How does one write a good essay? That is the question that has plagued students at all levels for generations. If you look for an answer to this question you will find more than one solution. Fundamentally though I believe essays are not really written; they are wrought. Much as a smith shapes iron into something new and beautiful, so does a writer hammer and refine their work endlessly moulding the reluctant material into something that if executed correctly can be sublime.
To that end then I believe there are two aspects of writing one must try to master: the mechanical which contains grammar, structure, and format and the indefinable which consist of the content, narrative, analysis and prose. I call it the indefinable because it’s something that is easy to demonstrate but almost impossible to describe. Most people will gravitate toward one aspect or the other of writing naturally. The question then becomes trying to better refine their skills in the other domain without sacrificing their natural inclination. Thus the question of how to write a good essay I have found over many years has no set of answer that is suitable for everyone.
My partner was an English as a second language student. Though completely brilliant she often struggled with the content of essays. Though she easily mastered the mechanics, she struggled with the indefinable. I on the other hand was predisposed toward the indefinable, but due to my learning disability struggled with the mechanical aspects.
My writing has improved greatly since then in no small part to my understanding of what it was previously lacking. Now when writing a essay I follow a set number of steps that help to ensure I am able to write a high quality essay on time.
Define the question and the answer
Often what looks like the easiest part of a essay it can actually be the hardest.
Start with the prompt and put it on the top of your draft. This is the question you are trying to answer – so how would you answer it in one sentence? Write out that answer and there is your thesis. Leave it on the top of your essay so you can always refer back to it.
Start with an outline
Again a technique that seems obvious but one that many people often neglect. Start with an outline – for example:
- Three to four supporting paragraphs
For each paragraph, bullet point what that paragraph is going to answer. When you make a outline you are drawing a clear map for yourself to follow. The introduction lays out the question you are trying to answer and what your answer is. The paragraphs establish your argument and the conclusion ties everything together.
Focus on narrative first
This might sound daft for a academic paper, but start by laying out your narrative first and foremost. There will be time to add evidence, quotes, and citations. You can even leave notes to yourself as you write to go back and add supporting evidence at certain spots.
Let someone else proofread
This is crucial. What separates good writers from great ones is their ability to not just accept constructive criticism, but actively seek it out. Find a friend, relative, coworker or teacher who is willing to look over your work and give you feedback. It can be helpful if you haven’t mastered the mechanical for them to also look for spelling and punctuation. Though there are software programs that can do that to a high degree of certainty. The benefit of a proofreader is to receive feedback on the content of your paper.
Put it aside and go back to it
When writing it’s best to start early, work hard and then finish an initial draft with time to spare.
The purpose of this is to allow time for polishing. Put the essay aside, work on another project or do something you enjoy then go back and look at your essay again. Read it through preferably out loud and see if it says what you want it to say. There is a good chance you might identify sentences you can improve and phrases you can change. You may also catch mistakes you and your proofreader previously missed.
As a final thought I will add that personally I find there to be no shame in throwing out a draft I don’t like and starting anew. Often I will cannibalize my old draft for sources or paragraphs. Ultimately writing is something very personal and every person will have their own approach, but it never hurts to try different techniques to see what works for you.