The First Sentence
The first sentence matters most. It is where readers are won and lost. In this sentence you can persuade readers that you and your essay are worth their attention. Even a captive reader (such as someone who is required to grade your essay) decides early on how much effort to put into reading your work.
Furthermore, the first sentence often sets up some of the key words or themes of the essay. Many non-captive readers are patient enough to read the whole first paragraph, so it often works out if you save your thesis and some key words and themes for later in the paragraph. But you should start getting the reader attuned to your frame of mind as early as possible. In fact, by the first sentence it is almost too late: the title of your essay has already determined whether or not you have the attention of potential readers.
The point is that most writers should spend a lot more time on the title and the first sentence than they do. Too often, the title and the first sentence are holdovers from the first draft, several hours or days--even weeks--before the essay has been completed. In that time, the essay often has evolved beyond its original shape. Once a "final" draft of your essay is complete, if you have time to edit nothing else, at least go back and make sure that the opening truly reflects the direction of your essay.
Let's examine for a moment this opening from a classic author:
"Among the novel objects that attracted my attention during my stay in the United States, nothing struck me more forcibly than the general equality of conditions." -Alexis de Tocqueville, Democracy in America
(1) "novel objects": the writer has something new to show us;
(2) "attracted my attention": these new things are worth the attention of smart observers;
(3) "during my stay": he has firsthand knowledge of these new things;
(4) "in the United States": anyone interested in the U.S. should be paying attention;
(5) "nothing struck me more forcibly": something is so striking that he wants to share it with us;
(6) "general equality of conditions": this is a constant topic throughout the book.
Try out Tocqueville's pattern for practice. For example: "Among the many flashy costumes that update the lifestyles of the characters in The Taming of the Shrew for contemporary audiences at the Shakespeare Theater, no costume is more striking than the biker garb that Petruchio wears to his own wedding."
For further practice, check out another classic to see how the first sentence strikes you as a reader, and then try the same pattern with a theme of your own choosing.
While an essay is an activity between the writer and the reader, it is also about something. A thesis normally helps the reader understand what in particular you are trying to communicate. Some kinds of essays do not need a thesis statement to point out the subject--they may have a central theme, but that theme is diffused throughout the essay. Some kinds of essays have a subject but not an argument; the point may be simply to enjoy the subject. But almost every successful academic essay does have a thesis statement. This is because the reader is expecting you to relate (1) what the topic is and (2) what you are going to say about it.
(1) Usually the overall topic is clear from the rest of the introduction (see below). The thesis then can be a little more specific; it can name the key topics you will discuss. The thesis statement can serve as a miniature outline of the essay, or you can use the rest of the introduction to serve as a general outline.
(2) The introduction normally sets up the thesis statement, which occurs at or near the end. By this point, hopefully, you have caught the reader's interest in one way or another. The reader should be ready for you to announce your plans (see "Take Your Reader on a Trip" under "What Makes a Good Essay?"). Here, it is essential that you announce plans that seem worthwhile to the reader. If your thesis is obvious to any reader, easily proven, hardly debatable, or so common that it looks like you are just going through the motions of writing an essay that anybody could write, your reader will lose interest and might think that you are not daring enough. But if your thesis is controversial, important, provable if given the right evidence, unusual, upending conventional wisdom, startlingly precise, calling for action, or in any way promises that the trip will be worthwhile, you are likely to keep your reader's attention.
Let's continue with our example to practice constructing a thesis. Here's Tocqueville's thesis: "I confess that in America I saw more than America; I sought the image of democracy itself, with its inclinations, its character, its prejudices, and its passions, in order to learn what we have to fear or to hope from its progress."
(1) "I saw more than America": in fact the topic is even more striking than America itself;
(2) "the image of democracy itself": America is just an example of a broader pattern;
(3) "its inclinations ... its passions": these four themes specify what the first sentence only alluded to--they either outline or are central to the argument of the book;
(4) "in order to learn": here is the significance of the book--we should be paying attention to the rise of democracy around the world;
(5) "what we have to fear or to hope": there may be things to fear or things to hope for--should we be fearful or hopeful? This book will show us what Tocqueville learned.
Our version: "Indeed the biker garb of Petruchio does more than strike fear into the wedding party; his upending of formalwear, of weddings, of the solemnity of a religious service, challenges us to acknowledge the fragility of our most carefully scripted experiences."
