How to Write a High-Quality Essay: An Easy to Follow Guide and Many Tips

Most university and college students are required to write at least a few essays.  If you’re in the humanities, it’s likely you may even need to write a few essays for every class.  Shockingly, only a few students love writing essays.  Why?  They’re challenging.  They may even be scary for some.  But essay writing doesn’t have to be scaring.  Knowing how to write a high-quality essay can take away your fears and convince you that you can overcome this challenge.  In turn, this guide will take you through the essay writing process step by step.  It will provide you with the strategies you need to write a high-quality university essay and achieve a superior grade.  All essays are different; but once you know how to structure an essay properly, you’ll realize there’s nothing to fear and that you can write on almost anything. No, this doesn’t mean you will grow to love writing essays.  But it means that you will forget your fears as you learn to write effectively and efficiently.

This guide will take you through the following easy steps:

  1. Start Early
  2. Choose Your Topic
  3. Familiarize Yourself with Your Topic
  4. Research
  5. Construct Your Thesis
  6. Write Your Body Paragraphs
  7. Quotations
  8. Introduction
  9. Conclusion
  10. Worked Cited/Bibliography
  11. Revise
  12. Proofread Your Essay


Start Early
Start early.  This may sound obvious, but it’s an easy point to forget. Most students are enrolled in multiple classes, and some students have a tendency to put out fires instead of working proactively.  That’s a great strategy to maybe get by.  But when you’re spending thousands of dollars on your education and trying to prepare for your future, you want to excel, right?  Your instructor is required to give you ample time to write an essay.  Use this time efficiently.  Within two days of receiving your essay outline, take the time to review all your options.  Starting early is a good way to appease the anxiety you may have.  This is especially true if you can get ahead of the game.  Often, you’ll see a topic or two that you’ll be confident in your ability to handle. 

Note: Make sure to read the essay outline carefully.  Profs often explicitly explain their expectations.  This includes everything from font and margin size to stylistic concerns.  Some profs frown upon students who use first person while others demand that students use it.  Some provide a word minimum while others provide a maximum as well.  What style do they expect you to use for your citations – APA, MLA, Chicago?  Learn all this information early so you don’t face unexpected deductions when your paper is graded and returned to you.

Choose Your Topic
As mentioned above, sometimes you when look at your essay outline, you feel confident that you can handle a few topics.  However, other times, the essay questions can seem daunting.  Either way, it’s essential that you work to choose your topic as soon as possible.

In the case of having too many doable options, it’s wise to narrow down your scope.  When you sit around feeling confident that you could write about this or that, you remain indecisive and you’re not really making progress.  Once you procrastinate, it’s easy to keep doing so.  Pick your topic sooner than later so you can get started.

In contrast, when all topics seem difficult, it can weigh heavily upon you.  In this case, not picking your topic will make things even more stressful.  Indeed, once you pick your topic, you might not quite know how to turn it into a strong essay.  However, it’s far easier to worry about one topic than to worry about all of them.  When you’re not sure how you may answer any question, your anxiety is exponential.

Having said that, don’t just pick your topic haphazardly.  There are plenty of factors to consider before making your decision.  How familiar are you with the topics?  Can you write about this topic for the required length?  If you need to do research, how difficult will it be to find solid sources?  To find your answers, you might need to do a little research – no, not actual research; more like some quick internet searching.  By asking yourself some questions, you will likely find that you are able to dismiss some of the more difficult topics quickly.  Moreover, you may find that during this process of careful contemplation, you will realize that at least one of the topics is manageable. 

Even at this time, you would be wise to consider narrowing down your topic even further.  Sometimes, profs ask six or eight questions within the same topic.  No, the prof does not want you to answer all these questions – this is an essay, not a pop quiz.  In other cases, profs ask general questions that could lead essays into numerous directions.  If the general topic is the novel in the Victorian Era, you could go a thousand ways.  To deal with them all, you’d need to write a very long book, or maybe several books.  In this case, consider choosing an author – Dickens, Austen, Eliot – whoever you prefer.  Or, consider choosing a theme – industrialization, science, the supernatural.  By narrowing your scope, you not only make things easier on yourself, but you also set yourself up to write a stronger essay and earn a higher grade.

