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Writing an Essay

An essay is a formal written expression of your ideas. An essay can help you persuade your audience, inform your audience, or express your feelings to your audience. The method you use to express your ideas depends on your overall purpose in writing the paper.

Expressing your ideas is nothing new, but you might be more comfortable expressing your ideas in informal conversation rather than in formal, academic essays. In conversation, you might try to persuade your friends to join you on a weekend trip to the mountains; you might try to convince your son to break away from the friends who are constantly in trouble. You might even wrestle with yourself as you try to talk yourself into losing those three extra kilogrmas that you have gained in the past year. All of these more informal tasks contain many of the elements that are found in an essay.

First of all, you will have an overall point to make. All of us have been exasperated by friends or acquaintances who ramble forever without direction. Making a point is one of the elements of good conversational technique, and it is an essential component of good essay writing as well. In an essay, you will make your point in a sentence called the thesis statement. The thesis encapsulates in one sentence the overall point you are making in your paper. It is not a statement of fact; it is a statement of opinion that you will prove with facts, evidence, and examples. The thesis statement answers the reader's question "What central idea does the writer want to communicate to me in this essay?"

In good conversation, the person who is speaking also provides a structure and context for the information he or she is delivering. Each conversation will have a beginning, middle, and end, however informal those elements may be. In an essay, those elements are evident in the introduction of the essay, the body of the essay, and the conclusion of the essay. The length of your essays will vary depending on the nature of your assignment and your subject matter, but the basic structure of your essay will not vary, even if you are writing a research paper.

Writing the Introduction

Writing the Body

Writing the Conclusion

Writing an Expressive Essay

Writing an Informative Essay

Writing a Persuasive Essay

Essay Tips

Essay Checklist

Writing the Introduction

A friend might ask you in conversation, "Do you remember last year when Dr. Lichtenstein tutored us on Sunday nights?" Your friend has given you the when, what, and why--now you are ready for the information your friend wants to communicate. Listeners are not mind readers, and neither are readers. The writer should orient readers by writing introductions that provide important contextual information. The introduction orients the reader to content, perspective, and tone.
  • Content  What topic does the essay cover?
  • Perspective  What is the writer's stance on the topic?
  • Tone  What is the writer's attitude toward the subject? (Humorous? Reflective? Scholarly?)

The introduction also contains the thesis statement, which usually appears near the end of the introductory paragraph or paragraphs. Thesis statements can be implied, and many professional essays do not have an identifiable one-sentence thesis. In beginning composition classes, however, most teachers will ask you to include a clear and concise thesis statement in the introduction.

The introduction is your best chance of grabbing your reader's interest. As you peruse the morning newspaper, how do you decide what articles to read? First of all, you are probably taken by a title, either because it covers a topic you are interested in or because it is interesting or intriguing and captures your eye. Then, you skim the introduction to see if the article is worth reading. If the introduction is good, you read on. If the introduction is weak, you continue scanning the text for another article. The time you spend on your introduction and your title is time well spent, for it might mean the difference between someone reading your ideas or moving on to a more interesting paper.

Writing the Body

After the readers are oriented to the subject and know what to expect, the writer can then deliver the information in the body of the paper. The body of the paper contains the information the readers need to validate the thesis. The type of information you must include in the body will depend on the type of essay that you are writing, but most writers use one or more possible strategies to prove their thesis. Some of the most common strategies are as follows:

Strategy Explanation of the Strategy
Evidence facts and statistics, expert testimony
Summary condensed source material, documented and in your own words
Examples specific applications of the thesis; examples must be real, not hypothetical
Narration a story that exemplifies or develops the thesis
Description a physical or psychological detailing of the essay's place and time
Comparison/ Contrast examining the similarities and/or differences between two things; the items being compared should be similar in class
Analogy a figurative comparison of two dissimilar things
Classification placement of things into categories and classes to differentiate between them
Cause/Effect examination of the cause of an event and/or the repercussions of it
Process Analysis explanation of how something is done or why something has happened

Whatever methods you use to develop your ideas, be as specific as possible and include as many details as necessary to convince your readers of the validity of your thesis. The most important thing to remember is that the burden of proof is on you, the writer, not the reader. You cannot expect your readers to "fill in the blanks" that you don't want to take the time to explain. This is the part of your paper that you will need to scrutinize over and over again to ensure that you have included the information you need to communicate your point to your readers. It is often tedious work, for it is fairly easy to think of opinions you might have on a particular subject; it is an entirely more difficult task to back up every opinion with evidence and detail. In addition, if you use source materials, you will need to integrate your sources carefully and smoothly into your paper, and you must document your sources appropriately. For more information on documentation, see Documenting Your Sources.

