How to write a good essay








How to Write an Essay
Part 1 - Research
"When you take stuff from one writer it's plagiarism; but when you take it from many writers, it's research."
-- Wilson Mizner (1876-1933)
Focus
There are those who say that before you can research or write, you must first choose a focus and stick to it. While that is good advice in some cases, there are times when your focus should change during the research process. For example, you might decide to write on a topic only to discover a more interesting, more relevant, or more easily researched topic while trying to find materials on the original topic. For this reason, you should not submit a proposal for an essay (if required) or otherwise make your focus concrete until you've done some preliminary research. That doesn't mean reading every book on the subject; rather, you should ascertain what sort of materials are available on the subject at all. When you do your basic search, keep in mind the following indications:
• If you find an endless supply of possible sources right away, your topic is too broad, and you'll have to dig down into the subject more deeply to find a more suitable focus.
• If you can't find any possible sources after a serious search, your topic may be too narrow or too new. While this could serve as an excellent topic for a thesis in that it provides opportunity for original study, it is probably going to be inappropriate for an early-university or high school essay.
• The Internet is a fabulous source of knowledge. It is also a fabulous source of utter nonsense. If all of your sources are Internet-based and you can't find any book sources, you have to seriously consider the validity of the subject matter for a university essay. Even cutting-edge technology has books and articles available that describe the basics of the technology.
• If all of the sources seem to be written by the same person or group of people, you must again seriously consider the validity of the topic. It might be too narrow, or it might be generated by 'crackpots,' or it might be a great topic that has not been written about often enough. Discuss the topic with your teacher/professor.
• If you find a good source, search again under the author's name in case they have another useful book that you didn't find in the first search.
Assuming you don't have any of the above problems in your preliminary research, you should now be ready to choose a focus for your essay. In your notes, come up with a brief focus statement to help guide yourself. This doesn't have to be grammatically perfect, and if you wish, it can be in the form of a question. The point is to give yourself a guide by which to judge research as you find it. For example, here is a fake topic (don't fret about what widget watching is, I just made it up):
• Focus: The life of Joe Smith (1856-1902) and how he contributed to the field of widget watching
o Good sources:
 Joe Smith: His Life and Times, by Sally Superwriter
 Widget Watching in the Late 1800s, by Michelle Bogus
 http://www.website.com/joesmith/widgetwatching.html
 Article in Widgets Monthly: Joe Smith, Portrait of a Widget Watcher, by Jean Doorknocker
o Possible Sources:
 Widget Watchers in History, by Frank Diddledum (may or may not contain anything about Joe Smith)
 Joe Smith's Studies in Moose Physiology, by Noreen Numpkin (may or may not contain anything about widget watching, but since the essay is also on his life, there might be good information here)
o Bad Sources:
 Great Widget Watchers of the 1950s, by Herbert Hogswatch
 Prehistoric Widgets by Frank Diddledum
 Jane Doe: A Widgetress' Life, by Sally Superwriter (unless she had direct influence on Joe Smith, her information is probably irrelevant)
 Article in Widgets Monthly: How to Spot a Widget at 500m, by Alfredo Frinkenhuven
Notice how the value of the sources change when the focus changes:
• Focus: Widget watching, what it is, how it has changed, who has contributed to it
o Good sources:
 Widget Watchers in History
 Widget Watching in the Late 1800s
 http://www.website.com/joesmith/widgetwatching.html
 Great Widget Watchers of the 1950s
 Prehistoric Widgets
o Possible Sources:
 Joe Smith: His Life and Times (only as it applies to widget watching)
 Article in Widgets Monthly: Joe Smith, Portrait of a widget watcher (only as it applies to Widget Watching)
 Jane Doe: A Widgetress' Life (only as it applies to widget watching)
 Article in Widgets Monthly: How to Spot a Widget at 500m (depending on the content)
o Bad Sources:
 Joe Smith's Studies in Moose Physiology
Notice that because the topic broadened to cover all of widget watching, the number of good sources increased.
During your research, you may discover all kinds of interesting facts about related topics. In the example above, you might have learned that Jane Doe was desperately but secretly in love with Joe Smith. But unless that love directly affected the field of widget watching, the information is irrelevant to the second focus. It is only relevant to the first focus if it affected Joe Smith; so if he didn't know about it, it probably isn't relevant. You must stick to your focus in your writing, and avoid throwing in random factoids, regardless of how interesting they may seem. Otherwise, the essay becomes too long and disjointed. It can be frustrating to not use what seems to be a good bit of information, but unless you can work it into your focus well, you'll have to learn to set such things aside.
Of course, if a bit of interesting information fits the focus, by all means work it into the essay!
The Nitty-Gritty of Research
Now that you have your focus and have selected a good set of sources, it's time to read and make notes. I'd recommend using paper with a margin, for reasons that will become apparent in Part 3. For the rest of these tips and instructions, let's assume that our focus is the first example, "The life of Joe Smith (1856-1902) and how he contributed to the field of widget watching."
Some sources will only have selected paragraphs, pages, or chapters that fit the focus, so manage your time by reading the relevant information first. If your personal interest in the topic drives you to read more later, that's great, but getting your essay finished on time is important. With general books, such as Widget Watching in the Late 1800s, go through the chapter listing if there is one, and/or the index if there is one. Look for key items related to Joe Smith, such as his name or other elements. For example, Widget Watching of the Late 1800s has no chapter on Joe Smith, but it does list the following in the index:
• New York Widget Watchers (and you know that Smith was from New York), pages 26-29, 49
• Smith, Joe, pages 4, 26-29, 37, 49, 92-105
• Widgetiscope (which you know Smith invented), pages 16, 93-94, 138
You should check each listed page for Joe Smith in case it has useful information, but you can make an educated guess that anything with multiple pages (26-29 and 92-105) will probably have more than just mention of his name. Also, by cross-referencing to other elements you know involve your focus, you can find information that you might have otherwise missed, as in the extra pages on the widgetiscope. Chances are, Smith's widgetiscope had an impact on widget watching, so information on it might fit your focus even if it doesn't mention Smith's name each and every time.
As you read through the sources and find useful information, write it down (or type it, if you're using a computer) in your notes as completely as possible. For every note that you write from a source, remember to include where you found the information so you can cite it properly later. It's incredibly frustrating to be halfway through writing an essay and want to use a quotation you've noted but you can't because you didn't write down where you got the quotation from. You either have to flip through all the sources looking for it, or you can't use it because you'd be plagiarising if you used it without attribution.
A good way to make life easier for keeping track of which note is from what source is to keep a separate sheet (or set of sheets) or computer document for each source, and write out the full bibliographic information at the top of the sheet or source. Then just include the page number beside each note. Also, be sure to put quotation marks around things you've quoted directly to make sure you don't confuse them with your own paraphrasings later. For example:

