Essay Writing Guide: How to write an essay

24 brilliant essay writing pointers for excellent essays

Most beginning writers struggle with kick starting the essay writing process. It can be quite challenging to both present accurate information and look at it in a new way. Of course, every college writer needs to spend time in the writing process on every essay to get the best results. This page presents some tips on ways to begin writing, saving you time and frustration.

Following this introductory article, you'll find links to the extensive collection of the essay writing resources in this section.

A summary of the writing process includes the following: plan, research facts, write, rewrite, and revise.

Many of us struggle with writing. Yet, writing becomes an essential skill when we recognize that sometimes others know us only by what we write. As we begin our professional careers, often our writing introduces us to clients, patients, or other professionals. Writing for publication seems more formidable and often so intimidating that we decide to leave writing to professional writers. Yet, it is gratifying to have an associate of friend tell us how much something we wrote meant to him or her. Even the grueling process of revising and rewriting fades into memory when the words we have deliberated on for so long appear in print. Effective writing requires the same skills needed for making a psychotherapeutic interpretation, requiring both clarity of thought and knowledge of the subject. Interestingly, the process of writing also enhances these same skills. For example, many of us recommend daily journal writing to increase self-understanding. Rewriting lecture notes offers another way to learn. Writing an outline provides structure and organization. Thus, we write for different reasons, using different methods and styles.

The writing process usually helps clarify our thinking, and that alone provides incentive to write more. Writing in a personal journal means putting thoughts on paper without paying attention to logic or detail. Scientific writing, on the other hand, requires factual accuracy, attention to detail, and repeated editing. There is no one right way to write, and there is no one formula for writing. However, in professional writing some rules do apply most of the time.

We have learned about writing by receiving criticisms of our own writing and critiquing the writing of students and colleagues. Each time we send something for publication we learn more. Knowing how many editor's marks appear on our manuscripts, it seems intimidating to write about how to write. Yet, we have written and learned and want to pass on some ideas about writing essays and papers to you:

1. Decide upon the purpose and audience of your writing before you begin.

Clarify your thoughts by answering these questions:

  • Who are my readers, and what do they want to know? If writing only for yourself, pick up the pen or turn on the computer and actually write thoughts at random without editing or rereading. When writing for professional or academic purposes, write in the style and manner most common for your audience, whether they are psychotherapists, clergy, social workers, psychologists, counselors, physicians, or teachers.
  • What do you really want to say? Write down one to three main points.
  • What has already been said on the topic? Do a literature search and initially limit your review to the last five years.

Try these steps to increase efficiency:

Download and read pertinent abstracts; get copies of the publications you may reference in your paper; highlight or underline applicable points to avoid having to reread the articles; scan each paper's reference to find other appropriate articles. How do your findings relate to what already is known? Focus on whether the information is "new, true, important, comprehensible/useful" (St.James, 1995).

2. Begin writing.

Write a summary of your literature search findings for each of your main points. This may mean writing a paragraph or several pages for each point, depending on your proposed manuscript length.

3. Follow the instructions/information for students provided by your university

Carefully read the information/ instructions for students and follow the directions exactly, including the reference format. Remember, for example, to double-space the references if that is requested.

4. Consider using End Notes, a bibliographic software program.

If you write essays/papers with 20 or more references, consider spending the time to learn End Notes or another similar computer program. End Notes enables you to download references from the Internet and then place them in an End Notes library. This eliminates having to type each reference individually. When you use a reference in the paper all you have to do is open the End Notes Library and click on the desired reference. The reference is then inserted into your paper. Finally, when you complete the paper, select the reference style you want and the program will format the references and place them in the proper order, either numerically or alphabetically. This is particularly valuable when you revise the manuscript. You can click the "unformat" button in the End Notes program to reinsert the references back into the text. After revising the manuscript you can click the "format" button to make the references appear in the chosen format and proper order. If you are not familiar with the program, try to enlist the help of someone who has used it. This will significantly reduce the time it will take for you to learn the program.

5. Pay attention to details.

Spell check the paper, proofread it, and get at least one peer to read and offer suggestions before submitting it. An essay marking service is an excellent idea if you are not going to be able to edit your work after submitting and receiving your tutor's feedback.

6. Consider putting data or pertinent points in a table, figure, or graph.

A table may also serve as a handout or visual aid for oral presentations.

7. Minimise abbreviations.

When using an abbreviation for the first time in a paper, spell out the word and follow it with the abbreviation.

Example: white blood count (WBC).

An exception to this rule applies to units that are abbreviated.

Example: sodium 143 mEq/L.

8. Use a running header on each page to make the essay or paper look professional.

This can contain information such as your name, student ID and the title of the paper.

9. Use active voice to shorten and clarify.

Active voice: The student read the chapter.

Passive voice: The chapter was read by the student.

Minimize the use of "to be" verbs, including "is, are, was, were, been, and being.

10. Minimise prepositional phases.

Prepositions describe the relationship between words in a sentence.

Examples of prepositions include: above, behind, near, in, off, under, outside, with, etc.

Avoid using more than two (or at most three) prepositional phases together.

11. For clarity use 3-6 short sentences for most paragraphs.

Avoid one sentence paragraphs.

12. Be consistent with terms.

Example: HbA1c, A1c, glycated hemoglobin, glycosylated hemoglobin (index for average blood glucose level) have similar meanings.

Pick one of these and stick to the most accurate single designation throughout the manuscript.

13. Edit, revise, and rewrite.

Writing well comes from practice: revise, revise, revise...

14. Avoid jargon, clinches, and slang.

This includes medical, educational, or other types.

15. Use specifics rather than generalities.

For example, replace "diabetes of long duration" with "diabetes mellitus diagnosed 29 years ago.

Replace words like "very" with specifics.

Example: replace "very tall" with "a height of six feet four inches.

Avoid vague terms.

Read the sections entitled "The Power of Detail" (page 43), "Be Specific" (page 70), and "Making Statements and Answering Questions" (page 85-86) in Writing Down the Bones by Natalie Goldberg. Be prepared to stay up late reading the whole book. Her encouragement almost compels one to write.

16. Reference all facts to add to credibility

See our referencing guides below for how to do this - and make sure you use the style that your university specifies.


18.Use short yet specific titles

These should usually be less than 10 words.

19. Print a copy of each revision and keep all copies until the final one is ready to mail.

This applies of course where you have to submit a paper copy. If you have to submit electronically, don't underestimate the importance of backing up your work. Cloud based backups are the best option - Dropbox offers a free account which is perfect for this.

20. Save your work to more than one location.

For example, save on your computer, cloud based and on a USB. To easily identify the latest copy, add the date to the manuscript title when you save.

21. Insert the path, file name, and date at the end of the document.

This helps you keep track of the last version and the computer location of your manuscript. Example: the computer path for this article is "C:\Manuscripts;" the file name is "revisiontipsprofessionalwriting8-15-03."

22. Get a book about writing, particularly one about form.

See the list at the end of this article for some suggestions.

23. Carefully consider all the recommendations of reviewers.

If your teacher or lecturer suggests changes, make the changes. Even when you disagree with reviewers, it usually proves less time-consuming to make suggested changes.

If you only get one chance at submission, it makes sense to get a qualified person to mark the work and make suggestions before you hand it in. See our essay marking services for example.

24. Use the appropriate reference guide as you write.

Check with your university to see what reference style is required.

Adapted from Kay McFarland and Donna Rhoades