Writing an Essay at the College Level
Robert J. Flynn, Ph.D.
This handout will help you write more
effective college-level essays. It includes a guide to help you
organize, draft, and revise your paper; content and style points that
will improve your argument and the quality of your prose; and a list of
do’s and don’ts. Please read this sheet over before you write each
paper, after you have completed your first draft, and before you make
changes to your final draft.
Remember, writing is not a free-form
activity. It is a three-step process in which you first organize and
outline your thoughts, then develop a rough draft, and, finally,
undertake a series of revisions aimed at sharpening your argument and
improving your prose. By approaching a writing assignment with such a
plan, you will compose clearer, more logical, and more persuasive
papers. You will also receive better grades for your effort.
Organizing and Outlining
- First things first. Read and
thoroughly understand the question. If you are confused, talk to your
professor or teaching assistant.
- With an eye towards the assignment, review the reading material
and any notes you have taken. Think of the position that you plan to
take, and jot down any examples or quotes that you plan to use.
- Develop an argumentative working thesis statement that
answers the assigned question.
- Think about how you want to introduce and conclude the essay.
Your introduction should link the specific question at hand and your
thesis to a larger issue (preferably an issue about which you have
strong feelings; writing about a topic that connects in some way to
things that interest you is both easier and more fun). Take a look at
the "Introduction" entry under the "Content and Style Points" section
listed below for further advice about how to construct an effective
- Develop an outline. Generally, hundred-level essays call for a
simple outline that includes an introduction, a conclusion, and three
main body points that tie into and advance your thesis. An outline will
guide your writing, keep you from straying from your thesis, and help
assure that your essay is argumentative rather than a descriptive list
(description is NOT the name of the game in college-level writing;
Drafting Your Paper
- Draft your essay. You are not trying
to write a flawless draft the first time, so do not worry about making
- Make sure that you use concrete examples from the readings–either
paraphrased or quoted–and that you ANALYZE THEM.
Revising Your Essay and Preparing it for Submission
- Nothing improves the quality of
written work like multiple drafts. Even a single extra draft will
result in a sharper argument, clearer prose, better organization, and,
most important, higher grades.
- Revise drafts on printed copies rather than the computer screen.
You will more easily see errors and be able to compare points made on
different pages when working with paper.
- Start with big revisions. Make sure that you answer the question
asked (if not, do not despair. A few revised drafts should do the
- Next, make sure that the organization is effective. If not,
reorder or delete paragraphs as necessary and develop new ideas to fill
holes in your argument.
- Then assure that your paper is argumentative (remember:
description does not cut it at the college level). If a paragraph is
unnecessarily descriptive, revise it to make it more focused and
pointed (usually you can do this most effectively by revising the topic
- Lastly, work on fixing any grammatical errors and on making the
prose clearer and more graceful. One effective–if goofy sounding–way to
do this is to read your draft aloud. You will be surprised to discover
that you can often hear style and grammar problems better than you can
- Repeat the prior step two or three more times. You do want to get
a good grade don’t you?
- Have a friend read it over. Asking is something of an imposition,
but having someone else review your draft–preferably someone completely
unfamiliar with the assignment–will greatly help your paper. Why?
Because they are unfamiliar with the topic and readings, and will thus
assure that you are writing for a sufficiently broad audience.
- Turn your paper in on time. See receiving a good grade comment
Content and Style Points
- Introduction. Introductions
are the most difficult part of an essay to write. They thus merit extra
attention. An introduction must include a thesis statement (usually the
last sentence of the introductory paragraph) and should link the paper
to some larger issue.
One especially effective technique is to begin your introduction with a
general point that leads to the more specific point embodied in your
thesis. For an assignment that asks you to determine if a character in
a novel is a hero, for instance, you could begin by providing a
definition of a hero (a general point) and then move on to your thesis
(your take on why the character is or is not a hero–the specific
An introduction should also serve as a road map or blueprint for your
paper. It should set out what main points, issues, or concepts you are
going to address. For the hero paper discussed above, for example, you
might want to say in your thesis statement that the character was a
hero because he was brave, loyal, and willing to make sacrifices to
achieve his goal. The body, in this case, would include paragraphs on
the character’s bravery, loyalty, and self sacrifice.
- One final point: you might want to write your introduction last.
Your argument will often develop as you compose the first draft. By
developing the introduction after you have drafted the paper you will
assure that the intro and the body of the paper match up and will avoid
having to rewrite completely the introduction.
- Conclusion. Try to end on a broad point. Should you devise
an introduction that moves from the general to the specific, your
conclusion will do precisely the opposite: it will move from the
specific to the general and will, if effectively put together, raise
- Thesis Statement. Think of the thesis statement as the
point of your paper. It is a contestable point rather than a statement
of fact and, for short papers, is usually the last sentence of your
- Topic Sentences. Make sure that each paragraph has an
effective topic sentence. A good topic sentence introduces the new
paragraph and summarizes its main point; links it to your thesis; and
transitions from the prior paragraph.
- Evidence and Analysis. Make sure that your body paragraphs
make use of sufficient evidence in the form of either paraphrased or
quoted material. Quotes from the source material are especially
effective, but do not use too many of them else your paper will read
like a list of quotations. Be certain to analyze your evidence
sufficiently. You want to explain through your analysis how the
examples you use support your thesis. Think of this as show-and-tell.
The examples are the ‘show’; the analysis is the ‘tell.’
- Paragraphs. Effective paragraphs focus on one main idea.
Every sentence in the paragraph should relate to the main point of the
paragraph (which should be laid out in the topic sentence). If a
sentence does not fit into the main point, you should remove or rework
- Passive Voice. Work on writing in the active rather than
the passive voice. Writing in the active voice ("Whites oppressed
blacks after Reconstruction") rather than the passive voice ("Blacks
were oppressed after Reconstruction") is easier to read and more
effective because the subject of the sentence is made clear (oppression
did not just happen; white people made it happen).
- Context and Audience. Provide sufficient background and
context about the individuals and events you discuss. Assume that your
audience is unfamiliar with the readings on which you have based your
Do’s and Don'ts
- To make a singular noun that
ends in ‘s’ possessive add apostrophe S. The possessive of Dickens is
thus Dickens’s. For plural nouns that end in ‘s’ you just add the
apostrophe. The possessive of United States is thus United States’.
- "It’s" means "it is." "Its" means the possessive of "it" (as in
"Its tail" for "The dog’s tail").
- Avoid constructions that use ‘not’ ("unnatural" is better than
- In general, avoid using the word ‘negative.’ This word is clunky
and will make your paper sound like a professional wrestler wrote it.
You should use parenthetical cites for short history papers. Just put
the authors name and the page number in parentheses after any quotes;
you do not need to worry about citing paraphrases.
- Block quotes (big quotes that are longer than three lines) should
be single spaced and indented 1/2 inch on both side. They should have a
single blank line above and below them.
Double space your paper and use a twelve-point font. If you need to
expand a short paper use Courier. Though ugly, it fills a lot of space
without being absurdly large. As an added bonus Courier is well within
the rules; Courier is, in fact, the typeface called for in The
Chicago Manual of Style. Your prof thus cannot give you lip about
- Do not use contractions in academic writing.
- Do not use the first person in academic writing.
- Do not use colloquialisms or slang in academic writing.
- Do not begin sentences with conjunctions such as ‘and’ or ‘but.’
- Do not sell your St. Martin’s Handbook. Hock all the rest
of your textbooks, but hang on to the St. Martin’s Handbook; it
is the one book you will buy in college that will be useful after you