Widget Watching in the Late 1800s, by Michelle Bogus, Publishers Anonymous Inc., New York, 1968
• the widgetiscope was invented in 1891 in New York, page 16
• "By far, Joe Smith's most important contribution to the field of widget watching was the widgetiscope." page 93
• Phineas Goofius tried to claim he invented the widgetiscope, but Smith proved him a liar, page 94
• the widgetiscope works by placing the widget on the slide, adjusting the focus, and then monitoring the behaviour of the widget, page 138
...and so forth down the page...

You may find that some sources disagree with what other sources said. This does not invalidate a source. As you will see in Part 7, you can make your essay even stronger by playing sources off of one another. You should make your notes as complete as possible, noting anything that could be of use in the writing. It's much easier to scrap useless bits later than to sit down to write and find out you're short on information or missing key details.
Keep in mind that any source can be biased or otherwise flawed. Any book, magazine, newspaper, or website may be produced by a person or organization with a distinct bent on things. If you are writing an essay on the U.S. Civil War and all of your sources are staunch Confederates, your essay will have a significant bias. If your essay focuses on parapsychology and all of your sources are tabloid newspapers, you're probably missing some important scientific writings both for and against the topic. It's okay to use a biased source, so long as you recognize that it is biased and counteract it with an opposing or neutral source. If you have good reason to suspect bias, be sure to present that as part of your analysis of what the source has to say.
While you're researching and making notes, if a brilliant way to present something in your essay occurs to you, write it down. For example, you may suddenly think of a wonderful opening or closing sentence, or a great way to phrase a particular element. Put it down in the notes immediately before you forget it. You can always choose not to use it later.
Once you've done your research, you're ready to compile the notes in such a way that will make it easier to eventually do the writing. If you have to write a proposal and haven't already done so, do that now.

Part 2 - The Proposal
If your essay requires a proposal, do not assume you can whip together something quickly and consider it complete. Chances are, if a professor is requesting an essay proposal at all (which means more work for them to do), they intend to actually pay attention to it. It may even have a grade value as part of the overall essay. You will likely be held to promises made in the proposal, so don't state that you'll do impossible things under the assumption that the professor will be impressed.
You should already be well into your research by the time you hand in a proposal. If your proposal is to sound at all informed, you should have already skimmed through some sources to get a feel for the topic. Your research may not be complete, but you should know some of the sources you will use and where your focus lies.
Proposals are usually very specific to the assignment, so be sure to read the assignment carefully. Ensure that you cover all necessary aspects of the assignment in the proposal. Even if you don't fully explain every section - after all, it's not the full essay - do be sure to include the sections you plan to discuss. Also be sure that your list of resources is comprised of books you can actually get and truly plan to read.
Some proposals can be in point form while others are required to be in formal prose. Whichever is the case, do be sure to follow the rules of grammar where necessary, and stick to the other guidelines in these pages. The exception is that most of the time, it is okay to personalize proposals. You shouldn't use "I" and "me" in the full essay, but since the proposal is your personal statement as to your intentions, it is usually okay to do so there.
Here then, is a pretend assignment and a proposal to go along with it (using the fake science of "widgetry"):

Assignment
The essay for Honours Widgetry 101 is to be a 10 to 15 page work concentrating on some aspect of widgetry as learned in the course. Appropriate subjects would be:
• Joe Smith and the widgetiscope
• Jane Doe, the first woman recognized in widgetry
• Prehistoric widgets
• British widgetry versus Chinese widgetry, a comparison of two diverse methods
If you wish to cover an alternate topic, it is recommended that you consult the instructor first.
The essay may cover the personal aspects of widgetry, but it is essential to include some scientific content. This may be in the form of explanations of studies done, archeological indications of prehistoric widgets and their uses, or other scientific data. It is insufficient to merely write about widgets in society. The scientific data must be discussed by the student and not merely quoted from references.
Required elements include:
• a bibliography of no less than seven distinct sources (meaning seven different authors), no more than 30% of which are web-based
• a proposal of no less than 250 words declaring your topic, sources, and the nature of the scientific content you wish to include due by Sept. 30 (not in point form)
• a first draft that is a complete essay but will be graded gently with suggestions for improvement, due by November 1
• a final draft due by December 15.
All instances of suspected plagiarism will be turned over to the university administration without discussion. If the administration decides plagiarism has occurred, the student will automatically receive an F in this course and may be expelled from the university. This edict applies to all proposals and drafts. No warning will be given; all students are expected to know how to avoid plagiarism by this stage in their education.

