How to Write an Essay

This concise guide to writing an essay by PhD Professor Anthony J. Robbins will help you confidently and consistently write solid research papers. The guide provides you with an overview of the requirements for content and structure as well as insight into the expectations of your professors and the key points on which your research paper will be assessed.

Author bio for PhD Professor Anthony J. Robbins, Louisiana State University

Professor Anthony J. Robbins

Anthony Robbins, Ph.D. holds degrees from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, Syracuse University, and Louisiana State University. A former Fulbright scholar and an NEA recipient with years of teaching experience, he is currently an independent editor, researcher and tutor, as well as a working poet.

This guide will teach you how to:

  • Find an idea that responds to the assignment.
  • Approach the topic.
  • Structure an essay.
  • Craft proper citations and bibliographies.
  • Avoid plagiarism.

The guide also covers:

  • The difference between college and high school-level essays.
  • The most common essays e.g. compare & contrast essays and persuasive essays.
  • Stylistic elements such as length, tone and technical corrections.

Guide to the Guide

There are many ways to write college-level essays. This is one. As you write, you will, with the help of reading, with the teaching of your instructors in various disciplines (not just in English classes), and your texts, find ways to write not only effectively but also with joy and with the legitimate expectation that you will be read appreciatively among the community of readers and writers.


You have been given a topic on which to write an essay, and you are bound to write it. You may find it uninspiring. No matter. You are bound to write it. You will think of something immediately. Write it down. If your idea seems inappropriate, do not throw it away. You may need it again. You might revise it. You can cannibalize your own ideas. You have begun, which leads to the first of many practical directives: (No, the second. The first is to listen carefully to your instructors, your editors, your boss, and, ultimately, to your audience. As a student these may be all the same, i.e., your teachers, but indeed, first and last, you are also all of these yourself). The second directive: do not procrastinate. Start early and finish with enough time before the due date to put the essay out of your sight for at least a day before you give it a final proofreading. When my students think they are finished and are invited to take out a pen in class and make last-minute corrections before turning in hot-out-of-the printer papers there are gasps and muttered curses in the classroom. Panicked, crammed responses to college-level writing assignments are seldom successful.

Consider the assignment carefully. Is it rather vague and open? This could be a blessing or a curse. If it is very specific, do not try to avoid the topic. If you want to take it in a novel direction, ask first. Can you paraphrase, in other words, what you are being asked to do? Try it. If you cannot, you should ask your instructor what the assignment means. A good way to start is by saying, "I don't understand." You won't appear to be dumb, and it is much better to get clarification early that to receive a grade lower than you expect and then say to yourself, "But ... I didn't understand."

Remember that the instructor is working for you. In this regard college-level papers differ from those you wrote in high school. Your instructor will probably not know you personally, and, in fact, may not care to. This is not rudeness or coldness; it is simply a degree of professionalism to which you must become accustomed. Your writing instructor will be hearing your voice on the page. This means, among other things, that there is a mutual expectation of seriousness. Assume your instructors are, perhaps also unlike in high school, not trying to stump or trick you ­ that would be too easy. They want to find what you do know. They want to learn with you. Write accordingly. This goes to tone. Don't try to be cute or funny. In writing courses, essays are examinations. Personal style is no substitute for substance.

Finding an idea that responds to the assignment

Fashion a working title. You can always change it along the way, and you can look at it to remind yourself what you thought you were doing. Titles are tricky. They can directly describe what follows. They can set up expectations which may be fulfilled or upset. Avoid gimmicky titles, and do not simply rephrase the assignment. One of your goals should be to avoid boring your reader and yourself (even if the instructor has been boring you). It is very important to define an audience, most specifically, and most specifically not "the general public." If you are writing to everyone, you are effectively writing to no one. Here are some characteristics to consider when defining an audience:

  • Age
  • Gender
  • Level of education
  • Political, religious or other beliefs
  • Socio-economic status
  • Race and ethnicity. (Yes. If anyone claims to live in a color-blind society, they may be blind, either literally or figuratively; no such society exists).
  • Why are they interested in the topic? Why should they be interested?
  • How much do they know about the topic? You needn't tell them what they already know. If they know relatively little you need to avoid talking over their heads. Both of these are a turn-off.
  • Do they have any biases or misconceptions?
  • What is their relationship to you? (What is your persona, that is, who are you to them?)
  • What values do you share with them? This goes to rhetorical strategies of ethos, pathos, and logos (see below).
  • If you are writing a persuasive or argumentative essay you should decide if your audience is friendly, hostile, or neutral.

