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Tools & Tips for Successful Essay Writing

written by: Haley Drucker • edited by: Laurie Patsalides • updated: 1/5/2012

Essay writing is a crucial part of the junior high and high school experience, but many students are intimidated by the prospect of creating several pages of original content. These essay writing tips will see you safely through the entire process, from choosing a topic to proofreading.

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    Essay Writing as a Skill

    Students sometimes see essay writing as something you are either good at or you aren’t. This is a mistake, and leads to a lack of effort and a lot of essays that don’t live up to their potential. Writing a good essay is a skill, one that can be practiced and improved upon. With these essay writing tips and the resources linked to in the sections below, students can learn to start producing papers they can be proud of.

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    Brainstorming and Preparation

    Picking a Topic: A good essay starts long before any actual writing happens. The first thing you’ll need to do is select a topic. Good essay topics take careful thought—don’t just decide to write about the first thing that comes to mind. One guideline to remember is that, in general, the narrower your topic is the better. A specific, restricted topic helps you keep your essay organized and focused. It’s also best to choose a topic you find interesting—even in the most boring of subjects or books there’s likely to be one aspect that interests you on some level.

    Doing Research: Depending on the type of essay, the next step may be to do some research. Be sure to allocate plenty of time for this very important task. Use as many different kinds of materials as possible—from websites to books to documentaries—and keep an eye out for themes and ideas that keep popping up. These are the kinds of things that should probably make an appearance in your essay. And don’t forget to take notes during the research process, so you’ll be able to find the information and quotes you need later on.

    Outlining: Then you’re ready to starting outlining your essay. This can be as specific or as general as you want, but it’s best to approach each essay with a plan in mind rather than writing it from scratch. If you at least have an idea of what main ideas you are going to cover and in what order, you’ll take a lot of stress out of the actual writing process. Graphic organizers such as mind maps and Venn diagrams can really help you get your ideas in order and make sense of all your notes and information.

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    Types of Essays

    The other thing you’ll want to do before you start writing is consider the essay’s genre. Each type of essay has its own rules and conventions. You don’t want to finish the conclusion just to realize that your persuasive essay has somehow turned into a research paper. These are a few of the essay writing genres most commonly assigned:

    Research Papers: A research paper is meant to educate the reader about something, so this type of essay is the one that requires the most research. It should also be very formal, and should include plenty of quotes and citations.

    Persuasive Essays: The whole point of this kind of paper is to convince your audience to agree with you about something. Everything you write, every fact and quote you use, should be focused on strengthening your argument and the persuasive power of your essay.

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    Literary Analysis: These essays are about a particular book or other text, but this isn’t a book report. You’ll want to summarize the book briefly, but the bulk of the paper needs to be about analyzing and interpreting it (or certain aspects like a particular character or theme).

    Compare and Contrast Essays: This is pretty straightforward—in this type of essay you’ll need to compare and contrast two or more things (books, time periods, countries, paintings, etc). The most common issue students have with these papers is focusing too much on comparing and forgetting to contrast, or vice versa.

    Reflective Essays: Also called personal essays or narrative essays, these papers are about your personal experiences. They will be structured more like a story, and so won’t follow the usual five-paragraph format. Also, this is the only kind of essay you probably won’t need to do any research for.

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    Writing the Essay

    It’s finally time to start writing the first draft. Don’t worry about editing at this point, or about getting everything perfect. It’s best to just write a full first draft, then go back to revise it and make sure it sounds smooth and is well-organized. It can even help to skip the introduction and go straight to the body paragraphs, then come back and write the introduction at the end. After all, you won’t be completely sure what your paper is about until it’s actually written. Make sure to be familiar with the five-paragraph essay format as many teachers require you to write this way, and even if they don’t, it provides a helpful structure to follow.

    Your most powerful tools for keeping yourself organized and focused during the essay writing process are your thesis and topic sentences. The thesis statement can usually be found at the end of the first paragraph, and provides a general guideline for what you’re going to discuss throughout the essay. Each body paragraph should then start with a topic sentence, which is like a mini thesis that provides an outline for just that paragraph. Everything in a paragraph should relate back to its topic sentence, and every topic sentence should relate back to the thesis statement. This keeps you from rambling and makes your essay easier to read (and grade).

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    Intros and Conclusions

    These two parts of your paper deserve a special mention for two reasons. Many students find these paragraphs the hardest to write, and at the same time they are arguably the two most important paragraphs. After all, the introduction and conclusion are the first and last parts of your writing the teacher will see, and so are very influential on their impressions about your essay.

    Introductions: The most crucial part of the intro paragraph is the last sentence or two, which constitutes the thesis statement (see above). But what about the rest of the paragraph? A good strategy is to start general and narrow down into your specific topic. For example, you might start by mentioning the tragic effects of war in general, and then move into discussing WWII is particular. It can also help draw reader interest to start the introduction with a quote, question, brief story, or personal experience (avoid starting with a dictionary definition though—that tactic is overused and not terribly professional).

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    Conclusions: It’s a good idea to devote the first few sentences of the conclusion to giving a brief summary of what you’ve discussed in your essay—in short, to restating your thesis statement. But you don’t want to just summarize in your conclusion. That’s redundant, and not very interesting. Instead, use the second half of the conclusion to answer the questions “So what?" and “Who cares?" Consider relating your paper to a current event or important issue, introducing an interesting question for the reader to ponder, or providing a call to action.

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    Revising and Proofreading

    A lot of students skip over these steps. But a first draft hardly ever makes for a good essay. You’ll need to go though and tighten the focus and organization, improve the grammar and sentence structures, and scan for typos and mistakes. Editing is a part of essay writing, not something separate or less important.

    Good editing takes place in two steps. First is the revision stage, where you pay attention to the large-scale issues. This is where you add and delete sentences, move paragraphs, and rewrite or delete anything that isn’t working or distracts from your thesis. Make sure every paragraph addresses a single idea, and that idea is reflected in the topic sentence. Check your thesis statement—does it accurately reflect what your paper is about? During this stage you’ll also want to pay attention to how the paper sounds. Does it flow well? Are there transitions? Are all the sentences too long or too short, or is there a good variety? And consider the format of your paper—does it look professional?

    Then, when you’re happy with the paper as a whole, you can begin to proofread. This involves editing for good grammar and spelling, eliminating unnecessary words, and checking facts, page numbers, and quotes to make sure they’re accurate. This reason you should do this last is that, if you don’t, you might spend a lot of time fixing the grammar in a sentence only to realize later that sentence needs to be deleted because it’s off topic. And remember not to rely on Microsoft to do these tasks for you—spell check doesn’t catch everything, and grammar check is just plain wrong at least half the time.

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    Avoiding Perfectionism

    No essay will ever be perfect. All the same, essay writing can be a frustrating task because it’s hard to figure out exactly when you’ve finished. Put plenty of time and effort into your paper, but don’t stress yourself out by trying to write the world’s best essay. A good rule of thumb is that when you start changing things back to the way they were in your previous revision, you should probably stop and call the essay complete. Writing doesn’t have to be a stressful process, after all—and these essay writing tips will hopefully go a long way towards making it an easy and maybe even a fun process.