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How to Write a Great Essay

Updated on May 11, 2018
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Tiffany is a public historian & lover of history, anthropology, food, & animals. She has taught college courses & loves spreading knowledge.

Writing an essay can be an exasperating, maddening process. Especially when it's about something that you don't enjoy or don't know anything about.

So where do you begin? How do you ensure that you'll get that A+ on your paper?

While I can't guarantee that you'll make an amazing grade, the following advice can help you ensure that you do all you possibly can to make your essay incredible.

The first step, however, is to know what your topic is. This can be both a blessing and a curse. Check the guidelines on your assignment. If it's a specific topic or tells you to pick a topic about a specific subject or time period, you're in luck. If it's up to you to decide on a topic, try to pick one that is (a) related to your course and (b) related to something you enjoy.

For example, you've got an assignment for your American history course. You're a biology major. You could write about a famous American biologist, or a discovery made by American biologists that changed the course of the field. If you're a sports major, consider the history of your favorite sport, a biography of your favorite athlete, someone who changed the course of the field, or the history of sports medicine. If you're still having trouble, talk to your professor or classmates to get ideas about topics that you might enjoy.

Develop Your Thesis

Generally, academic essays (and most other non-fiction writing) argues a point, known as a thesis. It's very important to understand how to argue your thesis, as it will structure your entire essay and contribute greatly to your grade. Simply contradicting others won't do - you need to assert a thesis and defend that thesis with evidence.

An argument is a composition intended to persuade that uses facts for or against a point of view. "The Silk Road was important because..."

A contradiction is a statement which asserts the truth or falsity of something. "The Silk Road was important."

Generally, you make an argument by:

  1. Having a question that you must answer.
  2. Researching the question, and this research yields facts. It may also yield other opinions on the question.
  3. Draw conclusions from the facts and opinions. This conclusion provides the answer to your question.
  4. Develop a thesis statement, which explains the question and your answer to it. This statement will be in the introduction of your essay.
  5. State the facts which support your thesis in your supporting paragraphs. Use examples and quotes to illustrate each supporting fact.
  6. Summarize the facts in your conclusion.

Problems? Visit the Argument Clinic:

Selecting Your Sources

The next step in writing any essay is to gather your sources. Depending on the kind of research you will do, you may use primary and secondary sources or just one of the two.

Primary sources are documents that are contemporary with the event you are describing. For example, a primary source for medieval times would have been written during the time period. For Ancient Greece, you could consider the writings of Socrates or Plate a primary source. For the modern era, primary sources include a myriad of things: books, newspaper and journal articles, videos, pictures, etc. What types of primary sources you will find depends upon the time period about which you are writing.

Posters from the time period of your topic - such as this poster advertising the sale of slaves - are considered primary sources.
Posters from the time period of your topic - such as this poster advertising the sale of slaves - are considered primary sources. | Source

Secondary sources are all other types of sources. Generally, these are written by people looking back upon a time period - such as historical nonfiction on pirates written in the year 2009. Secondary sources can also include a myriad of things, including pictures painted or recreated after the time period.

When gathering sources, it is also important to analyze from where those sources are coming. In general, books and scholarly journals are the best place to start and should be your main focus. Do not rely on the internet, except to obtain pictures or graphs. There are some credible websites - designated by ".org" or ".edu" - but in general, avoid using websites as sources. Also, DO NOT use Wikipedia. Wikipedia is a great "starting point" to get a general grasp of a topic you don't know much on, but don't use it as a source; rather, look at the "external links" for possible sources to use, instead. Also, avoid Spark Notes, Cliff Notes, and other "Notes."

Note-Taking, Outlining, and Writing

The following are the general steps I utilize in writing essays:

Gather sources.

Take notes from sources, using notecards or a note card program (such as QwikCard). Each note should be placed on a new notecard, which also lists the author of the source you are quoting from and the page number where the quote was obtained. In general, only use direct quotations on notecards - don't use them for quick jotting (unless you designate on the notecard that it is not a direct quote).

Outline. Organize your notecards according to how you will structure your paper. A general paper structure involves an introduction, 3 or more supporting paragraphs, and a conclusion. Try to organize your notecards according to when you will use the quotes. Input the notecards into an outline in Word. Use the table below as a guideline.

