Before you sit down and write anything, it’s best to fully understand what you are being asked to do. Different assignments call for different kinds of writing, and different kinds of writing involve different kinds of thinking and work.
You might be tasked with writing an essay, which, broadly defined, is a short piece of writing on a single subject. The description of your assignment may also include other terms that clarify the purpose of your essay.
EXAMPLEThe goal of an expository essay is to explain your subject, usually in a fairly neutral way, whereas the goal of a persuasive essay is just as it sounds—to persuade, meaning you are required to take a single position on a particular issue and argue (persuasively) in favor of that position.
Another thing you need to know about your writing assignment is whether it requires research—that is, whether you are meant to write from your current knowledge base or whether you are meant to find and engage with facts and opinions in the writings of experts in your subject. Research will be discussed at length in future tutorials.
The steps that you can take to organize your ideas before you begin to write your paper are often called pre-writing. One of the most popular and effective types of pre-writing is creating an outline. An outline helps you by mapping out the structure of your paper, identifying main ideas and supporting points that will become the basis for paragraphs and sentences, and putting them in sequence.
In a typical essay, the following are included in the basic structure of the paper:
Once you have outlined your ideas, the blank screen in front of you becomes less intimidating—you have a plan in place! Your outline gives you a sense of what each paragraph of your essay needs to accomplish and where you are headed in the next paragraph.
EXAMPLEThe conventional form of outline used in pre-writing for higher education is called the alphanumeric outline. The alphanumeric outline starts with items marked by Roman numerals (e.g. I, II, III, IV, V), then capital letters, Arabic numerals (1, 2, 3), and lowercase letters. Let’s say you are writing a research paper on a topic of your choice and you choose the history of baseball. Here’s what the first part of your outline might look like:
A lot of the writing you will be assigned in college is going to require a thesis statement. A thesis is a clear and concise statement of the argument you are making, generally boiled down to one or two sentences and included at the end of your introductory paragraph. If your writing assignment needs a thesis, making sure you have a strong one is absolutely essential. Though you can always adjust and hone your thesis as you are in the process of thinking through and writing your paper, it is definitely a good idea to have a good sense up front of what you are setting out to do.
A strong thesis statement is:
Students often find that coming up with an original thesis is the most challenging part of writing papers in college. After all, how are you supposed to come up with something new that hasn’t already been said by experts in the field? While this can be a challenge, it is challenging for a reason—higher education is distinguished by demanding your engagement with the scholarly conversations and debates on a certain topic and, ideally, you can contribute to those conversations and debates.
Is this a strong thesis? No, it isn’t. While it does take a stance, the stance is fairly obvious and difficult to debate, as it would be tough to argue the opposite—that democratic elections should be unfair. Furthermore, although this thesis does inform the reader that the essay will discuss fairness and elections, for a shorter paper it would be a good idea to narrow the focus to a specific aspect of elections.
So how can you improve this thesis? You might decide that the most important element of fair elections is access and the best way to maximize access is to allow online voting. So your new thesis is, “Elections will only truly be democratic when everyone who wants to vote can vote, and the best way to ensure that is to allow online voting.”
Now your argument is more specific—you’ve narrowed the scope to the merits of online voting—and more debatable, as potential issues of cyber-security could provide the basis for a reasonable counter-argument.
Once you’ve settled on the main point you want to make in your paper and articulated it concisely in a thesis statement, the next step is to go about proving that point. Just like a lawyer, the way that you successfully make your case is by supplying relevant evidence in support of your thesis.
Your evidence fills out your essay’s body paragraphs—everything in between the introduction and conclusion. It’s important that your body paragraphs flow well from one to another and that your essay as a whole is cohesive—that is, that all of your sentences and paragraphs fit together.
One way to ensure cohesiveness is to take care that everything you write is ultimately in service of the thesis and to avoid digressions that are not directly relevant to your main point.