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Tips on Writing Essays
Tips on Writing Essays
Today, educators and the College Board are putting a stronger emphasis on the skill of essay writing than ever before. The College Board is responding to the message that colleges are giving them: "High school students must improve their writing skills!" The new SAT I will have not only the toughened math and reading sections, but a new essay writing section as well. Furthermore, in college applications your personal essay will be one of the most important components that the college admissions directors will consider. The ability to write a good essay is an extremely important skill.

Where do I start?

Almost all good writers have at one time or another experienced Writer's Block. Writer's block is what happens when you sit down in front of your notebook or computer and…just sit. Sometimes for hours. Nothing happens. It's a face-off between you and the blank page - and you're afraid the page might be winning.

Have no fear! Imagine that your essay is an enormous apple: the first bite may be hard to get your teeth around, but once you sink in, it's not so hard to finish the whole thing piece by piece. In other words, the hardest part of writing your essay is starting it, and our brainstorming and freewriting exercises will help you take that difficult first bite.

  1. Brainstorming

    You've probably heard of brainstorming before. It's when you write down everything and anything that has to do with your topic - words, phrases, it doesn't matter what you put down as long as it relates to the essay you're trying to write. Don't worry about writing full sentences. At this stage of writing, you're trying to throw ideas down like seeds, hoping that one or more of them will take root. The more seeds you throw down, the more likely you are to plant one that blossoms into a great essay. Ask yourself, "What interests me about this topic? How can I answer the question that was asked of me, or address the topic that was given, in an interesting way?" For instance, if your topic was "My Personal Hero" you might come up with the following brainstorm:

    • My definition of hero: someone who has a positive effect on my life, sets a great example, not necessarily a SUPER hero like Batman or Superman, but someone who is a normal person that does extraordinary things
    • Sports superstars
      Venus Williams
      Kobe Bryant
      Mark McGuire - star baseball player but also does charity work
    • Mom, Dad, sister: Family heroes?
      Mom-busy from breakfast to night, always cheerful, always helpful, not appreciated enough, hard-working
      Dad-fulltime job as doctor, still has time for me, saves lives every day; write about the time he gave me stitches, never seems to get tired, does big things and little things
      Sister-showed me how to ride bike, includes me when hanging out with her friends, takes the blame for stuff I do sometimes
    • Mrs. Green?
      Teachers as heroes?
      Inspiring, inspires people to become doctors, lawyers, writers, whatever they want to be
      Touches many lives, and then inspires those people to touch other lives through good work, and so on

    There's no need to concern yourself with organizing the ideas at this point; just get them down on the page as they come to you.

    Some people find it easier to brainstorm if they use the clustering approach. Whereas normal brainstorming involves making a list of words and ideas, clustering helps you visualize how those same ideas relate to each other:

    After you finish brainstorming, whichever method you choose, you may start to see some ideas for a good essay. If so, you can move on to FREEWRITING; or if you feel ready to begin your essay, go for it. If not, keep brainstorming and turning things over in your head, and as you do so, try looking at the topic from new, fresh angles.

  2. Freewriting

    Freewriting is another way to get your brain going and the ideas flowing. Now, this method may sound like a waste of time at first, but many people use freewriting to keep the wheels turning in the writing process. It's a lot like brainstorming, but this time, give yourself a set amount of time to freewrite, and then sit down and write whatever comes to mind, in full sentences. They don't have to be pretty sentences - just get the stuff down on the page. The most important thing when freewriting is to keep your pen (or fingers, if you're typing) in constant motion, no matter what. If you run out of things to say, just keep writing things like "I can't think of anything to write, I need to think of something to write, I'm thinking of something else to write" until another idea comes to mind. An example of freewriting on the topic of "My Personal Hero" might look like this:

    when i think of the word hero usually the first thing that comes to mind is "superman" or someone who saves a baby from a burning building. that doesn't have to be the case though all the time because for instance my mom works hard all day every day and she does lots of stuff for me. i can't think of anything to write i can't think of anything to write maybe some people think my mom has it easy because she doesn't have a normal job but being a mom is hard because you don't even get days off. then again i think my dad is kind of a hero because he really DOES save lives every day at work because he's a doctor and people thank him all the time for saving their lives. i can't think of anything to write my dad is probably a good definition of a hero because he really touched my life and once he even saved it literally when he gave me stitches at the hospital. and remember the time he saved that woman from drowning. but it's also all the little stuff he does for me like driving me to summer camp every year and taking me to water parks even though he hates swimming - those things also make him a hero to me.

