Writing an essay often seems to be a dreaded task among students. Whether the essay is for a scholarship, a class, or maybe even a contest, many students often find the task overwhelming. While an essay is a large project, there are many steps a student can take that will help break down the task into manageable parts. Following this process is the easiest way to draft a successful essay, whatever its purpose might be.
According to Kathy Livingston’s Guide to Writing a Basic Essay, there are seven steps to writing a successful essay:
1. Pick a topic.
You may have your topic assigned, or you may be given free reign to write on the subject of your choice. If you are given the topic, you should think about the type of paper that you want to produce. Should it be a general overview of the subject or a specific analysis? Narrow your focus if necessary.
If you have not been assigned a topic, you have a little more work to do. However, this opportunity also gives you the advantage to choose a subject that is interesting or relevant to you. First, define your purpose. Is your essay to inform or persuade?
Once you have determined the purpose, you will need to do some research on topics that you find intriguing. Think about your life. What is it that interests you? Jot these subjects down.
Finally, evaluate your options. If your goal is to educate, choose a subject that you have already studied. If your goal is to persuade, choose a subject that you are passionate about. Whatever the mission of the essay, make sure that you are interested in your topic.
2. Prepare an outline or diagram of your ideas.
In order to write a successful essay, you must organize your thoughts. By taking what’s already in your head and putting it to paper, you are able to see connections and links between ideas more clearly. This structure serves as a foundation for your paper. Use either an outline or a diagram to jot down your ideas and organize them.
To create a diagram, write your topic in the middle of your page. Draw three to five lines branching off from this topic and write down your main ideas at the ends of these lines. Draw more lines off these main ideas and include any thoughts you may have on these ideas.
If you prefer to create an outline, write your topic at the top of the page. From there, begin to list your main ideas, leaving space under each one. In this space, make sure to list other smaller ideas that relate to each main idea. Doing this will allow you to see connections and will help you to write a more organized essay.
3. Write your thesis statement.
Now that you have chosen a topic and sorted your ideas into relevant categories, you must create a thesis statement. Your thesis statement tells the reader the point of your essay. Look at your outline or diagram. What are the main ideas?
Your thesis statement will have two parts. The first part states the topic, and the second part states the point of the essay. For instance, if you were writing about Bill Clinton and his impact on the United States, an appropriate thesis statement would be, “Bill Clinton has impacted the future of our country through his two consecutive terms as United States President.”
Another example of a thesis statement is this one for the “Winning Characteristics” Scholarship essay: “During my high school career, I have exhibited several of the “Winning Characteristics,” including Communication Skills, Leadership Skills and Organization Skills, through my involvement in Student Government, National Honor Society, and a part-time job at Macy’s Department Store.”
4. Write the body.
The body of your essay argues, explains or describes your topic. Each main idea that you wrote in your diagram or outline will become a separate section within the body of your essay.
Each body paragraph will have the same basic structure. Begin by writing one of your main ideas as the introductory sentence. Next, write each of your supporting ideas in sentence format, but leave three or four lines in between each point to come back and give detailed examples to back up your position. Fill in these spaces with relative information that will help link smaller ideas together.
5. Write the introduction.
Now that you have developed your thesis and the overall body of your essay, you must write an introduction. The introduction should attract the reader’s attention and show the focus of your essay.
Begin with an attention grabber. You can use shocking information, dialogue, a story, a quote, or a simple summary of your topic. Whichever angle you choose, make sure that it ties in with your thesis statement, which will be included as the last sentence of your introduction.
6. Write the conclusion.
The conclusion brings closure of the topic and sums up your overall ideas while providing a final perspective on your topic. Your conclusion should consist of three to five strong sentences. Simply review your main points and provide reinforcement of your thesis.
7. Add the finishing touches.
After writing your conclusion, you might think that you have completed your essay. Wrong. Before you consider this a finished work, you must pay attention to all the small details.
Check the order of your paragraphs. Your strongest points should be the first and last paragraphs within the body, with the others falling in the middle. Also, make sure that your paragraph order makes sense. If your essay is describing a process, such as how to make a great chocolate cake, make sure that your paragraphs fall in the correct order.
Review the instructions for your essay, if applicable. Many teachers and scholarship forms follow different formats, and you must double check instructions to ensure that your essay is in the desired format.
Finally, review what you have written. Reread your paper and check to see if it makes sense. Make sure that sentence flow is smooth and add phrases to help connect thoughts or ideas. Check your essay for grammar and spelling mistakes.
Congratulations! You have just written a great essay.
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How to Write a Short Essay
A short essay can often prove to be more difficult to write than a longer essay. While in longer essays, you have ample space to explain and clarify all your points, in a shorter essay you might feel like you do not have enough space to make a strong argument. The key to writing a short essay is including only the most pertinent information necessary to make your point.