Proposal
Joe Smith and The Widgetiscope
A proposal by Kimberly Chapman
According to Jean Doorknocker, "In the vast field of widget watching, no one person has made more of a dramatic contribution than Joe Smith" (Doorknocker 37). Widget watching began in ancient Sumeria, but reached its scientific peak in the late 1800s when Smith invented the widgetiscope (Diddledum 203-204). My essay will examine Smith's involvement in and contributions to the field as well as his personal life. Since Smith's adult life revolved almost entirely around his studies (Doorknocker 39), I believe his personal story is essential to understanding how he came to invent the widgetiscope.
Born in Scotland in 1856, Smith was orphaned early due to a plague. He was adopted while still a toddler and taken to the U.S. by his new American parents (Superwriter 4-7). He attended prestigious schools, eventually meeting a teacher named Brian Googlebrains who introduced young Smith to widgetry (Bogus 93).
A socially awkward boy, Smith took to widgetry quickly because it gave him an excuse to avoid bullies in the school playground (Doorknocker 37). His social problems never really abated; recent information suggests that he may have committed suicide when, because of his alcoholism, he was threatened exclusion from his dearly-held association of New York Widget Watchers(Doorknocker 38-39).
Smith's devotion to widgetry is evident in his many publications, which will be individually discussed in my essay. It was his invention of the widgetiscope, however, that truly marked his place in the field. The essay will thoroughly cover the invention process (including excerpts from Smith's diary as found in Bogus' book), how it works, a diagram of the parts of the widgetiscope, commentary from Smith's colleagues on the device as found in several sources, and a discussion of how the invention changed the field from a pastime into a science. For this last part, I will include citations from several sources as well as my own analysis of the state of widgetry before and after the invention.
Bibliography
• Bogus, Michelle: Widget Watching in the Late 1800s, 1968, Publishers Anonymous Inc., New York
• Diddledum, Frank: Widget Watchers in History, 1974, Frinkle Publishers, Los Angeles
• Doorknocker, Jean: Joe Smith, Portrait of a Widget Watcher, Widgets Monthly, August 1996, Volume 15, Number 8
• Driesel, Fran: Widget Watching, http://www.website.com/joesmith/widgetwatching.html
• Schultz, Patty: The Wonderful World of Widgets, 1982, Publishers Anonymous Inc., New York
• Smith, Joe: Widgets and the Solstice: An Experiment in Balance 1885, Reprinted in Widgets Monthly, April 1987, Volume 6 Number 4
• Smith, Joe: The Mysterious Top Widget, 1887, The Journal of Widgetry
• Smith, Joe: A Treatise on Fnordlization of Widgets, 1889, The Journal of Widgetry
• Superwriter, Sally: Joe Smith: His Life and Times, 1958, Schlmup Press New York

This proposal is 321 words (not including the Bibliography, which should never be counted in a word or page count anyway), so it falls within the guidelines set by the assignment. Longer proposals may require you to expand on the points to be covered instead of just stating them as I have done here. For example, the instructor may have required that this proposal include specific scientific data instead of just the promise to include it. It is essential that you follow the guidelines for each proposal as set by the instructor. If you are unsure about a requirement, consult the professor well before the proposal is due.

Part 3 - Compiling Your Notes
Now that you've done the bulk of your research, you should have several pages (on the computer, on paper, or both) of point-form notes. In those notes should be full quotations you intend to use or paraphrase later, as well as general notes that you've already summarized or paraphrased. If you sit down to write the essay with this pile of unsorted stuff, inevitably you'll have trouble deciding where to begin and you'll keep leaving things out. It is much easier to group the notes, plan the essay, and then write, rather than trying to stick random bits in as you go.
This is where a good supply of coloured pens or highlighters comes in handy (on the computer, you can make use of a word processor's various coloured highlighting tools). If these things are unavailable, you can still make do by coming up with notations that indicate the different sections and writing them beside the individual points in the notes.
Look at your focus. Chances are it has several different elements to it, and now is the time to break out those elements separately. Don't worry about what element should come first or last, that will be sorted out in the planning stage next. For now, you're just going to group your notes according to where they fit into your focus.
For our pretend focus of "The life of Joe Smith (1856-1902) and how he contributed to the field of widget watching," we would pick out the following subtopics:
• Joe Smith's personal life
• Joe Smith's contributions to widget watching
• widget watching information
In some cases, the subtopics themselves may contain further subgroups, so break those out as well:
• Joe Smith's personal life
o childhood
o schooling
o things that lead Smith to widget watching
o adult life
o death
• Joe Smith's contributions to widget watching
o the New York group
o the widgetiscope
o Smith's publications on widget watching
o other contributions he made
• Widget watching information
o definition of widget and widget watching
o brief mention of widget watching during Smith's lifetime
Now, assign colours and/or notations to the subgroups right on your written list, so you don't forget what you meant later. Your choices here will vary according to your personal preferences. You may wish to use letters representing the group that are simply alphabetical, or that directly represent the word. Most of mine represent the word:
• Joe Smith's personal life - blue highlighter
o childhood - blue highlighter plus C
o schooling - blue highlighter plus S
o things that lead Smith to widget watching - blue highlighter plus X (X is for "extra" in my head)
o adult life - blue highlighter plus A
o death - blue highlighter plus D
• Joe Smith's contributions to widget watching - pink highlighter
o the New York group - pink highlighter plus NY
o the widgetiscope - pink highlighter plus W
o Smith's publications on widget watching - pink highlighter plus P
o other contributions he made - pink highlighter plus O
• Widget watching information - yellow highlighter
o definition of widget and widget watching - yellow highlighter plus D
o brief mention of widget watching during Smith's lifetime - yellow highlighter plus X
If I didn't have highlighters available, I probably would substitute by putting letters representing the main groups before the ones representing subgroups, such as PERS-D indicating a note about his death, CONT-NY indicating a contribution relating to the New York group, or WW-D indicating a widget watching definition.
Now go through the notes and attack them with the highlighters and/or letter descriptions, so you can tell at a glance whether each page has something relating to a part of the essay, such as shown in the following graphic:
Graphic snipped from printer version. Click here to get it.
The same notes on the computer might look like this:

Widget Watching in the Late 1800s, by Michelle Bogus, Publishers Anonymous Inc., New York, 1968
• the widgetiscope was invented in 1891 in New York, page 16 CONT-W
• "By far, Joe Smith's most important contribution to the field of Widget Watching was the Widgetiscope." page 93 CONT-W
• Phineas Goofius tried to claim he invented the widgetiscope, but Smith proved him a liar, page 94
• the widgetiscope works by placing the widget on the slide, adjusting the focus, and then monitoring the behaviour of the widget, page 138 CONT-W
• "It was Smith's teacher Brian Googlebrains that first introduced Smith to the field of widgetry." page 93 PERS-S
• the New York group gave Smith funding, page 27 CONT-NY

You will have to decide whether some points better fit one group than another, but do decide now rather than accidentally repeating yourself later. If you change your mind later, make note of it directly on the page. You will also find that some notes don't fit any category. Chances are, these are things that should be left out. You still have them written down if you decide to include them, but don't try and make every note fit your groups.
In going through the notes this way, you may find that you have managed to completely forget to look up information on a section, or the information you do have is too little. Doing this at an early stage allows you time to go back and find more information, if possible.
Once you have your notes thusly in order, you're ready to start planning out your essay.

