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
Although writing an essay is daunting for many people, it can be pretty straight-forward. This page is a general recipe for constructing an essay, not just in philosophy, but in most other humanities disciplines (such as English, History, Religious Studies, etc.) and perhaps the social sciences. It should be an appropriate guide for writing at the middle school, high school, and lower college levels. The typical assignment I have in mind will be an argumentative essay, in which you argue for something, even if just an interpretation of someone an author’s work.
Note that what I provide here are only general guidelines. Be sure to check whether your instructor has different ones. If your instructor has not given clear guidelines, then these should suffice, since they are pretty standard.
Note: If you need help figuring out how to write an essay in philosophy specifically and at the college level, see my “Writing in Philosophy.” If you want to know how I evaluate students on a paper assignment, see my “Grading Rubric for Paper Assignments.”
Table of Contents:
- Essay Structure
- General Writing Tips
- Style & Punctuation
- Grammatical Errors
- Humorous Writing Guidelines
- Citations & References
- Relevant Links
- Typed – use a word processor (such as Microsoft Word) on a computer.
- Spacing – the space between lines on the page is typically double-space. However, it may be changing. (I now prefer single-spaced myself.)
- Font size – standard size of the text is usually 12-point.
- Font style – standard font, such as Times New Roman.
2. Essay Structure
The first thing to notice is that the basic form of an essay is quite logical. Let’s look at the standard structure of an essay starting with the most general. You can divide your paper into three main sections:
For the introduction section, you will need to do two things: introduce your topic and provide a thesis statement. Typically, these two tasks should be accomplished using only one paragraph for a short paper, but can be longer for longer papers.
First, introduce your topic. The introductory paragraph(s) should briefly orient the reader to the topic and provide a conceptual map of the rest of the paper.
Second, provide a thesis statement.
Your thesis statement is the main point of your paper and should address the paper topic assigned by your instructor.
Make sure your thesis statement is clear, specific, declarative, and on-topic. You should be able to provide the thesis statement in one or two sentences (most instructors prefer one, concise sentence) for a fairly short paper (about 1-8 pages). It is usually best stated at the end of your introduction section (the end of the first paragraph if your introduction section is only a single paragraph in length).
The body section should consist of at least several paragraphs where you will provide support for your thesis statement in the form of reasons, evidence, arguments, justification, and so on. That is, you have something you want to communicate or argue for (your thesis) and here is your chance to explain it in detail, support it, and defend it.
Each paragraph in the body section should have a topic sentence and, perhaps, a transition sentence. The topic sentence is the particular point you are trying to make in the paragraph. It’s sort of like a mini-thesis statement. It should usually be the first sentence of the paragraph, though in some cases it is appropriate to be the second sentence. A transition sentence is a sentence that helps link the points of each paragraph together by making a smooth transition from the previous paragraph. It can be done in the first sentence of the new paragraph or the last sentence of the previous one. A good way to tie all the points together throughout the body section is to have them all clearly state how they support the thesis statement. That way it is obvious that all of your paragraphs tie together. Note that the first sentence of the paragraph may satisfy both goals. That is, you may have a topic sentence that also serves to transition well. Another option is to have a transition sentence first and then a separate topic sentence following it.
The summary section (often misleadingly called a “conclusion”) is a short recap of what you have said in the essay. You might want to provide a slightly different version of your thesis statement as the first sentence of this paragraph and then provide a few sentences that sum up what the body section said in support of the thesis statement. The summary section should be only one paragraph long for a short paper, but can be longer for longer papers. (Some instructors, like me, even think that summary sections are unnecessary for short papers.)
Note: It’s a good idea to put these sections titles in as headings in your paper to organize and break things up for yourself and your reader. If your instructor doesn’t want headings in your paper, just take them out before you print it to turn it in. It is also helpful for long papers to put in additional headings, perhaps even sub-headings, to break up the body section (such as “First Argument,” “Second Argument,” and so on).
3. General Writing Tips
1. Think & Discuss
Familiarize yourself with the material before you begin writing. You won’t be able to write much if you don’t have anything to put on the page. Think about your paper topic as soon as you get the paper assignment prompt from your instructor. This can be facilitated in a number of ways. A great way is to discuss the issue with your instructor or teaching assistant. You can even try talking about it to a friend or family member.
