Writing Help

What Makes a Good Essay?

Take Your Reader on a Trip

These patterns help you structure an essay that effectively instructs, delights, and/or moves the reader.

The Cruise: If you have a lot of material to tell the reader, make sure you do it in some reasonable order. Do not ramble about uninteresting things, and stay focused. A cruise ship does not set out from England, go south and then east to Turkey, west to Florida, east to France, northwest to Greenland, etc. It follows a reasonable path from place to place. A cruise is also supposed to be delightful: there has to be something worth your reader's time at each stop.

The Elevator: Once you have a clear sense of the argument in your essay, make sure you keep the reader with you at every stage of the argument. A person normally rides an elevator in only one direction at a time. They also travel to every floor between the starting point and the destination. Don't skip an important step in your argument. Also, if your essay is designed to move the reader, don't let the emotion lag; let it build--or if the point of the essay is to show an angry reader why not to be angry, guide the reader down carefully to calmness. Don't jolt the reader into submission.

The Space Shuttle: Maybe you're a broad thinker, not so good about keeping track of details. Soar over the details: take your readers with you on an amazing ride. Note that the scenery has to be good at this level, or else your readers will wonder why they came along. For example, maybe you don't have time to figure out what the status of women was in 18th-century England, but you do have some interesting ideas about the relations between men and women in general. Feature your general observations and dip down briefly, here and there, for examples.

The Piggy-Back Ride: If you have some important things to show the reader in a no-nonsense way, load the reader on your back: the reader looks at the same things that are important to you, and from nearly the same perspective. Note that not all readers want this kind of ride. But when you have all the facts, you are the authority; you decide what your reader ought to know or feel.

The Library: Good research essays are like guided trips to the library. Bring the reader a bunch of worthwhile, meaningful books, point out the key passages, and tie them together around the common subject of your research.

The Pilgrimage: When you want readers to really appreciate something worthwhile, lead them to all the best sites and point out what's marvelous. A poet's wonderful rhyme, for instance, connects the two main themes of the poem with perfect economy--and look! Here is the rhyme again in another poem about something else, evoking the first poem--and behold! See how the two poems actually form a series, leading us from one emotion to the next--and so on.

The War Zone: In the strong form of the "compare and contrast" essay, you take up the implications of the differences you found and put them in opposition to one another. Give both sides their due, and let them duke it out on the page. Maybe there are two contrasting ways to interpret something; so what? Tell your reader why the contrast is important.

If You Must, Send Them Down the Funnel: Many readers of this guide have learned how to write a standard five-paragraph essay in what teachers have called the "funnel" style. This skill is essential for standardized tests, where time is short and the point is to show that you can construct three meaningful paragraphs about the same topic. The funnel metaphor comes from the idea that your introduction makes some general observations and gradually narrows down to your three main points, one point to be discussed in each paragraph. Then the readers fall out of the funnel into ... well, instructors don't tell you what happens next. The conclusion is supposed to sum up and then provide one further idea that broadens back into the general point or extends somewhere else. Too often, readers feel like they have been dropped off nowhere. But for the computer grading your standardized test, that's ok. For a teacher who has to grade 50 essays quickly, that can be ok too.

Let GradeSaver help you break out of the acceptable but uninspired funnel style and edit your essay to excellence.