How to Write an Essay

by JoHarrington

Writing an essay, whether at school, college or university, need not be daunting. Here are some simple tips for gaining top marks.

Once you have the knack of essay writing, they become relatively easy to compose. In fact, they write themselves.

The trick is to look at what is being asked. A blueprint for the answer is all there.

The skeleton of your essay is in the title, you merely have to add the detail. Job done!

Here I will walk you through the basics, then give you a three step guide to producing wonderful, and effective, work.

A Long History of Essay Writing

After countless assignments, it's easy to perfect your technique for writing essays.

Where Media Writing Begins

It is safe to say that I have written a few essays in my time. I graduated from University with both Bachelor's and Master's degrees to my credit, on top of the string of GCSEs and A-Levels that I'd achieved beforehand.

All of those years of study necessitated the writing of more essays than I can even recall. I've had my moments of staring at a blank page, despairing of ever producing a single word. I've written, re-written, screwed the paper up and started again. But the important point remains - I passed them all.

Moreover, I noticed that the technique of writing became less of a concern as time went on. It was only the content I had to worry about then (and the research; and the deadline; and the trillion other assignments queuing up behind this one). Somewhere between instinct, repetition and listening to the tips of academics, I'd cracked the key to successfully producing a paper.

Now I can use this wealth of experience to demystify the essay writing process. It's really quite easy, when you know how.

Does Essay Writing Scare You?

Learning How to Read the Question

Avoiding a low mark can be as simple as understanding what has been asked.

Any student gazing in half-panicked dismay at their essay title may be forgiven for wondering whether these were just thrown together at random.

Their teacher or lecturer had to provide some sort of prompt, just so they had something to mark later on. This is how we get grades after all. 

No. In fact your tutor could well have spent as long agonizing over how to phrase the question, as the student will in answering it. Essay questions are very precisely worded, in order to solicit a very precise response. This is the reality of how you get your grade.

One of the most common errors is to skim-read the question to glean the general subject, then write about everything you know about it. The law of averages states that something in that jumble might actually address what's being sought, but not the rest of it. Marks are being lost right there.

For example, say that the class has read five books in English Literature. The assignment is to pick an essay title from five on offer, each pertaining to one of those novels. Our student actually paid attention while reading Wuthering Heights, so selects the option: 'Explain how Emily Bronte uses the character of Edgar Linton to contrast with that of Heathcliff.'

The temptation would be to regurgitate all that has been learned in class about the novel, perhaps with a long diversion into Emily Bronte, her life and times, and the genre of Gothic fiction unto the present day. This is too much. Not only does it not answer the question, but it would take forever to write and go far over the word count. In that direction lies panic and despair.

First Tip: Read precisely what the question is asking. Ignore anything not in the remit of the question.

Books About Essay Writing at College and University

Buy these guides for even more tips on crafting winning papers to pass your course.
Understanding Essay Writing: A Guide ...Schaum's Quick Guide to Writing Great...The Nuts and Bolts of College Writing

Finding an Essay's Blueprint in the Title

The question can be used as a guideline for writing the paper.

Wuthering HeightsIt's not just the general meaning of the title that can guide you. The exact wording acts as a blueprint for what you should be writing in response.

By examining each element of the question, they each become a series of bullet-points to elaborate upon. Imagine them as subtitles, under which you may make some notes. Tidy this up with detail and correct grammar, then the essay is written and ready to hand in.

Take the example of our Wuthering Heights question: 'Explain how Emily Bronte uses the character of Edgar Linton to contrast with that of Heathcliff.' This can be broken down like this:

  • Explain - No interpretation nor opinion necessary. You're basically listing the instances where the subject of the question occurs in the novel. This sets the overall tone of the essay.
  • Contrast - Throughout that explaining, you should be contrasting one element with another. This channels the overall tone of the essay into a comparison mode.
  • Emily Bronte - She is the author, which means that you can use the entire book. You don't have to write this from the point of view of Catherine, Nelly Dean, Hareton nor any of the other characters. You have a very wide scope to play with.
  • The Character - We're not interested in social class, money nor what anyone does for a living. We're looking solely at the personality and moral fiber of the individual in question.
  • Edgar Linton/Heathcliff - Forget every other character in the novel. The focus is only on these two and everyone else need not exist.