The Introduction Paragraph(s)
In a short essay, you have space for only a one-paragraph introduction. Once your essay gets beyond about 10 paragraphs, you can consider a two-paragraph introduction. In Tocqueville's book, the introduction is an entire chapter, but it does the same things that a one-paragraph introduction does: the introduction to an academic essay (1) introduces the topic, (2) sets up the argument of the thesis, and (3) points forward to the rest of the essay. In fact, accomplishing these goals begins as early as the title of the essay. Consider the title a significant part of your introduction.
Note that as you write, your idea of the topic, the argument, and the essay structure are likely to evolve. It is not a bad idea to write a quick setup of the problem and your solution as you understand it so far, write the rest of the essay, and then return to the introduction as the last section you carefully write.
Just to get started, you need a topic. See "What Makes a Good Essay?" for advice on choosing your goals, on key actions you can choose to perform in your essay, and on the kinds of paths on which you can lead your readers. If you are getting stuck, strike up a conversation with someone about the material you are considering writing about, or at least the general subject area. Often a topic will come out of that conversation. This is because under the pressure of coming up with things to say in a normal conversation, you will naturally move toward the more interesting, provocative, instructive, delightful, or moving topics.
Take this possible conversation starter as an example: "I loved how everybody at that performance of The Taming of the Shrew wore modern clothes. It really made me feel that the story could have happened in my old neighborhood. Then, when Petruchio came to his wedding as a biker, I could really see how he was trying to make a point. He wanted to show everybody that he could wear anything he wanted--that he was in control. That got me thinking how we always like to make every detail perfect at a wedding, but it's so easy for one thing to break up the whole experience."
Once you have narrated some ideas and put them down on paper, turn the conversational style into a more formal academic style. Note that you often will have to specify vague terms that you used earlier. This version will be enough to launch the paper until you are ready to revise. Let's use Tocqueville's model:
"Among the many flashy costumes that update the lifestyles of the characters in The Taming of the Shrew for contemporary audiences at the Shakespeare Theater, no costume is more striking than the biker garb that Petruchio wears to his own wedding. It might be hard to appreciate Renaissance formalwear, but everyone can understand the white dress worn by Katherine on her wedding day. When Petruchio matches her beautiful dress with black leather instead of a tuxedo, he draws the surprise of everyone. Petruchio uses this attention to show everyone that he is controlling the fate of Katherine. Not only that, he shows everyone that enjoyment of the wedding depends on him. In fact the biker garb of Petruchio does more than strike fear into the wedding party; his upending of formalwear, of weddings, of the solemnity of a religious service, challenges us to acknowledge the fragility of our most carefully scripted experiences."
By the end of the introduction, your reader should be able to understand what you are doing and why you are doing it. In other words, what is at stake? Why should the reader read the essay? In the example above, readers might be interested to join you in working through the challenge presented in the last sentence, if they trust that you have thought enough about the challenge to lead them through it.
One Point Per Paragraph
A paragraph is a unit. It does something specific, and when it is done, you should move on to the next paragraph. You should be able to answer the question, "What am I doing in this paragraph?" You might be proving a point, providing a set of evidence, responding to counter-evidence, presenting a theme, explaining a phenomenon, or in general moving, delighting, or instructing the reader. In an academic essay, most or all paragraphs instruct. If it takes fewer than three sentences or more than eight sentences to accomplish your goal, consider broadening or narrowing the goal. If you have multiple goals, you probably should be writing multiple paragraphs.
Make the point clear in the paragraph. It is usually best to put the point at the beginning or the end. Use the rest of the paragraph to focus attention on the point, elaborate on the point, prove the point, or, if the point comes at the end, prepare the reader to accept the point.
In our example above, what should we be doing? It seems important to describe the biker outfit. It also seems valuable to explain the wedding scene in contextÃ¢Â"why are they getting married, and what is at stake for them? This context will help us explain the fear of the wedding party. Then we can turn to Petruchio and infer his motives from what he says and does, as well as what he wears. Then we can compare the wedding to other formal occasions, and suggest the implications for situations when we try to control the circumstances but cannot control someone who is an independent spirit.
Can you imagine how some of these paragraphs might go? Consider how each one accomplishes a distinct goal. In an outline like this, don't worry if you get some of the paragraphs out of order. It is not unusual to rearrange the paragraphs as you write.
