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English Writing Center

 

 

 

How to Develop and Write an Essay

Getting Started

Writing is a process of organizing and expressing your thoughts. Since writing is a process, there is no one or single manner of writing an essay. However, "experienced writers pass through certain stages that overlap and circle back on each other" (Little, Brown Handbook). These stages include: 1) Developing or Planning (discovering the subject, gathering information, focusing on a central theme, and organizing material); 2) Drafting (the "writing" that includes creating ideas, expressing ideas, clarifying ideas, and connecting ideas); 3) Revising (rethinking and improving structure, content, style, and presentation; re-writing; editing; and proofreading).

Even though writing is a process, you—the student/essayist—need some place to begin, some steps to follow. To get started:

1. CHOOSE A TOPIC that interests you; choose one that you know something about or one that you can easily research.

2. NARROW YOUR TOPIC. For example, do not write on “Earthquakes”; rather, write on “The San Andreas Fault.” Even this topic is broad enough to warrant writing a book, so you could further narrow it to “The Northridge Earthquake.”

3. USE PREWRITING TECHNIQUES to get ideas down on paper.

a) Brainstorm – Focus on an idea for a set time (say fifteen minutes) and list every idea that comes to mind about a given topic. Do not reject any idea, no matter how absurd. Do not try to list in any order (1, 2 ,3 or A, B, C). Do write down ideas all over the page.

b) Cluster ideas and/or words – Group ideas or words that belong together to discover connections among ideas. Clustering is often done after brainstorming so that similar ideas can be grouped together.

c) Make lists – Outline informally the major points in a tentative order.

d) Free write – Focus on an idea for a set time (say ten minutes) and write down those ideas in paragraph or "essay" format. Do write down every idea, no matter how absurd or unrelated it may seem. Do not think about or be concerned with organization, grammar, sentence structure, or punctuation. Do not stop writing for the given time period (set a timer and if you run out of ideas write "I can't think of anything to write" until another idea comes–and it will).

e) Explore new ideas and a variety of points of view on your topic.

4. MAKE AN OUTLINE to organize your main points. Put similar ideas together; find examples and details to illustrate these ideas.

5. DETERMINE YOUR THESIS, which is the main idea or controlling idea of your paper. A thesis statement is your judgment or opinion about a subject – an opinion you will illustrate, prove, and support in the essay. Your thesis should be narrow and to the point; it should assert an opinion or judgment about the subject; and it should be a complete statement, generally one sentence, not a question, and not a fragment.

WRITING GUIDELINES

When writing any composition, two of the most important considerations are audience and purpose. Use the following guidelines to direct your thinking.

Audience

In writing your composition, determine who your audience will be. Then, consider the following questions:

1. How can I effectively attract the interest of my readers?

2. What knowledge may my readers already have about the topic?

3. What questions will my readers ask about my topic?

4. How can I develop my subject and thesis so that my readers will understand my purpose and ideas?

Do not assume too much about your audience's knowledge. Anyone who reads your essay needs to have a context from which to understand how you drew your conclusion. They do not have to agree with your conclusion, but rather, they should not be able to fault the logic behind your conclusions.

Purpose

A good writer not only considers his or her audience, but also considers the purpose (the "why") for writing. Though any purpose for writing can be refined and made very specific to the task, in general, there are only four purposes for writing:

  1. To entertain the reader.
  2. To express your feelings or ideas to the reader.
  3. To inform or to explain something to the readers (called exposition–a typical college essay).
  4. To persuade readers to accept or act on your opinion (called argument–a typical college essay).

Rhetorical Modes

The subject, audience, and purpose of your paper help determine which rhetorical mode you select and help determine how you say it. For example, if your purpose were to persuade your audience/readers to think or act a certain way, you would want to write a persuasive essay. Yet, as a writer, how can you arrange your essay to best present your topic? The writer's tools that you use to arrange and support your position are called rhetorical modes.

