb–is a direct quotation from a credible source (a professor). This makes a good quote since her opinion paints an interesting picture of China’s current economic situation. The fact–that debt is now 14 trillion yuan–is not quoted, since it would be a boring quote. But it does provide substantial factual support to Song’s opinion.
When looking for quotes, look for the most concise parts of the text that explain the author’s points. You don’t want to devote too much of your paper’s length to quoting from your sources.
Try to embed quotes into your writing smoothly by placing them in a sentence of your own, rather than just plopping them in your paper. These ‘lead up’ sentences should contain transitions that give your reader the context behind the quote.
2) Making good points
- Good points follow a formula: introduction of evidence + evidence + analysis.
- The above structure can be modified based on the paper you are writing.
- They Say/I Say: The Moves That Matter in Academic Writing – Gerald Graff and Cathy Birkenstein
Your paper should contain a number of points that make your argument. These points should be substantiated by data–either in the form of direct quotes or paraphrasing. Good points are usually written with the following framework: introduction of evidence + evidence + analysis.
Let’s break down each part:
Introduction of evidence
– The first part of your point should be a sentence or two that transitions into your quote and explains the topic your quote addresses. Why are you citing this particular evidence? What is the quote adding to your paper?
For humanities papers, you’ll probably be introducing the work you’re analyzing at the beginning (introductory paragraph) of your essay. Therefore, when you bring up quotes, your ‘introduction of evidence’ will usually contain a transition saying how your quote relates to the rest of your paper.
“Another example of Healthcliff’s indifference is seen in…”
“Also, Rowling uses scenic detail to add drama to the book. For example…”
“Finally, Venus’ frustration comes to a crescendo when the goddess…”
Notice how each of these examples contains transition words that prepare the reader to hear the quote.
For social science papers and research papers, you’ll probably be using a lot of sources for support, and as such, you’ll want to introduce each before you quote directly from it. When you bring up a source for the first time, you will want to state its credentials to demonstrate that you are citing an authoritative source (and not just a random person).
“Further insight into income inequality is provided by Dr. Delaney, an economist at Stanford, who is of the opinion that…” “Malcolm Gladwell, author of Blink: The Power of Thinking Without Thinking, writes that our preconceived notions influence our perceptions…”
Keep in mind that if you are paraphrasing from a source, it may not be necessary to introduce it. Use your own discretion.
Example: It sounds funny to say, “The CIA World Factbook, an authority on world statistics, states that “Mali is a landlocked country highly dependent on gold mining and agricultural exports for revenue” (CIA World Factbook).
Instead, you can just weave the facts about Mali into your essay and provide a parenthetical citation for the Factbook.
– Here is where you substantiate your claim with a direct quote or text that is paraphrased. If you are quoting, be sure to transcribe from your source exactly, word-for-word. If you are paraphrasing, be sure you are doing the citations properly (See our guide to Parenthetical Citations).
– It is important that your evidence isn’t just plopped in your paper. The quote’s relevance to the rest of your paper may seem obvious to you, but you cannot assume that your reader will make the connection. You need to make it explicit. Your analysis should explain why the stated quote helps further an idea promoted in your essay.
“…This unique rhyming scheme, made famous by Shakespeare, makes the text lighthearted although the poem’s themes of love and timelessness are weighty.” “…The fearful closing lines juxtapose the cheery opening lines, heightening the reader’s sense of unease.”
“…Abraham Lincoln’s gracious words in this passage indicate his gratitude toward Americans and thankfulness to God.”
Keep in mind that the above formula can be modified to fit the flow of your paper. For example, if you are comparing two passages of text, you may want to quote them both first before analyzing them. Your analysis might be a discussion of the similarities/differences between the passages.
Let’s take a look at how this point-making formula works within a paper, provided by George Mason University’s Department of English:
|The opening lines of “The Cask of Amontillado” are cunningly crafted to both entice the reader and immediately situate the narrative: “The thousand injuries of Fortunato I had borne as I best could, but when he ventured upon insult I vowed revenge. You, who so well know the nature of my soul, will not suppose, however, that I gave utterance to a threat. At length I would be avenged…” (123). With incredible economy we are presented with a troubled relationship between the narrator and Fortunato, which has reached its breaking point. It is also made clear that we are not the intended audience of this narrative. The “you” addressed knows the narrator well; we do not. This and the epistolary tone would suggest that we are looking upon some long forgotten piece of correspondence, which only heightens the atmosphere of mystery and dread already created by this sparse introduction.||Here the writer introduces the work, “The Case of Amontillado” and provides a topic sentence. We know what to expect: a discussion on how the opening lines of the text grab the reader and set up the rest of the work. |
The quote is presented. It is cited correctly.
