The Basics of Effective Essay Writingby Becton Loveless
As you progress through school, you'll be required to write essays. And the farther along in school you get, the more complex and demanding the essays will become. It's important that you learn early on how to write effective essays that communicate clearly and accomplish specific objectives.
An essay is a written composition where you express a specific idea and then support it with facts, statements, analysis and explanations. The basic format for an essay is known as the five paragraph essay – but an essay may have as many paragraphs as needed. A five paragraph essay contains five paragraphs. However, the essay itself consists of three sections: an introduction, a body and a conclusion.
Below we'll explore the basics of writing an essay.
Select a TopicWhen you first start writing essays in school, it's not uncommon to have a topic assigned to you. However, as you progress in grade level, you'll increasingly be given the opportunity to choose the topic of your essays. When selecting a topic for your essay, you'll want to make sure your topic supports the type of paper you're expected to write. If you're expected to produce a paper that is a general overview, then a general topic will suffice. However, if you're expected to write a specific analysis, then you're topic should be fairly specific.
For example, lets assume the objective of your essay is to write an overview. Then the topic "RUSSIA" would be suitable. However, if the objective or your essay is to write a specific analysis, then "RUSSIA" would be far too general a topic. You'll need to narrow down your topic to something like "Russian Politics: Past, Present and Future" or "Racial Diversity in the Former USSR".
If you're expected to choose your own topic, then the first step is to define the purpose of your essay. Is your purpose to persuade? To explain how to accomplish something? Or to education about a person, place, thing or idea? The topic you choose needs to support the purpose of your essay.
The purpose of your essay is defined by the type of paper you're writing. There are three basic types of essay papers:
- Analytical - An analytical essay paper breaks down an idea or issue into its its key components. It evaluates the issue or idea by presenting analysis of the breakdown and/or components to the the reader.
- Expository - Also known as explanatory essays, expositories provide explanations of something.
- Argumentative - These type of essays, also known as persuasive essays, make a specific claim about a topic and then provide evidence and arguments to support the claim. The claim set forth in argumentative (persuasive) essays may be an opinion, an evaluation, an interpretation, cause-effect statement or a policy proposal. The purpose of argumentative essays is to convince or persuade the reader that a claim is valid.
Once you have defined the purpose of your essay, it's time to brainstorm. Don't choose just one topic right of the bat. Take some time to consider, contrast and weight your options. Get out a piece of paper and make a list of all the different topics that fit the purpose of your essay. Once they're all down on paper, start by eliminating those topics that are difficult or not as relevant as others topics. Also, get rid of those topics that are too challenging or that you're just not that interested in. Pretty soon you will have whittled your list down to just a few topics and then you can make a final choice.
Organize Your Ideas Using a Diagram or OutlineSome students get scared to start writing. They want to make sure they have all their thoughts organized in their head before they put anything down on paper. Creating a diagram or outline allows you to put pen to paper and start organizing your ideas. Don't worry or agonize over organization at this point, just create a moderately organized format for your information.
Whether you use a diagram or outline doesn't really matter. Some people prefer and work better with the flowing structure of a diagram. Others like the rigid and logical structure of an outline. Don't fret, once you get started, you can always change formats if the format you chose isn't working out for you.
The following are useful steps for developing a diagram to organize ideas for your essay.
- Get started by drawing a circle in the middle of a paper just big enough to write in.
- Inside your circle, write your essay topic.
- Now draw three or four lines out from your circle.
- At the end of each of lines, draw another circle just slightly smaller than the circle in the middle of the page.
- In each smaller circle, write a main idea about your topic, or point you want to make. If this is persuasive (argumentative) essay, then write down your arguments. If the object of the essay is to explain a process (expository), then write down a step in each circle. If your essay is intended to be informative or explain (analytical), write the major categories into which information can be divided.
- Now draw three more lines out from each circle containing a main idea.
- At the end of each of these lines, draw another circle.
- Finally, in each of these circles write down facts or information that help support the main idea.
