What is smart, beautiful, and perfect? Your next essay, of course. Here are tips to help you to write a work of art as your next essay. This guide works mostly for first- or second-year undergraduates, but a graduate student may discover a few tidbits, too.
Ready to write?
Tip #1: Logical flow begins with a question.
“A good essay is never just a string of sentences. It is a journey from the question in the title to the answer in your ‘conclusion’” (18%).
Essays flow best with questions. At the graduate level, you must map out one or more questions your thesis answers.
At the undergrad level, if the professor asks, “How does S. J. William’s article tie into themes of the eternal?” then make your title something like “Euphoric love, Redemption, and Formlessness in S.J. William’s Writing.”
Then begin the journey.
Tip #2: Cut out anything that doesn’t answer the question.
“Everything you say in an essay should contribute in some way to answering the question in the title. This is the great value of having a problem to solve—it gives you a way of deciding what to put in and what to leave out. It also helps you to organize what you put in, so that it builds up towards your conclusion” (18%).
Just like in playwriting, essay writing wants you to cut out the chafe. Skim off the stuff that doesn’t answer your question. Nowhere should you say anything not said in your thesis statement.
If it jives with the question, it’s a keeper.
Tip #3: Lay out your argument.
“An essay never asks you just to ‘write what you know about the topic’ – it always requires you to present an argument of some kind. Often … the purpose is to answer a question…But … it is always meant to pose a ‘problem’ which your essay should then set out to argue about and solve” (18%).
You might, for instance, write an essay that analyzes an article. If so, pick three or more broad generic themes that capture the essence of the article, arguing in each section how each theme contributes to your question. If you cement a logical structure, bonus points to you.
Nothing shines an essay like an argument.
Tip #4: Your first sentence should grab the reader’s interest.
“There is a lot to be said for brisk, direct opening sentences in an essay …. The first sentence should grab your reader’s attention. It should be related to the essay question and it should be doing important work for your argument. But it doesn’t have to be fancy” (25%).
One professor said to write your introduction at the last stage of your essay-writing process. I say to write a generic introduction with your thesis statement and, at the end, blast in a strong introductory sentence.
Grab your reader’s attention in your first sentence.
Tip #5: Don’t make your introduction a sleeper.
“It is often said that in your ‘introduction’ you should say what you are going to do in the essay (then do it in the ‘middle’ part of the essay, and then say what you have done in the ‘conclusion’). But this kind of writing to a ‘formula’ is tedious to do and pretty dull to read” (25%).
Professors at the graduate level told me to write the ‘formula.’ Maybe a formula is useful for a book-sized document, but it’s a drag to read. At the undergrad level, I never wrote the formula outside of inserting a thesis statement.
You always want a thesis statement, though. My favorite professor neared the end of her thesis draft only to be told to start over from scratch. She didn’t have a thesis statement.
Interest the world with your introduction.
Tip #6: Your conclusion should answer the question.
“In the concluding paragraph of your essay you should give a direct answer to the essay question you have been asked (or a solution to the problem posed in the title) …. The judgements you make should be: relevant and appropriate to the question you are discussing; and justified by what you have argued earlier on” (33%).
If you say the world is red, blue, and green in your essay, say it is a rainbow in your conclusion. If you say he drank, courted many women, and gambled, say he indulged in a hedonist lifestyle in your conclusion.
The world awaits your relevant conclusion, where you tie it all together.
Tip #7: Connect your flow of thought with linking words and introductory words.
“Your readers cannot see into your mind. They may not be able to see connections between points that seem perfectly obvious to you. Link words act as ‘signposts’ that indicate the direction your argument is taking next …. They help your readers ‘follow’ your meaning as they read. So, you should use them often” (38%).
The best essays have paragraphs linked with words such as “therefore,” “moreover,” “despite this,” “on the contrary,” and so forth. Another linking system I read in a book involves using the keyword or synonyms of the keyword in each sentence. Yet another linking system is to end your sentence with the next point to discuss, and begin your next sentence with that word or a synonym.
Linking words act as your train track, each wooden rail an argument to the destination.
Tip #8: Write like Spock from Star Trek.
“Your writing ‘voice’ is who are you presenting yourself as? Basically you are expected to be a calm detached observer, pointing out to an equal (who happens not to be informed on this subject) some arguments that are relevant to a question you are both interested in (that is the question in the essay title)” (67%).
One professor said to write the paper as if she was your audience but she didn’t know anything about the topic. In other words, write for an uninformed genius.
Write seriously like Spock.
Tip #9: Only add your opinions if you support them with citations.
“Dropping thoughts of your own into your essay, in passing, tends to raise lots of complicated questions that you cannot deal with. Any ideas you do bring in need to be explained and justified” (31%).
In graduate studies, some soft science theses allow for you to drop in your personal voice. The autoethnography methodology allows you to speak your own voice regarding your lived experiences with the thesis topic.
Outside of that, only state your opinion if it agrees bang-on with the evidence (I.e. the citations) you provide. Just don’t say it with the word “I.”
The coolest opinions come from data.
More than that, all you need to succeed at university is a perfect essay.