    The paragraph obviously isn't punctuated properly or written in correct sentences, but it does the job. After doing the brainstorming and freewriting exercises, it seems as though the author can most easily talk about her father as her personal hero, because he embodies both the typical definition of hero - the life-saving, exciting hero - as well as the "personal," less dramatic definition - a good, attentive father. She can make the essay more interesting to the reader by including specific stories about her father and examples of how he is a hero. This would be a more interesting essay than if she wrote about her mother, since the brainstorming and freewriting she did on her mother was more vague ("always cheerful," "works hard," "does lots of stuff"). So, just like that, the author has found a topic for "My Personal Hero": her father.

  3. Outlining

    Now that you've gotten past your writer's block and found a topic, it's time to organize your ideas into an outline. An outline is like the skeleton of the essay: it shows you the bones of what you're going to be writing, which you will later flesh out as full sentences.

    There are many different ways of making an outline. Some teachers insist you use a set format, but we think you should find a method that you like, and then stick to it. Here is the usual format many teachers will show you in class (for a five-paragraph essay).

    1. Introduction
    2. Body Paragraph: Traditional definition of hero and how Dad fits that definition
      1. Fictional super "heroes"
        1. Superman
        2. Woderwoman
      2. Real life heros
        1. George Washington
        2. Martin Luther King, Jr.
      3. Dad
        1. Doctor in the emergency room
        2. The time he saved a woman who almost drowned
        3. The time he gave me stitches when I fell off the roof of the garage
    3. Body Paragraph: My definition of hero and how Dad fits that definition
      1. Stuff he does at church
        1. Works in the soup kitchen for the homeless
        2. Collects canned goods at Christmas
      2. Stuff he does with me
        1. Helps me with my homework even when he's tired
        2. Drives me to my tennis matches on the weekend
        3. Took me to the water park even though he hates swimming
        4. Drives me to summer camp every year (four hours)
    4. Body Paragraph: How he has affected my life
      1. Role model for health
        1. exercise
        2. healthy diet
        3. no drinking or smoking
      2. Role model for career and family
        1. Encouraged me to join the Red Cross someday and help save lives
        2. Taught me that even if my job keeps me very busy, I can still have a good family life
    5. Conclusion

    In this version, each of the Roman numerals stands for a different paragraph; the paragraphs all have their own topics. The lettered and numbered phrases represent all the stuff that should go in the paragraphs. Making an outline lets you see how the whole essay will be organized, and also shows you whether there are any "weak spots" that need to be strengthened with more support. You can make an outline any way you choose; the important thing is to give some sort of loose structure to all the different ideas you had while brainstorming or clustering.

    Then how do you go from outline to essay? Read on.

How do I write it?

Depending on what kind of essay you are writing - personal, academic, research, and so on - you will have to adjust the following guidelines we give you. Here we will be showing you how to write a basic five-paragraph essay.

  1. Introduction

    The introduction is the first paragraph of the essay. It should do the following things:

    1. Catch the reader's attention with the first sentence! Consider asking a rhetorical question, using an interesting fact that has to do with your topic, or quoting a famous person in your first sentence. Pretend that you're fishing for readers: your first sentence is the hook that will let you catch them.
    2. Include the author and title of whatever you're writing about (if that applies to your topic). So if you're writing about Romeo and Juliet, remember to mention the title somewhere in the Introduction - and even though it may seem unnecessary, remember also to note that it was written by William Shakespeare.
    3. Provide sufficient background information. Even if your teacher has read the play already and knows who Romeo and Juliet are, you should still give a quick description: "Romeo and Juliet, the two main characters of the play, are the children of two feuding families, the Montagues and the Capulets." If you are writing a historical paper, give one or two background sentences to position the reader in the historical period you are discussing: "In 1215, King John had just signed the Magna Carta."
    4. End with the thesis statement. The last sentence of your introduction should be the thesis statement. The thesis statement is the whole point of your essay. It is a one-line answer to the question you've been given; the rest of the essay supports that answer, and supplies details. Strong thesis statements are important, especially if you're writing an academic essay or paper. For narrative essays, they aren't as complicated, but they still need to be there.
      Click here to read more about academic thesis statements.