Components of a Short Essay
There are two things to consider when writing a short essay: placement and complexity. The shorter your essay, the earlier your thesis should appear. If you are writing a 3-4 paragraph essay, your thesis should be one of the first three sentences. If you are writing 1-2 paragraph essay, your thesis should be in the first sentence and should also function as an acting hook. The thesis must be both interesting and all-encapsulating. The shorter your essay is, the less time there is for nonsense, and the greater the need to cut straight to the chase.
It is also important to be aware of the complexity of your topic. Pick topics for which you have enough room to elaborate. Do not cite three or four pieces of supporting evidence in an elaborate thesis if you are only allowed 500 words. If you only have a few paragraphs to write your essay, you will likely only have room for one main point of supporting evidence. Keep your thesis short and limit your supporting points, since you always need to set aside plenty of room in your essay for introspection.
2) Topic Sentences
It is important to delineate the entirety of your argument at the very beginning of the paragraph. You want your message to be extremely accessible, so make it snappy! Do not wait until the end of the paragraph—and definitely not until the end of the essay—to present your argument. Present, support, and introspect.
3) Supporting Evidence
Try to limit the amount of sentences dedicated to supporting evidence. If possible, have one sentence rather than two citing a story, anecdote, or example. This may seem difficult, but it is important to provide only the details that are necessary for understanding the main idea of your essay. If you cannot find a way to fit supporting evidence in just one or two sentences, use a different example altogether. There are certain topics that require a lot of room for explanation, so be careful not to choose a topic for your essay that will require too much evidence to support.
Whether your essay is 200 words or 5,000 words long, introspection will always be the most important aspect of your college application essay. Only by examining how you reflect on your qualities can college admissions officers gain an understanding of how well you think critically and how well you can present an argument.
It is not your stories that get you into college, but how they have affected your character and your thinking. You should strive to portray yourself in the best possible light and keep your essay focused on answering the prompt.
While we always recommend not getting sidetracked in a 5-6 paragraph essay, it is even more crucial that you do not allow yourself to stray away from the point in a short essay. Any sentence that is not directly relevant to your thesis not only weakens your argument but also takes up valuable space.
The strongest way to end a short essay is to include a brief summary of your main argument and a statement that includes the implications of your thesis on your future. This will depict you as a goal-oriented and forward-thinking person without veering you too far from the main idea of your essay.
Limit your conclusion to no more than three sentences. Conclusions are important, but you do not waste time and space rehashing points that were already made.
Condensing Strategy: Starting Big
Some people find it especially difficult to write a short a piece right off the bat, so they write a longer piece that includes everything that they find relevant, and only then do they start to trim their essay down. If you choose to use this approach, remember that it might become necessary to remove information that you had initially deemed important. Here are some tips on how you might cut down your essay.
Get out the highlighter
If your essay is significantly longer than the suggested word count, read through it and highlight everything that is most important—this includes important points of introspection and supporting evidence. Have a peer or parent do the same.
Read through your writing and make sure that every sentence has a specific and unique contribution to the essay. If two sentences convey two only slightly differing ideas, try to find a way to combine them. Use semi-colons, em dashes, or compound sentences if necessary. Check for wordiness as well. For example, do you have any sentences that start with, “It is” or “It seems that”? These are extraneous words that can be taken out without altering the sentence’s meaning.
The Necessity Test
If you are stuck and cannot find a way to shorten your essay, try the necessity test. Take out every sentence in your essay to test whether your point has become weaker without it. If there is no noticeable difference in your essay after removing the sentence, then the sentence is not integral to the rest of the essay, and it can be removed.
Simplify the Argument
If there is no way to cut down your essay without keeping your argument clear and strong, you must simplify your argument. In short essays, it is often better to have a broader thesis that you can support with one or two specific examples. This way, readers can infer implications from your thesis that you did not explicitly state.
These points should prove useful in guiding you through composing a short essay. Here are a few dos and don’ts in summary of this article.
- Make the essay snappy: present, support, introspect. Only include the details necessary for understanding the main idea of your essay.
- Put your thesis in one of the first three sentences of the introduction if you are writing a 3-4 paragraph essay, and in the first sentence if you are writing a 1-2 paragraph essay.
- Limit supporting evidence. You need to leave room for introspection.
- Answer the prompt and showcase your best qualities.
- Condense when possible. Use semi-colons, em dashes, or compound sentences if necessary.
- Assume that longer is better. Be sure that your essay meets the word and page length requirement of the prompt.
- Pick an overly complex topic. Pick a topic for which you have enough room to elaborate.
- Write a lengthy introduction or conclusion.
- Become too attached to your ideas. Be ready to cut unnecessary segments out in order for your essay to meet the word count.
Remember that a short essay should have all of the same components as a larger essay, but in less space. Try to include all of the necessary introspection and not present too many different points. It is better to have one or two well-articulated and supported points than many good points that are poorly supported.