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How to Write an Essay
Writing a paper in college can feel different from writing one in high school. There are fewer guidelines, different sources and formatting, and a lot more material to cover. Figuring out where to begin and what instructors are looking for is just the beginning.
Let’s conquer that intimidation right now! We’ll help you construct your next college paper by going over everything from structure to perfecting parenthetical and in-text citations and more!
Before you sit down to start writing your paper, there are a few things you can do to make the process better and improve your writing and research skills.
1. Choose a Topic
Professors may have a pre-approved list of topics, or they may give you a very general prompt. When choosing a topic, keep a few things in mind.
- What do you have an opinion about?
- How do you feel you could do your best work?
- What knowledge do you already have?
Once you have a topic, the next steps happen almost simultaneously: research and outlining.
This is probably the most crucial part of your essay. To write an excellent paper, you need plenty of research to back up your thesis.
In the digital age, academic research takes place mostly online (although your campus brick and mortar library is still an AMAZING and highly underutilized resource). Still, this doesn’t mean that Wikipedia and other user-generated websites are acceptable sources. Use academic search engines such as Academic Search Premier, JSTOR, Google Scholar, and others. If you’re unsure how to access these, check with your campus library.
Here’s one crucial trick: Wikipedia and other user-generated sites are actually great resources, just not to cite directly. Wikipedia, for instance, typically contains a lot of sources in the citations at the bottom that link you to usable, credible resources.
Before you start writing, it can be helpful to outline your paper first. A research paper outline can help keep your paper well-organized and allow you to see what elements of your research and arguments can feed into each other, to keep the essay flowing logically.
You may want to have a rough outline before you dive fully into your research, so that you can focus your search. Have some flexibility, so that if you encounter something that amends your arguments, you have room to include it.
Structure Made Simple
You probably know the five-paragraph essay: intro (with a three-pronged thesis), three body paragraphs, conclusion. The bad news: your college papers are going to be longer than that! The good news: the same principles still apply!
Start with a quick overview of the topic and relevant background information. This is only a paragraph, so keep it engaging but succinct.
You always need a thesis for a research paper. While it doesn’t have to be three-pronged, it should be a complex sentence that summarizes the main argument of your paper.
This is the most important part of your paper, where your research and the arguments you’re using to support your thesis should go.
What belongs in a college paper? Some require a summary of research, while others want an original argument supported with research.
The key is simpler than you think: have an opinion and back it up.
Think about the debates you have with your friends—maybe over a reality show or whether chocolate chip cookies should be crispy or gooey. You take a stance and you have “proof” as to why it’s the correct answer, right? The same thing applies to your college papers: opinion or theory, finding evidence, and using it to make your point.
Use your final paragraph to wrap up your paper. Restate your main thesis, briefly summarize the results of your arguments, and end with a memorable sentence. It doesn’t have to be a “call to action,” but it should leave an impression.
Formatting & Citations
Carefully read your teacher’s directions: Single or double spaced? Do you need a cover page? Is there a specific formatting style you should follow?
Up to now, you’ve probably used one style: MLA. While MLA formatting is commonly used, especially if you’re in a humanities or arts discipline, you should also discover your new best friend: APA format.
The most crucial part of formatting are around the citations. You must include a works cited list and cite your sources according to the required style guide! Within your paper, that means using in-text and parenthetical citations correctly. In general, those citations will include the last name of the author and a page number, year, or both denoting the source—format varies by style. These citations should go next to quotes as well as paraphrased information.
Example 1: MLA format parenthetical citation with a direct quote:
In these cases, “there was not sufficient evidence to conclusively prove or disprove the hypothesis” (Tyler 131), but scientists continued to pursue the theory.
Example 2: APA format parenthetical citation with paraphrased information:
Texts from this era have largely been lost to time, and the primary cause is poor preservation techniques (Jones, 2005, p. 27).
Review & Relax
Always give your paper one final read-through to check for minor errors. Try to do this the day after you finish your final draft so that you can check it with fresh eyes.
