Dear Heather

Dear Heather,

Do you have any advice for a student who’s really bad at writing essays?

Jack S.

Dear Jack,

A lot of people have trouble writing essays, often because they’re intimidated by the task. The trick to a great essay is organization, but don’t panic: it’s easier than it sounds.

Before you do anything else, you need to come up with an opinion about your topic. If you look closely, you’ll find that every good essay begins with a statement of someone’s opinion about something (English profs call this the thesis). The rest of the essay consists of arguments in support of the thesis. If you have a good thesis with lots of evidence to back it up, your essay will practically write itself. So, get out a sheet of paper and write down the opinion you plan to defend (preferably in one or two sentences, so it’s nice and focused). Then, write down as many points as you can think of that support your thesis. If the essay is a research paper, these may be facts that come from books or journals (make sure you reference them properly). If it’s not a research paper, the supporting points may be your own observations, ideas or beliefs on the matter.

Congratulations- you’ve just created an outline of your essay. Now you have to fire up the word processor and flesh it out a bit. The first paragraph of your essay should give a brief introduction to the topic, with your thesis at the end. You can also include a summary (just a few sentences) of the arguments you plan to make in support of your thesis, if you wish.

Now look at the points you wrote down that will support your thesis. Each of those is one paragraph in your essay. If you have five supporting points, your essay will have five paragraphs between the introduction and the conclusion. You can adjust the number of supporting points used (the number of paragraphs) and the amount of discussion of each point (the length of the paragraphs) to get the essay the length you want. Just make sure that in every paragraph, you give one argument and clearly explain how it supports your opinion/thesis.

Finally, you need a conclusion: one last paragraph to sum things up. Restate your thesis and give a brief recap of the arguments you made to support it. Give the whole thing a title and click “?save’.

I usually like to wait a day or two to get a fresh perspective, then re-read my essay (aloud, if I’m alone in the house). This gives me a chance to catch typos and just make sure the whole thing sounds good. I often end up changing the wording of a few sentences to make them less confusing, and making other minor adjustments. If spelling and grammar aren’t your strong points, you may also want to ask a word-savvy friend to proofread it for you. Then, send it to your tutor and breathe a sigh of relief- you’re done!

By the way, it does get easier. By the time you’ve done a few, you’ll be able to write essays in your sleep. Won’t that be a great time-saver?


E-mail your questions to Heather at Some submissions may be edited for length or to protect confidentiality: your real name and location will never be printed. This column is for entertainment
only. Heather is an AU student offering objective advice to her peers; she is not a professional counsellor and this column is not intended to take the place of professional advice.