Once you’ve made your selection, you’re ready to roll.  Try to get some work done every day or two, even if it is only a little bit.  When you’re learning a new language, is it more effective to work hard for two and a half hours on the 15th of every month or to work for 5 minutes a day all month?  Both result in the same time commitment, but the daily effort is much more effective as it keeps the topic in your mind.  The same holds true for writing essays.  Even while you’re busy working on other courses, reading textbooks, completing labs and writing exams, your subconscious will be unpacking some of the information for you.  Then when you can devote your full attention to your essay, you will find yourself far ahead.

Familiarize Yourself with Your Topic

This continues the previous point.  In order to choose your topic, you need to be familiar with some of its main ideas or concepts.  This is the preliminary aspect of doing research.  At this point, you need to familiarize yourself with books and online sources.  Wikipedia has become a contentious subject in recent years.  Some scholars argue that, because it is not peer-reviewed and it does not place greater emphasis on accredited contributors, it is not a reliable source.  In contrast, others suggest that the fact that it is continuously updated by a wide variety of individuals, it provides a legitimate overview of topics.  Whatever position your prof may have, Wikipedia remains a good place to start as it provides fruitful information that can be used as background material.  From there, when you come across a concept of interest, you can quickly refer to the citation at the bottom of the page to find a reliable source that you can examine further during the research phase of your work.  Although Wikipedia can provide a wide scope of information, remember that this is not the only source you should examine during this phase.  Consult your university library to find books and other scholarly materials.  If your topic is sufficiently narrow, you might even be able to go to a section of the library and pull books off the shelf. In addition, type keywords into Google or another search engine of your choice.  Review some sites to decipher ideas and trends.  Remember to make note of the sources that will be most useful to you.  In order to allow a topic to enter your subconscious thought, you need to be adequately familiar with it.

Research

Once you have become familiar with your topic, it is time to get down and dirty with the research.  At this point, take a closer look at the sources you have found in your preliminary phase.  To begin, review the main concepts of these sources and skim parts of the texts.  Swiftly, you will be able to determine whether or not a source is useful.  In the meantime, by even doing a short review of numerous sources, this may inspire the creation of your argument.  If you find sources that turn out to be less relevant than you first imagined, be heartless.  Confirm this quickly and then get rid of the source.  There is nothing worse than getting bogged down in a work that will not help you.  In fact, such works may actually hinder you, as some students find themselves troubled by trying to fit a work into the concept they are working with. 

When you find relevant materials in your research, take careful note of their main ideas.  Jot notes down in whatever way you find convenient.  Some people like to write down their notes on paper, as they feel this can help keep them organized.  Others would never consider picking up a pen, and they simply make notes on their computers.  I create a separate Microsoft Word file and make my notes there.  Moreover, I find this to be efficient when examining online sources as I am easily able to copy and paste important quotations.  For most scholarly essays, this is important as profs expect that you have a certain amount of evidence to back up your claims.  At times, it’s sufficient to simply cite an idea; at other times, you want to quote the source word-for-word.

As you perform your research, keep in mind that you need to be developing your own argument.  Assuming they are well-written works, sources you are reading will be providing their arguments and trying to persuade you.  You may indeed agree with some sources; but keep in mind that you should not simply spew the same information within your essay.  Be critical as you read and determine where you agree with a source and where you disagree.  If you are examining a variety of materials, it is quite possible you will come across two sources that utterly disagree with one another.  In such cases, you may feel tempted to simply dismiss one source.  However, take the time to read opposing perspectives to truly determine how you feel about a topic.  In your essay, it can be a good idea to put forth the ideas of both perspectives in order to analyze them and come up with your argument. 

Remember to note your sources at this time.  When you’re performing your research, make sure to get all the material needed for your in-text citations and for your works cited or bibliography.  It only takes an extra few minutes to jot down this material.  Even better, put these items in proper order and draw up the entries for your works cited page at this time.  It is far easier to do so now than to have to return to a book or an online source at a later time.

