4 things to do before you start writing an essay
As tempting as it might be to just launch into the process of writing, there are important steps to take before actually setting pen to paper (or fingers to keyboard, as it were). These four steps in essay preparation should give you a solid footing before you start the essay-writing process.
1. Plan out your time
Plotting out a schedule for how you plan to approach writing the essay is a crucial first step. You will want to set aside time for effective brainstorming, as well as time for doing the appropriate research. You should also set aside plenty of time for the actual writing of the essay, making sure to leave a one-day gap between first and second drafts.
For an example schedule, see ‘How to plan time for essay writing’.
2. Understand the essay question
This might sound obvious, but grasping the full implications of the essay question or prompt is an important part of the process. Make sure that you set time aside to explore the meaning of the question and think about what you are being asked to do.
Another helpful way to approach an essay question is to break it down. For instance, a standard essay question might include words like analyze, contrast, and illustrate. Spelling out the meaning of these words may help in properly exploring the essay question; for instance, you might think about ‘breaking down an issue into its main features and looking at them in detail’ instead of just ‘analyzing’.
For more of these common essay words and how to better understand them, see the list on ‘How to understand the essay question’.
3. Plan and execute your research
Your research for an essay topic should be systematic rather than general. In other words, you should not worry about learning everything that has to do with the subject of your essay. You should target the information that is relevant to the essay question.
Deciding how much research is necessary for the essay is a major consideration. How many books or articles will you need to read? What sorts of online resources will you need to explore? Are there audio/visual sources that you will need to locate?
You will also want to consider what sort of primary sources you might need, and whether or not you should set aside time for gathering original data or planning museum/gallery visits.
For a list of specific research tactics, see ‘How to do research for an essay’.
4. Organize your material
At this point, you have finished with your research, and have collected all the material needed to write the essay. However, before you begin you should take a moment to step back and re-evaluate the essay question or topic. Consider your approach to the question, the main themes or ideas that are emerging, the arguments you can pursue, and the kind of evidence that you need.
Another important step is outlining the structure of the paper. You are probably aware that an essay needs an introductory paragraph, a main section, and a conclusion, but that basic format should be expanded upon in your specific essay plan. Think about creating an outline of headings for the main section based on the different themes and points you plan to touch on. You might also consider adding drafting notes under these headings to help you once you begin writing.
For more tips on how to approach outlining your essay, see ‘How to organize material for your essay’.
Of course, planning is important, but the actual writing is, too. Visit ‘Writing essay drafts’ and ‘Top tips for writing better essays’ for further help.
- The opinions and other information contained in OxfordWords blog posts and comments do not necessarily reflect the opinions or positions of Oxford University Press.
6 punctuation marks you might be using incorrectly
Punctuation is the art of clarifying how a group of words falls ...more
7 grammar myths you learned in school
Grammar can be tough. There are a lot of rules to follow, and a lot to ...more
Basic College Writing Tips
Welcome to College: Say Goodbye to the Five-Paragraph Essay
Many students learned in high school to write what is commonly known as the five paragraph essay. This handout is designed to help you see the weaknesses of that syle of essay and to help you learn to write something more complex that that formulaic essay. The Five Paragraph Essay consists of (surprise!) five paragraphs that follow a very structured format. The first paragraph contains a one sentence (or maybe a two sentence) thesis statement, which is followed by three sentences that briefly describe what will be discussed in the three body paragraphs. These three sentences are sometimes referred to as the pathway, since they show where the paper will go. There may then be a transitional sentence to the next paragraph, which discusses the topic of the first pathway sentence. The next two body paragraphs develop and detail the next two pathway sentences. The conclusion, the fifth paragraph, restates and summarizes the arguments of the essay, sometimes beginning with the phrase, In conclusion.
The strength of the five paragraph essay is that it is highly structured, and fairly easy to teach. It provides a very formulaic style of writing that many students find helpful. However, once you reach the college level, the weaknesses outweigh the strengths. The five paragraph essay encourages students to engage only on the surface level without attaining the level of cogency demanded by college writing. In its broad, overarching style, it has a tendency to encourage overly general thesis statements that lead to poorly developed and unfocused papers. And its formulaic nature makes it prone to produce papers with stilted organization. Not to mention that it is next to impossible to write five pages of one without repeating yourself. The only time the five paragraph essay may be useful in college is when you are writing answers to brief essay questions on exams. In timed situations that do not allow you to come up with a complex organization, the five pragraph essay format can be helpful to structure your ideas if you are easily overwhelmed by the number of points you have to make.