    (You can look to our sample essay for an example of an introduction that contains a non-academic thesis statement.)
  2. Body paragraphs

    The body paragraphs are the meat of the essay. They should include the following elements to be effective:

    1. A good topic sentence. The topic sentence announces to the reader what the following paragraph will be about - kind of like a mini-thesis statement for your paragraph.
    2. Strong supporting evidence. All the sentences in the paragraph should have details or facts that support the topic sentence. You should be able to see a clear connection between the topic sentence and each of the supporting sentences in the body paragraph.
    3. Effective transitions. By "transition," we mean the way you shift from one paragraph to the next. There should be some sort of link between the two. Don't think of your body paragraphs as separate little essays within one big essay; they have to connect to each other, as well. Try to position the supporting evidence so that the last sentence you write in one paragraph leads naturally to the topic sentence of your next paragraph.
    (Click here to look at the body paragraphs in our sample essay.)
  3. Conclusion

    The conclusion, as you may have guessed, is the last paragraph of your essay. You have some freedom here to end the essay as you like - but what you shouldn't do is just restate your thesis and summarize all the stuff you've written about already. The conclusion should sort of wrap things up in an interesting way that gives the reader a feeling of closure. Try to connect it somehow to the introduction, if you can. (Click on the link to look at an example of a conclusion in our sample essay.)

How do I edit or revise it?

Even when you're done writing your essay, you're not finished - what you've got is your first draft. Now you have to edit it. Some of you may have only minor spelling or grammatical errors; but most of you will notice that there are some bigger things you could fix concerning organization or content - not enough evidence, or a lopsided structure, for example. That means you need to do a little more work.

It may be hard to edit the first draft yourself. If you've spent a long time on it, the structure might seem very set to you, and therefore difficult to change. Have teachers or friends read it over, and ask them whether they see any improvements you could make. Another option - if you have time - is to set your first draft aside for a day or two so that you can come back to it with fresh eyes and a new mindset. If you do so, it's almost certain that you will be able to find ways to improve the essay.

Of course, the best improvements could probably be made with the help of a professional editor, especially if you are concerned with perfecting your writing. After all, satisfactory writing is writing which is free of grammatical errors and incorrect spelling; but good writing is polished, and indicates your attention to the details of style. Our professional editors can provide you with extra help concerning the following matters of style, and more:
  1. Sentence structure. Have you used a varying pattern of complex and simple sentences, as well as long, medium, and short sentences? Your readers will get bored if you use only simple sentences, and they'll get a headache if you use only complex ones.
  2. Concision, clarity, and strong diction. Don't use weak verbs and roundabout ways of saying things. Strong, direct words will impress your readers. Stick to active verbs, because passive verbs will drain energy from your writing.
  3. Details and evidence. Avoid vague generalizations. It is important to provide your readers with many details and a lot of evidence. You should also present your evidence in different ways in order to keep your reader's interest.
  4. Tone. Different types of writing, as well as different types of subject matter, require different tones.
  5. Cohesion. Your essay should have a feeling of flow and cohesion when read as a whole.
Ultimately, there are many ways to improve your writing. Whether you get help from professional editors or not, you will have to practice in order to improve. But now you have the tools to get started - so good luck!

Sample Essay with Commentary

Sample Essay Commentary
"Look, up in the sky! It's a bird, it's a plane - it's Superman!" Those are the words you would expect to hear accompanying the arrival of a typical hero. But what does the word "hero" truly mean when applied to real people? It is a difficult word to define because it has several connotations, some more universal than others. One person who fits the definition, both the traditional one and my personal one, is my father: he is a true hero. The INTRODUCTION begins with an attention-grabbing phrase, familiar to readers who know about Superman. The paragraph then goes on to introduce the topic of "hero." The paragraphs following the introduction must support the thesis statement, which is the last sentence of the introduction.
If the word "hero" is mentioned, many people may instantly think of someone who saves lives or improves the lives of others in an extraordinary way. For instance, popular fictional super "heroes" such as Superman and Wonderwoman save people from burning buildings and bring evil-doers to justice. There are real-life heroes who are just as dramatic, however: George Washington, often called the "Father of Our Country," is famous for leading Americans to independence in the Revolutionary War back in the late 1700s. He was a hero for guiding the American troops to victory in battle. Martin Luther King, Jr. is another great example of a hero. He risked going to prison many times in order to lead the struggle for equal rights for black Americans in the 1950s; in the end, his quest for civil rights cost him his life. But because of King and his work, there is less injustice and more equality in American society than there used to be. Many would call King a hero for his important work, which profoundly affected the lives of many people. My father fits into this category of life-saving, life-changing hero because of his work as a doctor in the emergency room of a hospital. For instance, just the other day a woman got trapped in her car underwater-she was not breathing when the ambulance brought her in. My father took the water out of her lungs and resuscitated her, saving her life. I have experienced my father's heroism firsthand, because he once saved my life, too. Last fall I fell off the roof of our garage while trying to retrieve a Frisbee. I hit my head when I landed, and if my father hadn't been there to stop the bleeding and later give me stitches at the hospital, I could have died. I - and the hundreds of others whose lives my father has affected in the emergency room - can attest that he definitely fits the traditional definition of life-saving hero. The first BODY PARAGRAPH begins with a topic sentence that tells us what the rest of the paragraph will be about: heroes who are extraordinary and dramatic, saving lives and saving the day. We then read about two different types of such heroes - fictional and historical. Then the author goes on to tell us about her father, and how he is another type of extraordinary hero.

