At high school, particularly here in New Zealand, ideas are always assessed in the form of essays.
With so many rules surrounding ‘proper’ essay form, it’s easy for ideas to get lost to the format, or for you to lose sight of what they’re arguing for in the first place.
Sadly, this means that students often can’t get their thoughts across effectively, and are marked down for things that have no bearing on their ideas or intelligence.
However frustrating they might be, research has shown that learning how to compile an argument in written form is a skill that does great things for your grades, employability and general life-confidence.
As a soon-to-be graduate of high school – whatever you choose to do – the importance of strong communication skills cannot be understated.
If you choose to head straight into the workforce, you’ll be expected to demonstrate this skill in your cover letters and CV’s during job applications, and at University, essays are pretty much the stock standard assignment in most courses (otherwise there are always reports, reviews and reflections).
Writing skills will even get you further in your travels: Visas can involve lengthy letters and application processes, and administrators are always impressed by a well-written application.
Considering all the evidence, it’s a smart move to get a good feel for essay writing now – the seeds you plant now will help you out big-time in the long run.
How can I write a good essay then?
Contrary to popular opinion, anyone can write a good essay.
It’s a skill, not a trait, and like any other skill, it only improves with practice.
The tricky thing is getting your head around all the niggly bits, like structure, and themes, and ideas, and topic sentences, and punctuation, and clarity, blah blah blah, etc. That’s what we’re here for.
This guide will help you to break through the sludge of essay writing and help you to get to the heart of their purpose: communicating an idea. We’ll decipher the intimidating jargon and wordy standards for you, and give you solid, smooth steps to follow so you can smash an essay for every topic, any time. The guide will cover:
Deciding on an “idea”
Planning your argument
We’ve all been there: staring at a blank document, practically able to feel the creeping imminence of our paper’s deadline. For so many of us, it’s really hard to sit down and actually channel our thoughts into a coherent form, let alone one that’s structured and based on an argument worthy of praise.
Here’s a secret I’ve learned after years and years of battling a working ratio of five minutes of writing for every fifty-five minute YouTube immersion sesion: it’s easier to think of writing a paper as a series of tasks, of filling out a structured outline, than it is to try to sit down and just write a paper, start to finish. Here’s how I figured out how to break down a paper and flipped that ratio to fifty-five minutes of writing for every five minute break (or, let’s be real, more like ten).
Start With The Thesis. The Thesis Is Everything.
If you find yourself seriously struggling in the midst of paper-writing, there’s a good chance the issue can be traced back to your thesis. A strong thesis should logically set up the argument you’re making in your paper and the points you’ll use to make it. So let’s review the thesis basics.
What is a thesis statement?
- A thesis expresses an arguable opinion that can be supported by facts.
- A thesis should be presented in your intro paragraph and serve as a map for the rest of the essay.
- A thesis should be SCOD: Specific, Clear, Original, and Debatable
How do I structure a thesis?
- Start with the topic of your thesis. The topic is an aspect of the book or subject about which you’re writing that you found most interesting
- Then make a claim: what is your stance on the topic? What do you think is the deeper meaning that topic is trying to get at?
- Finally, list the points you will make to support that claim. What aspects of the book or subject led you to believe that claim?
In Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness, the mysterious landscape of the unexplored jungle represents the darkness of human nature best elaborated through the symbolic uses of fog, the river, and lack of sunlight.
Gender-based sexual harassment in the service industry leads to female employees experiencing serious psychological, emotional, and physical problems.
The Saving Grace Of Topic Sentences
Once you have your thesis roadmap, you can then write the topic sentence of each of your body paragraphs before you fill out the rest of the essay. The points you make in your thesis translate nicely into those topic sentences.
So, for example, the thesis “gender-based sexual harassment in the service industry leads to female employees experiencing serious psychological, emotional, and physical problems” quickly leads to topic sentences that focus on those three final points: psychological, emotional, and physical problems. Of course, you’re going to want to flesh those topics out into actual, relatively literary sentences that make their own mini claims that then connect back to the claim you’re making about your topic.
Psychological problems → The imbalance of power between supervisors, who disproportionately male, and employees in the service industry, who are disproportionately female often leads to psychological problems for those employees.
Emotional problems → The stress of this power imbalance can often result in unfavorable emotional experiences for female workers on the job.
Physical problems → Another power imbalance female employees face is in the more blatant invasion of their physical space by both their employers and customers, which can lead to unwanted or coercive physical actions.
Now that you have a solid skeleton for your essay, it’s time to give it some muscle. While we may live in a political era in which actual facts are considered overrated by some, you, dear essay writer, are better than that. Unfortunately, there are no shortcuts for this step: You have to actually put in the time to read the book you’re writing about or conduct the research that will allow you to support your claims.
Here are some tips, though, for how to efficiently maximizing your time doing so:
- If your source material or research materials happen to be online, try searching key terms related to your thesis and specific claims. Rather than trying to re-read everything, this can obviously help you narrow in on relevant passages.
- It might feel counter-intuitive, but if you’re struggling to remember a specific reference or example from your source, try taking a step back and clearing your mind. Sometimes going on a walk or closing your eyes can take the pressure off and increase your ability to think a little more organically and creatively.
- This might be more useful for your next paper, but there’s a reason your teachers may have encouraged “active reading” -- like highlighting or taking notes in the margins. This may seem like an unnecessary burden while you’re working through a text, but it can often serve as an incredible shortcut to finding evidence down the line.
And there you have it. The blank doc doesn’t own you — you are its master now. Good luck and happy writing!
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