How to Write an Essay

Guide to writing college, university and highschool Essays

Need help on how to write an essay? Follow the advice in this article and you will get superb marks on your university, college and high school essays. The main thing that will affect your grade if you follow this guide is how much time and effort you put into it. Any essay writer with experience writing University/College essays will read this and say "stop telling everyone our secrets!" And if a professor/teacher/teacher's assistant reads this, they will say "Yes, that’s how to write an essay!" So read on and learn how to write an essay for yourself.

Any essay written for basically any subject typically has a very similar format and style. So whether you're writing for History, English, Literature, Political Science, Civics, Geography, Philosophy etc., you should be able to follow this guide successfully.

Jump to section:
Know your assignment!
Prepare an idea for a thesis
Perfecting your thesis
Do research
Writing the Introduction
Writing body paragraphs
Writing a conclusion
Summary of how to write an essay
References and citations
Tips for how to write a better essay

Here are some easy steps to follow when writing your essay to do well:

Step 1) Know the assignment that has been given to you

And follow every little detail. If you don't understand the assignment, writing an essay will likely be a waste of time, as even a good one will not receive a good grade. Make sure to understand the question being asked, any specific topics they want you to cover, etc. Read the assignment outline carefully, and make point form notes of everything you must do in the assignment, and put it at the top of the page. If you don't understand part of it, you must ask the teacher/professor/teacher's assistant for clarification.

Step 2) Come up with a thesis for your essay

The thesis really is the most important part of your essay. You will be arguing your thesis for the entire essay, so you want to get off on the right foot. What makes a good thesis? Short, simple, specific, argumentative, and most importantly - supportable with sources!

How will you know if the thesis you've come up with is supportable? Research. Scan through peer-reviewed journal articles on the subject you have decided to work on. (Focus on introductions/conclusions/executive summaries for now) Make notes of interesting things you find, marking the page number and work beside each note for easy citations later. Do this until you are sure of a thesis you can argue and support.

How to write an essay's thesis

Your essay's thesis should almost always be arguing something, and something specific. A random example thesis might be, "Social media has diminished the impact of grassroots movements in the United States." This is a good thesis because it is specific, argumentative, and possibly a bit counter-intuitive, (bonus marks!) as long as you can support your thesis with secondary and primary sources you can argue whatever you want (As long as you are following the assignments instructions!). But note - it is generally is easier to argue something that has been argued many times before in the sources available to you, but it’s not as fun, and you might not get that A+.

Step 3) Research, quotes, and paraphrasing

I also recommend reading the corresponding encyclopedia articles on the subject to come up with thesis and source ideas. Never cite an encyclopedia, especially not Wikipedia - professors and teachers have a "thing" against them. Go to the sources which are cited at the bottom of the encyclopedia article and find the source cited for the article, and go directly to that source to get your information. (Or, God forbid, just lift the citation from the bottom and don't bother looking it up yourself.)

You should search through peer-reviewed journal articles, published books, and primary sources. Use the following research sources:
  • Books in the library
  • Peer-reviewed scholarly journal articles from: Google Scholar, journal databases affiliated with your university, library, college/institution (Talk to the librarian to find out how to get access) Don't rely on Google Scholar, it doesn't have a complete database, you need to get access at your library, or from your library's website.
  • Primary sources: Actual statistics related to your subject, actual diaries/newspapers/accounts from that period in History, actual research papers/studies/surveys/polls related to your subject matter, etc.

    Start reading through your secondary sources more in-depth, looking for the information that supports your thesis. With each point or paragraph you find, make a short note/summary of what it says, in your own words, and write the page number beside it for easy reference later. Since it’s in your own words, you don’t have to re-write it when you go to use it in your essay. Keep some of the best information exactly as it’s written for use as quotation. Put quotes around it to make it clear it is a direct copy. We want to avoid accidental plagiarism.

    Soon you should have multiple pages of notes. Of course depending on how long your essay needs to be, and how many sources that the assignment says it requires, you'll need more research notes.

    I hope I don't have to tell you, you should be making these notes in a word processor on a computer, and saving frequently, and frequently saving it as a new file name, you never want to experience losing your hard work due to a computer crash, software malfunction, or accidental human error - like accidentally deleting all the text in your file then saving over it somehow (this happens, it's easy to do!).

    Take all the notes you've been making and group them by subject and by potential paragraph. Don't lose the reference notes. Now learn how to turn these blocks of research notes into an essay, read on.

    Step 4) How to write an essay introduction

    In your introduction you will describe the background to the topic that will be needed to lead you into your thesis. Typically the first couple sentences are quite broad in scope. People often say "Throughout history...". Don't use that phrase - professors hate it! You want to be broad, but not that broad. Try something like, "Grassroots movements have led to significant changes to society throughout the 20th century in the United States." Ideally you actually say something interesting in the first sentence to catch your graders attention (bonus marks!).