Construct Your Thesis

Your thesis statement is the most important sentence(s) of your entire essay.  Let me say that again: Your thesis statement is the most important sentence(s) of your entire essay.  This is because your thesis puts forth your main argument.  Every other word of your essay exists to help provide evidence for your thesis so that you can make your point.  Without a solid thesis statement, some may even argue that you don’t really have an essay.

If you lack a well-defined thesis statement:

  • Your essay will lack focus
  • Your reader will struggle to understand what you are saying
  • Your grade will go down significantly

In contrast, if you have a strong thesis statement:

  • Your argument will be clear
  • Your reader will be able to follow along with your essay
  • Your body paragraphs will have a specific purpose
  • You will easily be able to realize whether or not subsequent ideas fit in your particular essay
  • You will achieve a higher grade

So then, the question becomes, How can you write a strong thesis statement?  A strong thesis statement needs to clearly and succinctly provide ample information about the topic at hand and then specifically outline your argument on the topic.  Your thesis statement must present an argument.  This is important, as too often students simply throw words down on paper and miss this component.  Moreover, this argument must be debatable – it should be completely possible for another person to make the exact opposite argument and be able to present compelling evidence.

A strong thesis statement should provide a unique perspective or idea.  Indeed, this can be difficult, as you’re often given topics that many people have written about and it can be a challenge to find your unique voice.  However, try to find something new to say or make a standard argument but provide new reasoning for your purposes.  Look back at your research.  Take some time to consider the overall area and to determine what a new and fresh approach might be.  Construct an argument in your mind, and even consider writing down a few potential thesis statements to help you gain focus.  Soon, you will be able to determine what information is essential and what information is extraneous.

Should a thesis statement be one sentence, or should it be more?  The answer to this difficult question is: it depends.  For shorter essays and essays for lower-level classes, you are often wiser to write one strong sentence; however, this is not the case in every instance.  In contrast, for upper-level courses, especially those that ask for long term papers, it is often impossible to put forth your entire argument in only one sentence.  In these cases, you are wise to try to write two or even three sentences.

Typically, your thesis statement is the final sentence(s) of your introduction.  However, this is not always the case.  Some professors want you to write one or two sentences for your thesis and then to follow them up with a few sentences that begin with “This essay will first…” and “Subsequently, this essay will examine the issue from the perspective of….”  If a professor has taken the time to make such requests in his or her syllabus and/or in the essay topic sheet, be sure to take this advice seriously and do as requested.

Note: although every word and sub-argument that follows the thesis should lead back to your main argument, remember that your thesis can evolve.  In the writing process, it is possible that you might present arguments that relate to the thesis but that also lead things in a slightly different direction.  If this happens, be flexible.  Continue writing your sub-arguments and then, during your revision process, re-evaluate where you’re at.  At that point, you might realize that you have simply gone astray, and then you’d be wise to delete or amend these paragraphs.  However, there are occasions when you realize your sub-arguments are strong and that they are valuable to the overall essay.  On such occasions, return to your thesis and amend it to reflect this new direction.

Write your Body Paragraphs

Body paragraphs make up the majority of the essay; thus, inevitably, it is important to write them well.  Above, I told you that the most important sentence(s) of your essay was your thesis statement.  Similarly, each body paragraph has its own mini thesis statement called the Topic Sentence.  Your topic sentence is always the first sentence of any body paragraph.  Like the thesis statement, your topic sentence puts forth an argument for your entire paragraph.  Just as I said in the previous section, it is essential that you do this right and construct strong topic sentences. 

What makes a good topic sentence?  Like the thesis, it needs to put forth an argument.  However, as a derivative of the thesis, it should always relate back to it.  By this, I mean that your topic sentence must provide an argument that justifies or furthers your thesis statement.  Naturally, it does not cover the same ground as your thesis statement.  Rather, it puts forth one main concept that helps to provide evidence for your argument.

