General Essay Writing Tips
Despite the fact that, as Shakespeare said, "the pen is mightier than the sword," the pen itself is not enough to make an effective writer. In fact, though we may all like to think of ourselves as the next Shakespeare, inspiration alone is not the key to effective essay writing. You see, the conventions of English essays are more formulaic than you might think – and, in many ways, it can be as simple as counting to five.
The Five Paragraph Essay
Though more advanced academic papers are a category all their own, the basic high school or college essay has the following standardized, five paragraph structure:
Paragraph 1: Introduction
Paragraph 2: Body 1
Paragraph 3: Body 2
Paragraph 4: Body 3
Paragraph 5: Conclusion
Though it may seem formulaic – and, well, it is - the idea behind this structure is to make it easier for the reader to navigate the ideas put forth in an essay. You see, if your essay has the same structure as every other one, any reader should be able to quickly and easily find the information most relevant to them.
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The principle purpose of the introduction is to present your position (this is also known as the "thesis" or "argument") on the issue at hand but effective introductory paragraphs are so much more than that. Before you even get to this thesis statement, for example, the essay should begin with a "hook" that grabs the reader’s attention and makes them want to read on. Examples of effective hooks include relevant quotations ("no man is an island") or surprising statistics ("three out of four doctors report that…").
Only then, with the reader’s attention "hooked," should you move on to the thesis. The thesis should be a clear, one-sentence explanation of your position that leaves no doubt in the reader’s mind about which side you are on from the beginning of your essay.
Following the thesis, you should provide a mini-outline which previews the examples you will use to support your thesis in the rest of the essay. Not only does this tell the reader what to expect in the paragraphs to come but it also gives them a clearer understanding of what the essay is about.
Finally, designing the last sentence in this way has the added benefit of seamlessly moving the reader to the first paragraph of the body of the paper. In this way we can see that the basic introduction does not need to be much more than three or four sentences in length. If yours is much longer you might want to consider editing it down a bit!
Here, by way of example, is an introductory paragraph to an essay in response to the following question:
"Do we learn more from finding out that we have made mistakes or from our successful actions?"
"No man is an island" and, as such, he is constantly shaped and influenced by his experiences. People learn by doing and, accordingly, learn considerably more from their mistakes than their success. For proof of this, consider examples from both science and everyday experience.
DO – Pay Attention to Your Introductory Paragraph
Because this is the first paragraph of your essay it is your opportunity to give the reader the best first impression possible. The introductory paragraph not only gives the reader an idea of what you will talk about but also shows them how you will talk about it. Put a disproportionate amount of effort into this – more than the 20% a simple calculation would suggest – and you will be rewarded accordingly.
DO NOT – Use Passive Voice or I/My
Active voice, wherein the subjects direct actions rather than let the actions "happen to" them – "he scored a 97%" instead of "he was given a 97%" – is a much more powerful and attention-grabbing way to write. At the same time, unless it is a personal narrative, avoid personal pronouns like I, My, or Me. Try instead to be more general and you will have your reader hooked.
The Body Paragraphs
The middle paragraphs of the essay are collectively known as the body paragraphs and, as alluded to above, the main purpose of a body paragraph is to spell out in detail the examples that support your thesis.
For the first body paragraph you should use your strongest argument or most significant example unless some other more obvious beginning point (as in the case of chronological explanations) is required. The first sentence of this paragraph should be the topic sentence of the paragraph that directly relates to the examples listed in the mini-outline of introductory paragraph.
A one sentence body paragraph that simply cites the example of "George Washington" or "LeBron James" is not enough, however. No, following this an effective essay will follow up on this topic sentence by explaining to the reader, in detail, who or what an example is and, more importantly, why that example is relevant.
Even the most famous examples need context. For example, George Washington’s life was extremely complex – by using him as an example, do you intend to refer to his honesty, bravery, or maybe even his wooden teeth? The reader needs to know this and it is your job as the writer to paint the appropriate picture for them. To do this, it is a good idea to provide the reader with five or six relevant facts about the life (in general) or event (in particular) you believe most clearly illustrates your point.
Having done that, you then need to explain exactly why this example proves your thesis. The importance of this step cannot be understated (although it clearly can be underlined); this is, after all, the whole reason you are providing the example in the first place. Seal the deal by directly stating why this example is relevant.
Here is an example of a body paragraph to continue the essay begun above:
Take, by way of example, Thomas Edison. The famed American inventor rose to prominence in the late 19th century because of his successes, yes, but even he felt that these successes were the result of his many failures. He did not succeed in his work on one of his most famous inventions, the lightbulb, on his first try nor even on his hundred and first try. In fact, it took him more than 1,000 attempts to make the first incandescent bulb but, along the way, he learned quite a deal. As he himself said, "I did not fail a thousand times but instead succeeded in finding a thousand ways it would not work." Thus Edison demonstrated both in thought and action how instructive mistakes can be.
DO – Tie Things Together
The first sentence – the topic sentence - of your body paragraphs needs to have a lot individual pieces to be truly effective. Not only should it open with a transition that signals the change from one idea to the next but also it should (ideally) also have a common thread which ties all of the body paragraphs together. For example, if you used "first" in the first body paragraph then you should used "secondly" in the second or "on the one hand" and "on the other hand" accordingly.
DO NOT – Be Too General
Examples should be relevant to the thesis and so should the explanatory details you provide for them. It can be hard to summarize the full richness of a given example in just a few lines so make them count. If you are trying to explain why George Washington is a great example of a strong leader, for instance, his childhood adventure with the cherry tree (though interesting in another essay) should probably be skipped over.
A Word on Transitions
You may have noticed that, though the above paragraph aligns pretty closely with the provided outline, there is one large exception: the first few words. These words are example of a transitional phrase – others include "furthermore," "moreover," but also "by contrast" and "on the other hand" – and are the hallmark of good writing.
Transitional phrases are useful for showing the reader where one section ends and another begins. It may be helpful to see them as the written equivalent of the kinds of spoken cues used in formal speeches that signal the end of one set of ideas and the beginning of another. In essence, they lead the reader from one section of the paragraph of another.
To further illustrate this, consider the second body paragraph of our example essay:
In a similar way, we are all like Edison in our own way. Whenever we learn a new skill - be it riding a bike, driving a car, or cooking a cake - we learn from our mistakes. Few, if any, are ready to go from training wheels to a marathon in a single day but these early experiences (these so-called mistakes) can help us improve our performance over time. You cannot make a cake without breaking a few eggs and, likewise, we learn by doing and doing inevitably means making mistakes.
Hopefully this example not only provides another example of an effective body paragraph but also illustrates how transitional phrases can be used to distinguish between them.
Although the conclusion paragraph comes at the end of your essay it should not be seen as an afterthought. As the final paragraph is represents your last chance to make your case and, as such, should follow an extremely rigid format.
One way to think of the conclusion is, paradoxically, as a second introduction because it does in fact contain many of the same features. While it does not need to be too long – four well-crafted sentence should be enough – it can make or break and essay.
Effective conclusions open with a concluding transition ("in conclusion," "in the end," etc.) and an allusion to the "hook" used in the introductory paragraph. After that you should immediately provide a restatement of your thesis statement.
This should be the fourth or fifth time you have repeated your thesis so while you should use a variety of word choice in the body paragraphs it is a acceptable idea to use some (but not all) of the original language you used in the introduction. This echoing effect not only reinforces your argument but also ties it nicely to the second key element of the conclusion: a brief (two or three words is enough) review of the three main points from the body of the paper.
Having done all of that, the final element – and final sentence in your essay – should be a "global statement" or "call to action" that gives the reader signals that the discussion has come to an end.
In the end, then, one thing is clear: mistakes do far more to help us learn and improve than successes. As examples from both science and everyday experience can attest, if we treat each mistake not as a misstep but as a learning experience the possibilities for self-improvement are limitless.
DO – Be Powerful
The conclusion paragraph can be a difficult paragraph to write effectively but, as it is your last chance to convince or otherwise impress the reader, it is worth investing some time in. Take this opportunity to restate your thesis with confidence; if you present your argument as "obvious" then the reader might just do the same.
DO NOT – Copy the First Paragraph
Although you can reuse the same key words in the conclusion as you did in the introduction, try not to copy whole phrases word for word. Instead, try to use this last paragraph to really show your skills as a writer by being as artful in your rephrasing as possible.
Taken together, then, the overall structure of a five paragraph essay should look something like this:
- An attention-grabbing "hook"
- A thesis statement
- A preview of the three subtopics you will discuss in the body paragraphs.
First Body Paragraph
- Topic sentence which states the first subtopic and opens with a transition
- Supporting details or examples
- An explanation of how this example proves your thesis
Second Body Paragraph
- Topic sentence which states the second subtopic and opens with a transition
- Supporting details or examples
- An explanation of how this example proves your thesis
Third Body Paragraph
- Topic sentence which states the third subtopic and opens with a transition
- Supporting details or examples
- An explanation of how this example proves your thesis
- Concluding Transition, Reverse "hook," and restatement of thesis.
- Rephrasing main topic and subtopics.
- Global statement or call to action.
More tips to make your essay shine
Although it may seem like a waste of time – especially during exams where time is tight – it is almost always better to brainstorm a bit before beginning your essay. This should enable you to find the best supporting ideas – rather than simply the first ones that come to mind – and position them in your essay accordingly.
Your best supporting idea – the one that most strongly makes your case and, simultaneously, about which you have the most knowledge – should go first. Even the best-written essays can fail because of ineffectively placed arguments.
Aim for Variety
Sentences and vocabulary of varying complexity are one of the hallmarks of effective writing. When you are writing, try to avoid using the same words and phrases over and over again. You don’t have to be a walking thesaurus but a little variance can make the same idea sparkle.
If you are asked about "money," you could try "wealth" or "riches." At the same time, avoid beginning sentences the dull pattern of "subject + verb + direct object." Although examples of this are harder to give, consider our writing throughout this article as one big example of sentence structure variety.
Practice! Practice! Practice!
In the end, though, remember that good writing does not happen by accident. Although we have endeavored to explain everything that goes into effective essay writing in as clear and concise a way as possible, it is much easier in theory than it is in practice.
As a result, we recommend that you practice writing sample essays on various topics. Even if they are not masterpieces at first, a bit of regular practice will soon change that – and make you better prepared when it comes to the real thing.
Now that you’ve learned how to write an effective essay, check out our Sample Essays so you can see how they are done in practice.
Essay Writing Center
Okay, so an ear-shattering bang with a fiery-aftermath-type bang isn’t what I’m talking about when I say, “This is how to start an essay with a bang.” (But I bet this adorably suspicious kitten has one heck of a story to tell.)
Adam Rifkin (flickr.com)
So what do I mean when I say, “Start your essay with a bang”?
Let’s start with these headlines. Tell me what they have in common:
If you guessed they’re all catchy, clickable headlines, you’re right. These headlines are so unique that you just have to click to read the story.
That’s exactly the effect you want to create when you write your essay introduction.
Here’s how to how to start an essay to create the same effect.
How to Start an Essay With a Bang
You don’t have to write your introduction first.
Sometimes you won’t know how to start until you’ve finished.
I know that might not make sense, but think about it. If you wait until you’ve finished the body of your paper (the key arguments), you have a better understanding of the contents of your paper. This means you can write a better introduction.
The purpose of an introduction
We all know that an introduction is supposed to introduce the paper. But there’s more to it than that.
A good introduction is like a first impression. Imagine meeting your date’s parents, and you’re nothing but a disheveled, bumbling mess. That first impression sticks.
If your essay introduction is that same bumbling mess, filled with typos and a lack of organization, your readers will remember that too.
An introduction also serves as a map to the rest of your paper. It enables readers to see your argument and understand the point of your paper.
This is where a clear thesis statement comes in. Wrap up your opening paragraph(s) with a specific thesis to let readers know exactly what to expect in your paper.
If you end a well-written introduction with a clear, specific thesis statement, how should you start a well-written introduction? Start with a few lines that grab readers’ attention.
The attention grabber
Even though it may sound like it, an attention grabber isn’t a bad made-for-television sci-fi movie like Sharknado. An attention grabber is actually a strategy to not only get people to actually read your paper, but also to hopefully keep them reading.
Four basic strategies on how to start an essay with an attention grabber
1. An intriguing question
Ask a question that you’ll answer in the body of your paper, or ask a question that will get readers thinking about your topic.
Check out these examples:
- Have you ever wondered how many chemicals are in your tap water?
- Can playing video games make people more intelligent?
- Is pizza a vegetable?
Here’s a sample introduction using an intriguing question:
Is pizza a vegetable? In 2011, this question permeated the news, and parents everywhere wondered how congress could declare pizza a vegetable. The truth is that congress did not determine pizza to be a vegetable. The debate involved pizza sauce and how much of the sauce constituted a serving of vegetables. Whether pizza is a vegetable is still up for debate; however, what is not up for debate is the need to provide more healthy options in public school lunches.
2. A funny , interesting, or out-of the ordinary anecdote
Include a brief story about your topic that sets a scene, engages your readers, and gets them involved in the topic.
Here are a few examples:
- Imagine a time, long, long ago, before the Internet was invented, when people had to travel to a store to buy something.
- A young girl and her brother giggle with joy as they run across the park toward the swings. Sadly, their mother was charged with neglect for letting them play in the park just a block from their home.
- Last semester, Andre showed up for chemistry class ready to take notes about the upcoming exam. He was shocked when, at the beginning of the class, the professor instructed everyone to put away their notes to take the exam. To say the least, Andre wasn’t prepared.
Here’s a sample introduction using an anecdote:
Last semester, Andre showed up for chemistry class ready to take notes about the upcoming exam. He was shocked when, at the beginning of the class, the professor instructed everyone to put away their notes to take the exam. To say the least, Andre wasn’t prepared. Unfortunately for Andre, this wasn’t the first time he wasn’t prepared for class. His habit of procrastination and poor organization has left him struggling to catch up on more than one occasion. While it can be difficult to stay focused in college, if students implement three simple steps, they can organize their schedules, be prepared for class, and improve their grades.
3. A shocking or interesting statistic
Using a shocking statistic grabs readers’ attention simply because it’s hard for them to believe the information could be true. They want to keep reading to learn more.
Check out these examples:
Here’s a sample introduction using a shocking statistic:
Over 16 million children in the United States live in poverty. These children, rather than enjoying carefree days meant for childhood, feel the burden of adult responsibilities. They often go hungry, worry about where their next meals will come from, and worry whether their families will be evicted again. These children wonder if they’ll soon be living in shelters (or worse yet, living in their cars). With the wealth and resources in the United States, such conditions are inexcusable. Additional funding needs to be allocated to help low-income families.
4. A thought-provoking or astounding quote
Opening your paper with a quote gets readers thinking and involved in your paper.
A word of caution: quote someone with credibility or who is an expert on a topic. Quoting your brother or your roommate is not going to have the same effect as quoting an expert.
Check out these examples:
- Abraham Lincoln said, “You cannot escape the responsibility of tomorrow by evading it today.”
- Maya Angelou wisely said, “History, despite its wrenching pain, cannot be unlived, but if faced with courage, need not be lived again.”
- Benjamin Franklin is quoted as stating, “By failing to prepare, you are preparing to fail.”
Here’s a sample introduction using a thought-provoking quote:
Benjamin Franklin is quoted as stating, “By failing to prepare, you are preparing to fail.” Any student who has ever neglected to study for a test can attest to this. Many students don’t study because they claim they simply don’t have enough time. While it’s true that colleges students are busy working, participating in sports, attending classes, and studying, the truth is that even busy students need to find time to prepare for class. By using a planner, learning how to study, and scheduling courses appropriately, students can be better prepared and improve their grades.
How to Start an Essay the Wrong Way
Writing introductions isn’t always easy. At times, you might find yourself staring at a blank screen with a severe case of writer’s block. If this happens, don’t write one of the following types of introductions in order to simply have something on paper.
Drew Coffman (flickr.com)
Don’t start with a dictionary definition
It can be tempting (and very easy) to start your essay with something like, “According to Merriam-Webster.com, happiness is a state of well-being and contentment.”
Yeah, it’s an easy way to start your paper, but it certainly isn’t very interesting. Readers already know what happiness means. You don’t need to define it for them.
Keep in mind, if you’re using a definition for a specific term according to a discussion in your class or if you’re defining a complicated term that appears throughout the paper, this strategy may be appropriate.
Don’t write a broad, generalized introduction
You know the type of introduction I’m talking about, the one you write in 22 seconds because you have to get your paper done in no time flat.
It’s the introduction that looks like this:
Imagery allows readers to fully understand and see what the writer is writing about in poetry. It provides readers with a clear vision of what he or she is talking about and is an important element of many poems. Without imagery, writing would be dull and uninteresting. In the poem A Supermarket in California, Allen Ginsberg uses imagery to create a powerful scene.
Nothing about this introduction works. It uses the term “imagery,” but it doesn’t say anything specific about the subject, how it’s used in the poem, or the focus of your paper.
Don’t announce the goal for your paper
Don’t start by telling your readers something like, “This paper will explain how to use shading to draw realistic people.”
This may be an appropriate opening line for an instruction manual. It’s not, however, effective as an opening line for an academic essay.
Rather than announcing your topic, simply incorporate the ideas into a statement. For instance, you might write, “Artists often struggle to create life-like faces in their artwork; however, shading is an important strategy and a key step in creating realistic figures.”
More Bang for Your Buck
But wait…there’s more!
As if all this awesome advice wasn’t enough, here are a few more articles on how to start an essay with a bang.
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