How to Write an Essay
Length: 1844 words (5.3 double-spaced pages)
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The Writing Resource Service provides you with help in getting started on your essay. has compiled this guide based on essays that we have edited. Often essays on excellent topics simply lack focus or fail to answer the essay question. Following basic plan can make a tremendous difference in the quality of your writing.
Think about an essay topic...
Before you write anything be sure to know what you are writing about. Choose a topic which provides you with ample resources and information and which you understand well. Be sure to specify exactly what you want to write on. Often students fail to answer the entire essay question because they get sidetracked at this stage. The essay question provides clues about what you are expected to write on. Make sure your topic is relevant and answers all the main questions.
Here is a sample essay topic:
Describe the role of the International Monetary Fund (IMF) since its inception to the present. How has the IMF impacted the world economy?
Understand the essay topic...
First understand the topic. Draw on notes and research to gain a good understanding of the topic you have been given or have chosen. Although the factual content of an essay topic may seem easy, read the material very carefully to be sure that you are not missing relevant points. It is crucial that you understand the topic material fully. Second, be sure you know what to do with the topic. The sample question presented above asks you to do two processes simultaneously. You must give a factual account of what the IMF has done and also provide an analysis of how those actions have effected the world economy. For the descriptive part you should first gather evidence and facts about what the IMF has accomplished. Only after you have presented the factual data can you effectively evaluate that information. Reserve your personal ideas about what impact the IMF has had until after you have presented the facts. You personal evaluation should come through in your analysis of those facts.
It is often helpful to first generate a page of evidence and facts. This provides you with an overview of the topic and gives you a guide from which to draw inferences and information.
You will discover that actually writing the essay becomes much easier once you have a sheet to glance at. If you are having trouble sorting through all the facts, a page of evidence will usually sort the data in a way that eliminates this problem. If the assigned topic seems vague, too broad, or unclear, then you must state your interpretation of the topic. It is best to indicate how you have chosen to interpret a topic before you start to actually analyze it. While ambiguous essay questions seem unfair, they are actually designed to test your ability to limit your topic area. This provides you with more room for analysis and is an opportunity to think carefully about a topic.
Direction words are the keywords in every essay question that setup the question. Understanding these words and what they are asking will immediately put you on the right track to answering the question. Some keywords and definitions are given below:
Analyze: State the facts which you are asked to "analyze" and then give a detailed evaluation of the facts; this asks you to point out both similarities and differences between the facts. Compare: Examine the set of facts and information and find resemblances and differences among them. You should stress the similarities and give some indication of the differences.
Contrast: Examine the set of facts and information and highlight the differences while giving some indication of the similarities. Criticize: This asks you to either agree or disagree with a statement or idea; be sure that you fairly evaluate both sides and present arguments and counter-arguments both for and against your opinions. Define: Provide a short, usually one paragraph or less, definition of the term. Describe: Gather a set of facts and information about the topic and carefully "list" the information. Discuss: Examine the various viewpoints and compare and contrast them. This requires a detailed answer from you.Evaluate: This asks you to do two things: 1) present the facts 2) give a detailed explanation why some facts are more important or valid than others.
Justify: Present a reasonable explanation for any opinions expressed (this may be opinions provided in the essay question which you are asked to "justify"). It is always good practice to justify any opinions which you present in a paper. Summarize: Provide the main points and facts in condensed form. DO NOT provide illustrations of a point or highlight unnecessary trivia.
Trace: This asks you to follow a sequence of events from some starting point. In the example provided you could be asked to ÒtraceÓ the history of the IMF from its inception to the present.
...Words to watch out for.
Words such as "better," "more influential," "stronger" often demand that you substantiate them. More influential than what? If you are comparing several institutions, say for example the World Bank and the IMF, you need to avoid making a statement like, "The IMF is better than the World Bank." This statement provides no factual evidence and, unless you can reference a source for that statement, will be detrimental to your essay. So avoid vague words and make sure that you provide evidence to support any statements which are normative.
Starting the writing process...
You should begin by writing down any ideas you have about the topic. Do not worry about whether the ideas are relevant yet, simply get a sheet of paper and note your thoughts. An idea that you might consider rejecting could easily become important later on. This is called brainstorming about a topic. Your random list of ideas will help you focus your topic and provide a basis from which to start writing.
Generating a thesis...
The thesis provides the frame and direction for your essay. All of your ideas and paragraphs should relate back to your thesis by the time you are finished writing. The ultimate goal is not to create a definitive thesis, but rather only a working thesis. At this stage the thesis is merely a tool to get you started. Do not get too hung up on following the framework set up by the first thesis you decide on. Often while writing you will discover that you are defending the opposite view of what you originally posited. You thesis can be amended at any time.
Do not make your thesis a repeat of the question. In other words, do not write something like, "The role of the IMF since its inception to the present has had a positive impact on the world economy." While this sentiment may be what you want to say, a far better thesis would be, "In spite of recent criticism, history indicates that the IMF has benefited the world economy numerous times since it was established in 1944." This statement presents your views, shows a command over the subject and invites counter-arguments. A controversial thesis is sometimes necessary to force you to defend an opinion. This then stimulates more and better ideas about the topic. Feel free to change your thesis at any point. Once you see that your are drifting away from the original thesis idea make sure that you are still answering the essay question. If you are, then it is fine to consider changing the thesis to match what you have written, rather than try and force what you are writing to conform to an untenable thesis. Remember, writing the thesis early helps you to start organizing your ideas efficiently.
Organizing the facts...
Take the notes and facts you have accumulated, as well as all your ideas, and try to group them. You should already have done a great deal of this in creating your thesis, but now you need to prepare the outline for the essay. Putting the ideas and facts into categories allows you to organize the essay immediately, so you know what paragraph you want where. Points that you want to stress should form their own categories so that you can put relevant information there. Keep all of the notes while writing your essay because you might need a piece of information that you initially thought was worthless.
Creating the rough draft...
Getting started can be the most daunting part of drafting an essay. If you are having trouble, start off by stating an obvious fact. Then write about that fact as it relates back to your thesis. For instance, in the topic given above you might have a thesis which states that the IMF is a worthless institution. So start your rough draft with an example of how the IMF is worthless and tell your reader how this example proves your point. Often this will catalyze a host of other things you need to add to that simple statement, and your essay will naturally grow. Your introductory paragraph does not need to be great at this point. Since it frames the essay, you need it to give you guidance more than anything. If necessary, make your introductory paragraph into a list of the categories of facts and ideas you created already. This list can serve as the framework of your paper until you devise a better one. Remember that your rough draft is exactly what it says it is: a rough draft. Be prepared to throw out whole parts of it and rewrite extensively.
Order of the essay...
Simply writing several pages of factual information followed by several pages of analysis is often a bad way to organize an essay. Your final ordering should depend on your topic and on your writing style. For example, for this essay it might be better to present a chronological order: first start with the inception of the IMF and present a paragraph of facts, follow this with a paragraph of analysis, then move to another paragraph of facts, etc. GradeSaver often works with essays that need structural changes to be made. Having an outside editor look at your essay can help to quickly point out weak spots. Most writers can produce a good essay but find themselves struggling to make necessary changes. The hardest part of revising an essay is being able to see the essay the way someone unacquainted with your topic would. Often writers become "wrapped up" in their work, and need an objective second party to show them where improvements can be made.
You should attempt to revise and edit your essay as much as possible. Take a clean copy of your rough draft and go over it, making any changes you feel need to be made. This allows you to see the overall essay much more clearly. Organizational problems or unsupported ideas become more obvious. Make sure your essay has a beginning, middle, and an end.