Types of Essays

Modes of development can be defined discretely, but as you explore them you will see that not only do the categories overlap, but that the tactics used in each mode can and should be used together in any essay. Here are some kinds of essays with suggestions about how they might be developed. Remember, members have access to over 100,ooo sample essays, which can be used and properly documented as reference sources.

In descriptive essays purpose is essential. Are your describing something for commerce or contemplation?

In narrative essays purpose is also essential. Do you mean to entertain, or is there a "moral" to the story?

Division and classification essays need to be clear about purpose and clear about why and how the elements are being divided and organized. The organizing principles should be logical and easily understood by your audience. Think of a descriptive essay. Describe a room. What is the organizing principle? Top to bottom? Back to front? From where you stand outward? Are you describing elements according to function? Color?

A key part of process analysis essays is a complete outline. What have you left out? In your first draft you probably have omitted things. Are you writing an essay for someone who could use your essay as instruction to actually do something, or are you writing to someone who just wants to know how it is done? Again, it is a good idea to ask another person to read this. The reader will have questions.

Comparison and contrast essays have two main purposes: to point out that two things (keep it to two in a short essay) are more similar than they appear or that they are, given the evidence you produce, actually more different than they appear.

Cause and effect essays essentially assert that if this happens, then this specific other thing will follow. In addition to using inductive and deductive reasoning, you should apply tests to your assertions. Could some other cause produce the same effect? Is the cause sufficient to produce the effect? Is there something that could prevent the cause from producing the effect?

Essays that proceed by means of definition categorically overlap with division and classification essays, except as they are distinguished by audience and purpose, and definition can be a critical part of argumentative or persuasive essays. "This means this, but not that." Why?

Argumentative and persuasive essays provide an opportunity to combine all modes of development. "Persuasion" is a more accurate purpose than "argument." Your goal is not to "prove" something, in a mathematical sense, but to persuade; therefore, you should avoid absolutes ("Always," "Never," "Everybody," "Nobody," "We all know," etc., as well as "Clearly," "Obviously," etc., especially in the conclusion). Nothing is clear or obvious unless you have made it so. Avoid terms such as "I believe," "Maybe," "Perhaps," "I think," etc." These are not claims; they are weak equivocations.

As your reader, friendly, hostile, or neutral, is the judge, you must consider and grant something to the opposing viewpoint(s), without contradicting your own claims. The way to craft this initially is to make a direct claim. Statements of fact are not claims. The test for a claim is that there is an opposing claim. A simple declarative sentence will do nicely. Then, in an introductory clause to this independent clause, you should grant something to the opposing argument. After the independent clause that states your claim, follow with a clause that begins with the word "because," (NO comma before "because"!) and follow it with three reasons that support your position, in order of increasing importance. For example: "Although ("Granted," "Though") property owners legally have the right to use their property as they wish, their neighbors should be able to control offensive behaviors because some actions are dangerous, some behaviors may reduce general property values, and some can harm the health of the community." This sentence is an outline. These three reasons are the topics of your developing paragraphs.

In terms of structure, the argumentative essay should include a concession paragraph after the introduction. Grant that the opposing claim has some merits, and then go forward with your own argument.

Approaching the Topic

  • Write an outline.
  • Write a thesis sentence. This is the controlling idea. Stay close to it in the development.
  • Just as the thesis sentence is the controlling idea for the essay, a topic sentence is the controlling idea of a paragraph. Write complete topic sentences for each paragraph, arranged in order of increasing importance, that is, put your strongest support last, and be prepared to change the order as you proceed.


