Writing a good English essay is a skill that will take you through primary and high school, and into university or even postgraduate studies. The lessons you remember while learning how to write an essay are ones that will stay with you as you continue your studies -- even once essays are replaced by much more challenging theses and dissertations.
What Makes a Good Essay?
Before you start stressing about your essay writing skills, rest assured that there’s no such thing as a ‘perfect essay’.
The perfect essay will depend on a number of things, including the subject, key points and writer’s intention. They are, by nature, an exercise in creativity, therefore allowing students to share their own viewpoints and opinions in an academic setting.
Although the perfect essay doesn’t exist, good essays all have a few things in common. Read on to find out how you can improve your essay writing skills.
It All Starts with Planning
More than simply planning the structure of your essay, all good essays start with knowing what point you’re trying to make. After all, an essay without a point is just rambling.
Before even thinking about how you want to structure your essay, make sure you understand the question. Words like ‘discuss’, ‘compare and contrast’ or ‘evaluate’ each mean different things that will affect how you write your essay, and help you define the point you're trying to make. If you’re unsure, ask your teacher to clarify.
Once you understand the question, it’s time to start planning the structure of your essay.
For example, if your essay topic is “Discuss the causes of the French Revolution,” before putting pen to paper (or fingers to keyboard), you’ll need to research the most pertinent factors leading to the French Revolution, then decide in which order you want to present them.
Take your time in planning the structure of your essay. Rushing through this step only to realise you’ve missed an important point can make the whole process longer and more frustrating.
A Beginning, Middle and End
Describing an essay structure as ‘beginning, middle and end,’ can seem like an over-simplification, but it means the same thing as an ‘introduction, a body and a conclusion’. As you advance in your writing and/or academic career, the structure of theses or dissertations will change depending on your area of study, but the idea of ‘beginning, middle and end’ will never change.
This is because you always have to start off assuming your reader isn’t familiar with the topic you’re about to write about (even if they’re your teacher!).
You will need to contextualise what they’re about to read – setting your essay in a specific time period, about a certain person, or within a certain area of study. A good way to practise this is to pretend you’re writing your essay for someone who has never met you before. How would you introduce someone halfway across the world to the topic you’re about to write about?
The middle (or body) is where the bulk of your argument will be contained. While there are no solid rules for how to write a good body of an essay, here are some tips:
- Only use relevant information. You may find some fun facts while doing research, but if they don’t support your argument, leave them out. This prevents your essay from going off-topic or becoming rambling.
- Your opinion should always be based on research. Depending on your class, some teachers will want your essay to be based on your opinion, while others are more focused on factual accuracy. But either way, if you do share your opinion, ensure that it is based on the research presented in your essay.
- There is no set number of paragraphs your body should contain, but try to limit each paragraph to making one to two points in order to ensure the flow of information is easy for the reader to digest.
- Watch out for plagiarism! It can be easy to make a mistake and present someone else’s idea or work as your own, but it’s important to credit every researcher you quote. Once you’re in university, your work will likely be checked by plagiarism software, so it’s vital that you master the skill of crediting while you’re still at school.
The word conclusion means “a judgement or decision reached by reasoning”, and that’s exactly what your conclusion should do. Out of all of the sections in your essay, this one should most directly answer the question being asked, answer any hypotheses put forth in your introduction, and wrap up the essay with your viewpoint clearly stated.
Think of the introduction and conclusion as a tennis game: For every hypothesis put forward in your introduction, your conclusion bounces the ball back by addressing each point and either proving or disproving it.
Where to Start
The most honest answer to “Where should I start my essay?” is, “Wherever you want.” Everyone’s mind works differently, so it’s important to find a flow that works for you.
Some people find it easiest to write a rough introduction first, in order to structure their thoughts and give them direction on what research they need to do. Once you’ve written the body, return to the introduction and ensure that each point made was addressed. From here, you can streamline your introduction and ensure that it flows into your body. Once your introduction is complete, you can then write out your conclusion, making sure that it speaks to the points made in your introduction and body.
Others find it easier to write the body first. As the bulk of any essay will always be the body, writing this first helps you get a holistic view of the research and then whittle it down into writing an introduction and conclusion. There’s nothing wrong with this method, but it’s important that you start with an outline in place so that the body of your essay doesn’t go off topic, or become too long if you have a word count.
Whichever way you choose, facing a blank page is the most intimidating part of writing an essay. So as long as you start, you’re right on track!
Additional Essay Writing Tips and Tricks
It goes without saying, but you’d be surprised at how many people write an essay and turn it in without ever reading it from beginning to end. The ideal situation is to finish your essay early, forget about it for a day or two, then come back to read it with a fresh mind.
But often, life doesn’t work out like this and busy schedules get in the way. If you don’t have time to leave your essay for a few days, take a break and do something that engages your mind for an hour (e.g. a crossword puzzle, computer game, read a book, etc.) then come back to proofread.
When proofreading, keep an eye out for spelling and grammatical errors, but also ensure you’re checking whether each section flows into the next, and that the structuring of information makes sense. The great thing about living in the 21st century is the fact that you can easily copy and paste sections into new places to see if they work better in a different order.
If you can, have someone else (a parent, sibling or tutor) read your essay to give you feedback or spot any spelling mistakes.
Reaching a Word Count
The bane of many students’ existence is reaching essay word counts or a specified number of pages, and students have tried all sorts of tricks to make their essays appear longer (including increasing their font size or decreasing their margins).
While these may work some of the time, they won’t prepare you for higher-level essays, where there are often predetermined fonts and layouts you need to use.
The easiest way to reach a word count is to simply write more. Re-read your essay and see where there are points you can expand on or if there are additional points you can add.
Depending on the style of essay you’ve been tasked with writing, you’ll usually need to include references, citations or a bibliography. In fact, they’re so important that some essays will be marked with a zero if there’s no evidence of research.
Ensure you understand what kind of referencing your essay requires, and save important links as you go. There’s nothing worse than realising you left out a reference and having to sift through your history to find it again!
Understand the Criteria
Teachers will usually look for powerful introductory paragraphs, a relevant and interesting interpretation of the topic, and a conclusion that effectively summarises the content. Of course, things like spelling, grammar and punctuation will also be taken into account.
If you aren’t sure about what your teacher is looking for, there’s nothing wrong with asking them so that you can ensure your essay is tailored to their marking criteria.