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Writing the English Essay: Substance and Style


Steps in Writing an English Essay


Step One: Working with a Good Topic

Sometimes a topic is assigned to you, sometimes you can choose from a list of topics, and sometimes you must come up with your own.

Finding Your Own Topic

Topics often emerge as you read carefully and critically, noting how the formal elements are working and what the themes are.

Ask yourself questions as you read. Do I understand what I am reading? Do I understand the words? Do I understand any allusions? (If not, consult a print or online dictionary or reference, or ask about what is unclear in your seminar or tutorial.) What formal elements do I notice? Why is something done in a certain way and not some other way? What themes are being expressed or suggested? Are there conflicting ideas? Am I interested, or am I bored to tears? If I am interested or bored, why? What am I appreciating? What am I missing?

Often, the first step to a good topic is investigating something you just "don't get" - or not easily. Put another way, a good topic is often a good question, to which there is no easy answer, and your essay will answer or attempt to answer, or at least grapple with, that question.


Why can't Hamlet make up his mind?

What does Kurtz mean by "the horror"?

What does that white whale symbolize?

A good question will allow you, in addressing it, to deepen your and your reader's understanding of the work.

Try to come up with a topic that truly interests you. Sometimes this is easy, sometimes not. If you are having trouble, consider the work's formal elements in relation to its theme(s). An essay writer can nearly always consider characterization, or setting, or point of view in a novel, or symbols or images in a poem. If you ask yourself how setting functions in Heart of Darkness and how it contributes to the theme, you have yourself a topic, and you almost certainly will find a lot to discover and write about.

Another way to come up with a topic is to read over your course outline, or your lecture and seminar notes. What topics have been discussed in llectures and in seminars? Is there something already discussed that you wish to explore further? A topic doesn't have to be original although what you have to say about it may be.

A good topic is a focused topic, so consider your word limit (and how much time you have to write the essay). Often, once you’ve picked a broad topic, furthering narrowing is needed. Notice how the following examples take broad thematic topics and narrow them by focusing on particular characters and smaller aspects of broader themes:

Comedy in Romeo and Juliet The nurse as comic figure
Values in Romeo and Juliet Suicide in Romeo and Juliet
Love in Romeo and Juliet Juliet’s love in contrast to Romeo’s
The character of Juliet in Romeo and Juliet

How Juliet matures from child to woman


Working with an Assigned Topic

Pick a topic that interests you, if there is a choice.

The most important step is to analyze the wording of the assignment, by highlighting the key words and asking yourself if you understand the precise meaning of these words and what they are asking you to do. For example, consider the following topic:

 Explore and explain the significance of the following episode from

The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn: Huck and Jim on Jackson’s Island.

What do explore, explain, and significance mean? Considering their exact definitions will help to keep you on topic and to keep you doing what you should be doing.

A preliminary analysis of this topic might go something like this:

“The episode must be important (or it wouldn’t be an essay topic).  It follows that it may be important in understanding a theme of the novel. So I should try to identify and articulate that theme and try to show   how the episode aids in the development of the theme in the story. I should also try to identify the formal elements and their function in the episode and try to determine if they help in the development of the


Coming up with a good, narrow, focused topic, or analyzing an assigned topic is the first step in the process of writing an essay that is yours and of which you are in control, because the thought, analysis and choice you put into this step will be unique to you.

Step Two: Developing a Thesis

A thesis is an argument or opinion you have come to about the topic you have picked or been assigned. Your thesis comes from your consideration of the details of the text, which is the primary source of the evidence you will use to support your thesis.

Keep in Mind that a Good Topic Leads to a Good Thesis.

If your topic is “Juliet’s Growth from Child to Woman in Romeo and Juliet,”  then your thesis is evident already:

" In Romeo and Juliet, the character of Juliet develops, in a few weeks, from a child to a mature young woman."

That is your opinion about the character of Juliet, and you will go on to provide evidence from the play that Juliet does mature in this way.


Look at the assigned topic on The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn:

Explore and explain the significance of the following episode from Huckleberry Finn: Huck and Jim on Jackson’s Island.