In addition, you can consider running an automated paper check before turning it in. The Citation Machine Plus grammar checker was designed for this.
If needed, make revisions. But a word of reassurance: if you’ve done your research and proofreading, you’ve done good work! You don’t have to second-guess yourself.
3. Rejoice! You’re Done!
Before you begin writing, get a refresher on the basics with our grammar guides! Learn about irregular imperfect verbs, answer the question “what is a possessive pronoun,” explore demonstrative adjectives, and more!
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- What are some common mistakes that can easily be avoided?
Not Presenting an Argument
An essay should never be a simple regurgitation of facts. Instead it should present an argument, point of view or interpretation that you are able to support convincingly. Your thesis statement is key in setting the argumentative tone of your essay.
If your statement is one that no reader could try to argue against, you need to look at it again. For example:
“Slavery is wrong”
This is an example of a thesis statement that isn’t debatable. It states a blanket value judgement without saying specifically what you are going argue, backed by evidence.
“The Chinese ‘sweatshop’ industry is as unethical as 17th-century slavery in colonial America.”
This is an example of a stronger thesis statement that could be debated. The reader knows that you’re going to attempt to prove a specific argument by presenting evidence.
Remember that you need a thesis statement for any paper you write, even a straightforward research paper.
An academic essay should have three basic parts:
- An introduction that includes a thesis statement. This should set out the aim of the essay and present the core argument to be supported.
- A middle section that serves to persuade the reader with a combination of critical thinking and cited material.
- A conclusion that sums up the findings of the essay.
The length and detail of each section will depend on the total length of the essay. Here’s a good rule of thumb: If you divide your essay into fifths, the introduction and conclusion should be one fifth each. So a well-structured, 1,000-word essay would have the following approximate structure:
- Introduction—200 words
- Body—600 words (split into three 200-word paragraphs)
- Conclusion—200 words
While this is a rough guide, the point is to keep your essay balanced and moving at the right place. That means no long, rambling introductions!
Bad Grammar or Spelling
Spelling and grammar can account for a significant portion of your overall grade. A few mistakes could mean the difference between a C and a B, or a B and an A, even if your argument is well-reasoned and supported!
Online grammar checking tools mean that there’s absolutely no reason to lose marks for grammar or spelling. Try the grammar and plagiarism checker right here on Citation Machine to get instant suggestions on improving your writing style, grammar and sentence structure.
Citing can be confusing, especially as different subjects prefer different citation styles. If you’re struggling to understand how to cite, online citation generators can help. All that you need to do is check with your professor on which style of citation you should be using (MLA, APA and Chicago style format are common examples) make sure you note down all the required information when doing your research. Then it’s simply a matter of feeding the information into the citation generator and linking your full citation to a parenthetical citation within your paper body (or a footnote, depending on the citation style).
Parroting or Plagiarizing
One of the most serious mistakes that you can make when writing your essay is to not even attempt to cite your sources at all. At its worst, this is plagiarism, which could result in an essay fail or even more serious college sanctions.
Parroting, or repeating someone else’s ideas as if they were your own, is also a form of plagiarism. Remember to cite all sources that you borrow from to strengthen your argument, even if you don’t use a direct quote.
With Citation Machine Plus, you get unlimited plagiarism checks, ensuring that nothing in your essay goes unreferenced. You can even add the citations you missed directly into your paper!
For more citing help, get the lowdown on how to cite a book, website, journal or other type of source material. With these tools and some attention on your part, your next essay can be properly cited and error-free!
- How do I write when I hate writing?!
Is it time to write a paper AGAIN? Writing can be a time-consuming and tedious process even if you like it. The process is especially tough if you aren’t a big writing fan to begin with. Happily, there are strategies to help make it easier and more rewarding.
Here are a few choice tips to make the writing process more efficient and enjoyable, whether you’re working on an academic research paper or something more creative.
Start off with an outline
Nothing is quite as daunting as looking at a blank screen with no idea where to start. Before you begin working on your paper, create an outline. Decide what the main idea of each paragraph will be, and jot down some bullet points with ideas you want to bring into that paragraph. If you come up with some new thoughts later on, feel free to move away from this initial structure, but an outline is a great place to start.