Essay Outline
Orientate the reader; Identify the focus and purpose; Outline the scope of your argument; State your thesis
Provide context - time period, geography, or academic field
Body Paragraphs 1, 2, 3
Topic sentence, supporting details, and concluding sentence in each paragraph
Use proper quotations from your sources as supporting details, but ensure that you analyze these quotes and how they relate to your argument
State the answer to your thesis; Summarize your argument
Don't simply restate your thesis; Talk about the broad impacts your argument has on the field; Possibly talk about new directions for research or missing information

At this point, you should also be developing your thesis statement. When you've finished your outline, review it to see if there are any "holes" - i.e., are you missing some information? Is there some information that doesn't "fit" with the rest of your paper?

Write. In general, remember that when you switch ideas, you should create a new paragraph. One idea can have multiple paragraphs. In general, a paragraph should be between 3 and 8 sentences long, with a topic sentence. Also, be sure to utilize transitions between paragraphs (such as "Another point of view..." "The second..." "Next..."). You can also utilize subtitles in your writing, but be sure to check your style guide for the appropriate use of subtitles, especially in academic papers.

Revise. Revise. Revise. Write your paper, then wait at least 8-12 hours and review it. Try to do this twice. You can also ask a friend (or your university writing center) to review it for you. Check for grammar, punctuation, run-on sentences, excessive use of quotations (and little of your own analysis), and the general "flow."


Citations & Bibliography

Citations are a tricky bit in the writing process. How you will cite sources in your paper depends upon which writing style (MLA, APA, Chicago) you are utilizing for the paper. I highly recommend the Purdue Online Writing Lab (OWL), which contains free guides for each style with sample papers.

Remember that having a bibliography does not count as citations. You must use direct quotations and/or paraphrasing in your essay, and attribute your sources after each.

A bibliography is a list of sources used in the essay, generally placed at the end of the essay.

Citations help the reader differentiate between the parts of the essay that are taken from outside sources and the parts of the essay that are the writer's (your) own original thoughts or analysis.

In general, always cite when:

  • You are quoting directly from someone else's thoughts (from a source, word for word).
  • You are paraphrasing another's thoughts or ideas. Presenting another's original ideas, even in your own words, is plagiarism!
  • Utilizing graphs, charts, images, etc. that you did not create on your own.
  • If in doubt, cite it.

10 Tips for an "A" Essay

  1. Generally avoid first or second person (you / I / me / we).
  2. Avoid "in my opinion" "I believe" or "To me".
  3. Avoid contractions - using "it's" (it is) and "its" (belonging to it) improperly can hurt!
  4. Do not rely on quotations and avoid excessive use of long quotations (= a quote of 5 or more lines). One or two long quotations is okay, depending upon your paper's size. A few direct quotations (one per supporting idea, maybe two) is generally okay. Otherwise, paraphrase.
  5. Analyze the quotes and paraphrases you use! Don't expect other people's work to speak for you. The most important part of the paper isn't what sources you've gathered - it's how you've analyzed those sources and the conclusions that you draw from them.
  6. A single sentence is not a paragraph. A paragraph of 10 or more sentences (or more than half the page) is way too long.
  7. Write about the past in the past tense. Write about the book in your hand in the present tense. "Bulliet says this guy did that."
  8. Do not end a paragraph - or begin one - with a quotation. Begin and end with your own words.
  9. Centuries are written out and not capitalized ("the eighteenth century"). If used as a modifier, centuries are hyphenated ("eighteenth-century politics"). Instead of "in the 1700s" use "in the eighteenth century," and remember not to confuse the 1700s with the seventeenth century.
  10. Have a trusted friend read your essay. The best feedback I ever received was letting my mother or a friend read my papers, especially if they had no idea what the topic was about. They can offer you an outsider's perspective to ensure your writing is clear, concise, and that your conclusions makes sense.



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    • E-Z-University profile image


      9 years ago from Lake Isabella, Mi

      A very insightful and informative hub! Voted up! Calvin and Hobbs was a nice touch.


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