So, if you're not allowed to write the kind of essay your high school teachers taught you, what exactly else are you supposed to write? The easiest thing to remember is that with a few sentence level changes, each pathway sentence from a traditional five paragraph essay would make a great working thesis for the kind of argumentative, thesis-driven paper that you are asked to write in college. Heres an example in answer to the prompt, What fundamental change would improve high school education ?.
High school education has several problems which must be solved to prepare Americas youth for the challenges of the 21st century. Overcrowded classrooms mean that students do not receive the individualized attention that they need to succeed. Increasing rates of crime are making students afraid to come to school, and preventing students from concentrating while they are there. In addition, the lack of technological resources like state of the art computers is preventing students from being competitive in the workplace after graduation. These problems all mean that some students are falling behind.
When students fall behind, they need the attention of an instructor one on one to catch up. Because classrooms are so crowded, teachers are overworked. As a result. . .
High schools across the country are bulging at the seams. As increasing numbers of Americans realize that education is necessary to attaining the American dream, our schools grow more crowded. At the same time, budget cuts have caused schools to cut back on the number of teachers. As the number of teachers has dropped, and classrooms have become more crowded, the quality of education in our public schools has declined. With a higher workload, burnout among even the best teachers has increased, and fewer people see teaching as the desirable profession they once did. Solving the problem of overcrowding by strictly limiting class size to 20 students would allow more students to get the instruction they need to become productive members of society, which is the most important goal of high school education in America today.
Can you see the difference between the two parargraphs? Let's take a closer look:
|5 Para Essay||College Essay|
|High school education has several problems which||Solving theproblem of overcrowding would allow more|
|must be solved to prepare Americas youth for the||students toget the instruction they need to become|
|challenges of the 21st century.||productive members of society whichis the most|
|important goal of high school education in America today.|
|This thesis states the obvious. It is so general that||This statement narrows the topic down to a specific problem:|
|just about anything you threw into the essay could be used||overcrowding. It also states why overcrowding is a problem.|
|to support it but you would end up with a very unfocused||The sentence implies that overcrowding is preventing at least some students|
|essay. Also note the use of vague wording ||from getting the education they need to|
|several problems. Finally, a college paper must take a||become productive members of society, which the thesis|
|position that a rational person would disagree with.||itself identifies as a primary goal of high school education.|
|What rational person would not agree with this sentence?||There are lots of rational people who would choose another|
|problem as the worst obstacle facing high school education.|
|There are also lots of rational people who would argue for a|
|different primary goal of high school education.|
Many students when transitioning from the 5 paragraph essay to the college essay express concern about what else to put in the introductory paragraph. Certainly, the five paragraph essay gives you a clear formula for what else to include in the introduction. However, to excel at college writing, students need to think about the function of the introductory paragraph. Introductory pararaphs are designed to give readers a preview of the essay topic and introduce the writer's point of view on the subject. You do not need to have one sentence in the introduction for each paragraph in the paper. You simply need to give enough of an overview of where you are going to give readers a sense of the overall arc of your argument. An introduction is kind of like a movie preview--it tells the reader enough that he or she knows what to expect, but it does not give a scene by scene breakdown of the movie.
Even though a more complex essay will not have a one to one correspondance of setences to paragraphs, readers can still make a good guess about what will be included in that kind of essay. Here is what an outline for the essays that follow each of those thesis statements and introductory pararaphs might look like:
|5 Para Essay||College Essay|
|1. Overcrowding interferes with instruction.||1.The primary goal of a high school education is to make all students, not just a certain select few,|
|2. Increasing crime makes students afraid/unable to work.||into productive members of society.|
|3. No tech resources means not prepared for work force.||2. As jobs become more competitive, more people need and are seeking an education.|
|4. Conclusion||3. Budget cuts mean fewer teachers in schools, which reduces the quality of classroom instruction.|
|4. Teachers get burned out when classes are overcrowded.|
|5. In overcrowded classrooms, too many students get lost or slip through the cracks.|
|6. Conclusion suggesting what the result of solving the problems might be for society.|
Obviously, the second essay is going to come out longer and more complex than the first. This seems counterintuitive to many students at first glance. You would think that an essay with three main points would be longer than one with one main point. The difference is that the college essay asks you to ask more probing questions--to examine the hows and whys behind each point and push your analysis further.