    With your next couple sentences you need to narrow down and get more specific toward your thesis’s subject matter, still introducing the topic. An example of a more narrow sentence: "These movements often emerged from the youth of the nation and contradicted what the older generation considered acceptable behaviour. These movements continue to emerge to this day, and internet social media is playing a significant role."

    After a couple more sentences you should be ready to write your thesis. It should almost always be the last sentence of the first introductory paragraph, and almost always only one sentence.

    Summary of how to write an essay's introduction and thesis:
  • Broad and interesting statement
  • 4-8 more sentences that bring the introduction from broad to specific
  • Thesis - argumentative, specific
  • Step 5) How to write an essay body paragraph

    After your introduction you will now begin writing multiple body paragraphs. Each paragraph will have a specific format:
  • Introductory sentence which supports the thesis
  • Multiple sentences, quotes and/or paraphrasing, and your own analyses which supports, backs up and explains the topic sentence of this body paragraph. Don't be afraid to start a new paragraph if needed. You should usually only have 1 idea per body paragraph. Reference all ideas taken from secondary and primary sources. Too many references is better than not enough. However if you write a few sentences paraphrasing a source, you generally only need one citation at the end of the last sentence.
  • A concluding sentence which ideally leads into the next paragraph, giving the essay "flow".
  • Step 6) How to write a Conclusion for your essay

    The conclusion is really the easiest part of the essay. The reason is this one rule - you should not argue anything new in the conclusion. Therefor very little thought needs to go into it. Just follow this basic outline:

  • "Regurgitate" (repeat but re-write) the thesis, possibly saying it from a bit of a different perspective. (Often you might find that after writing your essay, this re-write of your thesis is better than the original, and you can just switch them.)
  • Regurgitate the supporting arguments you made for your thesis (The topic sentences of your body paragraphs)
  • Possibly add a summary of what your thesis and arguments mean to society or your subject matter - the impact it has. This is considered the "food for thought" part of the conclusion, where you can give something to the reader to consider after finishing the essay. (Bonus marks!)
  • Summary Outline on how to write an Essay

  • Broad statement
  • 4-8 statements of narrowing specificity, leading to thesis
  • Thesis

  • Multiple (at least 3, but as many as needed) Body paragraphs
  • Introductory "Topic Sentence" which says something in support of thesis
  • Supportive information, quotes, paraphrasing, which supports the topic sentence
  • Concluding sentence for the paragraph that preferably is a good transition to the next paragraph

  • Conclusion
  • Repeat and re-write the thesis
  • Repeat and re-write the arguments you made in support of the thesis
  • Provide food-for-thought regarding the topic and thesis, possibly related to the impact of the argument

  • How to write an essay's references and citations

    When it comes to completing the references, citations, footnotes/endnotes and bibliography on your essay, you should double check the assignment outline for the style of citation/referencing to use (There are many styles to choose from). If the outline doesn't indicate the type to use, double check with your teacher/professor/TA. Regardless of the type of citation style use choose, the most important thing is to use the same style through the whole essay, and be consistent with it. Popular styles include APA, MLA, and Chicago, I recommend just using one of those 3. Consistency is important to your whole essay and the citations.

    For an indepth look into different style types and how to use them in your essay, choose the style type you are choosing from this list and follow the information on the website below:

    Citation style guides:
    APA - for online sources
    MLA, APA, and Chicago styles
    Many more citation styles and guides

    Some final tips on how to write an essay

  • The first 1 or 2 body paragraphs sometimes have to be used for defining certain words or concepts that are mentioned in the introduction and thesis. Or even used to expand on the thesis and subject matter (Like a second introduction).

  • When reading over your essay to edit it, read it out loud to yourself, word by word. Make sure it sounds clear, understandable and specific - not ambiguous.

  • Print the essay off to read it out loud and edit it again, you will likely catch things you didn’t on the screen.

  • Give this final copy to a friend, peer, or study partner to read over and give you feedback/edit. They will see things you don't

  • Ideally you want to finish your essay as much as 1-2 weeks before the due date. Then go to your professor, teacher, TA and ask them if they will read it over and give you advice on how to make it better. They will give you bonus marks for the initiative, plus you can actually re-write and edit your essay using their suggestions.

  • Try to use active sentences as much as possible, not passive. Passive sentences use words ending in "ing" and the verb "to be" too much. A simple example of a bad passive sentence: "The house is being destroyed by fire. Water is being poured on the flames by firefighters." Example of a better active sentence: "Fire is destroying the house. Firefighters pour water on the flames."

  • Don’t weaken your argument wherever it's possible to avoid - Don’t use words/phrases like: "It would seem", "This might be", "I think", “Maybe", "It might could possibly be based on the evidence that maybe", etc. Just tell the readers the way it is!

  • Consistency is key. Use the same citations throughout. Spell people's names properly and the same way throughout. Use punctuation the same way throughout the essay. For example, if you are putting periods inside of quotations ." don't randomly put them outside quotations ".

  • Last Updated: December 10, 2013

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