Don't Forget the Point
When you don't have an outline ahead of time, you can still be successful by writing as you go. Sometimes you may not quite know what you will write three paragraphs ahead until you get there. Whether or not you have an outline, one of the greatest pitfalls to avoid is straying from the point. You might get halfway through the essay and have a completely different direction. That might be ok, so long as you fix the problem: you can (a) throw out the irrelevant material, (b) make it relevant by relating it back to the point, or (c) change the point in a way that permits you to use the material.
Another common problem in many essays occurs within a paragraph: you may start writing about one point and jump ahead to the next point. If your paragraph has more than eight sentences, you probably strayed ahead; split the paragraph in two. Be strict about the rule of one point per paragraph, and stay focused on the goal of each paragraph.
Finally, an academic essay differs from a looser narrative essay in that the paragraphs normally do not merge into one another organically. In other words, some writers like to use the last sentence of a paragraph to introduce the topic of the next paragraph. That model seldom works in an academic essay. Put such a sentence in the paragraph where it belongs.
What Counts As Evidence?
Readers of academic essays want you to support your ideas with evidence. What counts as good evidence depends on the subject area and the level of writing that you are trying to achieve. Sometimes information in a textbook is good enough, but sometimes you are expected to do original research to ground your claims.
One standard that applies across disciplines lies in the difference between telling and showing. The fact that you believe something very sincerely, since you are the one who carefully thought about your topic, may be important to you. But readers don't want you simply to tell them what you believe or what you learned; they want you to show them so they can learn it too.
When you present evidence, you should analyze it in terms of the point of the paragraph. That is, try to use some of the same words as the words you use in the sentence that has the point, as well as the thesis sentence. In fact, computer graders look for the integration of your key terms throughout the essay, in order to score it for consistency and unity. Human readers think in a similar way.
Let's try out the paragraph about what is at stake for the wedding party. For the first draft, let's keep to a conversational style. Note that the point comes at the end, that there can be several layers of evidence, and that you can look for key quotations in a later step:
"Katherine's family thought she was never going to get married because of her bad temper. In their society, this would mean that they would be stuck with her forever. Now that she is engaged to Petruchio, they have the chance for some peace; her own sister even says hopefully, 'xxx.' Even though they only had a week to plan, they clearly want the wedding to be perfect: the women wear beautiful dresses, the musicians are playing, and there are flowers everywhere. For once the family is united, and it seems like the future of the whole family depends on the ceremony going according to plan."
Quote Your Sources Wisely
Your readers often can figure out how much work you put into the essay by looking at your sources: (1) how many? (2) do you seem to understand what you read? (3) do you quote only the relevant passages? (4) do all your quotations come from the same page--or from throughout the book?
(1) Try to get one or two sources into each paragraph, either in the main text or in a footnote. In literature essays and essays that use historical documents or interviews, quoting the original words is essential.
(2) Normally it is not enough to insert a quotation; show evidence that you understand it. When the quotation includes words that exactly match the point that you are trying to prove with this evidence, you can get away with minimal or no analysis (in the example paragraph above, "hopefully" may be enough analysis of the quotation from Katherine's sister). Usually, however, a whole sentence (or two) of analysis should follow the quotation. Tell the reader why that quotation is important.
(3) Avoid long quotations. Make use of ellipsis (...) to omit parts of a quotation that are less relevant. Use brackets  to insert words that improve the flow of the quotation. You also can replace several words with your own paraphrase inside brackets, in order to cut down on the length of the quotation.
(4) When all your quotations come from the same page of a book, your reader might imagine that you did not actually read the whole book. Citing just one or two additional locations will put the reader more at ease.
In every case, it is essential to put quotation marks around the words you quote or to set off the material as a block quotation. Whenever possible you should include the exact page number. The reader should be able to find your source easily. If you choose to paraphrase rather than to quote, it is even more important to include the page number, which is the most efficient way to signal that the ideas have come from someone other than yourself.
Finally, follow the conventions in your field and in your class for proper citation of quotations within the text, in footnotes or endnotes, and in the bibliography or list of works cited.
Five Ways to Get Caught Plagiarizing
Plagiarism is especially tempting in academic essays. Quotations are essential, but you might be tempted to quote someone else's material and present it as your own. It is very easy to do this, but it is very easy to get caught. You won't get caught if you don't do it. In every case, you are better off adding quotation marks. Three or four unquoted words in a row can be enough for you to get charged with plagiarism.
