Western Civilization from the Greeks to the 17th Century

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How to Write an Essay

There are many kinds of essays, and many ways to write them, but most of those belong to the field of literature rather than exposition and do not concern us here. The following hints have shown themselves useful and effective in many contexts over the years.

  1. An essay has a beginning, a middle, and an end. In the beginning ("introduction") you state the central idea of the essay. In the middle ("body") you produce the evidence which supports the central idea. In the end ("conclusion") you explain how you have demonstrated the central idea. In other words, first you say what you are going to say, then you say it, then you say what you have said.

  2. An essay presents an argument. This does not mean that you are necessarily contradicting anyone. What it does mean is that the essay has a central idea which you are trying to demonstrate, and that central idea should be supported by the presentation of evidence in a logical order, such that the conclusion which you want the reader to draw follows naturally from the premises you have laid out.

    In setting out your evidence, you should
    discuss relevant facts and
    relate them to each other and to the central argument.

    But be aware: simply stringing facts together or making assertions in random order is not adequate for an essay, even if you have a lot of them. An essay has to say something meaningful and consistent about the subject.

  3. Know what you intend to say before you start to write. It is impossible to structure an argument coherently if you are making it up as you go along, and if you change the direction of your essay halfway through, your introduction will have no connection to the conclusion. If circumstances permit (for example, on a paper or take-home exam), you may find that writing an outline first helps organize your thoughts and keeps you on track.

  4. Don't stop when you finish the first draft of a paper or take-home exam. Most people don't get it completely right the first time around. Revising and editing are important! Always check for grammar, punctuation, spelling, and logical coherence.
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copyright 1997 Beth Nachison
please send comments to nachison@compsol.net

last update 28 December 1997