2. Rough Drafts & Editing
Write rough drafts ahead of time. For most people, writing their rough ideas down as rough drafts helps them see their ideas more clearly than even thinking about them. Then take a break from the essay (this usually requires at least a half, if not full, day). After the lengthy break (for example, the next day), go back and edit more. Repeat this process as necessary until finished. (This is why it is important to start working on your essay far in advance!)
Also, don’t be afraid to just type without thinking too much about whether it’s any good. You can always go back and edit it. Many people find it best to just sit down and write a lot without much reflection. Just make sure you have enough time to go back and edit.
Once you have a final draft ready, have someone read it to look for errors and provide feedback. Many instructors encourage students to turn in early drafts to them for comments. Just be sure to check and see if your instructor allows you to do so.
4. Style & Punctuation
Overall, the paper should demonstrate a command of the writing process and the author’s care in crafting it. Avoid errors of spelling, punctuation, grammar, sentence structure, verb tense, and vocabulary, such as the following:
- Put punctuation inside quotations (for American writing). If you put something in quotations that is immediately followed by punctuation (such as commas or colons), then put the punctuation mark inside the last quotation mark.
Correct: John Doe claims that, “Britney Spears is a tool.”
Incorrect: John Doe claims that, “Britney Spears is a tool”.
Another example: “I’m in love with Space Ghost,” Bjork proclaimed.
(Note: I know this rule doesn’t seem right. The British style of writing has the punctuation outside the quotation marks, which makes more sense. However, the American style requires that you write it the other way.)
- Put parenthetical citations outside of quotations.
Correct: “Blah, blah, blah, this is a quote” (Author 32).
Incorrect: “Blah, blah, blah, this is a quote (Author 32).”
- Introduce quotes. Introduce quotes, preferably by acknowledging who is saying it.
Example: In the article “War Without End,” John Doe says, “…blah, blah, and blah” (36).
Notice the three dots in the quote (…), which is called an elipses. You’re supposed to put those in when you are not quoting the whole sentence. It denotes that something came before (or after) the part of the sentence you are quoting.
- Generally, spell out numbers. For example, write ‘three,’ not ‘3.’ Exceptions can be made for larger numbers, like 1089, especially when you are simply making reference to a numeral.
- Avoid informal abbreviations and notations. For example, don’t write ‘&’ for ‘and’ or ‘b/c’ for ‘because.’ However, there are notations and abbreviations that are conventions in professional writing; for example: ‘e.g.’ is often used for ‘for example’ and ‘etc.’ for ‘et cetera’ and ‘p.’ for ‘page.’ However, for this last one, note that it is only used in citing sources or references, not in other sentences. So, for example, don’t write “The p. had many words of wisdom written on it.”
- Use versus mention. In general, when you mention (or talk about) rather than use a word you should put quotes (single or double) around the word. This is not necessary when you use a word.
Incorrect: John contains the letter h.
Correct: ‘John’ contains the letter ‘h.’
(Note: Some people simply italicize the word to indicate mention. I follow this convention here sometimes so that it is easier to read. However, it can get confused with emphasis, which is what italics are more commonly used for. Also, the standard for use-mention indication is not exactly clear. Most people use quotes and use single quotes for British style and double quotes for American style. I tend to use single quotes just to distinguish them from quoting what someone has said.)
- Write well and consider your reader! Good writing keeps the reader’s perspective in mind. It takes work to read someone’s ideas. You owe it to your readers to explain your ideas clearly and ideally in a pleasing manner. To become a better writer in terms of style, read widely and find good writers to emulate (some excellent non-fiction writers that come to mind: Paul Bloom, Rebecca Goldstein, and Steven Pinker).
- Recognize the Flexibility of Writing Rules. You’ll notice that skilled writers don’t always follow all the “rules” for writing. They know that the rules are somewhat flexible and can even be explicitly broken for good effect at times. You might be able to get away with the same, but it’s good to practice working well within them for graded papers!
