how to write a great essay

How to Write a Great Essay

To write a great essay, you must get the basics right with regard to its overall structure, flow, and content. The mastery of the structure of an essay from the introduction through the thesis statement, body paragraphs, and the conclusion is key to the realization of an excellent essay. The introduction plays a vital role by capturing the reader’s attention and outlining the subject of the paper. On the other hand, the body presents ideas in detail. Finally, the conclusion provides a summary of what is covered in the essay in relation to the thesis statement.

A. Overall Structure of an Essay

Introduction:                                                              

Introductory Paragraph

This paragraph should get your reader involved in your essay. The introductory paragraph should also include the thesis statement, a kind of mini-outline for the paper: it tells the reader what the essay is about. The last sentence of this paragraph must also contain a transitional “hook” which moves the reader to the first paragraph of the body of the paper.

Body:

Body — First paragraph:

To write with a great essay, the first paragraph of the body should contain the strongest argument, most significant example, cleverest illustration, or an obvious beginning point. The first sentence of this paragraph should include the “reverse hook” which ties in with the transitional hook at the end of the introductory paragraph. The topic for this paragraph should be in the first or second sentence. This topic should relate to the thesis statement in the introductory paragraph. The last sentence in this paragraph should include a transitional hook to tie into the second paragraph of the body.

Body — Second paragraph:

The second paragraph of the body should contain the second strongest argument, second most significant example, second cleverest illustration, or an obvious follow up the first paragraph in the body. The first sentence of this paragraph should include the reverse hook which ties in with the transitional hook at the end of the first paragraph of the body. The topic for this paragraph should be in the first or second sentence. This topic should relate to the thesis statement in the introductory paragraph. The last sentence in this paragraph should include a transitional hook to tie into the third paragraph of the body.

Body — Third paragraph:

The third paragraph of the body should contain the weakest argument, weakest example, weakest illustration, or an obvious follow up to the second paragraph in the body. The first sentence of this paragraph should include the reverse hook which ties in with the transitional hook at the end of the second paragraph. The topic for this paragraph should be in the first or second sentence. This topic should relate to the thesis statement in the introductory paragraph. The last sentence in this paragraph should include a transitional concluding hook that signals the reader that this is the final major point being made in this paper. This hook also leads into the last, or concluding, paragraph.

Conclusion:

Concluding paragraph:

This paragraph should include the following:

  1. a reference to the pattern used in the introductory paragraph,
  2. a restatement of the thesis statement, using some of the original language or language that “echoes” the original language. (The restatement, however, must not be a duplicate thesis statement.)
  3. a summary of the three main points from the body of the paper.
  4. a final statement that gives the reader signals that the discussion has come to an end. (This final statement may be a “call to action” in a persuasive paper.)

B. Writing a great essay: Introduction and Conclusion

These represent the most serious omission students regularly make. Every great essay or paper needs a paragraph at the very outset introducing both the subject at hand and the thesis which is being advanced. It also needs a final paragraph summarizing what’s been said and driving the author’s argument home.

These are not arbitrary requirements. Introductions and conclusions are crucial in writing an essay. They put the facts to be cited into a coherent structure and give them meaning. Even more important, they make the argument readily accessible to readers and remind them of that purpose from start to end.

Think of it this way. As you write an essay, you’re essentially a lawyer arguing on behalf of a client (your thesis) before a judge (the reader) who will decide the case (agree or disagree with you). So, begin as a lawyer would, by laying out the facts to the judge in the way you think it will help your client best. Like lawyers in court, you should make an “opening statement,” in this case, an introduction. Then review the facts of the case in detail just as lawyers question witnesses and submit evidence during a trial. This process of presentation and cross-examination is equivalent to the “body” of your essay. Finally, end with a “closing statement”—that is, the conclusion of your essay—arguing as strongly as possible in favor of your client’s case, namely, your theme.

Likewise, there are several things your paper is not. It’s not a murder mystery, for instance, full of surprising plot twists or unexpected revelations. Those really don’t go over well in this arena. Instead, lay everything out ahead of time so the reader can follow your argument easily. Nor is a history paper an action movie with exciting chases down dark corridors where the reader has no idea how things are going to end. In academic writing, it’s best to tell the reader from the outset what your conclusion will be. This, too, makes your argument easier to follow. Finally, it’s not a love letter. Lush sentiment and starry-eyed praise don’t work well here. They make it look like your emotions are in control, not your intellect, and that will do you little good in this enterprise where facts, not dreams, rule.

