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How to Start Writing an Essay in 3 Easy Steps

Updated on May 13, 2014

Sample Prompt:

Write a three to five page essay about a British poet.

Where Do I Start?

As a high school teacher, I know how frustrating the vague essay prompt can be. For most students, a vague prompt leads to spending a lot of time writing a terrible essay. Unfortunately, it seems that many teachers are happy to continue creating lofty assignments in the hopes that genius will strike in the hearts of their basically aimless students, and the results will be mind-blowingly brilliant.

A lofty goal, indeed.

As with any essay, the beginning step in this vague assignment includes brainstorming ideas to work toward a thesis statement which will guide your paper.

Whether you are a high school or graduate school student, this essay most likely needs to be more than a biographical study on a British poet. In the same way that literature analysis is more than a summary of the book you just read, analysis of a person needs to be more than a summary of his or her life. Therefore, plan to write an argumentative essay which is supported or refuted using scholarly publications. If your teacher or professor has not designated a lot in the way of specifics, you are going to have to do a little extra work during the brainstorming step.


1. Ask The Right Questions (Brainstorm)

Keeping the idea in mind that your thesis should present an argument of some sort, I usually advise students to begin with a list of open-ended questions which will help guide both your thought process and your research. Some examples for this assignment might include:

  1. Is there a poet in whom I am particularly interested?
  2. Are there any known controversies concerning the life or the poetry of a particular British poet? Which side of the controversy do I agree with?
  3. What have critics said about my poet or his poetry, and do I agree or disagree with the ideas? Why?
  4. How did this poet's personal life most affect his work? Or, how did his work affect his personal life?
  5. What is a general message or central theme of this person's poetry and why did he choose this? What was he hoping to achieve?
  6. How have the works of this poet influenced modern day poetry, literature, and/or culture?

2. Begin Researching

The first part of your research is going to be very exploratory and should help you continue brainstorming further ideas. Once you've decided on a particular poet, for example, you might do some basic biographical research and find that critics tend to disagree on their analyses of the poet's works. Points of public disagreement are great places to explore further, because they could help the essay writer to create a new argument.

As you study the poet and his/her works, you might find one very clear theme begin to emerge. This could also work as a path of exploration, and you could seek to tie the context of the poet's life to the message in the poetry itself.

No matter how you decide to narrow your topic, I encourage you to keep an open mind throughout the brainstorming phase, as it is one of the best times to combine creativity into the technical and academic writing process. Also, with each decision you make in research, it is fine to stop and check in with someone (like your teacher or another mentor) to see if you are on the right track. Often, an outsider can present ideas that you have overlooked or never thought of.

3. Work Toward a Thesis Statement

Based on the answers available to any of the questions above (or those you come up with on your own), my best advice for narrowing down your topic into a thesis statement is to go with the path of least resistance. That is to say, pick the question or argument for which you have the most material to write about.

Writing the thesis statement can be easy if you pose your question correctly. In the same way that you began all of your social studies homework questions in 6th grade, use your prompt question to create a "complete sentence." You know what I'm talking about. Let's assume you've chosen Shakespeare as your muse, and use question #4 from above as the target question for the heart of the essay:

How did [Shakespeare's] personal life most affect his work? And, how did his work affect his personal life?

Your working thesis statement, based of course off of the huge list of factual information you've gathered from your research, is going to start off something like this:

Shakespeare's personal life affected his work dramatically. (No pun intended.)

Sound too simple? Well, think about it. You've presented a completely wide open idea that can now be proven using examples from your research. In fact, if you can compile your research notes into three categories that answer your initial question on their own, you've also just outlined your essay. The rest of your thesis statement then, would go a little something like this (factual details omitted):

Shakespeare's personal life affected his work dramatically. First, he [category #1]. This lead him to [category #2], which ultimately resulted in [category #3].

Where Do I Go From Here?

If you made it this far and need help writing the rest of the essay, you might find some great tips from the following articles:

How To Write an Essay about Any Book in English Class: Part 1

How To Write an Essay about Any Book in English Class: Part 2


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    • farmloft profile image

      farmloft 5 years ago from Michigan

      I liked the questions and the ideas to narrow the topic. That is quite often the hangup - picking something too broad.

    • xstatic profile image

      Jim Higgins 5 years ago from Eugene, Oregon

      Very good info here. I am glad I don't have to write this, but if I did, W. H. Auden would be a candidate.

    • kathryn1000 profile image

      kathryn1000 5 years ago from London

      I think that's really good and useful.