Here are five signs that you may have plagiarized. (There are other signs too, and experienced readers know to look for them. Suspicious sentences will send them straight to the Internet.) If you notice one of these signs, try to find the original source. If you cannot find it but it is essential to the essay, it is best to add quotation marks and to note in the essay that you can no longer find the source.
(1) An uneven style. This sign mainly refers to a well-written sentence or paragraph in the midst of badly written sentences and paragraphs. When you move from your rough draft to an edited draft, you might find an eloquent sentence that has the ring of polished, previously published prose. It probably came from someone else. This sign also refers to vocabulary that shifts from basic words to advanced words from one section to the next.
(2) An especially long sentence in the midst of many short sentences. Published essays tend to have longer sentences than academic essays written by students.
(3) A paragraph or group of sentences that seem to be proving a point very well, but not the point that you advertised in the essay. When an entire essay does not adequately address the assigned prompt, the whole essay is suspect. Similarly, if you advertise that a paragraph is about A but there are several sentences about B that seem to belong better in a different essay, the paragraph will be suspect. Sometimes this is a matter of restructuring the essay, but sometimes it is plagiarism.
(4) A level of sophistication or communication that exceeds the normal level for you and your peers. If you are in high school and you write a history essay that uses primary sources not discussed in class--without citing a secondary source--your reader will wonder how you possibly got the data. If you are in an introductory humanities course and you already seem to know several critics' opinions of the text--in contrast to your performance in class--your reader will wonder how you became so well read so quickly.
(5) Passages that use different formatting: font, point size, number of spaces after a period, color, etc. You might be surprised how many plagiarists get caught by an entire paragraph being printed in gray instead of black, or by a superscript number that used to refer to a footnote in an essay with no footnotes. Also, copying and pasting material from web sites often produces a lot of "nonbreaking space" characters, which look different on the screen from spaces that are typed directly; many plagiarizers get caught when they are asked to produce an electronic copy of their essay.
Transitions: Getting From Point to Point
Too many writers let each paragraph stand on its own. Yes, a paragraph is a discrete unit, but it is connected to other units through transitions. Normally a transition occurs in the first sentence of the new paragraph.
Remember that while the paragraphs all accomplish discrete purposes, the reason they appear in a certain order is because of the particular relationships among those purposes. Make those relationships explicit for your reader.
The easiest way to connect paragraphs occurs when you have a list of topics to get through. After the first paragraph, start the next paragraph with "Second, ..." Note that this structure can get boring rather quickly. Most essays require a more interesting set of transitions from paragraph to paragraph--from point to point. Repeating a key word or idea from the previous paragraph is usually enough. (For instance, in this paragraph, the word "connect" in the first sentence is another way of saying "make the relationships explicit." In the previous paragraph, the point was to advise you to connect paragraphs with transitions. In this paragraph, the point is to advise you how to do so.)
Other web sites can provide lists of transition words that connect one paragraph to another such as Nevertheless, Even so, But, Moreover, Furthermore, and so on.
Words to Use, Words to Avoid
If your essay responds to a prompt, you are well advised to use the words and ideas in the prompt frequently throughout the essay. This shows that you have thought carefully about the prompt, that you are addressing it directly, and that you did not plagiarize. If there is no prompt, give your essay unity by continuing to use words that express the thesis.
Here are several words you should seldom use in academic essays, although they might be perfectly acceptable in certain contexts and in other kinds of essays:
(1) "totalizing" words such as always, never, everyone, all, every, everywhere, totally, absolutely, and so on. These words are hard to defend, because your readers tend to be good at finding exceptions.
(2) "conversational" words and phrases such as you know, I feel that, I'm trying to, what's up with, and so on. This guideline includes almost all slang and almost all contractions. Note, however, that an essay should sound "smooth" when it is read aloud.
(3) "judgmental" words such as stupid, dumb, awful, terrible, great, amazing, and so on, unless you explicitly defend your judgment. Some demeaning words such as dumb can almost always be specified better by using a less demeaning, more precise word.