Most professional writers will tell you that the secret to good writing is lots of rewriting. Not everything you write needs to be perfectly polished. Grab a pen and a piece of paper, and write whatever comes to your mind. This strategy can be especially effective for creative writing, but there’s no reason it can’t get your thoughts flowing for a research paper, too.
Read out loud as you write
For many students, writing is stressful because of the pressure to find the right words. Try talking out loud to yourself (or even dictating your words into a speech-to-text tool) to get the ideas going. The first draft of your work doesn’t have to have perfectly polished language. Try writing as you would speak, using informal word choices. If the assignment demands greater formality, go back later and clean up your sentences as needed.
Get rid of the internet
The internet is undoubtedly a helpful resource when you’re working on an assignment, but it’s also a major distraction. Put your phone on silent (and out of sight, if possible). If you need to conduct research on the web for your assignment, try using a tool or app to block distracting websites like Facebook, Twitter, etc.
Use a citation tool
Citation tools like Citation Machine make the process of compiling references much easier. These tools will auto-generate citations in styles like MLA, Chicago style format, and APA format. You can export your full list of citations and copy/paste it at the end of your paper. Especially for longer research papers (which might require 10-plus sources), these tools can be a major time saver.
Don’t wait until the last minute
Procrastination is every writer’s biggest enemy. Most instructors can tell when you’ve put time and effort into a paper, rather than scrambling at the last minute to submit something by the deadline. If you find that you work best under pressure, create artificial deadlines for yourself prior to the actual due date. You can also share your work schedule with a friend and ask them to help you hold yourself accountable.
- What are some tips for writing?
Here are some tips to get your college writing career off to a smashing start:
1. Break Free of Your Paragraph Order
Here’s a little secret: you can write your paper in any! order! you! choose! It is truly the wild, wild west out here in these parts.
It’s difficult to write the introduction first when you have basically no clue what the rest of the paper will look like. By the time you finish typing, your thesis might go in a different direction than you originally intended, or you might uncover newer, better ideas as you write (aka the old ideas look less hot and more hot fire garbage after you see them on the page).
2. Pass It Around
Peer review is great for several reasons: your fellow students are already familiar with the material and what the professor is looking for in your writing. Your stream of consciousness (although vibrant, bold, and a little mysterious, I’m sure), doesn’t always clearly translate to your writing, so it’s helpful for another person to point out areas that aren’t so clear—before your instructor does the same.
3. Bow Down to the Word Count
If you’ve finally typed your last type and come to the horrible realization you’re 100 words below count, try going through your paper once more. There is a 100% chance that at least one topic in your paper is vague, awkward, or confusing. Flesh it out and you’ll have a more convincing, clearer argument in the end.
4. Stop by for a Chat
Don’t be scared to meet one-on-one with your instructor or TA! It’s a grand time, I promise. But go after you’ve already brainstormed on the prompt. When your instructor asks what you’re thinking of writing about, it’s not helpful for you to shrug your shoulders and blurt out, “I dunno what are YOU writing about?” A little preparation can lead to a thoughtful discussion that will help you refine and streamline your ideas.
5. Learn From the Pros
Tackling an academic essay is difficult if you’ve never seen/heard/read an academic essay. But those rascals are everywhere—search online or pick up a used book on literary criticism and get reading.
Even if you have no earthly idea what the critical essay is talking about, study its structure—how does the essay begin, string its arguments into a healthy thesis, or address potential counterarguments? If you feel uncomfortable finding an essay on your own, ask your instructor for an example.
6. Annotate as You Go
Best advice I’ve gotten from an instructor: always read with a pencil in hand. Put check marks by quotes that make you angry, happy, quizzical, or say yikes, what weirdo wrote this and why do I relate so much! Scribble down your interesting thoughts—you might need your brilliant, original ideas later when you’re researching paper topics or want to contribute to class discussion.