Note: just as your topic sentence must relate back to your thesis, every sentence in a paragraph must relate back to your topic sentence.  In this way, sentences work together in a paragraph to justify the argument of that paragraph.  If you have done so effectively, by the time you have finished that paragraph, your reader understands that you have provided legitimate evidence to help make your case. 

If ever you find a sentence (or more than one sentence) that goes astray from your topic sentence, you need to remove it from the paragraph.  At this stage, you need to decide whether the concept is relevant to your overall thesis statement.  If so, is it fruitful enough for you to write an entire paragraph about it?  If not, does it relate more specifically to the argument you have put forth in a different topic sentence?  If you keep determining that the answer is no, then it is possible you might simply need to delete occasional ideas.  This is preferable to going astray within a paragraph or to simply writing a grab-bag paragraph that encompasses many one-sentence ideas.

How long should a paragraph be?  For first-year classes, professors will often recommend that paragraphs be between five and nine sentences.  This is a good start.  You should never write a paragraph that is less than five sentences.  Simply put, if you have fewer sentences, it is almost impossible to put forth a compelling argument.  For shorter essays, you might consider seven or nine sentences the maximum.  Remember, each sentence needs to relate to your topic sentence, so if you write too much, you may go astray. 

For longer essays, you might write a full page for many paragraphs.  In this vein, if you find yourself writing well over a page, you have likely written too much.  You might be saying, “But all the information in this paragraph is relevant to my topic sentence!”  If this is the case, give yourself a pat on the back, because this takes tremendous effort and dedication.  However, if you are at this advanced stage, you are likely skillful enough to do the unthinkable: split a long paragraph into two (or three or five) paragraphs.  Within your main idea, you should be able to split your argument into two components.  It is natural that they will interrelate to a large extent.  Put forth one component in the first paragraph, and then write a second and related topic sentence to begin the new paragraph.  There are indeed occasions where the evidence is thorough enough to justify multiple paragraphs to fully explain a point.

As you’re writing your body paragraphs, naturally you will be constantly referring back to your research.  Keep in mind that you do not need to use every aspect of your research.  In some of my early essays, I had worked so diligently on research that I could have put forth an essay that was twice as long as requested.  Some professors are fine with this; but nowadays, many profs give specific page or word minimums and maximums.  If you’re at risk of going over the maximum, it’s fine to leave out some of your research or ideas.  However, make sure to put in ample thought into such decisions.  It is easy to claim that a paragraph that is written is better than one you have not yet written.  However, which idea is more important?  It’s entirely possible that you have written a paragraph about a minor idea while a major concept remains unwritten.  I find it wise to write as much as possible during your first draft.  In your revision process, you can determine if certain ideas are weaker and you can identify sentences that seem extraneous.  It is quite possible to trim an essay afterwards.  Having said that, if you find that you’re approaching your limit and you have only minor ideas remaining in your research, simply abandon them.

Quotations

As you’re writing your body paragraphs, remember to utilize quotations adequately.  These may be from your main text or they may, especially in upper-year courses, also include multiple secondary sources.  Make sure to attribute ideas properly.  Most students are aware that they must cite sources for direct quotations.  However, remember that you should also do so if you are paraphrasing main ideas from sources.  Naturally, it is wise to utilize sources that are similar and that agree on a topic.  However, keep in mind, it can also be good to present diverging opinions from your sources and to evaluate the arguments as you put forth your own ideas.

It is always a good idea to put in some quotations every paragraph.  Professors often expect at least one direct quotation per paragraph.  Putting in two or three direct quotations is often better.  However, make sure that you do not quote too much within any paragraph.  By this, remember to consider the length of your quotations.  If you have a paragraph that quotes five individual words and two full sentences, that is likely quite acceptable.  However, if you have two or three lengthy quotations in a paragraph – each of them multiple lines long – you have likely quoted too much.  The main point of an essay is to provide your argument, and it’s impossible to do so if you let other people say too much.  Typically, I would only consider putting one long quotation per paragraph.  From there, I’d work to paraphrase other ideas and quote other words and phrases within my own sentences.