The following are useful steps for developing an outline to organize ideas for your essay.
- Take a page of paper and write your topic at the top.
- Now, down the left side of the page, under the topic, write Roman numerals I, II, and III, sequentially.
- Next to each Roman numeral, write the main points, or ideas, about your essay topic. If this is persuasive essay, write your arguments. If this an essay to inform, write the major categories into which information will be divided. If the purpose of your essay is to explain a process, write down each step of the process.
- Next, under each Roman numeral, write A, B, and C down the left hand side of the page.
- Finally, next to each letter, under each Roman numeral, write the information and/or facts that support the main point or idea.
Develop a Thesis StatementOnce you have an idea for the basic structure of your essay, and what information you're going to present in your essay, it's time to develop your thesis statement. A thesis statement states or outlines what you intend to prove in your essay. A good thesis statement should be clear, concise, specific, and takes a position.
The word "thesis" just sounds intimidating to most students, but a thesis is actually quite simple. A thesis statement (1) tells the reader what the essay is about and (2) what points you'll be making. If you've already selected an essay topic, and developed an outline or diagram, you now can decide what points you want to communicate through your essay.
A thesis statement has two key components. The first component is the topic, and the second is the point(s) of the essay. The following is an example of an expository (explanatory) thesis statement:
The life of a child raised in Pena Blanca is characterized by little playing, a lot of hard work and extreme poverty.
An example of an analytical thesis statement:
An analysis of the loan application process for citizens of third world countries reveals one major obstacle: applicants must already have money in order to qualify for a loan.
An example of an argumentative (persuasive) thesis statement:
Instead of sending tax money overseas to buoy struggling governments and economies, U.S. residents should be offered tax incentives for donating to companies that provide micro loans directly to the citizens of third world countries.
Once you're done developing a thesis statement that supports the type of essay your writing and the purpose of the essay, you're ready to get started on your introduction.
IntroductionThe introduction is the first paragraph of the essay. It introduces the reader to the idea that the essay will address. It is also intended to capture the reader's attention and interest. The first sentence of the introduction paragraph should be as captivating and interesting as possible. The sentences that follow should clarify your opening statement. Conclude the introduction paragraph with your thesis statement.
BodyThe body of your essay is where you explain, describe or argue the topic you've chosen. Each of the main ideas you included in your outline or diagram will become of the body paragraphs. If you wrote down four main ideas in your outline or diagram, then you'll have four body paragraphs.
Each paragraph will address one main idea that supports the thesis statement. The first paragraph of the body should put forth your strongest argument to support your thesis. Start the paragraph out by stating the supporting idea. Then follow up with additional sentences that contain supporting information, facts, evidence or examples – as shown in your diagram or outline. The concluding sentence should sum up what you've discussed in the paragraph.
The second body paragraph will follow the same format as the first body paragraph. This paragraph should put forth your second strongest argument supporting your thesis statement. Likewise, the third and fourth body paragraphs, like the first and second, will contain your third and fourth strongest arguments supporting your thesis statement. Again, the last sentence of both the third and fourth paragraphs should sum up what you've discussed in each paragraph and indicate to the reader that the paragraph contains the final supporting argument.
ConclusionThe final paragraph of the essay provides the conclusion. This paragraph should should restate your thesis statement using slightly different wording than employed in your introduction. The paragraph should summarize the arguments presented in the body of the essay. The last sentence in the conclusion paragraph should communicate that your essay has come to and end. Your concluding paragraph should communicate to the reader that you're confident that you've proven the idea as set forth in your thesis statement.
Having the ability to write effective essays will become increasingly important as you progress through high school and into college. If you'll internalize the format presented above, you'll develop the ability to write clear and compelling essays.
Structure and organization are integral components of an effective persuasive essay. No matter how intelligent the ideas, a paper lacking a strong introduction, well-organized body paragraphs and an insightful conclusion is not an effective paper.