Writing the Conclusion

The conclusion wraps up the paper by reminding readers of the main point and by leaving the readers with a clear view of the information they have been given. An old adage in speech writing advises speakers to "tell them what you are going to tell them, tell them, and then tell them what you told them." The same adage is true in essay structure. The conclusion does not offer the reader any new information on the subject; rather, the conclusion is an opportunity for the writer to reflect on the ideas in the essay and remind the reader of the main point of the essay. Whatever your strategy in the conclusion, be sure to bring the reader full circle to a satisfying end in the essay.


At times you will be asked to write an essay that expresses a thought, feeling, or reflection. Many times this kind of essay asks you to reflect on your life and relate a story about something that had a profound influence on you. According to Rodger Kamenetz, author of The Jew in the Lotus and Terra Infirma, "In Jewish tradition, stories are a way of changing people. If you tell the right story to the right person at the right moment it can transform them. The great rebbes are traditionally great storytellers. They look at you and determine which story they need to tell you to change your life." Expressive essays, then, strive to inspire transformation in ourselves and in our readers.

Tips for Writing Expressive Essays

The point of an essay like this is not to fit your feelings into a formula thesis and then prove your feelings in the body of your paper. Instead, you want to communicate a dominant impression of something personal.

You will, however, want to have some type of organizational structure so that your readers understand why they are reading your essay.

In addition, you should lead them through your thoughts and impressions without losing them.

You will probably use examples, narration, and description in an essay like this, although you may use other development strategies as well.

Many photographers photograph the same outdoor scene at different times of the day to capture the mood that the natural light creates. The words you choose and the way you construct your sentences and paragraphs are the tools you use to paint mood and feeling into your essay.

Carefully chosen details, then, are important components of the expressive essay. Your main purpose is to leave an impression.


In academic writing, you might be asked to present information about a particular topic without taking a specific position on that particular topic. Newspaper articles, although they might have a particular political slant, are written to present information as accurately and as objectively as possible.

Tips for Writing Informative/Descriptive Essays

Your thesis should be clear and objective.

You will probably use examples, facts, process analysis, and expert testimony to support your thesis in an essay like this, although you may use other development strategies as well.

A good prewriting strategy to use as you prepare to write an informative essay is to answer the five questions Who? Where? What? Why? When?

For an example of an informative essay, see Why is the Sky Dark at Night? by P. Lutus.


Much of the writing you will do for your courses and in the workplace will be designed to persuade your readers to accept your point of view. This kind of essay is called a persuasive or argumentative essay. Persuasive essays take a position on an issue, and the body of such an essay proves the validity of the thesis statement or at least persuades the reader that the stance taken in the essay is a reasonable one.

There are three ways to appeal to your reader: pathos (appeal to emotion), ethos (appeal to ethics), and logos (appeal to reason).

Pathos is the appeal to emotion. Used well, pathos allows the writer to get the reader to react from the heart on an issue to agree with the thesis of the essay. Used fallaciously, pathos preys on the emotions of readers to distract them from the real issues.

Any essay should incorporate ethos, which is an appeal to ethics. If your readers do not believe that you are a reasonable, credible person, it doesn't matter how solid your argument is. The reader won't buy it. In fact, a writer may concede a minor point to the opposition to prove that he or she understands the opposing view, implying open-mindedness.

Although all of these three appeals are essential elements of a strong argumentative essay, using reasonable logos, or logic, is by far the most important appeal in a persuasive essay. You must prove every point or assertion you make--every opinion you express-- with evidence. Evidence consists of facts and/or expert testimony. You can appeal to ethos and pathos, but if you do not think through your points carefully and prove them with hard evidence, your essay will not hold up to scrutiny.

For a list of common errors in logic to avoid in your writing, read the Logical Fallacies Chart.

For examples of a persuasive essay, see the editorial pages of any newspaper.

Essay Writing Tips

  • Include a strong introduction that captures your reader's interest and states your main point.
  • Make sure that you have supported every assertion with hard evidence.
  • Identify the rhetorical strategy (or strategies) used in your paper and determine whether that strategy is effective.
  • Do not place the burden of proof on your reader. Include the facts and details necessary to develop your main idea.
  • If you use outside sources, cite your sources and attribute them in your text.
  • Present yourself as a reasonable, credible person.
  • Include a strong conclusion that wraps up your essay and recapitulates your main points.

Essay Writing Checklist

  • I have included an identifiable thesis -- one sentence that identifies my topic and my position on it, if applicable.
  • I have an introduction that orients my readers, captures their interest, and states my position.
  • The body of my essay proves my thesis with evidence.
  • I have reviewed my essay for logical fallacies and have corrected any faulty logic.
  • I have presented myself as a credible, reasonable person.
  • I have avoided using emotion in place of logic.
  • I have included a conclusion that restates my main point and wraps up my essay.

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