How to write an essay

An essay is a focused piece of writing that develops an argument or narrative based on evidence, analysis and interpretation.

There are many types of essays you might write as a student. The content and length of an essay depends on your level, subject of study, and course requirements. However, most academic essays share the same goal: They aim to persuade readers of a position or perspective through informed arguments.

To write an essay, there are three main stages:

  1. Preparation: Decide on your topic, do your research, and create an essay outline.
  2. Writing: Set out your argument in the introduction, develop it with evidence in the main body, and wrap it up with a conclusion.
  3. Revision: Check the content, organization, grammar, spelling, and formatting of your essay.

In this guide, we walk you through what to include in the introduction, body and conclusion of an academic essay, using paragraphs from our interactive essay example.

Essay writing process

The essay writing process consists of three stages: preparation, writing and revision. These stages apply to every essay or paper, but the time and effort spent on each stage depends on the type of essay.

For example, if you’ve been assigned a five-paragraph expository essay for a high school class, you’ll probably spend the most time on the writing stage; for a college-level argumentative essay, on the other hand, you’ll need to spend more time researching your topic and developing an original argument before you start writing.

1. Preparation 2. Writing 3. Revision

Preparation for writing an essay

Before you start writing, you should make sure you have a clear idea of what you want to say and how you’re going to say it. There are a few key steps you can follow to make sure you’re prepared:

  1. Understand your assignment: What is the goal of this essay? What is the length and deadline of the assignment? Is there anything you need to clarify with your teacher or professor?
  2. Define a topic: If you’re allowed to choose your own topic, try to pick something that you already know a bit about and that will hold your interest.
  3. Do your research: Read primary and secondary sources and take notes to help you work out your position and angle on the topic. You’ll use these as evidence for your points.
  4. Come up with a thesis: The thesis is the central point or argument that you want to make. A clear thesis is essential for a focused essay – you should keep referring back to it as you write.
  5. Create an outline: Map out the rough structure of your essay in an outline. This makes it easier to start writing and keeps you on track as you go.

Once you’ve got a clear idea of what you want to discuss, in what order, and what evidence you’ll use, you’re ready to start writing.

Introduction of an essay

The introduction is important both to grab the reader’s interest and to inform them of what will be covered in the essay. The introduction generally comprises 10–20% of the text. To learn how to write an essay introduction, start by getting familiar with its most important goals.

1. Hook your reader

The first sentence of the introduction should pique your reader’s interest and curiosity. This sentence is sometimes called the hook. It might be a question, a quote, a surprising statistic, or a bold statement emphasizing the relevance of the topic.

Let’s say we’re writing an essay about the development of Braille (the raised-dot reading and writing system used by visually impaired people). Our hook can make a strong statement that about the topic:

The invention of Braille marked a major turning point in the history of disability.

2. Provide background on your topic

After you have hooked the reader, it is important to give context that will help your reader understand your argument. This might involve providing background information, giving an overview of important academic work or debates on the topic, and explaining difficult terms. Don’t provide too much detail in the introduction – you can elaborate in the body of your essay.

3. Present the thesis statement

Next, you should formulate your thesis statement – the central argument you’re going to make. The thesis statement provides focus and signals your position on the topic. It is usually one or two sentences long. An example of a thesis statement from an essay on Braille could look like this:

Braille’s success depended on mainstream acceptance by sighted teachers, and this process was shaped by debates about disabled people’s place in society.

Body of an essay

The body of your essay is where you make arguments supporting your thesis, provide evidence, and develop your ideas. Its purpose is to present, interpret and analyze the information and sources you have gathered to support your argument.

Length of the body text

The length of the body depends on the type of essay. On average, the body comprises 60–80% of your essay. For a high school essay, this could be just three paragraphs, but for a graduate school essay of 6,000 words, the body could take up 8–10 pages.

Paragraph structure

To give your essay a clear structure, it is important to make use of paragraphs. Each paragraph should be centered around just one argument or idea.

The purpose of each paragraph is introduced using topic sentences. The topic sentence forms a transition from the previous paragraph and introduces the argument to be made in this paragraph. Transition words can be used to create clear connections between sentences.

After the topic sentence, present evidence by providing the reader with data, examples or quotes. Be sure to interpret and explain the evidence, and show how it helps develop your overall argument.

Example of a paragraph from an essay

Although the Braille system gained immediate popularity with the blind students at the Institute in Paris, it was slow to gain mainstream acceptance, because sighted teachers and leaders had ultimate control over the propagation of Braille resources. Many of the teachers at the Royal Institute for Blind Youth resisted learning Braille because they found the tactile method of reading difficult to learn (Bullock & Galst, 2009). This resistance was symptomatic of the prevalent attitude that the blind population had to adapt to the sighted world rather than develop their own tools and methods. Over time, however, with the increasing impetus to make social contribution possible for all, teachers began to appreciate the usefulness of Braille’s system (Bullock & Galst, 2009), realizing that access to reading could help improve the productivity and integration of people with vision loss. It took approximately 30 years, but shifting attitudes meant that the French government eventually approved the Braille system, and it was established throughout the country (Bullock & Galst, 2009).

See the full essay example

Conclusion of an essay

The conclusion is the final paragraph of an essay. It should generally take up no more than 10–15% of the text. A strong essay conclusion:

  • Draws connections between the points made in the essay’s body
  • States the overall outcome of your arguments – what new insight have you provided?
  • Emphasizes the relevance and significance of your thesis statement

A great conclusion should finish with a memorable or impactful sentence that leaves the reader with a strong final impression.

What not to include in a conclusion

To make your essay’s conclusion as strong as possible, there are a few things you should avoid including. The most common mistakes are:

  • Including new arguments or evidence
  • Undermining your arguments (e.g. “This is just one approach of many”)
  • Using concluding phrases like “To sum up…” or “In conclusion…”

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Frequently asked questions about writing an essay

What is an essay?

An essay is a focused piece of writing that explains, argues, describes, or narrates.

In high school, you may have to write many different types of essays to develop your writing skills.

Academic essays at college level are usually argumentative: you develop a clear thesis about your topic and make a case for your position using evidence, analysis and interpretation.

What is the structure of an essay?

The structure of an essay is divided into an introduction that presents your topic and thesis statement, a body containing your in-depth analysis and arguments, and a conclusion wrapping up your ideas.

The structure of the body is flexible, but you should always spend some time thinking about how you can organize your essay to best serve your ideas.

What goes in an essay introduction?

Your essay introduction should include three main things, in this order:

  1. An opening hook to catch the reader’s attention.
  2. Relevant background information that the reader needs to know.
  3. A thesis statement that presents your main point or argument.

The length of each part depends on the length and complexity of your essay.

What is a thesis statement?

A thesis statement is a sentence that sums up the central point of your paper or essay. Everything else you write should relate to this key idea.

Why do I need a thesis statement?

The thesis statement is essential in any academic essay or research paper for two main reasons:

  • It gives your writing direction and focus.
  • It gives the reader a concise summary of your main point.

Without a clear thesis, an essay can end up rambling and unfocused, leaving your reader unsure of exactly what you want to say.

What is a topic sentence?

A topic sentence is a sentence that expresses the main point of a paragraph. Everything else in the paragraph should relate to the topic sentence.

When do I need to cite sources in an essay?

All essays written at a university level need to properly cite their sources (with the exception of exams or in-class exercises).

Citations should appear in your essay wherever you quote or paraphrase information from a source. These citations usually correspond to entries in a bibliography or reference list at the end of your essay.

The exact format of your citations depends on which citation style you are instructed to use. The most common styles are APA and MLA.

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