What makes this paragraph interesting is that we get specific details about her father. The author doesn't just say, "My father saves lives." She tells us how he does so (as an emergency room doctor) and when he has done so (a woman got trapped underwater, and her father saved her; the author fell off the roof of the garage, and her father saved her). Details and anecdotes make the writing much more interesting.

The paragraph ends by referring back to the topic sentence, and repeating what has been shown in the paragraph - that the writer's father "fits the traditional definition of life-saving hero."

My own definition of "hero," however, is different from the traditional, more dramatic one: to me, a hero can also be someone who puts the needs of others before his own. My father fits into this category of hero as well. He spends much of his free time doing service work at our church, including working at a soup kitchen for the homeless and collecting canned goods for the hungry at Christmastime. These acts are not only kind but also selfless, considering that his schedule as a doctor leaves him very little time for himself. But he knows that it is important to help others less fortunate than himself. Furthermore, when he is not helping out at church, he is very often spending his time being a good father to me. For instance, even when he is tired after coming home from the hospital, he will help me with my schoolwork. On weekends, he drives me to my tennis matches and almost always watches me play the whole time. Having him there makes me feel special, and I always put extra effort into my playing because I know he is watching from the stands. My father also drives me to Lake Winnetake Woodland Camp every summer. It is a four-hour drive, but it feels much shorter because my father and I always have great discussions along the way. Finally, even though he really does not enjoy swimming, my father recently took me to a water park for the weekend because he knows how much I have wanted to go. He was again putting my wants before his. I think that all of the small sacrifices that he makes for others is further proof that my father is a hero. The first sentence of this body paragraph includes the word "however"; it's a transitional word that connects the sentence to the paragraph before it. The topic sentence states what the author's personal definition of a hero is, and tells us that her father fits this definition in addition to the more traditional one. The rest of the paragraph tells us exactly how her father fits it, with specific examples.
Furthermore, my father has another important attribute that makes him my personal hero: he serves as a good role model for me, and he has a real impact on the way I live my life. Ever since I can remember, he has been an example of good health for me. For years we have gone jogging together several times a week, because he taught me the importance of exercise to a healthy body. Also, a few years ago I tried vegetarianism because my father has always been a vegetarian. I soon discovered that I felt more energetic when I cut meat out of my diet, so now I am a vegetarian too. I would never dream of smoking, or drinking alcohol, because of my father's healthy example. I want to be as healthy as he is when I am his age, so I am trying to adopt his healthful habits now. But even beyond health, my father has been a wonderful role model: he has set an example for the career I want to pursue and the kind of family life I want to lead. Seeing the way my father has saved people's lives has moved me to follow a similar profession. I want to join the Red Cross so that I can comfort and help people who have been struck by disaster. As I hold that job, however, I will make sure to devote as much of my spare time as I can to my family. Because of my father, I know that even if my job keeps me busy, I can still be a great spouse and a loving parent. My father is a role model both for the present and for the future. "Furthermore" is another transitional word, connecting this paragraph to the one before it. This whole paragraph is about the way the writer's father serves as a good role model. You can check every sentence and see that each one somehow has to do with that topic.
For me to find a hero, all I had to do was stop looking up at the skies and start looking around myself. As hard as it may be to believe, my father somehow embodies both the dramatic and everyday qualities of the hero. The work he does and the selflessness that he shows sets a good example that guides my own actions every day. Ultimately, that is enough in my book to be called a hero. The CONCLUSION connects itself to the introduction by referring back to the first sentence of the essay: "Look, up in the sky! It's a bird? The writer says that she didn't need to look up in the sky to find a hero. Your conclusion doesn't have to make a reference to the introduction, but it's not a bad idea.

The essay ends by summing up the claim the thesis statement made in the introduction: "All the stuff my father does is enough for me to call him a hero."