Part 4 - Planning Your Essay
"When something can be read without effort, great effort has gone into its writing."
-- Enrique Jardiel Poncela
You've gone from an idea, to research, to a pile of random notes, to categorized notes. You're now ready to start planning how the essay will fit together.
Formal essays differ from informal essays in several ways, most of which will be covered in the section on writing. During the planning stage, you need to know whether or not the essay is going to be a formal one. If the teacher or professor didn't specify, they probably want it to be formal. An informal essay is one that doesn't necessarily rely on structure to make its point, such as an essay explaining how you personally feel on a given subject, or what you did last summer. Formal essays must have an underlying structure that makes sense so the reader doesn't have to wonder where you're going with your points.
For most of these instructions and tips, we'll assume you're working on a formal essay.
Start by putting the subgroups that you pulled out of your focus into a logical order. Consider the reader's point of view: they may not have read all the sources you have on your topic, and might need definitions first. If you're discussing a person's life and contributions as in our example, it's probably more logical to describe the person and their life before bringing in the bits about their contributions. If your subject is a historical overview of anything, it usually makes sense to move chronologically.
If you'll eventually be typing the entire essay on a computer, now would be a good time to move from written notes to computer documents. Here is how I would begin planning our example essay with the subgroups:
• Widget watching information
o definition of widget and widget watching
o brief mention of widget watching during Smith's lifetime
• Joe Smith's personal life
o childhood
o schooling
o things that lead Smith to widget watching
o adult life
o death
• Joe Smith's contributions to widget watching
o the New York group
o the widgetiscope
o Smith's publications on widget watching
o other contributions he made
Next, plan in the introduction and conclusion, and make sure each fits with the outline so far. In our example, I would include the widget watching information in an introductory paragraph, so I'll absorb that into the introduction in the outline:
• Introduction
o Widget watching information
 definition of widget and widget watching
 brief mention of widget watching during Smith's lifetime
• Joe Smith's personal life
o childhood
o schooling
o things that lead Smith to widget watching
o adult life
o death
• Joe Smith's contributions to widget watching
o the New York group
o the widgetiscope
o Smith's publications on widget watching
o other contributions he made
• Conclusion
o summary of why Smith was important to widget watching
Now it's time to add in the notes. Go through your notes and type in (or cut and paste, if they're already on the computer) the highlighted bits. Don't worry about their order yet, just make sure you get everything into the outline for now. Of course, I'm just making up the following for an example, and the outline could be much longer for a real topic.
• Introduction
o Widget Watching information
 definition of widget and widget watching
 widget watching is.... page 27 Diddledum
 dictionary definition of widget, page 408 Oxford
 brief mention of widget watching during Smith's lifetime
 widget watching reached its scientific height in the 1880s, page 203-204 Diddledum
 widget watching is alive and well today (not attributed, common fact)
• Joe Smith's personal life
o childhood
 born 1856 in Scotland, page 4 Superwriter
 orphaned in 1858 because of a plague, page 5 Superwriter
 adopted by an American couple in 1859, page 7 Superwriter
 moved to the US in 1860, page 7 Superwriter
o schooling
 went to the best schools money could buy, page 15 Superwriter
 was top of his class, page 15 Superwriter
o things that lead Smith to widget watching
 "It was Smith's teacher Brian Googlebrains that first introduced Smith to the field of widgetry." page 93 Bogus
 widgetry gave Smith an escape from bullies that picked on him for being socially awkward, page 37 Doorknocker
 so he took widgetry at the University of Randomstate, page 18 Superwriter
o adult life
 never married, Superwriter and Doorknocker
 buried himself in widgetry, Superwriter and Doorknocker
 "His complete absorption into his studies resulted in him being a sad, bitter old man in his later years." page 39 Doorknocker
o death
 died 1902 (not attributed, common knowledge)
 death was probably due to heart attack, page 86 Superwriter
 new information shows he committed suicide by swallowing widgets, page 39 Doorknocker
• Joe Smith's contributions to widget watching
o the New York group
 the New York group gave Smith funding, page 27 Bogus
 "Smith's comrades in New York were closer to him than anyone else, including family." page 54 Superwriter
 New York group was going to kick him out after his drunken display at the Christmas party, according to recently discovered letters, which is probably why he committed suicide, page 39 Doorknocker
o the widgetiscope
 the widgetiscope was invented in 1891 in New York, page 16 Bogus
 "By far, Joe Smith's most important contribution to the field of widget watching was the widgetiscope." page 93 Bogus
 the widgetiscope works by placing the widget on the slide, adjusting the focus, and then monitoring the behaviour of the widget, page 138 Bogus
 his inspiration for the widgetiscope came in a dream, page 48 Superwriter
 the dream may actually have been a drunken stupor during which he passed out in his lab, page 38 Doorknocker
 the widgetiscope revolutionized widget watching by.... various citations and analysis
o Smith's publications on widget watching
 Publication 1 and its relevance
 Publication 2 and its relevance
 Publication 3 and its relevance
 Publication 4 and its relevance
o other contributions he made
 contributed to Publication X by fellow NY group member Zwinkle, which had such-and-such effect
 spoke at liberty to the mainstream press, thus bringing widget watching into the public sphere, page 102 Superwriter
• Conclusion
o summary of why Smith was important to widget watching
 invented the all-important widgetiscope
 brought widget watching to public
 contributed to colleagues' work
Now go back through that list and cut-and-paste the elements within each subgroup into an appropriate order. When you've finished, read over the entire outline from start to finish. Does it make sense? Is there a reasonable flow? If there are gaps, you may need to go back to your notes or do more research to fill them. If you're having trouble deciding on an order in a subgroup, make it work as best as you can, and it may straighten itself out logically next in the writing phase. If something really doesn't fit, perhaps you should consider removing it from the essay, because perhaps it's unimportant and would just jar the reader.