The rhetorical modes that are available for you to use in your essays include:

  1. Exemplification/ Illustration – explains a general statement by means of one or more specific examples.
  2. Narration – tells the story of what happened, the specific events that happened, and the people who were involved. It uses organized facts and details in a clear chronological or time order.
  3. Description describes something – a person, a place, or an object – and captures it in words so others can imagine it or see it in the mind's eye. It uses descriptive examples that make use of the senses (sight, smell, hearing, taste, and touch) to convey an image or represent an idea.
  4. Process Analysis – uses logical order or chronology to describe how to do something, how a particular event occurs, or how something works.
  5. Definition – explains clearly what a word, term, or topic means.
  6. Comparison/ Contrast – Comparison examines the ways in which two persons, places, or things are similar while Contrast examines the ways in which they are different. Comparison/Contrast, then, helps the reader understand one person, place, or thing in relation to another. Also, another method of Comparison/Contrast that helps the reader understand one person, place, or thing in relation to another is Analogy which compares/contrast something familiar with something unfamiliar.
  7. Cause and Effect – examines why something happened or what its consequences were or will be. Cause and Effect analysis answers the question "Why did something happen, and/or what results did it have?"
  8. Classification – gathers items, ideas, or information into types, kinds, or categories according to a single basis of division. For example, an essay could be classified as a narrative, process, or compare/contrast, etc.

The Three-part Essay

College essays should have three parts:

  1. An introduction that includes the thesis sentence. General information and your “hook” should come before your thesis statement. The introduction sets the tone of the essay and provides structure to the thoughts that will be supported in the remaining paragraphs. When appropriate, present in the introductory paragraph the major ideas behind your essay. These ideas should be presented in a manner that suggests an order such as an increasing or decreasing level of importance or a chronological order or that suggests another arrangement that clearly identifies a connection between the thoughts. Follow this general information with the thesis statement, the central idea, opinion, or judgment that your essay will prove and/or support. (A note here: although many college essays have the thesis statement in the introduction of the essay or research paper, the thesis can also appear in the middle or at the end of the paper. Placement of thesis will be determined by your subject, purpose, and audience. For example, if your purpose is to have a surprise ending that, in fact, is your thesis statement, do not reveal it in the introduction. Save that thesis for the end of the paper).
  2. A body where the thesis is developed through a combination of general ideas and concrete support such as facts, examples, and anecdotes. In the body, each supporting main point or idea is presented clearly. Sometimes each supporting main point can be developed in its own paragraph; other times, a supporting main point will require several paragraphs to fully develop the point and relate it to the thesis. In either case, the general body paragraph should contain: a topic sentence that expresses the controlling idea of the paragraph (the opinion or judgment that the paragraph will show or prove); specific, concrete facts and details that support the topic sentence; examples and illustrations that show or prove the point of the paragraph; and commentary or discussion that will explain: 1) how the examples prove or show the main point and 2) how the main point of the paragraph shows or proves the thesis statement of the essay. The paragraphs should be in the same order as they are presented in the introduction and thesis statement.
  3. A conclusion, which is the last part of your paper. Summarize, in different words, the main points of your essay, leaving the reader with a final thought. In the conclusion, provide words that "mirror" your central idea (the point your essay is proving or showing) in such a way that your conclusion along with your "mirrored" thesis statement brings together and embodies the ideas that have been presented and discussed in your essay.

In Summary:

Elements of the Essay

Minimum number of Paragraphs

General comments

Introduction One paragraph
  • start general
  • discuss the general subject/topic
  • state the thesis that expresses an opinion or judgment and that is sufficiently narrowed
Body  One paragraph per main point.
  • develop ideas through the use of:
  • specific concrete detail,
  • examples and
  • commentary
Conclusion One paragraph
  • start specific
  • end general
  • reflect the central idea

*Note: The above summary is meant as a guide but can be easily modified to adhere to the needs of a particular assignment or essay style.

Writing Tips

The more you write, the better your writing will be and the easier writing tends to become. Do not worry if your paper contains flaws in your first draft; instead, remember that most successful writers make numerous revisions before they are satisfied with a paper.

1. Develop each point in its own separate paragraph. In general, each paragraph should have its own topic sentence or main idea. Some longer paragraphs may be broken into separate paragraphs for ease in reading while some paragraphs may be short transitional paragraphs. Each paragraph needs unity; it must be about one idea. For coherence, the ideas and sentences must flow smoothly. Make sure each paragraph is developed using concrete, specific, detailed examples.

2. Use lively and interesting words.

a) In general, avoid the use of “you” in formal writing (unless you are writing a Process Analysis). This point of view is an intrusion on the reader who may or may not agree with your perspective. Do not overuse pronouns such as it, he, she, and they; or that and which with no direct antecedent.

b) Verbs are very important to good writing; use action verbs when possible to add more zest to your paper. English depends on verbs to breathe life into nouns for dynamic and interesting sentences. Therefore, be careful not to overuse the “to be” verbs (am, is, are, was, were).

c) Try to find strong nouns (names of people, places, or things).

d) Use a dictionary and/or thesaurus to find effective words. Remember: The process of improving your vocabulary never ends.

e) Avoid contractions in formal papers. For instance, use will not or did not instead of won't or didn't.