The assigned topic on Huckleberry Finn will have a thesis that tells why, in your opinion, the episode of Huck and Jim on Jackson's Island is significant. Your thesis could be a completion of a statement similar to the following:

"The episode of Huck and Jim on Jackson Island is significant because ..........."

Because a thesis is an opinion, someone else may write on the same topic with different ideas about why the episode is significant, but the topic does indicate at least the beginning of your thesis.

In other words, scrutinize the wording of an assigned topic. The wording of the topic may well be the beginnings of your thesis statement. At the very least, the topic shows you what you should be thinking about and what you should try to come up with an opinion about.

If a topic is not assigned, the questions you ask yourself as you skim and read and think about a topic for yourself are also the beginnings of a thesis.

Why can't Hamlet make up his mind?

Hamlet can't make up his mind because..........


In Heart of Darkness, what does Kurtz mean by "the horror"?

The "horror" Kurtz speaks of in Heart of Darkness refers to ...........


In Moby Dick, what does that white whale symbolize?

In Moby Dick, the white whale is a symbol of............


Steps in Developing/Refining a Thesis

If a topic has been assigned, scrutinize and analyze the wording of the topic

Reread the text by skimming, alert for parts relevant to your topic and tentative thesis (if you have one; you may not at this stage).

Mark your text by underlining or highlighting, but also take notes as you go, writing down page numbers, so you’ll have them when you need them.

A good question to keep asking is “Why does the author choose to do it this way and not some other way? If she made a particular choice, what was the intended effect?” We can never know for sure, of course, but we can interpret what we find. What is the effect of using first-person narrative in Huck Finn? Why use this particular image? Never stop asking why.

Note patterns that emerge. Can you begin to cluster what you find?

As soon as you have a thesis, write it down. It may be one sentence, it may be more. A more complex thesis may require two or three sentences. Writing it down ensures that you have it clear enough in your head to express it clearly on paper or on the screen; it allows you to show it to someone (your prof maybe) to see if you are on the right track, and it allows you to begin to put together an outline that will show how you will adequately support it.

You don't want your thesis to be "self-evident" or descriptive; in other words, it should be arguable. For example, this is not a thesis:

"In Hamlet, Hamlet is unable to make up his mind to kill Claudius and revenge his father's murder, and this inability leads to his own eventual death."

It would be very difficult to argue with this, as the statement is mostly descriptive although there is some slight analysis of cause and effect. Again, questions that lead to a good thesis are "why" questions: "Why is something the way it is?" and "Why does this happen this way?" rather than simple "what" questions like "What happens?"

"How" questions also lead to a good thesis: "How does the author or poet convey this theme or idea to me?" rather than "What is the theme or idea the author or poet conveys?" (This is a necessary question to ask, but the point is to not just stop there but go further into the "why" and the "how".

When writing down your thesis statement, make it as precise as you can. Or you may find that your first attempt is still general, but as you read and think and gather evidence, you can refine your thesis.

For example, say your topic is the role of the fool, Touchstone, in Shakespeare's As You Like It. You ask yourself what is the function of this common Shakespearean character type (you learned about character types in lecture) in this play? You decide that "the fool brings a different perspective on the central action of the play."

You write this down as a tentative thesis statement. But you don't want it to be merely descriptive or self-evident, so you ask yourself, "Can this statement be argued with?" Your thesis at this point is not wrong, but it needs to be stronger, more precisely worded, and to do this you must think more carefully and deeply about this "different perspective." How is it different? What is the effect of this difference? You will probably need to look over the play again, skim and make notes to help you answer these questions.

Here is a refined, precisely worded thesis that developed from the first try:

"Touchstone's ridiculing of artificial codes of honour in the play undermines other characters' justification of the code and ultimately calls into question the play's sense of order."

Note that in your thesis statement you don't have to list or name your supporting points. Often that is just asking too much of one sentence. You may, if you wish, provide the supporting points in a second sentence, but it is not always necessary. You may find that providing the supporting points helps you to stay on track as you can actually check yourself to see that you haven 't rambled off on a tangent. However, a good thesis statement provides the organizing principle of the essay, and you may decide to let your supporting  points appear as the reader reads through the essay. If you have given thought to logical order and flow in an outline, the essay will appear a cohesive organic whole.


