How to Develop and Write an Essay
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, 25). 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,
youthe student/essayistneed 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
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
comesand 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
When writing any composition, two of the
most important considerations are audience and purpose. Use the
following guidelines to direct your thinking.
In writing your composition, determine
who your audience will be. Then, consider the following
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.
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:
- To entertain the reader.
- To express your feelings or
ideas to the reader.
- To inform or to explain
something to the readers (called expositiona
typical college essay).
- To persuade readers to
accept or act on your opinion (called argumenta
typical college essay).
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:
- Exemplification/ Illustration
explains a general statement by means of one or
more specific examples.
- 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
- 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.
- Process Analysis uses
logical order or chronology to describe how to do
something, how a particular event occurs, or how
- Definition explains
clearly what a word, term, or topic means.
- 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.
- 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?"
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:
- 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).
- 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.
- 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.
Elements of the
- start general
- discuss the general
- state the thesis that
expresses an opinion or judgment and that is
|| One paragraph per main point.
- develop ideas through the
- specific concrete detail,
- examples and
- 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.
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.
6. 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
7. 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
8. Use the present tense when writing
about a movie, book, magazine article, or short story.
9. 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
10. 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.
11. 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
12. 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
Writing is an act of discovery.
It takes time and practice. Keep working and challenging
Works Cited [sample]
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.]
Zinsser, Williams. College
Pressures. Patterns for College Writing: A Rhetorical
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.]
Howard, Ken. The Bioinformatics
Gold Rush. Scientific American July 2000: 58-63.
Nessman, Ravi. S. Africa's AIDS
Plan Defended. The San Diego Union-Tribune. 10 July
King, Stephen. Personal Interview. 6
[Personal Interview refers
to the type of interview. This reference could also be
Telephone Interview or Online Interview.]
In-text Citations [sample]
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.]
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
. . . 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
At a recent international conference
concerning the AIDS crisis in Africa, President Thabo Mbeki
addressed his widely criticized belief that HIV may not cause
[A paraphrase must be completely in your