Essay writing basics

If you're new to the essay writing process, I'm going to take you through the basic principles of essay writing on this page.

It may be that you are looking for more specific information, such as help with grammar or inspiration.

If that's the case, try using the search box.

This overview is for beginners or those returning to study, who need a set of instructions to follow to get them on the right track.

Writing an Essay

Whatever the purpose of your assignment, there are a number of stages - and fundamental principles - that remain the same.

Whether you are arguing your point of view, presenting a balanced discussion or producing a report on a particular topic, your essay will have the same essential format.

By following a few simple steps, you will find that the essay, in effect, 'writes itself' (Hooray!) All you need to do is come up with the ideas for your project - which are the most important part! So don't be daunted by the idea of writing if you haven't done it for a while or if, indeed, this is your first project at higher level study! The key is to MAKE A START on your essay.

It's much easier to polish a poor essay up to standard than write a fabulous essay from scratch.

So get something down on paper - you can worry about how good it is later.

Here's your action plan for writing a great essay:
  • Decide on your essay topic (unless this has been chosen for you already)
  • Write a statement summing up what you are trying to prove in your essay
  • Find ideas for your essay - brainstorm, use inspiration tools
  • Prepare a rough outline using these ideas for your essay
  • Write/highlight the main points - what do you really NEED to say in your essay?
  • Write any sub points that must be mentioned underneath these
  • Okay, now it's time to actually write the body of your essay - here's where you'll 'make your case' - just fill out the points you've listed
  • Write the conclusion of your essay - what have you shown? What have you proved?
  • Write the introduction to your essay
  • Check, add finishing touches, and polish!
There's a lot more guidance on these points below but that's the essay writing process.

Once you've chosen the topic, formed your point of view on it, figured out the main ideas for the essay and what really MUST be mentioned, you'll find that the rest is 'just mileage' - you need to fill out on the points you're going to make and find material to support them, but the essay really does 'write itself'.

Decide on your essay topic

If you're a UK student, you'll probably find your topic or question has been set for you (unless you're researching a dissertation).

In this case, don't be quick to jump in and start writing just yet - you need to think VERY carefully about what you have been asked to write.

Evaluating the question is essential - click here to read some common word meanings that are used in essays.

As you unpack your question, ask yourself what type of paper you are expected to produce.

Is it a narrow specific paper on a particular area or a general analysis of a subject? If it is to be a narrow paper, make sure the title of your essay reflects this - so rather than calling your paper "The Economy" you might name it "A Study of the Economy in the UK between 2000-2005".

Where the topic has not been given to you, then you have a lot more scope to write about something that you will enjoy and that will impress your lecturer.

Choose something you find interesting (this will come through in your writing) and don't pick the same subject that every other student picks - when your lecturer has read through 25 versions of the same title, they will be less inclined to hand out a good grade, however great your essay turns out to be.

Write an essay statement

It will help you a great deal to decide on where you are actually going with your essay.

You can do this by writing out a statement of what you hope to achieve, or a viewpoint that you hope to prove.

You will of course want to include opposing viewpoints in your essay, and consider all angles of a particular topic, but the statement will help you refine the research process and keep you focused on what you hope to achieve.

Write your essay goal or purpose statement on a sticky note and put it somewhere you can see it while you're writing.

It will help you stay focused!

Finding ideas for your essay

This is the stage where you decide on everything you want to include in your essay - in no particular order.

It's a good time to use some special techniques to help you generate ideas.

A great technique is brainstorming - in its simplest form, you just write down your issue in the middle of the page and 'add in' anything else that comes to mind round the edge - you then decide what are the most relevant ideas you've generated.

It's a great idea to give someone else a sheet with your issue in the middle and see what THEY think are the most relevant issues too.

If the project is particularly important, you might want to carry out a full brainstorming session before you plan your essay.

Planning your essay

It is highly unlikely you'll achieve a decent grade if you don't do a little planning in advance.

This stage helps you to sort out the information you have collected and to organise your ideas and develop an appropriate structure for the essay.

A plan should not be regarded as fixed - as you write your essay and review your notes and the information you have collected you are likely to alter and change your plan.

The purpose of a plan is to provide a starting point and to act as a document against which you can check your final essay - you can then ask yourself whether you have left anything out.

You will need to take the relevant ideas you have identified and structure them so that the reader is taken on a clear and logical journey through your essay.

As part of the planning stage you may wish to think about how you will allocate your allowed word count.

Most universities will restrict the number of words you can use in the essay although CHECK to see if this includes (a) references and (b) the bibliography (it usually doesn't).

For a basic essay, a good structure will have roughly the following word usage:
  • Introduction - 10%
  • Body - 70 - 80%
  • Conclusion - 10 - 20%
As word counts are often strict, every sentence included in your essay should be relevant to the question asked.

You may also feel it useful to break up your word count further for the ideas that you have identified for the main body of your essay.

It is always easier to write to a limited word count for each issue than to try to cut down a paragraph later.

When you have finished, you have the basic structure for your essay and are ready to continue.

Writing the essay body

If you've done a good job in your research and planning, you should have a list of ideas and issues, together with a statement for you to focus what your essay hopes to achieve.

If that's all in place, the body of your essay really will write itself.

For each issue, you need to explain, include supporting material, deal with any opposing arguments and state the relevance to the question.

You should be linking one issue to the next - so your essay isn't disjointed but instead, flows logically and smoothly from one idea to the next.

Writing the essay conclusion

The conclusion brings closure to the reader, summing up your main points or providing a final perspective on your topic.

DO NOT include any new material here.

You should instead be aiming to refocus the reader's attention to the essay question and identify how you have answered it.

Simply review the main points (being careful not to restate them exactly) or briefly describe your feelings about the topic.

You should also make sure you have identified any issue that could not be dealt with - any further research that is needed to fully deal with the question (assuming this is not available) and any points in this area of study that are subject to change in the near future.

Writing the essay introduction

Why now?! The reason I suggest you write your introduction at this stage is because the introduction to your essay 'signposts' everything you hope to deal with and identify from the start.

Until you have finished writing (which includes some ongoing research as you write) you won't have a complete view of everything you will encounter.

If you write your introduction when you've finished, you'll be able to concisely state exactly where your essay is going! The introduction should grab the reader's attention, identify the subject to be discussed, make any general important observations on that subject and state what you will prove/achieve.

Polishing your essay

Don't underestimate how important this stage is.

Not only should you be checking spelling and grammar thoroughly, but you should ensure all your referencing is presented properly, all materials you have referred to have been properly credited, and everything required by the essay title has been dealt with in the paper.

Your NUMBER ONE RULE is to answer the question - make sure you haven't simply written everything you know about a particular topic.

CHECK your instructions from your learning institution again and any advice given out - ensure you have followed everything exactly.

A final point - getting another pair of eyes to read over what you've done is an excellent plan.

Just make sure it isn't a student in your class who has the same assignment or you may find your fabulous ideas end up on their paper too! Finished? As a new writer or someone returning to study, why not evaluate your learning experience?