All in all, persuasive writing grips the reader though its clarity and the force with which the data bring home the thesis. The point is to give your readers no choice but to adopt your way of seeing things, to lay out your theme so strongly they have to agree with you. That means you must be clear, forthright, and logical. That’s the way good lawyers win their cases.

1. How to Write an Introduction to a great essay 

The introduction of a persuasive essay or paper must be substantial. Having gone through it, the reader ought to have a very clear idea of the author’s purpose in writing. To wit, after reading the introduction, I tend to stop and ask myself where I think the rest of the paper is headed, what the individual paragraphs in its body will address, and what the general nature of the conclusion will be. If I’m right, it’s because the introduction has laid out in clear and detailed fashion the theme and the general facts which the author will use to support it.

Let me give you an example of what I mean. The following is an introduction of what turned out to be a well-written paper, but the introduction was severely lacking:

The role of women has changed over the centuries, and it has also differed from civilization to civilization. Some societies have treated women much like property, while others have allowed women to have great influence and power.

Not a bad introduction really, but rather scant. I have no idea, for instance, which societies will be discussed or what the theme of the paper will be. That is, while I can see what the general topic is, I still don’t know how the writer will draw facts together, or even really what the paper is arguing in favor of.

As it turned out, the author of this paper discussed women in ancient Egypt, classical Greece, medieval France, and early Islamic civilization and stressed their variable treatment in these societies. This writer also focused on the political, social, and economic roles women have played in Western cultures and the various ways they have found to assert themselves and circumvent opposition based on gender.

Given that, I would rewrite the introduction this way:

The role of women <in Western society> has changed <dramatically> over the centuries, <from the repression of ancient Greece to the relative freedom of women living in Medieval France. The treatment of women> has also differed from civilization to civilization <even in the same period in history>. Some societies <such as Islamic ones> have treated women much like property, while others <like ancient Egypt> have allowed women to have great influence and power. <This paper will trace the development of women’s rights and powers from ancient Egypt to late medieval France and explore their changing political, social, and economic situation through time. All the various means women have used to assert themselves show the different ways they have fought against repression and established themselves in authority.>

Now it is clear which societies will be discussed (Egypt, Greece, France, Islam) and what the general theme of the paper will be (the variable paths to empowerment women have found over time). Now I know where this paper is going and what it’s really about.

2. How to Write an Essay Conclusion

In much the same way that the introduction lays out the thesis for the reader, the conclusion of the paper should reiterate the main points—it should never introduce new ideas or things not discussed in the body of the paper! —and bring the argument home. The force with which you express the theme here is especially important because if you’re ever going to convince the reader that your thesis has merit, it will be in the conclusion. In other words, just as lawyers win their cases in the closing argument, this is the point where you’ll persuade others to adopt your thesis.

If the theme is clear and makes sense as is the case while writing a great essay, the conclusion ought to be very easy to write. Simply begin by restating the theme, then review the facts you cited in the body of the paper in support of your ideas—and it’s advisable to rehearse them in some detail—and end with a final reiteration of the theme. Try, however, not to repeat the exact language you used elsewhere in the paper, especially the introduction, or it will look like you haven’t explored all aspects of the situation.

All in all, remember these are the last words your reader will hear from you before passing judgment on your argument. Make them as focused and forceful as possible.

C. Thesis statement

An introduction often ends with a thesis statement. It begins with a broad statement and gradually narrows down to directly address the question.

What is a thesis statement?

Every essay you write should have a main point, main idea, or central message. The argument(s) you make in your paper should reflect this main idea. The sentence that captures your position on this main idea is what we call a thesis statement.

How long does a thesis statement need to be?

A thesis statement focuses your ideas into one or two sentences. It should present the topic of your paper and also make a comment about your position in relation to the topic. Your thesis statement should tell your reader what the essay is about and also help guide your writing and keep your argument focused. 