Part 5 - Writing the Essay
"Do not write so that you can be understood, write so that you cannot be misunderstood."
-- Epictetus
Now that you have a solid outline, it's time to knit the point-form bits together into formal prose. Part of this will just be creating proper sentences out of the notes, but much of it will be putting in your analysis and segues. It is this second part that makes the difference between a ho-hum regurgitation and an essay that actually has something to say. In my opinion, it is the main difference between a B paper and an A paper. Anyone can read and regurgitate, but it takes skill to analyse and bring things together to make an overall coherent point.
Writing your essay is like building a brick wall: if you leave gaping holes all over the place, the entire structure will be weak at best, and may crumble entirely. Even though you're now educated on your topic and think much of it is obvious, it is essential to assume your reader doesn't know much about the topic, unless otherwise specified in the assignment. You should assume your reader knows what the average layperson knows about the subject and write accordingly. This means you should explain what things do, who people are, and how it all fits together instead of just assuming something about your topic is common knowledge. It is better to have a couple sentences that are obvious than to leave the reader confused.
But writing to be understood takes more than stating all the facts. It means your prose itself must be clear and uncomplicated. You can explain very complex ideas without having complex text. This does not mean you should dumb-down your vocabulary. It means that you should make sure you're using words correctly in proper grammatical sentences. If you don't know what a word means or how to use it, look it up or don't use it. Your prose should be free of ambiguity. Sentences should not be choppy, but neither should they run on beyond a single idea. Paragraphs should be logical structures, not random space breaks. If you must say something in a complicated way spanning several sentences, try adding a sentence to summarize the idea. In other words, make every effort possible to be clear about each point in the essay.
(Notice that the last sentence of the above paragraph does precisely what the second last sentence suggests.)
How you say what you say is as important as what you're saying. Instead of providing a list here of things you should or should not do in your writing, I've included examples of good and bad writing in Part 8, and links to grammatical and style help on the links page.
Just because one of your sources uses bad grammar, hyperbole, or other examples of poor writing, that doesn't mean you should replicate the error. This is especially true of web sources, many of which are not reviewed and edited with the same attention to detail that books are. Some sources may be written for an audience familiar with the topic, and as such are very complicated. It is your job as the essay writer to take the information and present it in a clear fashion for your readers.
The best way to test your essay for readability is to give it to a friend to read over, particularly one not in the same class. If they don't understand it, find out why and fix it, then ask them to read it again. Tell them to mark on the pages anywhere where they are confused by your wording. They don't have to be grammatical experts to realize that there's something inherently wrong with a sentence. I'll expand on this suggestion in the next section.
For now, let's just get the thing written in the first place!
Assuming you're working on a computer, keep your outline document in an open window and begin a new document for the writing. This is to protect your outline in case you change things around as you write, but then decide it isn't working and want to backtrack. Furthermore, if you work directly from your outline, you run the chance of accidentally not typing out a point form note properly. For example, when writing my book Sorrows of Adoration, I was working from a 45 page outline and more than once I took something like this:
• Kurit comes to Aenna's rooms drunk
o complains that she's ruining his life
o she is coldly sarcastic
o Kurit: "Very funny, Aenna. Why don't I fetch you some balls to juggle at the next Council meeting."
o she sarcastically says, "If that's what your Majesty wishes."
o Kurit: "I won't let that overgrown Champion of yours steal my son."
...and in rewriting it from the outline, ended up with this (errors in bold):
In the evening, Kurit came to my rooms, ready to fight. I took a deep breath to calm myself, knowing that losing my temper with this man would accomplish nothing.
"Well this is just splendid," he began. His words were slightly slurred, and I knew he was quite drunk. "You've got my people worshipping you, saying prayers at your statue and praising you as a living Goddess. You've got my cousin and best friend despising me, and now you've got my son choosing Jarik over me. How else would you like to destroy me?"
"I thought perhaps I'd take your armies to Wusul and add a province or two to Keshaerlan. Then I shall change the direction of the River Kal just to spite you," I said coldly.
Kurit: "Oh you're very funny, Aenna. I'll fetch you a set of jester's toys and you can juggle them whilst standing on your head at the next Council meeting."
She sarcastically says, "If that's what your Majesty wishes," I said with a voice dripping of forced sweetness as I rose briefly to curtsey.
His eyes narrowed in fury. "I won't let that overgrown Champion of yours steal my son," he growled.
So don't work directly from the outline. Instead, begin writing your opening paragraph and then follow through the essay, writing as you go and occasionally cutting and pasting the full quotations into your text. If there is something in your outline that you have already written as a proper sentence, cut and paste that in at the appropriate time as well.
As you're knitting the points together, think about them. What do the points mean? What are you saying overall by including this point? How does it all relate to the overall topic? Don't be redundant and restate the focus in every paragraph, but make it clear where you're going with each point.
And an invaluable tip for computer users: get into the habit of saving after EVERY paragraph. It's awful to come up with a wonderful way of knitting points together just to have a computer crash or power outage and lose six paragraphs' worth of thought. You can't ever seem to get the same good flow back again.
Let's now go through our example and illustrate how to knit the points together in a skillful, intelligent way, section by section.
Introduction
Don't be cheesy in the introduction and conclusion. Don't kiss-up to the teacher or professor by saying how wonderful the topic they're teaching is. Don't elaborate on how exciting you find the entire thing, unless it's an informal essay. Don't use hyperbole. Simply introduce the topic and explain what you're going to write about, without using 'I' at all. You may wish to begin with a blocked quotation if you have found one that really sums up your focus point well. Don't use one just for the sake of starting that way, though. Compare the following examples of how we could start our widget watching essay:
"By far, Joe Smith's most important contribution to the field of widget watching was the widgetiscope" (Bogus 93).
Although the field of widget watching is ancient, many people don't know about it. Now that I am taking Widget Watching 101, I have learned that it is a very worthwhile study. The field was changed forever by the invention of the widgetiscope by Joe Smith in the 1800s. This essay will talk more about Joe Smith, his life and times, and his contributions to widget watching. I plan to outline his life and contributions, as well as provide some basic information on widget watching.
...OR...
"In the vast field of widget watching, no one person has made more of a dramatic contribution than Joe Smith" (Doorknocker 37).
Widgets are [insert paraphrased dictionary definition] (Oxford 408). According to Diddledum, widget watching is the scientific study of widgets and their behaviour in laboratory conditions (27). In the late 1800s, the field was burgeoning with associations of widget watchers in New York, London, Paris and Cairo (Diddledum 203-204). But it was Joe Smith, a man whose life was dedicated to widgetry, who elevated the science to new heights through his contributions.
The second one clearly sounds more like a formal essay introduction.
Of course, it's still a bit awkward, mostly because of the heavy reliance on quotations. Sometimes you can't avoid the quotations, because you don't want to risk plagiarising. An introduction doesn't have to be done in one paragraph, and definitions don't necessarily have to come first. Let's try to make the introduction better by removing some of the initial citations and giving the words some breathing room. We'll keep the introductory quotation, though, because it's a good, solid statement summarizing why the reader should care about Joe Smith.
"In the vast field of widget watching, no one person has made more of a dramatic contribution than Joe Smith" (Doorknocker 37).