Your essay should have a beginning, a middle, and an end, that is, an introduction, a body, and a conclusion. Strive for balance. The introduction and the conclusion should be relatively brief. The introduction may begin with generally related issues, but it should get to the point as soon as possible. Do not write long, wordy wind-ups. Often you are asked for no more than 500 words, and there's no room to dither. A clue for your instructor that your development is going to be weak is that you are in no hurry to get to it. You may ask a question. You might describe waking up in an unfamiliar place. There are all kinds of hooks. Avoid phrases such as "Most people think..." "From the beginning of time..." "In today's modern society..." Avoid the word "society." Do not announce what you are going to do, for example, "In this paper I am going to..."). Go directly to supporting your main idea, which should come near the end of the introduction, which should be no more than one paragraph. Be concise and direct.

Paragraph Development

Now go back to your outline.

What is the first topic sentence? How will you support it? There are many ways. Reasons, examples, names, short anecdotes, and statistics all work, and they may come from any reasonable source, including (see Citing Sources). The more recent the source the better. If you cite authorities make sure they are authorities. What exactly does Michael Jordan know about the structure of underwear? What does your uncle know about counter-insurgency in Iraq? Probably nothing.

Include only information that directly supports the topic sentence. This will give your paragraphs unity and coherence. If you find yourself going astray with information you consider important, consider making another paragraph.

Consider strategies. Given your audience, what would work best in any given paragraph? One way to think about this is to choose among classic rhetorical strategies. Ethos means establishing your own credibility as a writer. You do not have to claim to be an expert, nor do you have to cite experts; the sample essays on are target-rich. Use them judiciously.

Pathos is an appeal to emotion. Pulling at the heart strings works, if you do not do it too often.

Logos is the use of rational argument, reasoning (and do not confuse the term "rational" with "rationalization," which means finding a reason after the fact).

Be sure to remember that readers are not all eyes and brains. We live in our bodies. Use colors, smells, tastes, sounds, and tactile images to help make your information more effective.

Developing paragraphs should follow the order designated or implied in the thesis sentence in the introduction. They should transit smoothly to the next paragraph. One good way to do this is to repeat a word from the last sentence in a paragraph in the topic sentence of the next.

You must have a conclusion. You can call for action, define again key terms, sum up the thesis statement without simply repeating it or any part of the introduction. Avoid saying what you have done. Remember, this is a conclusion, and you should not introduce new information that belongs more properly in the development.

Properly Citing Sources

How many references or sources do you need? A rule of thumb is one good, supportive reference in each paragraph. If you are writing a comparison and contrast essay you will probably need two: one from Item A, one from Item B.

Any time you use information other than "general" knowledge, for example the date of M. L. King, Jr.'s birth, you must cite it in the text with a reference that goes to a correct bibliography. This includes cyber content that has no indication of authorship. You did not write it. Be sure to note the date you accessed the site. For example:

Hass, Sam. (2010). Falstaff's Dilemma. Accessed on 10 August 2010.

Be careful about cutting and pasting bibliographic information from web sites. You may be copying embedded commands you cannot get rid of. You may have to retype.

There are various formats for these citations. The most common are the Modern Language Association (MLA) and American Psychological Association (APA) formats. Your instructor will tell you which to use, and presumably you will have a handbook that gives you the proper form. Follow the form carefully. Some of the formats may seem counter-intuitive and tedious. Even professional bibliographers (yes, they exist) have to look closely at every entry.

You must take this part of the essay seriously. The spirit of proper citation is to give credit where it is due and to give your readers exact information about where they can find sources they might use, as you have. You have, deliberately or not, by writing your paper, joined the community of scholars.

The letter of this law is that if you fail to acknowledge your sources you have committed theft, or, in academic terms, plagiarism (from the Latin plagium: man-stealing, kidnapping). In every institution this is prohibited. The penalties range from a minimum of a "F" (zero) on the essay, to no credit for the course, to expulsion from the institution. Do not do it.

Things to attend: Anything that you use verbatim should be enclosed in quotation marks.
If you paraphrase a passage you still must cite the source.
When in doubt, cite the source.