Need to turn your scribblings into something turn-in-able? Learn how to write an annotated bibliography here!
7. Don’t Forget Your Topic Sentences
They ain’t a joke. If you don’t want to do an entire outline but need a good handle on your paper’s overall organization, try writing all your topic sentences (the first and last sentences of each major point/paragraph) first.
Knowing where you want to start and where you want to end will make the writing process so much easier. My Instagram and eating habits were always highly disorganized in school, but my papers KNEW what they wanted out of life.
8. Write Like Yourself
It’s easy to feel insecure when you’re typing that first essay. Even if you feel tempted to beef up your vocabulary a little bit, don’t stray too far from your natural voice. Sometimes we attempt to write quite professionally and satisfactorily, and the consequential consequence is one of undue remorse and alternative versions of such previously mentioned emotion. Yeesh. By all means, develop and elevate your writer’s voice, but keep it your own and not Professor X’s of Scholarly School Y.
9. I’m Baaaa-ck!
After you get the grade, don’t be afraid to go back to office hours and discuss—even if you got an A+ (can I have your secrets please?). Your instructor will likely be able to provide you with additional insight that didn’t exactly fit in the comment section of your paper, but which can help you a lot next time.
Get scribbling, everyone. And good luck!
- What are some writing tips for STEM Majors?
While you’re working on your writing, keep a few key things in mind: focus on your argument, cut out the fluff, and check your flow.
Focus on Your Argument
The single most important component of your writing is your argument. Even the most complex syntax and elevated vocabulary can’t make up for a weak thesis or threadbare claims. When thinking through your thesis, take the time to look through multiple, peer-reviewed sources. Looking through academic journals can be a bit intimidating at first, but they have tons of thorough research.
Once you’re more informed on your topic, write a thesis that specifically addresses your assignment’s specifications. One trick is to rephrase the assignment as a question and then make sure your thesis answers that question.
As you write your body paragraphs, ensure you’re making claims that support your thesis, and always remember to pose a counterargument. If you’re not sure which style guide to use when writing your paper, ask your professor or look at your sources and see what style they are written in—MLA format, APA format, etc.—and that will point you in the right direction. (See an APA format examples here.)
Writing becomes so much more interesting when you love your topic, so try to find something within the assignment that speaks to you personally. You might even be able to find a subject that relates to STEM issues in some way.
Cut Out the Fluff
After forming our arguments, we STEM majors have a bad habit of making our sentences too complicated and fancy in attempt to woo our professors. Sound familiar?
It’s understandable that you want to show off your best writing skills, but the biggest giveaway of a novice writer is incorrectly used vocabulary. Even worse, some students stretch their sentences for miles without any extra benefit except reaching the dreaded word count requirement.
Even if your paper is a doozy of more than 15 pages, you still have to cut out the fluff. This means actively checking for lengthy or wordy sentences and avoiding passive voice at all costs. For example, instead of:
The revolution was caused by dissatisfied young people.
Dissatisfied young people sparked the revolution.
College professors in the humanities prefer active writing, which can be a hard shift for science students who are used to writing in the passive voice for lab reports. After you’ve written your draft, read it aloud. Listen for any instances of passive voice, and circle any words that you’re not quite sure you’re using properly. Then, cut out any unnecessary words and see just how concise you can make your writing. Your reader will almost certainly understand your argument better, even if you don’t feel like a budding Shakespeare.
Check Your Flow
The last consideration for a smooth academic papers is its flow, or how it transitions from claim to claim.
Ideally, your transitions will be smooth and the topics will be related in a logical way, but this can be hard to nail on the first try without prior planning. This is where outlining becomes very important. Make a flowchart using a phrase-long descriptor of each paragraph, and rearrange them until the order makes sense. This is a great practice for identifying the most appropriate order for your paper, whether that be chronological or something more unique.
The flow will guide your reader throughout your argument, and your topic sentences will serve as their roadmap. Make sure these beginnings of your paragraphs are straightforward and direct your reader with the flow, instead of making them stop to piece together your ideas.