Here, the writer analyzes the the quote. He discusses how the troubled relationship between two people helps frame the book. Notice how he’s building this using this textual evidence to support his topic sentence.
But the writer goes further. He analyzes how details in the text grab the reader through use of literary technique. We are told that this adds to the “atmosphere of mystery and dread” of the short story.
E. 3) Formatting quotes and parenthetical citations MLA/APA
- Format your quotes properly, and cite them correctly.
You have done a lot of hard work gathering your sources and selecting quotes. You want to make sure that your quotes are beautifully integrated into your paper. You want the text of the quote to be formatted correctly, and you want your citations to be correct. For that, check out our site for Parenthetical Citations
- Transitions provide links between ideas of your paper.
Transitions are key to a kick-butt paper. They provide the connections between the major ideas in your paper, and they give the reader cues to tell him where you are going. Remember (from when you researched and outlined) that your transitions should reflect how your notes are grouped. Now is the time to forge your transitions into words!
There should be a transition between each paragraph of the paper that introduces what the new paragraph is about and how it relates to the previous one. An effective way to transition is by using the following format: clause that references the claim in the previous paragraph (making a smooth transition between one claim and the next) + comma + topic sentence of next paragraph:
- “In contrast to Marsha’s heartfelt feelings toward her sister in the first half of the book, in the second half they dissolve, only to be replaced by anger…”
Here the words “in contrast” tell the reader that the text after the comma will be in juxtaposition to the text in front of the comma. Marsha’s relationship with her sister has changed, and this transition cues the reader that the next paragraph will be about anger in their relationship.
- “Similar to how Tom dealt with the dragon the first time, he…”
The words “similar to” indicate that Tom handled the dragon using the same technique twice Here, the reader is prepared to learn about how Tom dealt with the dragon the second time around, and how that was similar to the first time.
- “Despite all that Tony did for Robin, she…”
“Despite” indicates that there will be a shift in the second part of the sentence. The reader is prepared to hear about how Robin verbally abused Tom (or some other negative action) in the latter paragraph despite the fact that Tony did a lot for her.
Transitions should be used within paragraphs too. They help lead your reader down your intended path. Here’s a list of useful transitions (provided by UNC):
Here are a couple examples:
- “Jay Gatsby spares no expense at his extravagant Saturday night parties, as seen when…”
Here, the phrase “as seen when” transitions your reader from your statement at the beginning of the sentence to a quote that will fit nicely at the end.
- Steven’s behavior towards his family members is generally affable, but he treats only his parents with utmost respect.
Here, the use of the world “but” indicates that the second half of the sentence will modify the first half. In this example, “but” helps the author refine the argument. Steven doesn’t treat everyone in his as best as he can. He treats his parents with his best behavior.
Tip: The transitions can also be used to transition between paragraphs.
5) Avoiding plagiarism
- Make sure that the sources you cite in your paper are quoted or paraphrased correctly.
- Don’t have too much of your paper’s text be from a source other than yourself.
Your essay should be well supported with credible sources, but you don’t want too much of your paper to be written by another person. Your teacher wants to hear your own insight. The sources you reference in your paper should be cited correctly (paraphrased or directly quoted). If an idea is not your own, don’t take credit for it!
According to the Merriam-Webster Dictionary plagiarizing means to:
- Steal and pass off the ideas or words of another as one’s own
- Use another’s production without crediting the source
- Commit literary theft
- Present as new and original an idea or product derived from an existing source
All of the following are considered plagiarism:
- Turning in someone else’s work as your own
- Copying words or ideas from someone else without giving credit
- Failing to put a quotation in quotation marks
- Giving incorrect information about the source of a quotation
- Changing words but copying the sentence structure of a source without giving credit
- Copying so many ideas or words from a source that it makes up the majority of your work, whether you give credit or not