Questions to Ask When Formulating Your Thesis

Where is your thesis statement?

You should provide a thesis early as you write your essay — in the introduction, or in longer essays in the second paragraph — in order to establish your position and give your reader a sense of direction.

Tip: In order to write a successful thesis statement:

  • Avoid burying a great thesis statement in the middle of a paragraph or late in the paper.
  • Be as clear and as specific as possible; avoid vague words.
  • Indicate the point of your paper but avoid sentences like, “The point of my paper is…” 

Is your thesis statement specific?

Your thesis statement should be as clear and specific as possible. Normally you will continue to refine your thesis as you revise your argument(s), so your thesis will evolve and gain definition as you obtain a better sense of where your argument is taking you.

Tip: Check your thesis:

  • Are there two large statements connected loosely by a coordinating conjunction (i.e. “and,” “but,” “or,” “for,” “nor,” “so,” “yet”)?
  • Would a subordinating conjunction help (i.e. “through,” “although,” “because,” “since”) to signal a relationship between the two sentences?
  • Or do the two statements imply a fuzzy unfocused thesis?
  • If so, settle on one single focus and then proceed with further development.

Is your thesis statement too general?

To write a great essay, your thesis should be limited to what can be accomplished in the specified number of pages. Shape your topic so that you can get straight to the “meat” of it. Being specific in your paper will be much more successful than writing about general things that do not say much. Don’t settle for three pages of just skimming the surface.

The opposite of a focused, narrow, crisp thesis is a broad, sprawling, superficial thesis. Compare this original thesis (too general) with three possible revisions (more focused, each presenting a different approach to the same topic):

Original thesis:

There are serious objections to today’s horror movies.

Revised theses:

Because modern cinematic techniques have allowed filmmakers to get more graphic, horror flicks have desensitized young American viewers to violence.

The pornographic violence in “bloodbath” slasher movies degrades both men and women.

Today’s slasher movies fail to deliver the emotional catharsis that 1930s horror films did.

Is your thesis statement clear?

Your thesis statement is no exception to your writing: it needs to be as clear as possible. When you write an essay using words and statements that are as clear as possible, you will make sure that your reader understands exactly what you mean.

Tip: In order to be as clear as possible in your writing:

  • Unless you’re writing a technical report, avoid technical language. Always avoid jargon, unless you are confident your audience will be familiar with it.
  • Avoid vague words such as “interesting,” “negative,” “exciting,” “unusual,” and “difficult.”
  • Avoid abstract words such as “society,” “values,” or “culture.”

These words tell the reader next to nothing if you do not carefully explain what you mean by them. Never assume that the meaning of a sentence is obvious. Check to see if you need to define your terms (” socialism,” “conventional,” “commercialism,” “society”), and then decide on the most appropriate place to do so. Do not assume, for example, that you have the same understanding of what “society” means as your reader. To avoid misunderstandings, be as specific as possible.

Compare the original thesis (not specific and clear enough) with the revised version (more specific and clear):

Original thesis: Although the timber wolf is a timid and gentle animal, it is being systematically exterminated. [if it’s so timid and gentle — why is it being exterminated?]

Revised thesis: Although the timber wolf is actually a timid and gentle animal, it is being systematically exterminated because people wrongfully believe it to be a fierce and cold-blooded killer.

Does your thesis include a comment about your position on the issue at hand?

As you write your essay, the thesis statement should do more than merely announce the topic; it must reveal what position you will take in relation to that topic, how you plan to analyze/evaluate the subject or the issue. In short, instead of merely stating a general fact or resorting to a simplistic pro/con statement, you must decide what it is you have to say.

Tips:

Avoid merely announcing the topic; your original and specific “angle” should be clear. In this way, you will tell your reader why your take on the issue matters.

Original thesis: In this paper, I will discuss the relationship between fairy tales and early childhood.

Revised thesis: Not just empty stories for kids, fairy tales shed light on the psychology of young children.

Avoid making universal or pro/con judgments that oversimplify complex issues.

Original thesis: We must save the whales.

Revised thesis: Because our planet’s health may depend upon biological diversity, we should save the whales.

When you make a (subjective) judgment call, specify and justify your reasoning. “Just because” is not a good reason for an argument.