3. Use the present tense when writing about a movie, book, magazine article, or short story.

4. Underline and use quotation marks by following these guidelines:

a) Underline or italicize titles of novels, books, plays, book-length poems, films, newspapers, magazines, long musical works, television series, recordings, ships, and words in a language other than English.

b) Use quotation marks for the titles of short stories, stories in books, chapter titles, essays, short poems, magazine articles, television episodes, or songs.

c) Consult a grammar book for other specific instances.

5. Use an epigraph to suggest a theme for your essay. It can be placed between the title and introductory paragraph. An epigraph is a short motto or quotation that suggests a theme. It is important to remember that an epigraph does not take the place of your thesis.

6. Use the Modern Language Association (MLA) parenthetical citations format if you are writing English/Humanities papers and you need to cite source materials. The 4th edition of A Writer's Reference, by Diana Hacker, is now available on the EWC's computer systems. For other disciplines, check with your instructor for specific requirements.

7. Refer to the attached example of a “Works Cited” page. If you have further questions, please go to the MLA Internet site: http://www.mla.org/style/sources.htm and read and/or download a copy of “Documenting Sources from the World Wide Web” to your PC disk. You may then open the document in Microsoft Word.

Writing is an act of discovery. It takes time and practice. Keep working and challenging yourself.

Works Cited [sample]

Books:

Ellis, Bret Easton. Less Than Zero. New York: Vintage Contemporaries, 1985.

Gerard, Philip. Creative Nonfiction. Cincinnati: Story Press, 1996.

[If a work has two or three authors, all the authors' names are listed with the first author listed, Last Name, First Name, and the other others listed First Name Last Name. For example: Rostenberg, Leona, and Madeleine Stern. If a work has more than three authors, the name of the first author is used, followed by a comma and et al.]

Anthology/Collection:

Zinsser, Williams. “College Pressures.” Patterns for College Writing: A Rhetorical Reader and

Guide. Ed. Laurie G. Kirszner and Stephen R. Mandell. New York: St. Martin's Press, 1997. 378-386.

[Many short stories and poems (short works) come from anthologies or collections.]

Magazine:

Howard, Ken. “The Bioinformatics Gold Rush.” Scientific American July 2000: 58-63.

Newspaper:

Nessman, Ravi. “S. Africa's AIDS Plan Defended.” The San Diego Union-Tribune. 10 July

2000: A2.

Personal Interview:

King, Stephen. Personal Interview. 6 June 2000.

[“Personal Interview” refers to the type of interview. This reference could also be “Telephone Interview” or “Online Interview.”]

In-text Citations [sample]

Simple Quote:

Regarding the completed draft of the human gnome, many scientists from around the world agree that “The race and competition will be who can mine [the data] best” (Howard 59).

[When integrating quotes, avoid “orphan quotes” – quotes that are inserted into the text without the benefit of a lead-in to establish context. An example of this would be using the above quote with only the material within the quotation marks. In addition, quotes should be followed by commentary linking the quote to the topic of the paper and highlighting the significance of the quote (i.e.: why it has been included). For this reason, a paragraph should not end with a quote.]

Quoted Phrase:

Philip Gerard suggests the interviewing technique as one way to capture stories which could be turned into creative nonfiction. He suggests to be on guard; the process of interviewing is a "human process" which can lead to unexpected results (Gerard 54).

[When using short phrases from longer quotes it is important not to remove the phrase from the context of the original, longer quote. Be careful to maintain the original meaning.]

Long Quote:

. . . an example can be found in the following quote from Ellis' novel, Less Than Zero:

People are afraid to merge on freeways in Los Angeles. This is the first thing I hear when I come back to the city. Blair Picks me up from LAX and mutters this under her breath as her car drives up the onramp. She says, `People are afraid to merge on freeways in Los Angeles.' (Ellis 9)

As can be seen in the style that Ellis uses throughout his many works of fiction, this opening . . .

[A long quote is basically any quote with forty or more words. The quote is indented ten spaces and does not use quotation marks. The citation then follows the punctuation. See the note following the “Simple Quote” reference.]

Paraphrasing:

At a recent international conference concerning the AIDS crisis in Africa, President Thabo Mbeki addressed his widely criticized belief that HIV may not cause AIDS (Nessman).

[A paraphrase must be completely in your own words.]

 

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