In the late 1800s, widget watching was a burgeoning science, with widget watcher associations springing up in New York, London, Paris and Cairo (Diddledum 203-204). A member of the New York chapter named Joe Smith elevated the science to new heights through his contributions. Smith's lifelong dedication to widget watching produced several publications as well as his crowning achievement: the widgetiscope.
Widgets are [insert paraphrased dictionary definition] (Oxford 408). According to Diddledum, widget watching is the scientific study of widgets and their behaviour in laboratory conditions (27).
This introduction gives the reader the essential information fairly quickly, but draws them in first before hitting them with the dictionary. It also establishes the fact that Smith's life story is relevant, and thus hints that his life will be discussed in the essay. Furthermore, it introduces the concept of the widgetiscope as something important without getting into the nitty gritty of why it is important.
The Main Body
Now we knit in the next section according to our outline. Don't just plunk down the next set of facts. Try to relate each paragraph to the next in some fashion. In longer essays, you can also use subtopic structures to break up the prose and avoid having to segue between all sections. Let's do that in this essay, but still put in sentences that give some kind of overall link:
Widgets are [insert paraphrased dictionary definition] (Oxford 408). According to Diddledum, widget watching is the scientific study of widgets and their behaviour in laboratory conditions (27). When Joe Smith was born in 1856 (Superwriter 4), this scientific version of widget watching was also in its infancy.
Smith's Childhood
Smith was born in Scotland to Amelia and John MacLeod. A plague in 1858 killed Amelia and John, leaving two-year-old Joe an orphan. With no nearby relatives, Joe was placed in an orphanage, where he was luckily discovered by Nancy and Arthur Smith. The Smiths were an American couple visiting Scotland for Arthur's research on castles. The orphanage happened to be housed in what had once been a castle, and the Smiths fell in love with the precocious Joe while there. They took the child back to the U.S. with them in 1860. (Superwriter 4-7)
Note that it isn't necessary to attribute every single sentence in a simple paragraph such as this one if the entire paragraph is attributed as indicated. The reader can safely assume the facts presented in the paragraph are a paraphrased version of several pages of history from Superwriter's book. This makes for easier reading that is also properly attributed. The attribution is outside of the final sentence. If it was inside the sentence, there may be confusion as to whether it was only that sentence being attributed, or the entire paragraph.
Be careful, however, to not leave long gaps between attributions in this manner. A paragraph is fine, but several are not. Also, you cannot pull the attributions to the end of the paragraph if there are multiple sources cited within the paragraph. When in doubt, cite each sentence.
We would then continue in this fashion, knitting the points together into well-written prose, until the end of the section on his childhood and schooling. Let's skip to the next section, then:
Later Life
According to both Superwriter and Doorknocker, Smith never married, apparently choosing instead to bury himself in his passion: widget watching. As will be discussed in the next section, he may have had some friends in the New York group, but "his complete absorption into his studies resulted in him being a sad, bitter old man in his later years" (Doorknocker 39). His death in 1902 was long thought to have been caused by a heart attack (Superwriter 86), but recent research indicates that he may have in fact committed suicide by swallowing some widgets (Doorknocker 39).
When we get to the next section, we can begin by describing what the New York group was to Smith, and then reintroduce the contradiction between the authors.
The New York Group
Smith's involvement with the New York Widget Watchers provided him with continual funding (Bogus 27), and may have also served as a surrogate family in his later years. Superwriter states that, "Smith's comrades in New York were closer to him than anyone else, including family" (54).
New evidence, however, indicates that if the relationship with the New York association once was harmonious, it eventually decayed. Doorknocker has unearthed memos from the group dated shortly before Smith's death in 1902 that make mention of the possibility of throwing him out of their ranks due to increasing drunkenness. A particularly unpleasant display at the group's Christmas party may have been the last straw (Doorknocker 39).
Although it isn't a certain fact, it is reasonable to consider the possibility that Smith did commit suicide because of his impending loss of financial and scholarly support. If this is true, it indicates how deeply passionate Smith was about widget watching; if he could not continue his studies and was separated from his colleagues, he seemingly felt that he had no reason to live.
Here we see analysis without overstatement and the presentation of contrary opinions without negating the essay's focus. When you cannot be certain of something you're stating on your own, be sure to include couching words and phrases so it cannot be assumed that you are stating absolute facts. If your analysis can be stated as fact, however, do not use couching words, because they will minimize the impact of your analysis. When deciding whether or not to use couching words, ask yourself: can I prove this? Is this a fact or speculation? Is this a possibility or a certainty? Don't get caught declaring something is true if you can't prove it.
Continue through the rest of the outline, knitting the pieces together as above.
Conclusion
In your conclusion, follow the same rules as the introduction: don't kiss-up, don't use 'I,' and don't be cheesy. Also, don't declare the future for certain, tempting though it might be to make grandiose statements about how your topic will be viewed in the future. Here again is a bad example followed by a good example:
BAD:
From all this, it is clear than Joe Smith changed the field of widget watching by inventing the widgetiscope. My life is enriched for knowing about this wonderful man in this amazing field. Joe Smith will forever be remembered as the greatest widget watcher that ever lived.
GOOD:
Clearly, Joe Smith's contributions changed the field of widget watching. His widgetiscope helped to turn previously vague theories into provable laws of widgetry. Smith may have suffered loneliness and ultimately death due to his dedication to his studies, but the field today recognizes him as one of history's great widget watchers.
Notice the difference in each example's mention of the widgetiscope: the first example just tosses the mention of the device in, but the second one summarizes why it was important. The conclusion is your final chance to tell the reader why they should care about your topic, so don't just use it as a summarizing cut-off. The second example mentions the fact that he is recognized in the field without going over the top and playing future-psychic.
Notice also it mentions the interesting new conflict you discovered in your research, emphasizing the interesting part without jumping up and down screaming "Lookie lookie! I learned this!" Tying the facts together like this legitimizes why you bothered to mention his life at all.
Use of Quotations
While quoting sources is a major element of this level of essays, your essay shouldn't merely string a bunch of quotations together, even if they are strung in a well-ordered format. Paraphrase long, awkward, or complicated quotations down into words that better suit your essay - but don't forget to cite a paraphrased comment! You don't make it your thought merely by rewording it.
Your essay should reflect your interpretation of many sources, not be a summary of what the sources said.
Too many quotations looks like laziness on your part. It also may hint that you don't really understand what your sources have said, but you're just going to throw their words in there to impress the instructor. Never put two quotations back-to-back; either paraphrase one or both, or find something to go between them.
Long quotations can often be broken up by putting ellipsis (...) between relevant phrases. Only use the part of the quotation that is necessary, and put ellipsis in place of removed portions. BUT BE CAREFUL! If removing part of the quotation changes the meaning of the quotation, don't do it. Here are two examples; one is fine, the other is wrong:
Original Quotation: "Smith spoke to several members of the association, including David Jones, Gertrude Fingle, Barry Backwater, Paul Dingleberry, Melinda Wossname, and Jane Doe, in order to promote his widgetiscope idea." (Bogus 47)
May be quoted as: "Smith spoke to several members of the association... in order to promote his widgetiscope idea." (Bogus 47)
Original Quotation: "Smith did not want to invent the widgetiscope, but felt that someone had to." (Bogus 3)
May NOT be quoted as: "Smith did not... invent the widgetiscope..." (Bogus 3).
Keep in mind that quotations longer than two normal lines of the page should be put into blocked form. A blocked quotation has the margins indented on both sides, does not use quotation marks, but does require the same attribution as any other quotation. Here's a sample:

Smith's initial experiments found that the widgetiscope results varied based on how the entire device was set up, and whether or not it was placed on a level surface. The widgets would sometimes slip on the slide, making the watching a challenge. The materials used in the construction of the widgetiscope itself also seemed to affect the outcome of the experiments. Smith's diary reflects how stressful the invention process was:
My housekeeper has chastised me for the fifth time this week, for I continually forget to eat the food she places by my study door. She was most perturbed when she discovered I had not even touched the stroganoff she had prepared for my birthday, as that is my favourite dish. I, of course, had lost track of time so badly that I did not even know my birthday had come and gone. (Bogus 207)
Smith's total dedication to his project would finally pay off, however, when he discovered that...

If you use too many blocked quotations, your essay becomes disjointed. Only use quotations this long if there's something special, significant, or particularly brilliant about the way the source wrote it or spoke it. For example, an essay on a great speaker such as Churchill, Lincoln, or Gandhi would have reason to include large portions of their speeches, and rewording those quotations could trivialize them. But there's no real reason to cut-and-paste unwieldy paragraphs from average sources into your essay if they would fit better when paraphrased.
Overall Length
"I didn't have time to write a short letter, so I wrote a long one instead."
-- Mark Twain
What Twain meant is that it takes effort to write something concise, but it's fairly easy to babble on endlessly.
Most essay assignments come with a specific word count in mind: some a minimum, some a maximum, some both. I have found that most essays tend to easily fall within the required word count range naturally. The exceptions have been, frankly, on essay assignments that were poorly constructed by the assigning teacher or professor, or on open-topic assignments where the topic chosen was too broad or too narrow to properly fit the assignment. If in doubt about your topic, you should consult your teacher/professor.
Some assignments are given page count requirements instead of word count. A normal, typed, double-spaced essay without footnotes is said to yield approximately 250 words per page. Page count requirements are open to cheating by doing things like extending the line height, widening all four margins, increasing the font size or using a wider-style font, using footnotes, and other style elements that help spread the content over the pages. While this may satisfy the requirement, keep in mind that your instructor is expecting a certain level of content in the essay, and an incomplete essay stretched over the required amount of pages is still an incomplete essay. Conversely, an essay that blathers on will still seem to blather even if the student creatively crams more words into a smaller space.
If your essay is thoroughly researched, it should be difficult to fall below a word count target. In fact, if your research was very good, you may have more difficulty staying below a maximum word count. You have to find a balance between fitting in the information you deem essential and not making the essay sound disjointed and choppy. Too often, students write the same points over and over again, wasting space and making the essay boring. Consider the following paragraphs:
CHOPPY, DISJOINTED, REPETITIVE:
Smith invented the widgetiscope. He invented it in 1891 (Bogus 16). It was an important invention. "By far, Joe Smith's most important contribution to the field of widget watching was the widgetiscope" (Bogus 93). The invention was completed in New York. The New York Widget Watchers helped pay for it. The widgetiscope works by placing the widget on the slide, adjusting the focus, and then monitoring the behaviour of the widget (Bogus 93).
The sentences are choppy and jarring to the reader, and facts are repeated for no reason. The bit explaining what the widgetiscope does should probably be in a separate paragraph from the historical information about it.
GOOD:
"By far, Joe Smith's most important contribution to the field of widget watching was the widgetiscope" (Bogus 93). Smith invented the widgetiscope in 1891 in New York, thanks in part to the financing by the New York Widget Watchers (Bogus 16).
The widgetiscope works by placing the widget on the slide, adjusting the focus, and then monitoring the behaviour of the widget (Bogus 93). [insert more about the relevance and workings of the widgetiscope to flesh this out]
The changes, not including the other widgetiscope information to be added, result in nine less words. That doesn't seem like much, but consider that a page on average will contain four paragraphs. That means a possible saving of 36 words per page. For a standard 10 page essay, that's 360 words, which can make a significant difference when trying to stay below a word count maximum. Furthermore, it reads better the second way.
Repetition can be useful when trying to drive a point home. For example, in an argumentative essay, you may wish to structure it like this:
• Introduction
o Hypothesis
• Part 1
o Proof 1
o Therefore hypothesis is valid
• Part 2
o Proof 2
o Minor contradiction to Proof 2
o Explanation as to why contradiction doesn't hold
o Therefore hypothesis is valid
• Part 3
o Proof 3
o Therefore hypothesis is valid
• Part 4
o Major contradiction to hypothesis
o Arguments against contradiction
 Show that proofs 1 and 3 negate contradiction
• Part 5
o Strongest proof for hypothesis, untouched by contradictions
• Conclusion
o Summary
o Therefore hypothesis is true.
The hypothesis would be repeated throughout the essay to hammer the point that it is true. There is also repetition of proofs; the proof is explained at one stage, then reintroduced to combat a contradiction later. This is not only acceptable, but a very strong way to structure an argumentative essay.
But this kind of repetition is not necessary when your essay is simply presenting a case study or set of facts. Our example essay on Joe Smith isn't really trying to argue anything. If our focus had instead been "Joe Smith was the most important scientist that ever lived," we would have taken a completely different approach. I recommend a site called Writing Argumentative Essays by Bill Daly for more information on how to write such an essay.
Once your essay has been written and fits within the required word or page count, it is time to add the finishing touches.