(4) socially or culturally "unacceptable" words. In some settings, calling an adult female a "girl" is appropriate, but in other settings it is inappropriate. Context often makes all the difference. Writers of academic essays are often taught to write in "gender neutral" terms whenever there is no reason to write about males or females in particular, and more and more readers are requiring that this norm be followed.
(5) Recognize that your words can have ideological meanings that please or anger your readers: the rise of the term "Democrat Party" in place of "Democratic Party" might tempt you to write "Democrat Party" in an essay about politics, but this trend has been limited mainly to political conservatives, so your use of the term will go over very differently with different readers. Whenever there is a genuine question about what is appropriate, choose the less controversial term. An academic essay about something else is not the place to fight an unrelated social or political battle, tempting as it may be.
The section "Five Ways to Turn Off the Reader" under "What Makes a Good Essay?" gives further advice.
Many writing guides provide endless quantities of style tips. It is easy to be pedantic and require that certain rules always be followed. But in reality, just about every rule (even spelling rules!) can be broken under the right circumstances. Even so, reading a good style guide is a great way to start thinking about how to improve essays at the level of words, phrases, or sentences. Experience must do the rest.
An easy beginning is the popular "Strunk and White" style guide; to take the next step, try the book by Joseph Williams called Style. As you read each book, look for principles rather than a simple list of rules.
There are two general ways to improve your style. The quick way, which is also quite effective, is to read your essay out loud or to listen while someone else reads it aloud. Awkward sentences will become painfully clear, and they can be fixed in the same day. The harder way, although it can have better results in the long run, is to imitate the style of an accomplished writer, as we did in imitating Tocqueville above, until you can write in that style naturally.
The Concluding Paragraph(s)
Many writers run out of steam by the time they get to the end of a long writing session. They are tempted to skimp not only on editing but also on the conclusion. Too many writers simply rewrite the thesis or the whole opening paragraph, add the topic sentences from some of the key body paragraphs, and let the essay trail off. That is better than nothing, because a central function of the conclusion is to sum up the points of the essay.
Slightly better is to add a sentence or two to suggest something new for the reader: an implication to follow up, an idea for further research, a challenge that must still be met, a recommendation for further reading, and so on. This material can be extended into an entire paragraph or two when the essay is long enough.
In several fields, the concluding section is expected to take a certain form that does much more than sum up the essay. In social science fields, for example, an essay that presents your research results often should include a section on the limitations of the research (such as ways that the research method could be improved, or cautions about the applicability of the research). It is important to learn what standards apply to essays in your field.
The Last Sentence
The final sentence is your last chance to send off the reader with your message. Captive readers have had to read your whole essay, like it or not, while non-captive readers have chosen to take the whole journey with you. Reward both kinds of readers with a sendoff that is well constructed and leaves a good impression.
Let's examine Tocqueville's concluding sentence for a non-captive audience after hundreds of pages:
"The nations of our time cannot prevent the conditions of men from becoming equal; but it depends upon themselves whether the principle of equality is to lead them to servitude or freedom, to knowledge or barbarism, to prosperity or to wretchedness."
(1) "cannot prevent": be aware that equality is coming, like it or not;
(2) "it depends upon themselves": here is something we can do;
(3) "principle of equality": this is the central theme of the book;
(4) notice the pleasing either/or structure of the last half of the sentence.
Let's now conclude the Petruchio essay in the same style, for practice:
"We never can keep perfect control over the ceremonies that mean the most to us; but at least we can advise planning over anarchy, prudence over haphazardness, and tuxedos over leather."
Finishing TouchesGive yourself at least 24 hours after you think you have "finished" a draft, and then edit it with a fresh eye. If you want a professional perspective on your essay to help you raise your essay to excellence, or if you are running out of time, let GradeSaver suggest a complete set of revisions for your essay. Whether you get help from a roommate, a friend, or GradeSaver, make sure that you personally understand and agree with all revisions that you accept and submit as your own work.
Additional Writing Resources
- What's a Good Essay?
- Admission Essays
- Scholarship Essays
- Essay Writing: First-Person and Third-Person Points of View
- Elements of a Successful Research Paper
- Removing Redundancy: Writing Clearly and Concisely
- Avoiding Commonly Misused Words
- Active Voice vs. Passive Voice
- Choosing an Effective Essay Topic
- An Overview of Literary Genres
- What Makes Classic Literature Classic?
- Determining Your Writing Style
- APA vs. MLA: What Style Guide Do I Use?