When should you use long quotation formatting?  You need to do so when you have more than four lines of prose or more than three lines of verse.  Long quotations should be formatted as their own paragraphs, with the entire quotation indented.  There is no need to use quotation marks in long quotations as the formatting already indicates to your reader that this work is being directly quoted.

Introduction

As strange as it may sound to some, your introduction is not the first thing you should write.  In fact, I recommend writing most of your essay before you write your introduction.  Why?  Simply put, you need to know where you’re going in order to introduce the topic. 

The typical format of an essay introduction is to begin more broadly and then work to narrow down your topic.  You likely know that the last sentence of your introduction is your thesis – if you’ve followed the steps above, you already have the most difficult and most important part of your introduction written.  As mentioned, your first sentence should be broad; but make sure not to be too broad.  Whether you’re discussing the behaviours of a titmouse or the trials of war, it would be a bad idea to begin with the big bang and work your way forward.  Try to find a nice middle ground, where you present the general topic in a broad manner but where you are also near enough to reach your thesis within a few sentences.  Often, it’s a good idea to try to grab the attention of your reader by presenting a fact or an idea that is notable or even surprising.  From there, work your way down to your thesis.

Your introduction should provide concise, relevant information.  At this time, you don’t need to put forth all the evidence you intend to provide in your body paragraphs.  However, it can often be a good idea to present some of this evidence or to allude to it.  Indeed, you may be writing your essay for one professor or TA to read.  However, the aim of your introduction is to convince this person – along with any other potential reader – that your essay is relevant and worth reading.

Conclusion

Your conclusion is the easiest paragraph of your entire essay.  Even if you have laboured with all the content above, your conclusion should only take you a few minutes to write – and to write very well.  Sometimes students mistakenly feel that they should present new information in their conclusion.  This couldn’t be further from the truth.  Your conclusion should simply remind your reader of your strengths.  Basically, I told you this, this and this – give me a good mark!  Similarly, you likely don’t need direct quotations in your conclusions, at least not those that provide evidence.  On occasion, you might consider utilizing a quotation that provides a general overview of the topic, but this is often not necessary.

The first sentence of your conclusion should restate your thesis.  This is your main argument and this is the point you want to reaffirm at this time.  You have now presented all your information and you are reminding your reader that you have proved your point.  Restating your thesis is easy to do.  Simply go back up and reread your thesis a few times and then rewrite a similar sentence that is different from the one above.  It is fine, or even recommended, to use some of the same words as you are explaining this same point.  However, make sure to make this sentence different enough from the original. 

From there, you need to remind your reader of the many good points you have made in your essay.  If you have followed the advice above, you have written solid topic sentences for every body paragraph, sentences that present the main idea and argument you have presented in that paragraph.  This makes your next sentences very easy as well.  In short essays, restate each body paragraph assigning one conclusion sentence per paragraph.  However, if you have written a longer essay, this may make your conclusion too lengthy.  In such cases, write one conclusion sentence for every important body paragraph.  However, look for ideas that are interconnected and work to combine two (or sometimes three) body paragraphs into one conclusion sentence.  By restating all these main arguments, you remind your reader of the good information you have provided and, in turn, you remind your prof to give you a high grade. 

Once you have restated your thesis and your topic sentences, you need to present one to three more sentences to finish off.  Just as your intro began broadly, so too should your conclusion end broadly.  You may consider returning to the same idea with which you began, and commenting upon it with the benefit of all this new information you have presented.  Another way to write these final sentences is simply to comment upon the topic as a whole and present perspective on it.

Works Cited/Bibliography

At the end of any essay that relies on primary and/or secondary sources, you will need to create a works cited or a bibliography, depending upon your area.  These very similar items let your reader know where you found your information.  In theory, this allows readers to seek out the same sources as you have read to learn more information.  In practice, this allows your professor to check the page numbers in your citations to ensure that you have quoted correctly.

One important thing to remember is to begin your works cited or bibliography on a separate page and to make sure your title begins on the first line of this page.  Insert a page break on the previous page to ensure this occurs. 