Part 6 - The Finished Product
Reading Your Essay Over
It seems no matter how many times students are advised to do this, they keep ignoring it. It is probably the single most important thing you can do to improve your essay: READ IT OVER TO YOURSELF! That means actually read it, don't skim it. If you find that your brain inadvertently skims it, try reading it out loud and listen to how it sounds. Do the sentences sound jarring? Does it make sense? If you hadn't researched it, would you understand it?
To improve further, GET A FRIEND TO READ THE ESSAY as well. They may find inadvertent errors such as spell-check failures (i.e. "from" when you mean "form" and vice versa), bad edits (i.e. Smith went to the a store (forgot to remove "a" or "the")), repetitions (i.e. He said, "Blah blah blah," he said), and other elements you may miss after staring at it for so long. Furthermore, if your friend is completely confused as to what you mean by a particular sentence, paragraph, or the entire essay, you know you have done something wrong. You don't have to accept every bit of nitpicking advice from your friend, but keep in mind that if they don't understand your phrasing, your teacher or professor may not either.
Cleaning Up
If you're using a computer and don't bother spell-checking your essay, you deserve marks off for every spelling error you make. It only takes a few minutes, and an essay rife with spelling errors looks sloppy and unfinished.
Go over the essay for consistency. After writing these pages, I realized I had sometimes capitalized widget watching and sometimes not. While it probably should be capitalized when it's part of a name (i.e. New York Widget Watchers), the rest of the time it should be lower case, so I went through and changed it. You can use your word processor's 'find and replace' function for this kind of thing, but beware that it will change every instance unless you make sure that it doesn't. Other consistency issues could be how you deal with numbers (I use the standard journalist format of spelling out only numbers less than 10), how you refer to people (usually use only the last name after the first instance unless there are references to different people with the same last name), whether subtitles are bolded, underlined, or both, and the style of attribution.
Make sure the pages are formatted according to the teacher/professor's instructions. Standard essays are double spaced (meaning blank lines between written lines) with one inch margins all around, and page numbers. Some professors might require headers on all pages with your name, that certain pages begin halfway down, etc. (In fact, putting your name on every page, whether in a header or perhaps written neatly on the back of each page, is a good idea in case the pages come apart.) Other formatting guidelines can be found at the Nuts and Bolts of College Writing. If you didn't include formatting considerations while writing, be sure to apply the formatting required now.
If you have used tables or graphics in your essay, after you've finished all the necessary formatting you should check that the table or graphic is still where you wish it to be. Formatting moves things around quite a bit, and you may find that things are now on the wrong page. Also, if you have a table of contents or any other reference to specific pages, make sure the page numbers still match.
Attribution
As mentioned throughout these instructions, it is vitally important that you attribute anything you have taken from another source. Plagiarism is a serious offense, and one that many universities will expel you for. You do not have to attribute basic facts, nor do you have to attribute your own analysis and thoughts. But if you didn't come up with it and you're not sure if it's basic, attribute it. Keep in mind that if you thought of something yourself and then found it confirmed in a source, you must attribute it to the source. They get credit for publishing it before you did. You can indicate to the instructor that you did think of it yourself, however, by phrasing it this way:
As confirmed by Superwriter, the field of widget watching was barely noticeable before the advent of the widgetiscope (53).
Attribution can also be useful aside from protection against accusations of plagiarism. If you're presenting a controversial point and can attribute it to a respected source, the reader is less likely to suspect you of saying something ridiculous. In our example, if we had written:
Superwriter states that Smith died of a heart attack (86), but that probably isn't true. New evidence shows that he actually committed suicide.
the instructor might wonder what the evidence is. By not attributing the second sentence, not only would we be plagiarising Doorknocker, but we'd also be leaving ourselves open to doubt.
Attribution styles vary between fields of study, countries, schools, and even professors. A very picky professor will probably give you an indication of how to attribute in essays for their course. Follow it, even if it's not your normal method. If no instruction on attribution is given, use a standard format such as MLA. If you don't use a standard format, at least make sure whatever you do is consistent throughout your essay. When in doubt, ask your teacher or professor for guidance.
Bibliography
Almost all high school and university formal essays require a bibliography. This is a list of all quoted sources as well as other influential sources. You don't have to actually cite the source in order to include it in your bibliography, but don't include source that you didn't even read. If the assignment requires that you have a bibliography of, say, 10 sources or more, don't include sources that you didn't read just to flesh it out. Not only is that dishonest, but you may find that the instructor is very familiar with a source and questions a paper that is missing key details from that source. In our example, if you didn't actually read Doorknocker's article but included it in your bibliography, the instructor may be suspicious when you fail to mention the new revelations about Smith's demise.
As with attribution, there are many styles of bibliographies, and your instructor may give you a specific format to follow. The most important thing is to make sure all of

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