Guide to writing a winning essay
Essay writing – it can make or break your final marks in the senior years of high school. The secret to perfecting essay writing technique, however, is not hard to obtain! It lies in the structure and planning. With a good working knowledge of the necessary elements of an essay and a road map for how you’re going to approach them, essay writing can be a breeze, regardless of the content you’re writing about.
Planning is key!
Planning all of your essays and what you are trying to get across in them is highly important. Without a plan, it is easy to lose sight of the essay’s focus, and you may end up not answering the question if you don’t have a point of reference to keep coming back to.
Before you put a pen to paper and begin writing, you should read and analyse the question carefully. This may mean taking a highlighter or different coloured pen and pulling the question apart to drill down to what it is really asking you to do. There are three different ways to classify the words you will find in a question, and it is useful to separate these words from each other.
1. Task words are instructive words (usually verbs) which tell you what you need to do in your response. Examples of task words can be; describe, explain, discuss, argue.
2. Content words are words which tell you what the topic areas are, they help you focus your research or your analysis on a particular section of content.
3. Limiting words are words which put a boundary on the content you should be discussing and help you stay within the boundaries of what the question really wants you to write.
Once you have pulled apart the essential elements of the question, your next step is to plan the essay. A great way to do this is by creating a mind map. An effective method is to start with your thesis or main idea in the middle of the page and your topic sentences around the outside (these will be the main arguments for each paragraph). Under each topic sentence, include a brief summation of the evidence you plan to use. For example, in English this would be literary evidence like a quotation, or a statistic or fact in a Geography essay.
The plan is only supposed to be a ‘bare bones’ scaffold for you to hang your essay on later, but if it is done correctly, it should allow you to get most of the hard work out of the way and simply ‘fill in the blanks’.
Introducing your essay topic
The introduction of any essay is vital, as it prepares the reader (or marker) for what they are going to be dealing with. In this introductory paragraph, there are a number of things that you must include. First and foremost, your thesis, or main argument, should be articulated before you say anything else. Keep this sentence direct and succinct, as this point should be a summation of the main idea you wish to argue or prove. Secondly, your introduction needs to include a summary of the topic sentences through which you will be constructing your analysis or argument.
You may include some brief contextual information in the introduction, but only if it is particularly relevant to the topic and the argument you are attempting to put forth. Remember that the introduction is only supposed to be a quick indication of what you will be saying in your essay.
It is also useful to keep the language of your introduction simple and concise. This will make sure that your main argument is immediately conveyed to the reader and that they will be easily able to navigate through the rest of the essay. As George Orwell famously posited in his essay Politics and the English Language, one should “never use a long word where a short word will do” and “if it is possible to cut a word out, always cut it”
The body of your essay dives into the details of your ideas and/or analysis of the issues you have raised in the introduction. It should have three or four separate paragraphs; however, this will depend greatly on the required length of the essay and whether it is written in examination conditions or a hand-in piece. Each of the paragraphs should have separate topic sentences, which relate to your thesis statement.
Each paragraph should include:
A topic sentence;
Evidence (a quote, statistic or other information which works to prove the point you are making);
The technique that this evidence employs in order to posit a particular argument by the author (English essays), or what impact the evidence has on the topic sentence and why this is relevant (other essays eg. history, business, psychology).
A brief concluding sentence which restates the key theme of the paragraph.
Following this check list will give you a good scaffold for each paragraph and will ensure that your main arguments are effectively conveyed without getting lost in the body text of the essay.
Is it necessary to have evidence for each topic sentence?
The short answer is yes. In order to make a persuasive argument (which is the point of writing an essay), you need to substantiate your claims with facts, so that people are able to believe in you and trust what you’re saying.
The conclusion of your essay should bring home all the arguments you have made to support your thesis statement and show how it is relevant to the question. Far from being a simple summation, your conclusion is important in re-highlighting the arguments you have already made. If your conclusion is well-crafted, it should leave the reader with no doubt as to what you were really trying to say.
It is also pertinent to remember that the conclusion is the last thing that the reader or marker will see, so it is a good idea to make a strong final impression!
“A good essay must have this permanent quality about it; it must draw its curtain round us, but it must be a curtain that shuts us in not out.” – Virginia Wolf
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