Step Three: Organizing the Essay

For an English essay, the evidence you use to support your thesis comes mainly from the literary work or works you are considering. Critically reading and rereading the text with your topic and thesis in mind helps you to find and highlight the parts of the text that are relevant to your purpose and will help support your thesis.

Your next step is to organize your thoughts and your evidence. Sometimes you need to do a great deal of reading before you can organize your information into an outline; sometimes the major points of an outline may be apparent as soon as you have your thesis.

Making an outline before you start to write has the same advantage as writing down your thesis as soon as you have one. It forces you to think about the best possible order for what you want to say and to think through your line of thought before you have to write sentences and paragraphs.

When you make an outline, you can then read it over, fiddle with it, change it, add to it, fill it out. It becomes your working tool, the place where what you have been reading, noting and thinking is put into an ordered, linear form, that you can look at critically.

If you are not naturally a linear thinker, do a mind map first to get your ideas down and then put them into order. Essays are linear in structure, and it will be much easier to write your first draft if you have thought through the order first.

Outlines are rough, made to be changed and added to, so it is often easiest to do them with paper and pencil. Note that just as a thesis may turn out to be two sentences sometimes, an essay and its outline do not have to be structured into five paragraphs. Think about major points, sections or parts of your essay, rather than paragraphs.

And you don't always have to aim for three points or sections. The number of sections you have will depend on what you have to say and how you think your thesis needs to be supported. It is possible to structure an essay around two major points, each divided into sub-points. Or to structure an essay around four, five or six points, depending on the essay's length. An essay under 1500 words may fall naturally into three sections, but let the number come from what you have to say, rather than striving for the magic three.

You may end up with three major points; one point may require only one paragraph to deal with it, the next point may require three or four paragraphs and the final one, two paragraphs. You need to think about major points you want to make and their order, but you don’t have to force what you have to say into the five paragraph structure.

Once you have your thesis and main points down, your next step is to consider the textual evidence you have collected or collect some more and decide where it should go. You can cross-reference your outline to your notes; you can even estimate, given how long your essay is supposed to be and how many points you have, how long each major point of your essay should be. This can help you decide on the level of detail you need for each section. If, realistically speaking, you have space for about four hundred words per point, you don’t need to use every example from the text to support a point. You can choose the two best or most representative.

Doing an outline also helps you avoid the temptation of organizing your essay by following the plot line of the text you are writing about and simply retelling the story with a few of your own comments thrown in. If you conscientiously make an outline that is ordered to best support your thesis, which is there in print before your eyes, your essay’s organization will be based on supporting your argument not on the text’s plotline.


Step Four: Putting It All Together

If you have picked a good topic, read and come up with a workable thesis, taken good notes and quotations from the text and noted page numbers carefully, and put some thought into a logically ordered outline, writing your essay is much less difficult than if you simply sit down and plunge in with a vague topic in mind.

The work you do before you start to write is the most difficult and the most fruitful, but if you do it, you will find that you do indeed have something to say and it is yours.


Writing the Draft

Always keep your reader in mind when you write. In this case, your readers is your professor or instructor who will mark your essay, but sometimes it helps to think of a readership in broader terms - your reader could be anyone who has read the work and enjoys literature.

Write for that kind of reader and try to convnice this reader that your argument is valid and has merit.

To do this, you must write clearly, which is not an easy task. Don't be discouraged. When you write your rough draft, the goal is to get your ideas down on paper or on the screen. You can revise and improve them later.

The Introduction

Often, the introduction is the hardest part to write. Here you make your first impression, introduce the topic, provide background information, define key terms perhaps, and, most important, present your thesis, upon which the entire essay hangs. If you are having trouble with the introduction, there are a couple of things you can do.

1. The first is to write your thesis down but leave the rest of the introduction until later or last and start on your first point. You may find a body paragraph is easier to write, and you can go back to your introduction after you have finished the body.

2. If you find you are still struggling with writing the introduction, try this: give your introduction your best shot and get something - anything-- down, telling yourself again, that you can revise it later. For now, get something down to act as a prompt for you. Then, sit down with someone, a classmate, a writing instructor, a family member and tell him what you are writing about and what your thesis is. We often speak more clearly than we write. Listen to what you say and ask yourself if what you have written resembles at all what you just said. If it doesn't, copy as closely as you can what you said and use those words.