Tip Two: Break down the question into individual elements to get at the blueprint for what is being asked.

For extra marks, ensure that you've repeated the actual words used in the title throughout the essay. The person grading this paper would be looking out for all of the times that you've used 'character' or 'contrast'. To avoid over-repetition, a Thesaurus is invaluable for finding synonyms.

Popular Books About Essay Writing

Buy these guides for a more in-depth look at how to write successful papers for class.
How to Write Essays: A Step-By-Step G...Writing Essays For DummiesCrafting The Personal Essay: A Guide ...

3 Simple Steps Towards Structuring Your Essay

Every paper can be broken into three sections. It really is as easy as ABC.

StudentsThe best advice I ever received about writing essays came from a professor. It was during my first lecture, in my first week at University, when she was explaining what we could anticipate from her course.

Thirty students sat, in varying stages of academic anticipation and post-Freshers' Week hangovers, expecting to be educated in the historical delights of the early Anglo-Saxon invaders. Instead it was dawning upon us that, in return, we really would have to produce degree level essays. That part of it had always been a vague acknowledgement before, barely registering under the excitement of leaving home for the first time.

The professor must have seen our suddenly panicked expressions because she paused to deliver her advice. In fact, she wrote it on the board and I dutifully copied it into my brand new notebook. It was to serve me well across the next six years and two degrees worth of essay writing.

She told us, "Say what you're going to say. Say it. Say what you've just said."

The building blocks of any essay are the introduction, the main body and the conclusion. In short, they break down into this:

  • The Introduction - Summarize what you're going to write about in the main body. If you have ten points, then write a sentence each to describe those ten points. (If you were paying attention above, then you're taking the elements from the title and writing a sentence about each of them. This highlights straight away that you read and understood the question.)
  • The Main Body - Elaborate on what you have to say. Take each sentence from the introduction and add more detail, quotations and everything else you need to insert to support your point.
  • The Conclusion - Summarize what you just said. If you've done this correctly, then you're basically rewriting the introduction, but in the past tense.

It might sound too easy, but it has worked for every academic assignment I've ever had to complete. Even the dissertations followed this structure, just on a slightly grander scale.

Does Writing Essays Still Scare you?

More Study Guides and College Life Articles

Knowledge is just a process of information going in, being understood and coming out again. So how do you study?
This period could impact the rest of your life in ways that will not be immediately obvious. It's not just about the academia.
Updated: 12/06/2012, JoHarrington
Thank you! Would you like to post a comment now?


Only logged-in users are allowed to comment. Login
JoHarrington on 01/27/2013

Glad to be of service! And I'm glad that it is useful for you. <3

JoHarrington on 08/01/2012

Ouch! That must have been one heck of a leap!

spirituality on 08/01/2012

I do wish they'd asked us to write more essays during my college time. I might have enjoyed writing them ;) Instead we were expected to dive in and write dissertations two years in, after hardly any preparation.

JoHarrington on 12/18/2011

Nice one, Christian. I'll see what I can do about writing that article for you. :)

Guest on 12/18/2011

I like writing essays and i even publish them ;) INteresting would be a guide how to write them in Englisch for non-native-speaker. Like where to find the special vaocab and such things :).

JoHarrington on 12/17/2011

Writing is my passion (as you can probably tell by the fact I've joined Wizzley LOL). I agree that it's very rewarding to be able to pass on tips like this, then see the results afterwards.

Jimmie on 12/16/2011

Writing is my favorite thing to teach. It's so rewarding! Challenging, for sure, but very rewarding when that final draft is a masterpiece.

You might also like

How to Study (In Five Easy Tips)

Knowledge is just a process of information going in, being understood and com...

College Has Changed

Change has been going on for many years. I have watched colleges change over...

Disclosure: This page generates income for authors based on affiliate relationships with our partners, including Amazon, Google and others.
Loading ...