Simply enough, the introductory paragraph introduces the argument of your paper. A well-constructed introductory paragraph immediately captures a reader’s interest and gives appropriate background information about the paper’s topic. Such a paragraph might include a brief summary of the ideas to be discussed in body of the paper as well as other information relevant to your paper’s argument. The most important function of the introductory paragraph, however, is to present a clear statement of the paper’s argument. This sentence is your paper’s thesis. Without a thesis, it is impossible for you to present an effective argument. The thesis sentence should reflect both the position that you will argue and the organizational pattern with which you will present and support your argument. A useful way to think about the construction of a thesis sentence is to view it in terms of stating both the “what” and the “how” of the paper’s argument. The “what” is simply the basic argument in your paper: what exactly are you arguing? The “how” is the strategy you will use to present this argument. The following are helpful questions for you to consider when formulating a thesis sentence:
- What is the argument that I am trying to convince the reader to accept?
- How exactly do I expect to convince the reader that this argument is sound?
Once you have answered these questions, the next step is to synthesize these answers into a single thesis sentence, or, if necessary, two thesis sentences.
For example: You want to convince your reader that the forces of industry did not shape American foreign policy from the late 19th century through 1914, and you plan to do this by showing that there were other factors which were much more influential in shaping American foreign policy. Both of these elements can be synthesized into a thesis sentence:
Fear of foreign influence in the Western hemisphere, national pride, and contemporary popular ideas concerning both expansion and foreign peoples had significantly more influence on American foreign policy than did the voices of industrialists.
This sentence shows the position you will argue and also sets up the organizational pattern of your paper's body.
The body of your paper contains the actual development of your paper’s argument. Each body paragraph presents a single idea or set of related ideas that provides support for your paper’s argument. Each body paragraph addresses one key aspect of your paper’s thesis and brings the reader closer to accepting the validity of your paper’s argument. Because each body paragraph should be a step in your argument, you should be mindful of the overall organization of your body paragraphs.
The first step in writing an effective body paragraph is the construction of the first sentence of this paragraph, the topic sentence. Just as the thesis sentence holds together your essay, the topic sentence is the glue binding each individual body paragraph. A body paragraph’s topic sentence serves two main purposes: introducing the content of the paragraph and introducing the next step of your argument. It is important to keep in mind that the goal of the topic sentence is to advance your paper's argument, not just to describe the content of the paragraph.
The first part in your thesis on page two states that fear of foreign influence in the Western Hemisphere had more influence on American foreign policy than did industry. Thus, you need to elaborate on this point in your body paragraphs.
An effective topic sentence for one of these paragraphs could be:
American fear of foreign influence was a key factor in the United States’ actions in the Spanish-American War. Subsequent body paragraphs might offer further evidence for the idea presented in this body paragraph.
A good way to test the strength of both your topic sentences and your argument as a whole is to construct an outline of your paper using only your paper's thesis statement and topic sentences. This outline should be a logical overview of your paper's argument; all of your paper’s topic sentences should work together to support your thesis statement.
A basic purpose of your paper’s concluding paragraph is both to restate the paper’s argument and to restate how you have supported this argument in the body of the paper. However, your conclusion should not simply be a copy of your introduction. The conclusion draws together the threads of the paper’s argument and shows where the argument of your paper has gone. An effective conclusion gives the reader reasons for bothering to read your paper. One of the most important functions of this paragraph is to bring in fresh insight. Some possible questions to consider when writing your conclusion are:
- What are some real world applications of this paper’s argument?
- Why is what I am writing about important?
- What are some of the questions that this paper’s argument raises?
- What are the implications of this paper’s argument?
While the organization and structure described in this handout are necessary components of an effective persuasive essay, keep in mind that writing itself is a fluid process. There are no steadfast rules that you need to adhere to as you write. Simply because the introduction is the first paragraph in your essay does not mean that you must write this paragraph before any other. Think of the act of writing as an exploration of ideas, and let this sense of exploration guide you as you write your essay.