- Creating an outline
- Writing the draft
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.
Remember that 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. 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 you may 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.
Creating 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.
If you have followed good essay-writing practice, which includes developing a narrowed topic and analytical thesis, reading closely and taking careful notes, and creating an organized outline, you will find that writing your essay is much less difficult than if you simply sit down and plunge in with a vague topic in mind.
Always keep your reader in mind when you write. Work to convince this reader that your argument is valid and has merit. To do this, you must write clearly. The best writing is the product of drafting and revising.
As you write your rough draft, your ideas will develop, so it is helpful to accept the messy process of drafting. Review your sections as you write, but leave most of the revision for when you have a completed first draft. When you revise, you can refine your ideas by making your language more specific and direct, by developing your explanation of a quotation, and by explaining the connections between your ideas. Remember that your goal is clear expression; use a formal tone, avoid slang and colloquial terms, and be precise in your language.
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.
Instructors generally agree that students should use the the present tense, which is known as the historical present, when describing events in a work of literature (or a film) or when discussing what authors or scholars say about a topic or issue, even when the work of literature is from the past or uses the past tense itself, or the authors and scholars are dead.
It is considered more accurate to use the present tense in these circumstances because the arguments put forward by scholars, and the characters presented and scenes depicted by novelists, poets, and dramatists continue to live in the present whenever anyone reads them. An added benefit is that many find the use of the historical present tense makes for a more lively style and a stronger voice.
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. Use quotations effectively to support your interpretation or arguments; be sure to explain the quotation: what does it illustrates and how?
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; many academics recommend the Oxford English 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.
Sample Body Paragraph
This body paragraph is a sample only. Its content is not to be reproduced in whole or part. Use of the ideas or words in this essay is an act of plagiarism, which is subject to academic integrity policy at Trent University and other academic institutions.
“Because I could not stop for Death” describes the process of dying right up to and past the moment of death, in the first person. This process is described symbolically. The speaker, walking along the road of life is picked up and given a carriage ride out of town to her destination, the graveyard and death. The speaker, looking back, says that she “could not stop for Death – / [so] He kindly stopped for” her (1-2). Dickinson personifies death as a “kindly” (2) masculine being with “civility” (6). As the two “slowly dr[i]ve” (5) down the road of life, the speaker observes life in its simplicity: the “School,” (9), “the Fields of Gazing Grain” (11), and the “Setting Sun” (12), and realizes that this road out of town is the road out of life. The road’s ending at “a House that seemed / A Swelling of the Ground” (17-18) is a life’s ending at death, “Eternity” (24). Once in the House that is the speaker’s grave, that is, after death, the speaker remains conscious. Her death is not experienced as a loss of consciousness, a sleep or oblivion. Her sense of time does change though:
Since then – 'tis Centuries – and yet
Feels shorter than the Day
I first surmised the Horses' Heads
Were toward Eternity – (20-24)
It has become difficult for the speaker to tell the difference between a century and a day. But she knows it has been “Centuries” since then, so the implication is that her consciousness has lived on in an eternal afterlife.
What works in the sample paragraph?
- The topic sentence makes a clear claim that the rest of the paragraph develops through details, quotations and analysis.
- The quotation is followed by the writer’s analysis of the quoted words and argument about their implication. This is the best way to use textual evidence.
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. Many people find it easiest to write the introduction last or to write a very rough introduction that they change significantly once the draft is complete.
This introductory paragraph is a sample only. Its content is not to be reproduced in whole or part. Use of the ideas or words in this essay is an act of plagiarism, which is subject to academic integrity policy at Trent University and other academic institutions.
Emily Dickinson was captivated by the riddle of death, and several of her poems deal with it in different ways. There are many poems that describe, in the first person, the process of dying right up to and including the moment of death, often recalled from a vantage point after death in some sort of afterlife. As well, several poems speculate more generally about what lies beyond the visible world our senses perceive in life. This essay examines four of Dickinson’s poems that are about dying and death and one that is more speculative. Two are straightforwardly about dying, while the other two present dying symbolically, but taken together they show many similarities. Death is experienced matter-of-factly and without fear and with a full consciousness that registers details and describes them clearly. All the poems examined hint at an afterlife which is not described in traditionally Christian terms but which is not contradictory to Christian belief either. Yet death remains a riddle. While one poem may emphasize an afterlife of peace, silence and anchors at rest, others only hint at an ongoing consciousness, and one both asserts that something beyond life exists while also saying that belief is really only a narcotic that cannot completely still the pain of doubt. Dying, the moment of death, and what comes after preoccupy Dickinson: in these poems, death and eternity both “beckon” and “baffle” (Dickinson, “This World is not Conclusion” 5).
What works in this sample introduction?
- This essay has a good, narrowed, focused topic.
- The introduction does not include a general statement about life or poetry. The essay is about five poems by Dickinson, and right from the beginning, its focus is on that.
- The thesis of the essay is one sentence, but it may be more. Note that this thesis statement does not list supporting points; a good thesis statement provides the organizing principle of the essay, and the essay writer has decided to let the supporting points appear throughout the body of the essay.
An effective conclusion unifies the arguments in your essay and explains the broader meaning or significance of your analysis. It is best to think of the conclusion as an opportunity to synthesize your ideas, not just summarize them. It is also your chance to explain the larger significance of your argument: if your reader now agrees with your thesis, what do they understand about the theme, the text, or the author?
This concluding paragraph is a sample only. Its content is not to be reproduced in whole or part. Use of the ideas or words in this essay is an act of plagiarism, which is subject to academic integrity policy at Trent University and other academic institutions.
In many ways, “On this wondrous sea” sums up the attitude toward death and eternity seen in all the poems examined. Death is experienced without fear, and life is shown as leading up to death and eternity. What exactly this eternity is like is only hinted at in most of these poems. So, what is beyond continues to “baffle,” but none of the poems present death as extinction with nothing beyond; rather what is beyond “beckons.” Death and eternity are something known, a grave that is a house, a consciousness living on, a shore to which we come “at last” after a life both stormy and “wondrous.”
What works in this sample conclusion?
- This paragraph does not just repeat the introduction. It pulls together the main ideas contained in the entire essay to try to point out their larger significance. Rather than a point-by-point list, it is a summary of what it all means taken together.