Do not abandon access to your sources, especially your printed sources , for example from a library, until you are finished with the essay. You may find that you need something you read before, only to find that someone has checked it out).

A Note on Length

Typically, you will be given a word-length for your essay. Pay little attention to this as you begin. It is a goal. If you think it is too long or too short for what you have in mind, you are surely correct. Welcome to becoming a serious writer. There are always limitations. Think of length as a ballpark figure. Some essays that meet the word requirement seem endless to the reader because they are marred by confusing technical errors. Some essays that exceed the suggested length seem short because they are fluent. Your essay will grow and shrink as you revise. In writing the final draft, however, take the length requirement seriously. Writing instructors are not (usually) accountants, and, if an instructor has an urge to do a word count, it will be because of missteps in the response to the assignment or in the organization of the essay.


Tone establishes your voice on the page and conveys an attitude toward topic and audience. As with your speaking voice, your tone can have various levels of gravity, levity, irony, etc. One very important element in establishing tone is diction, that is, word choice. Many students incorrectly assume that college-level academic writing requires "big" words and circumlocutions. This is not true. While it is not only fine, but desirable that you use the opportunity to write essays as a chance to increase the size and register of your vocabulary, the important thing is to be clear. Do use a thesaurus. Do not use words the meanings of which you are unsure. This is why you should get your hands on the best dictionary you can afford. Be concise without being abrupt. Be thorough without being repetitious. (A word-processing style function may help with this). Be kind to but respectfully demanding of your reader. As with all the elements of writing, this takes practice.


Revising is re-seeing, in terms of approach and development, not simply correcting mistakes that you have found or that someone has noted on a previous draft.

Find someone to read your paper, preferably to you, out loud. If this reader says, "This doesn't make sense," or "I don't understand," assume the lack of coherence is in your writing. Revise.

Making technical corrections: An overview, including some warnings, admonitions, and an annotated but limited list of common mistakes

Even a good idea and a cogent structure cannot carry an essay that is marred by mistakes in punctuation, spelling, and grammar. These errors are generally of two types: those that are merely distracting, evidence of careless proofreading, and then there are those that actually interfere with meaning. You should strive to write essays that are error-free.

Below are common errors that should be identified, corrected, and then avoided. Go to the index in the handbook. At the end of this tutorial there is a brief list of sources to help you with these errors.

  • Subject-verb agreement
  • Sentence fragments. These may be used for rhetorical effect. But don't write them habitually.
  • Consistency in verb tense. If you are referring to a text, use present tense, e.g., "Shakespeare writes," not "Shakespeare wrote."
  • Comma splices, run-on sentences, and other comma errors. These are legion, and they are more common for ESL students. Pay attention to comma usage with coordinating conjunctions. Learn how to use a semicolon.
  • ESL students should also pay special attention to prepositions. Prepositions are often short words, but errors always affect meaning. Pay attention also to homonyms.
  • Noun-pronoun agreement
  • Spelling. Misspelling is a grade graveyard because there is no excuse. Spell-check functions may be your default firewall, but do not depend on them. They will not find most typos, and, if you write something such as "Eye love ewe," they are no help. Proofread with a dictionary at hand. Do not misspell anything in the title or in the first sentence.

Other considerations:

  • You may use the word "I."
  • Avoid wherever possible the use of the passive voice.
  • Vary your sentence structure.

Format? Again, follow your instructor's directions. If they are different from other formats you have been taught, don't be upset. Format as directed. If you have been asked to include headers and/or footers and page numbers, make sure they are consistent. Make sure your five- or three-space paragraph indentions are consistent. Sometimes in revisions these features get deranged.