5. Common Grammatical Errors to Avoid
- Misusing i.e. and e.g.Do not confuse these two. They do not mean the same thing!
i.e. = that is
e.g. = for example
(Many people think that ‘i.e’ stands for ‘in example.’ That is false. Both are abbreviations for two different latin phrases.)
- Using ‘if’ when you should use ‘whether’.
Incorrect: I do not know if this is true.
Correct: I do not know whether this is true.
Correct: If this is true, then you are wrong.
- Confusing ‘there’ with ‘their.’ ‘Their’ indicates possession, ‘there’ does not.
Incorrect: There problem was a lack of courage.
Correct: Their problem was a lack of courage.
Incorrect: Their are a lot of problems here.
Correct: There are a lot of problems here.
- Misconnecting verbs.
Incorrect: We should try and change the law.
Correct: We should try to change the law.
- Letting your accent get in the way of things.
Incorrect: Mind and brain are one in the same thing.
Correct: Mind and brain are one and the same thing.
Incorrect: Socrates should of fought.
Correct: Socrates should have fought.
- Improper form of the plural possessive of names.
Incorrect: Descarte’s problem was ….
Incorrect: Descartes problem was….
Correct: Descartes’ problem was….
Correct: Descartes’s problem was….
(Note: Either of the last two is acceptable only for names ending in ‘s’ like ‘Descartes’ or ‘Jesus.’ Otherwise, always go with the last example–i.e., add an apostrophe and an ‘s.’ The convention is usaully to not add an extra ‘s’ for old names, such as ‘Descartes’ and ‘Jesus.’ So, to say that this is the book that Rawls owns, people often write: “This is Rawls’s book.”)
- Improper use of semi-colons.
Incorrect: The following will be on the test; Locke, Hume, Parfit.
Incorrect: Although there is no right answer; there are many wrong answers.
Correct: There is no right answer; there are many wrong answers.
(The Rule: Use a semi-colon only where you could use a period instead. In other words, a semi-colon must join two clauses that could stand by themselves as complete sentences. The semi-colin is just used to indicate that the two sentences are connected or intimately related.)
- Confusing ‘then’ and ‘than’.
Incorrect: If this is true, than I’m a fool.
Incorrect: I am more of a fool then you are.
Correct: If this is true, then I’m a fool.
Correct: I am more of a fool than you are.
- Its versus it’s.
Incorrect: Its easy to make this mistake.
Incorrect: It’s pages are crumbling.
Correct: It’s easy to make this mistake.
Correct: Its pages are crumbling.
(Note: partly adapted from Pasnau’s Top 10 Writing Errors)
6. Humorous Writing Guidelines
- Be more or less specific.
- Use not bad grammars.
- Proofread carefully to see if you any words out.
- Don’t use no double negatives.
- Avoid tumbling off the cliff of triteness into the dark abyss of overused metaphors.
- Take care that your verb and your subject is in agreement.
- No sentence fragments.
- Placing a comma between subject and predicate, is not correct.
- Who needs rhetorical questions?
- Use the apostrophe in it’s proper place.
- Avoid colloquial stuff, like totally.
- Avoid those run-on sentences you know the ones they stop and then start again they should be separated with semicolons.
- The passive voice should be used infrequently.
- And avoid starting sentences with a conjunction.
- Excessive use of exclamation points can be disastrous!!!!
- Exaggeration is a million times worse than understatement.
- Stamp out and eliminate redundancy because, if you reread your work, you will find on rereading that a great deal of repetition can be avoided by rereading and editing, so reread your work and improve it by editing out the repetition you noticed during the rereading.
- It’s incumbent on one to employ the vernacular and eschew archaisms.
- It’s not O.K. to use ampersands & informal abbreviations.
- Parenthetical remarks (however relevant) are usually (but not always) an obstacle for readers (and make it harder on readers even if you’re being careful).
7. Citations & References
If you are doing an essay that involves researching or you quote anyone in your essay, then you need to cite your sources. There are many different formalized styles for citing sources. For example: MLA (Modern Language Association), Chicago (Turabian), APA (American Psychological Association), and more. The most standard for English papers is MLA. You can buy the official books on how to properly cite sources according to certain styles, but you can also find a lot of that information on the Internet.
Here are a few Internet resources for citation styles: