A Quick & Dirty Guide to Essay Writing
Whether you need to write a paper for school, an article for work, or an argument to defend for an event, this method can help you. It’s not a fancy method, it’s maybe a little over-simplistic, but over the past 20+ years of writing, this is the method I’ve devised. However, keep in mind: this article will not help you so much with writing your essay as with building it, and building it is at least half the battle. So, buckle up. Here we go:
1. Explore the topic you need to write about.
Let’s say you’ve just been assigned an essay to write that will entail some outside research. And, for the sake of argument, you’ve been given very specific instructions as to what this essay should include. So, first thing’s first - figure out what you want to say in your essay as it relates to this project. Are you arguing for or against? Make a decision right here, right now. What’s your assumption going in? What books will you need? What information is necessary to have?
Now, go fetch.
2. Conduct extensive research.
Once you’ve chosen your angle, you need to begin gathering facts and figures that support your argument. Back when I was in 8th grade - forever ago - we had to do this with index cards. Each student had a little plastic box filled with ruled index cards, and each and every one of us had to go to the library, find the books we needed, then copy - by hand, mind you - all of the facts that were relevant onto these cards. Then, at the bottom of each quote, we had to cite the book in full. And our teacher checked our cards often to ensure we were doing this correctly.
Of course, now that we have the internet, copy + paste, and word processors at the ready, this important process has become much easier on the hands. Here’s what I do now: I go through my research, and fish for nuggets of information I need. Some of it may be direct quotes; other times, I may take a theory or an idea and paraphrase it in my own words. All of this I store in a word document with all of the appropriate citations included. And, for the sake of saving time, space, and sanity, I often divide sections with lines and put the citations at the top of each section to minimize confusion.
Once you’ve collected all of your research, you now need to organize it.
3. Make an outline.
OK, now is the time to open a new word doc and start building your outline. As you may already know, an essay has three parts, generally speaking:
- An intro paragraph with a thesis statement (shouldn’t include citations)
- A body, containing at least three paragraphs (filled with citations to support your argument)
- A closing paragraph that summarizes your argument (shouldn’t include citations)
So, in your outline, start with your thesis statement/opening paragraph, with bullet points beneath it showcasing the information that must be included in this spot. Then, repeat this process with your next paragraph or statement, then your next, and your next, all the way to your closing paragraph. Think of it as building the spine of your piece. Each paragraph should highlight ONE (1) argument, and include all the relevant details to back that argument up. So your argument, or the point your trying to make, is the bone, and the details are the the sinew and nerves holding it together.
Let’s say you were writing an anti-Corgi essay. (For the record, I’m relatively pro-Corgi, but this is just an example.) Your outline might look something like this:
I am anti-Corgi because I feel this particular dog breed has not properly adapted to modern living.
- In this essay, I will touch on their poor bone structure, behavioral issues, and overall maintenance issues.
Corgis may be one of the oldest breeds, but they are poorly built.
- They have short legs.
- Prime candidates for hip dysplasia.
- Suffer from back problems & intervertebral disc disease.
- Can have epilepsy or degenerative myelopathy.
- Urinary stones, progressive renal atrophy, and von Willebrand’s Disease.
- Can easily get fat, which makes these problems worse.
Corgis exhibit "behavioral issues" in modern homes due to their history as herding dogs.
- Since they’re in the herding category, they bark and nip frequently.
- Need lots of socialization.
- Can be nervous or anxious without proper exercise and care.
- Bored easily (read: will destroy your house to entertain themselves)
- Will chew on anything and everything, if in the wrong environment.
- Extremely energetic.
- Overly protective.
Corgis may not be the easiest to maintain.
- They shed - A LOT.
- They’re low to the ground, so they’re difficult to catch on the run.
- Again, they shed…A LOT. (Like, you could make another corgi in abandoned fur alone.)
Conclusion: Corgi’s are not the best pets for apartment dwellers who want a low-maintenance, couch potato dog with zero health problems.
OK, that’s a super rough example, but you should get the idea. Just copy + paste your necessary research beneath each supporting argument. That way, when you go to write the essay, you just have to take it one section at a time. Bird by bird.
4. Get to writing.
Now that everything has been organized and is in its proper place, you just have to get to writing. This is, quite frankly, the easiest part of the whole exercise if you’ve done Steps 1-3 correctly. Think of it as eating corn on the cob: just start somewhere and work your way across. If you’ve organized your outline properly, it should be that easy. Just make sure, if you’re not citing something, it needs to be in YOUR OWN WORDS. Don’t plagiarize - ever. If you think you’re running the risk of plagiarizing someone, cite it. It’s safer to cite than not cite - so cover your ass at all times.
Now that you have a completed draft from start to finish, let it sit at least overnight. 48 hours might be better. Get away from the damn thing. Work on something else. Read other essays to gauge what “success” looks like. Walk away, distract yourself, and switch gears. (Read: Don’t wait until the last minute, ever...but if you’ve already done that, and are reading this post out of pure desperation: we’ve all been there, but skip this step…obviously).
The reason you let these things rest is so you can approach your work with a clear mind and a clean set of eyes. If you’re scrambling, exhausted, or flustered, you’ll miss all sorts of little details that are very important. So, really, if you’ve got the time, step away from the essay. If not, move right on to Step 6.
6. Edit, polish, revise.
Read over your essay once without touching a thing. Just read it from start to finish. After you’ve done that, attack it mercilessly with edits and changes. Anything that caught your eye, felt “off,” or seemed fluffy, flaky, or shit. Cut, rewrite, slash, delete, revise, polish, and repeat. Once you’ve done that, read the entire essay - OUT LOUD - one paragraph at a time.
Ask yourself these questions while you do this:
- What did I just say?
- Did it make sense?
- Do I agree?
- Did the facts help me, or hurt me?
- Does everything I just read need to be there?
- Is there fluff?
- Did I repeat myself anywhere?
- How’s my transition into the next paragraph?
- Does all of this "flow?"
- If I read this to a friend, would they “get it?”
Read each paragraph as if you were searching for lice in your sibling’s hair. Don’t miss a single spec. Then walk away for an hour or two. Go grab a coffee, run a few laps, watch an episode of Fraiser. Just do something to clear your mind again.
Pretend your brain is an etch-a-sketch. You need a blank slate before you go back in.
7. Give it a final once-over.
Read over your essay one last time. Is anything out of place? Does anything seem off? Is anything wasting the reader’s time? Make any and all necessary cuts or edits. Then, read over everything one extra time if necessary, out loud or internally.
If you’re happy with it, you’re good to go.
(Remember: Writing is never “done.” You simply stop at some point.)
8. Print, ship, done.
Turn that baby in, grab a nice cool drink, and relax. You did it! Let your anxiety dissipate, and just wait for the final results.
Sure, you may get feedback you didn’t expect. You may not even get an A. But understand that writing is a PROCESS. You rarely knock it out of the park on the first, third, or even fifth go. You’ve just got to keep writing. Take your feedback on the chin, and always strive to improve.
Remember: these eight steps are simply a way to conduct your work - they will not help you write better, but they can help you write smarter. And once you’ve gotten the hang of working this way, your work will improve. It’s just that these things take time, trial and error, and plenty of mistakes along the way. That sounds awful, but it’s true. The only thing you can depend on is that the more you show up and work smart, the stronger your work will become over time.
Hopefully you’ve found this process helpful. Good luck with your essay, and happy writing!
We’re always here if you need.