This whole process is easier if you have the person listening to you take notes on what you are saying that you can use. Or, you can tape yourself as you explain to your listener what your topic and thesis are, and then transcribe what is taped, revising as you go.

You may find your speaking style is less wordy than your writing style and gets to the point faster. This is not an efficient way to write an entire essay, but it does show you that you can express yourself clearly and that your writing style doesn't have to be overly formal or inflated. Your goal is a style that is formal and free of slang and colloquial terms, but that doesn't mean your language has to become convoluted.

The Body

The body of the essay will be made up of the claims or points you are making, supported by evidence from the primary source, the work in question, and perhaps some secondary sources. Your supporting evidence may be quotations of words or phrases from the text, as well as details about character, setting, plot, syntax, diction, images and anything else you have found in the work that is relevant to your argument.

You may find yourself quoting often, and that is fine. The words from the text are, after all, the support for the argument you are making, and they show that your ideas came from somewhere and are grounded in the text. But try to keep your quotations as short and pertinent as possible. Quote to support points you are making yourself; don't let the quotations speak for you.

However, there may be times when a longer quotation is necessary. Go here for information on how to cite and quote in greater detail.

Make sure you don't use or quote words whose definition or meaning you are not sure about. As a student of English literature, you should make regular use of a good dictionary. Not knowing what a word means or misunderstanding how it is used can undermine a whole argument. When you read and write about authors from previous centuries, you will often have to familiarize yourself with new words. To write good English essays, you must take the time to do this.

The Use of "I"

The judicious use of "I" in English essays is generally accepted. (You may run into a professor who doesn't want you to and says so, and, in that case, don't). The key is to not to overuse "I". When writing your draft, you may find it helpful to get your thoughts flowing by writing "I think that..." but when you revise, you will find that those three words can be eliminated from the sentences they begin.

But go ahead and use "I" if the struggle to prevent it makes your sentence awkward, wordy or grammatically incorrect, or if you want to emphasize your opinion in contrast to someone else's, a critic's, perhaps.

Step Five: Producing the Final Copy

Revising the Essay

If you have time, let twenty-four hours go by before sitting down and reading a complete draft through ( in hard copy if at all possible, after running a grammar and spell check). You may want to first read over your outline to remind yourself of what your intentions were before reading the outcome of those intentions.

This is the time to do the following:

  • Ask yourself if you have been successful in your attempts to turn outline and notes into a coherent piece of writing.
  • Refine and improve your phrases, sentences and paragraphs.
  • Make your introduction and conclusion the best they can be.
  • Supply smooth transitions between ideas.
  • Correct and eliminate anything irrelevant or repetitious.
  • Supply any missing details or evidence.
  • Decide if a point or link is missing, what it is and where it should be added.
  • Make sure all your quotations are integrated smoothly.
  • Make sure your grammar and syntax (sentence structure) are correct.

Some people prefer to revise on the screen, but for many it is only possible to get a good feel for the whole essay and how its parts work together by reading over a hard copy.

Proofreading the Essay

Proofreading is not the same as revising. When you proofread, you turn your attention to the so-called "surface details" of format, spacing, pagination, spelling, punctuation, and documentation style.

To proofread your essay effectively, you must still do it from a hard copy. For some reason, errors are not as easily detectable on the screen as they are on the page. Proofreading a hard copy ensures

that the details are all that they should be, and it also ensures that you don't inadvertently leave in misplaced leftovers from cutting and pasting.

If you won't disturb others, try reading the essay aloud when you are proofreading. Reading aloud forces you to concentrate on the words in a way that just reading silently does not. Also, your ear may catch awkward phrasing or incorrect grammar that your eye might miss.

Or if you have decided to proofread on the screen, explore programs, such as Read Write Gold, which have the function of text read, so you can follow along to a voice reading your essay.

Take the time to do the final step. Your reader can always tell when you haven't, and no matter how compelling your argument and elegant your writing style, many little mistakes make your essay look sloppy. Nobody expects a completely error-free copy, but the fewer the mistakes, the better. Your ideas will come through that much more clearly and effectively.

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