A simple step-by-step guide to help you write your best paper yet.
For years, my one claim-to-fame in the academic world has been that I can write essays. I won’t pretend to know anything in a science lab, and I avert my eyes when my friends do their math and computer science homework, but when it comes to English or history, I’m your guide.
My secret is that I’ve developed a formula for researching, outlining and formatting essays that has yet to fail me. This design might need some slight tweaking depending on the subject or discipline you’re writing about, but all in all I think that once you get the hang of this system, it’s pretty fool-proof.
Step One: Basic Researching
The first order of business is to figure out what you’re even going to write about. Start with a very general topic, like what authors you want to write about or the historical event you want to cover. Then as you find more sources you can narrow down what exactly you will discuss in your essay, and what argument you’re going to make about it.
Finding sources can be difficult, but a good place to begin is by searching for keywords from your topic. I tend to try to collect some general sources about the subject, and then some that present a particular stance about it.
As you decide which sources you’re going to use–be they books, articles, or other media–I recommend doing a quick overview or skimmed reading of them. This way you can gain a general sense of what the source addresses. Only do a quick reading though, enough to get an idea of what the articles are talking about. We’ll return to do a more thorough reading later.
Step Two: Formulating a Thesis Statement
The thesis statement is the all-encompassing sentence of your paper. It tells the reader what you are going to be arguing for in your essay, and often ties in what evidence you are going to use to support this argument. For example, it would generally say something to the effect of: “This is true because of these reasons.”
Narrowing down your thesis statement and deciding what evidence you are going to use will become much easier after you have done your basic research. Let the information from the sources you have gathered guide what conclusions you draw about the topic.
Step Three: Thorough Research and Creating an Outline
One of the most effective essay-writing tactics I’ve used is the art of creating a good essay outline. This provides structure for your paper once you begin the full writing process, and it helps to organize your argument and supporting evidence.
Begin by writing your thesis statement at the top of the page. Beneath that, write out the main supporting points for your thesis statement, or the evidence you will use to prove the statement is true, leaving a bit of space between them. A typical paper will require at least 3-5 main points, and these are going to be the subjects for each of the body paragraphs of your final essay.
In conjunction with this step, I like to return to the sources gathered earlier and do a deeper analysis of them, reading the material more closely. As you do this, look out for anything that might support the main points you wrote out in the outline. When you find information to go with a certain point, write it down, in jot note form, in the empty space left beneath that main point in the outline. Make sure to reference which source you got that point from, and what page or paragraph number it was on; this will make including your references in your final draft much easier.
I go through every source in this way, writing direct quotes or paraphrasing areas of the sources that fit each topic. This step takes the longest, but it makes the task of writing the full essay much quicker and more efficient.
Step Four: Writing the First Draft
Once you have all of your information from your sources organized into your outline, you can proceed to writing.
I begin with the opening paragraph, but if you find it easier you can return to this after fleshing out your body paragraphs. Write a few sentences explaining what topic you are going to be writing about, and then give a very basic introduction to the main points or reasonings of your essay. Top it off with your thesis statement, so the reader knows what angle you are going to take and what they should learn from your piece.
After that, go to the first main point section of your outline. State again what that main point is. Then, turn all of the jot notes you took down from your sources into complete sentences. If you wrote down direct quotes in your outline, you can keep some of them in, but try not to overdo it. Otherwise, paraphrase the information from the sources into your own words.
Rinse and repeat with all the other sections of your outline. A phrase that is commonly used to teach essay writing is to make sure the paragraphs “flow”; this is a pretty vague instruction, but I’ve found it to mean that you should write the last sentence of each paragraph in a way that leads into the topic of the next paragraph. This is easier if you try to write each body paragraph in an order that builds your argument or thesis statement up as you go, and makes sense for each topic to follow the other. Once you have gone through every section of the outline, turning your jot notes into full sentences and paragraphs, you will have the entire body of your paper completed.
All that’s left now is your conclusion. Here you can mostly say again what you said in your introduction paragraph and thesis statement, only reword it a little. This is also a space where you could address any areas of your topic that further study or research could focus on, or possible drawbacks, criticisms, or counterarguments that came up in your research. However, it’s important to end on a positive note: you want to prove your thesis, not disprove it. If you take the time to explain a counterargument, you should also explain how the evidence supporting your thesis is stronger than the evidence against it.
Step Five: Proofreading and Final Touches
If you have time before the paper’s deadline, I highly recommend leaving the draft alone for a while after you’ve completed the first draft. My experience is that other things will come to mind or become clearer after you’ve taken a short break and look at it again with fresh eyes.
Read through your essay again. Clarify any arguments that you think aren’t explained well enough. Focus on whether or not the various paragraphs “flow” well into one another. Try to catch any spelling or grammatical errors. All of these things are easier to notice if you read the paper out loud, or if you have someone else proofread it for you.
After that, add your title page, references within the text, and final works cited page according to the citation style required by your professor or discipline. With these last finishing touches, you have a completed paper.
The University of Saskatchewan has many resources to help you with this entire process as well. The USask library website is a great place to find sources; there are different search engines available which will yield different results and different types of sources. There are various online guides with advice on how to use the site, and there is also an extremely helpful “Ask Us” feature, which opens a live chat with library staff to get answers to your questions.
In addition to this, the University has a Writing Help Centre on the first floor of Murray library which can provide you with some incredible support to strengthen your piece and your writing overall.
What I like most about this essay-writing process is that it is quite versatile, and can be applied to nearly every standard paper you write. Once you’ve mastered it, you can impress your peers and professors with your writing genius, when really you’ve just become a whiz at repeating one formula with different information over and over again. My hope in sharing this method is that your next essay-writing experience will be as easy and painless as possible for you!