Essay Writing (Writing Centre)

The Essay

Let us begin by acknowledging that, much like any other skill, essay writing can be mastered by everyone. Now, that is not to say that there aren’t varying levels of academic writing, only that, if we employ a measured, methodical, step-by-step approach to essay writing, we will no doubt discover the straightforward logic that it entails.

It would be impossible to produce a brief guide to essay writing that would be relevant to all disciplines all the time, and such a guide would be so general that it would hardly be useful at all. The purpose of the approach detailed below is to demonstrate a single method of writing that you may adapt to fit your future assignments or, otherwise, dispose of in favour of other strategies. The steps below are best suited to general Arts writing; because every discipline is different, we have also compiled a list of subject-specific resources for science, engineering, and healthcare students.  

The Steps to Writing an Essay 

  1. Understanding Your Assignment
  2. Conducting Research
  3. Creating a Thesis Statement
  4. Developing an Outline
  5. Writing Body Paragraphs
  6. Supporting Your Arguments
  7. Forming an Introduction and Conclusion
  8. Proofreading and Revising 

Understanding Your Assignment

Deciphering a writing prompt is the first step to planning out almost any essay. Because your professors have different demands and standards, and because every essay you tackle will be at least slightly different, you should take your time to understand a prompt completely before you do anything else.

Keep these tips in mind:

  1. Read the prompt.
  2. Highlight key words.
  3. Determine what type of assignment you will be completing.
  4. Contact your professor with any questions you might have.

If a rubric is given, review it thoroughly. By doing this, you can make sure that your work will satisfy all the assignment’s requirements.

For your convenience, five common types of essays are listed below.

  • Writing a Summary: When summarizing, you should highlight the author’s main ideas without adding your own. A summary is not argumentative. It should be significantly shorter than the original work and will typically follow the author’s order.
  • Writing a Critique: A critique gives you a chance to respond to an author’s work. Your professor will give you specific parameters, but most critiques include a thesis statement and a brief summary of the author’s original points, along with your response to them.
  • Writing an Argumentative Essay: Here, you must take a position (captured by your thesis statement) on a topic and, most importantly, support that position with evidence. Remember that establishing the relevance of your topic is just as important as your argument. Typically, an argumentative essay will include an introduction, body, and conclusion.
  • Writing a Comparative Essay: A comparative essay demands that you not only contrast two things but find common ground between them (perhaps your professor has asked you to compare sanitation in the medieval period with modern practices). Students usually organize their comparative essays in either a block pattern, in which case they present each contrasting idea independently, or an alternating pattern, in which case the structure centres around points of comparison. The thesis of a comparative essay establishes the purpose and scope of this comparison.
  • Writing a Research Paper: Research papers are either argumentative or analytical, usually emerging from primary and secondary sources. When writing an argumentative research paper, an academic takes a stance on a subject and aims to persuade the reader, while, in an analytical essay, the author asks a research question and is guided to a conclusion.

Creating a Thesis Statement

Thesis Statement: A thesis statement is at the core of any paper. It is often a single sentence that encapsulates an essay’s central argument and outlines broadly the main points that support it. The outline of these points is sometimes set off as an individual forecasting statement, in which important points appear in the same order as they do in the essay.

Purdue Owl’s explanation of theses explains that a good thesis should be:

  1. tailored to the type of essay it represents
  2. specific and limited
  3. based on evidence that is forecasted
  4. revised throughout the writing process

Topic and Research Questions: Before creating a thesis statement, you will often have a topic to explore or a research question to answer. Indeed, a specific research or topic question will give you direction as you begin to investigate any given subject. However, it is important to understand that these questions are not theses. Your thesis can, in fact, be seen as the result of such questions, appearing in response to them. Below, you can find example questions matched with corresponding topics and thesis statements. 

Research Question
General Topic
Thesis Statement
How did access to freshwater affect the French Revolution?
Access to water during the French Revolution
Because access to water was severely limited during the French Revolution, the people’s faith in government was reduced, civil unrest was observable, and antipathy towards royalty flourished. 
What were the main influences on Canadian Cuisine?
Influences on Canadian Cooking
Canadian cuisine was influenced by the great maple syrup run of 1680, the invention of the steam-powered poutine separator, and the introduction of high-powered potato guns in 1875. 
What factors lead to the downfall of the Roman Empire?
The fall of the Roman Empire
The slow decline of the Roman Empire can be attributed to the election of horses to the consulship, a fixation on very long walls, and incessant fiddling.

 

Please note that these questions and theses are only examples and are not at all factual.  

Developing an Outline

Since a thesis statement is based on the evidence presented in an essay, you might have guessed that it can be useful to create a research-based outline before you form a thesis. When your thesis is assigned, this can be performed in reverse.

There are many ways to create an outline, but we cannot overstate how important it is to plan your essays in whichever way you choose. Developing an outline will help you stay focused and on-task, and the practice is one of the best ways to overcome procrastination and writer’s block.

Below, you can find a list of resources that can serve as examples.

Writing Body Paragraphs

If you choose to create a comprehensive outline that details your research (bonus points if you include in-text citations), it can be relatively straightforward to fill in the body of your essay. That being said, there are a few aspects of writing that you should keep in mind:

  • Paragraph Structure: It is good practice to begin a paragraph with a topic sentence and end it with a concluding statement—these are like your paragraph’s mini theses. In short, while your thesis describes your essay’s central argument, a topic sentence details the main argument of an individual paragraph.
  • Voice: Academic writing is more objective and formal than your average novel. Typically, you will avoid using personal pronouns, slang, and contractions.
  • Logical Essay Structure: Logic is an important part of academic writing. Generally, it should be the case that premises lead to conclusions, arguments are supported by evidence, and fallacies are avoided. Writing logically, in an academic setting, is about making your reasoning and thought processes explicit, so readers can understand and follow each argument as it is made.  

Supporting Your Argument

As we have already learned, a thesis statement represents a paper’s key argument. A thesis will be supported by main arguments, which, in turn, shape the topic sentences in your essay. The main arguments, or central points, that you make must be supported by things like research, evidence, logic, or expert opinion.  

The Greeks coined some useful terms related to argumentation: ethos (an appeal to authority/knowledge), pathos (an appeal to emotion), and logos (an appeal to logic).

Since the arguments you make will, more often than not, be sported by the research and writing of other scholars, proper citation is crucial. 

Forming an Introduction and Conclusion

Many students find it best to write introductions and conclusions last. This approach allows them to be more concise; after all, it helps to know what is being introduced or concluded! Others would rather compose essays chronologically, and that’s okay, but if you do take that approach, be sure to create an outline first.

Below, we have compiled some advice on the subject. 

 
Do your best to 
Avoid
Introductions
  • state the thesis
  • provide context
  • forecast the structure of your essay
  • define the scope of your topic
  • demonstrate the broader significance of your main argument
  • make use of an opening sentence 
  • presenting information that should be in the essay’s body
  • referencing the essay itself (less applicable in STEM subjects)
  • clichés (like “this essay is about…”) and overused phrases
  • referring to yourself
Conclusions
  • restate the thesis
  • briefly summarize your arguments
  • demonstrate the broader significance of your main argument
  • highlight opportunities for further research or present a call to action
  • use a concluding sentence 
  • introducing new arguments
  • clichés and overused phrases (like “to conclude”)
  • referring to yourself

Subject Specific Essay Guides