The most important thing to consider when you’re working on your citations is that you must use the proper style.  There are multiple styles, the most common of which are APA, MLA and Chicago.  APA is used in Education, Psychology and most social sciences.  MLA is used in literary papers and the humanities.  Chicago is predominantly used in History, Fine Arts and sciences.  In addition, there are at least another dozen more styles.  How do you choose the right one?  Consult the syllabus for your class.  If it falls into the categories I mentioned above, the style likely corresponds, but you should always make sure you have selected the proper style. 

All styles provide much of the same information.  However, they do it in different manners.  Plus, some items that are deemed important in one style might not be needed in other styles.  The best way to ensure that you are citing your sources correctly is to consult the style manual in your field.  Also, if you’re searching online, Purdue Online Writing Lab (OWL) is widely respected as it is an invaluable source for information.  The site explains the main styles and provides specific examples for many variables.  Keep in mind that within each style, you need to cite different types of works in their own manner.  That is, you need to cite books in a different way from how you’d cite journal articles or websites. 

Revise

Once you have finished your paper, it is time to revise your work.  Often when students complete their essays, they are tired of looking at them and tired in general, and it can be easy to simply hand in a work that is not quite complete.  Ideally, you should aim to finish your paper a few days before it is due.  This will give you the opportunity to put it down for a few hours or even a few days before you examine it again.  With fresh eyes, you wouldn’t believe all the significant items you will discover.  If you’re like most students, there will be typos, extra words and an assortment of minor grammatical errors.  Moreover, you may discover flaws in your structure – paragraphs out of place, paragraphs missing that you should have written, and extraneous information.  In addition, this gives you an opportunity to ensure that every paragraph has a strong topic sentence and puts forth an argument that helps to support your thesis.

Some people say that they have a “trick” to the revision process.  Some people read their essay aloud; others print it out and make amendments with a red pen; others read paragraphs in reverse order.  Any and all of these may work for you.  Or they may not.  Every person is unique, so you need to find the way that works best for you.

Proofread Your Essay

Multiple students ask, “Why do I need to proofread my essay? – I already revised it.”  In short, you are often too close to your own work and it pays to have another pair of eyes take a look at it.  You might consider asking a friend to read your essay, perhaps working out a trade deal where you’ll help one another across a semester.  This works for some.  Keep in mind, though, that your friends are likely busy with your own courses.  Although they’d like to do the best possible job editing your paper, sometimes their own homework, busy lives, or even playing video games or watching YouTube comes first.  Indeed, give them a try if you’d like, but make sure to always inspect the quality of their efforts.  I once asked a friend to read one of my papers, and he made one three-word remark on my printed page using light pencil, which I hadn’t noticed.  Otherwise, he simply told me the work was good, so I handed it in.  My prof noticed the note in pencil and remarked upon it; she also remarked upon multiple errors my friend had not noticed when he read my work.  In short, I got what I paid for.

Until you are consistently able to achieve high grades on your own, it is recommended that you consider using a paid editing site, such as Editmypaper.ca.  These sites have qualified professionals working for real money.  Thus, the editors, who often have multiple university degrees, are qualified to examine your work in a neutral manner and note the strengths and weaknesses.  Moreover, because they are being paid for their efforts, they are motivated to do a great job to help you out, as this benefits the site by bringing in repeat customers.  In short, a paid editor will find many errors that a friend working pro bono will miss.  Your editor will bring these errors to your attention, correcting the small ones and providing feedback on how to amend any larger errors that might require substantial rewrites. 

Consider Editmypaper.ca for your editing needs.  The qualified professionals working for Editmypaper.ca come from a variety of backgrounds; collectively, they have expertise in many subject areas.  Whether you’re writing on crypto-currency or current events, on Jane Eyre or air pollution, they can help.  The editors at Editmypaper.ca can help you with essays, and they can help with a variety of other short works such as important emails, university applications, and resumes.  Moreover, they have staff members who specialize in long term papers, theses, dissertations, and even textbooks.  Consider submitting your work today.

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