Original thesis: Socialism is the best form of government for Peru.

Revised thesis: If the government takes over industry in Peru, the industry will become more efficient.

Avoid merely reporting a fact. Say more than what is already proven fact. Go further with your ideas. Otherwise… why would your point matter?

Original thesis: Hoover’s administration was rocked by scandal.

Revised thesis: The many scandals of Hoover’s administration revealed basic problems with the Republican Party’s nominating process.

Do not expect to come up with a fully formulated thesis statement before you have finished writing the paper. The thesis will inevitably change as you revise and develop your ideas—and that is ok! Start with a tentative thesis and revise as your paper develops.

Is your thesis statement original?

To write a good essay, avoid generic arguments and formula statements. They work well to get a rough draft started, but will easily bore a reader. Keep revising until the thesis reflects your real ideas.

Tip: The point you make in the paper should matter:

  • Be prepared to answer “So what?” about your thesis statement.
  • Be prepared to explain why the point you are making is worthy of a paper. Why should the reader read it?

Compare the following:

Original thesis: There are advantages and disadvantages to using statistics. (a fill-in-the-blank formula)

Revised theses:

Careful manipulation of data allows a researcher to use statistics to support any claim she desires.

In order to ensure accurate reporting, journalists must understand the real significance of the statistics they report.

Because advertisers consciously and unconsciously manipulate data, every consumer should learn how to evaluate statistical claims.

Avoid formula and generic words as you write an essay. Search for concrete subjects and active verbs, revising as many “to be” verbs as possible. A few suggestions below show how specific word choice sharpens and clarifies your meaning.

Original: “Society is…” [who is this “society” and what exactly is it doing?]

Revised: “Men and women will learn how to…,” “writers can generate…,” “television addicts may chip away at…,” “American educators must decide…,” “taxpayers and legislators alike can help fix…”

Original: “the media”

Revised: “the new breed of television reporters,” “advertisers,” “hard-hitting print journalists,” “horror flicks,” “TV movies of the week,” “sitcoms,” “national public radio,” “Top 40 bop-til-you-drop…”

Original: “is, are, was, to be” or “to do, to make”

Revised: any great action verb you can concoct: “to generate,” “to demolish,” “to batter,” “to revolt,” “to discover,” “to flip,” “to signify,” “to endure…”

Use your own words in thesis statements; avoid quoting. Crafting an original, insightful, and memorable thesis makes a distinct impression on a reader. You will lose credibility as a writer if you become only a mouthpiece or a copyist; you will gain credibility by grabbing the reader with your own ideas and words.

A well-crafted thesis statement reflects well-crafted ideas. It signals a writer who has intelligence, commitment, and enthusiasm.

More information on how to write good thesis statements can be found HERE on the Purdue Owl website.

D. How to Write Essay Paragraphs (body)

What is a paragraph?

Paragraphs in the main body of your assignment usually contain a number of sentences that develop new ideas or expand upon existing ones. You may also need to construct paragraphs that offer contrasting views on the ideas you have already developed. A succession of well-structured paragraphs can help to create a coherent and logical argument as you write an essay. You need to consider the purpose of each paragraph:

  • Is it developing a new idea?
  • Is it expanding on an idea already mentioned?
  • Is it offering a contrasting view on an idea already mentioned?

Structure of a paragraph

Every paragraph MUST have a topic sentence, supporting evidence, evaluation of evidence, conclusion

Topic Sentence/ Introductory Sentence

An introductory sentence (this is sometimes called a topic sentence): This tells the reader the purpose of your paragraph and introduces the main idea you are developing, expanding upon, or contrasting with another.

Supporting Evidence

Examples/evidence/quotations: You will usually need to include evidence that develops/contrasts an idea. This informs and strengthens your argument. Try and introduce your evidence clearly and remember to reference the source (either as a citation in the body of your text or as a footnote/endnote).

Evaluative sentence(s)

Evaluative sentence/s: You may need to offer some explanation on the relevance of your examples/evidence/quotations. Why is this evidence useful? What does the author say that supports the idea you are developing? Does this evidence have any limitations?

Conclusion

Concluding sentence: This draws together the main idea made in your paragraph.

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