Even if you plan to spend the rest of your life working with derivatives and antiderivatives, writing will still be integral to your career in some way. After all, you’ll probably want to let the world (or at least your coworkers) know about your knowledge or discoveries.The good thing is that there’s likely no need to drastically change or enhance your writing. Focusing on a solid argument, keeping things simple, and checking your flow is a great three-step plan to get you on track to success. And don’t be afraid to ask for help from your TA, a tutor, or your campus writing center.
So, fear not, and don’t short-circuit your assignment. It’ll all be worth it in the end.
- How do I take my writing to the next level?
Use Active Voice
Even seasoned writers confuse active and passive voice occasionally. The easiest way to remember how to use active voice (instead of passive voice) is to simply put the noun ahead of the verb.
Gas needs to be put in the car. (Passive voice)
The car needs gas. (Active voice)
The kitchen was cleaned by Molly. (Passive voice)
Molly cleaned the kitchen. (Active voice)
The pizza was devoured by the soccer team. (Passive voice)
The soccer team devoured the pizza. (Active voice)
The works cited page was formatted by Carl. (Passive voice)
Carl formatted MLA works cited page. (Active voice)
If you remember to place the noun first and the verb second, you’re well on your way to implementing active voice in your writing. This small strategy works wonders.
Keep Sentences Short and Sweet
Longer sentences don’t equal better sentences. While longer sentences can be used effectively when developing your unique writing style and employing proper syntax, it’s simpler to use sentences that are short and sweet. Not only does this make it easier for your readers to process, but it lessens the chance of grammatical errors on your part.
Use Strong Adjectives
Now before we explain this, let us warn you not to go crazy with the thesaurus because trust us, your professor will know. However, challenging yourself to change an elementary adjective into a stronger, more powerful one will make a difference in your writing.
Cindy was hungry after the 4-mile hike. (Weak adjective)
Cindy was famished after the 4-mile hike. (Strong adjective)
Mrs. Mills laughed at how dirty her son’s clothes were after football practice. (Weak adjective)
Mrs. Mills laughed at how filthy her son’s clothes were after football practice. (Strong adjective)
Katie was happy that she received an A on her physics exam. (Weak adjective)
Katie was thrilled that she received an A on her physics exam. (Strong adjective)
Like we said, never go crazy with the thesaurus for fear of making your writing unreadable or awkward, but definitely challenge yourself to use stronger adjectives where appropriate.
Avoid Filler Words
Words like “really,” “very,” “little,” and “kind of” add nothing to your writing. In fact, using what we call fluff, filler, or qualifying words can actually make your writing weaker.
I was really exhausted.
Scrap that and say, “I was exhausted” instead.
Mark is kind of indifferent about our dinner plans.
Mark is indifferent about our dinner plans.
The teacher was a little surprised how many APA citations her student had.
The teacher was surprised how many APA citations her student had.
If you can take the filler word out of the sentence and it still makes perfect sense, it very well may be a filler word.
Read Your Writing Aloud
Reading your writing aloud remains one of the smallest (albeit most effective) tips we can offer, yet it has quite the impact. By reading your writing aloud, you’re more likely to catch grammatical issues, awkward syntax, and areas of your piece that can be improved.
Write Now…Edit Later
What’s most important is getting all of your important points and ideas down on paper and turning them into tangible work. You need not edit as you go; it’s best not to put the cart before the horse. After you have a draft, focus on editing. Avoid as many roadblocks as possible during the writing process and just get it done.
Reading More in General
Even hundreds of years later, books are still in fashion, whether that be digitally or as a hard copy. And no wonder books have lasted the test of time, there are awesome benefits to reading! First and foremost, reading allows you to build a stronger vocabulary. By picking up a book now and then, you’re likely to learn new words—along with the proper context with which to use them. Additionally, reading opens your eyes to different writing styles and strategies. Strong writers have strong voices, but there’s no set way to accomplish that. By reading work from many writers—and experimenting with your own work—you’ll find that you develop the language, syntax, and style skills to take your work to the next level.