Delivering the final draft

Clean it up, casually. By now it's too late to start over. Give it a slap or a kiss on the cover page for good luck. Do not preface the submission either orally or in writing with a statement that you think it is poor or that it is excellent. If you are giving or sending the essay as a hard copy, make sure that your paper is entire and, with a clip or staple, intact. Don't use bulky or intrusive binders. Your instructor may have these essays in a stack, or in a bag in a storm, or in the back seat with a juice-slinging toddler and a dog. If you are submitting your essay online, identify it clearly with your name in the subject line. Include the date of submission. Compose it in a readable format. Twelve-point Times Roman, double spaced, is standard. Send it as an attachment, and copy and paste it in the text field and send a copy to yourself. Always keep a copy. "My computer crashed" is even less convincing than "I have writer's block." At least, email it to yourself. You have written it. Don't lose it. If there is a problem, for any reason, with the transmission, and your instructor says, "I don't have it," the burden is on you to reproduce it.

Forget it until it is returned. Start writing again.

How to use critical comments to improve your next paper (and your grade)

In the process of going through revisions of drafts on your way to producing a final draft you may engage in peer review, that is, you give your essay to someone, preferably whom you don't know or who owes you money, and, though your reader may have a different topic, presumably you have the same general assignment. Your instructor will tell them what to look for. You will be doing the same review for someone else. When you receive these comments you may accept them whole-heartedly. You may find a few that are useful. You may reject them all, but only after you have read them. It's your call. If comments are made on a preliminary draft by your instructor, you ignore them at your peril. If you do not understand the instructor's comments, ask what they mean. If you do not know how to correct something, say so. It is likely that if you continue to repeat the same mistakes your grade will suffer. Likewise, if you learn how to revise correctly, sooner or later you will be rewarded.


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Useful Guides for College Writers

Presumably you have a handbook that will guide you to elements of grammar and style. There are many. Without one you are lost. Most textbooks also have sections that address technical elements. Below are some essential guides with Library of Congress Catalogue descriptions. They are available online. Those of you using APA-style citations, especially in the health sciences, might consult the University of California, San Francisco, School of Nursing web site. It is sensible, brief, and complete. For general purposes try the Online Writing Lab at Purdue University or the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill Writing Center

APA Manual

Concise rules of APA style. 6th ed. Washington, DC : American Psychological Association, c2010.

Description: xi, 280 p. : ill. ; 22 cm. ISBN: 9781433805608 (spiral bound) 143380560X (spiral bound)

The Chicago Manual of Style

The Chicago manual of style. 16th ed. Chicago ; London : The University of Chicago Press, 2010.

Description: p. cm. Projected Publication Date: 1008 ISBN: 9780226104201 (cloth : alk. paper) 0226104206 (cloth : alk. paper)

The Elements of Style

The elements of style by William Strunk, Jr. and E.B. White; illustrated by Maira Kalman. New York : Penguin Press, 2005.

Description: xvii, 147 p. : col. ill. ; 23 cm. ISBN: 1594200696

MLA Manual

MLA style manual and guide to scholarly publishing. 3rd ed. New York : Modern Language Association of America, 2008.

Description: xxiv, 336 p. ; 24 cm. ISBN: 9780873522977 (hdbk. : alk. paper) 0873522974 (hdbk. : alk. paper) 9780873522984 (large print : alk. paper) 0873522982 (large print : alk. paper

The Oxford English Dictionary
("The greatest book ever written." Stephen Jay Gould)

The Concise Oxford dictionary of current English : based on the Oxford English dictionary and its supplements. 6th ed. / edited by J. B. Sykes. Oxford, Eng. : Clarendon Press, 1976.

Description: xxiii, 1368 p. ; 22 cm. ISBN: 0198611218

The whole thing, twenty volumes, costs $1000, magnifying glass included. You will need it, and with proper sunlight you can start a fire. Don't burn the book! The Concise Edition costs about $20 new. It is available online and you can download the software free.

Roget's Thesaurus

Roget's thesaurus. Vest pocket ed. Boston : Houghton Mifflin, c1987.

Description: xi, 252 p. ; 14 cm. ISBN: 0395442966 : $2.25

Use any thesaurus. Many are available free online, and no, you do not have cite these as references (except in an essay that focuses primarily on definition), but if they are wrong or if there is some operator error (yours), you may have to explain.

Webster's (Unabridged) Dictionary

Merriam-Webster's dictionary of basic English. Springfield, Mass. : MerriamWebster, c1995.

Description: xviii, 717 p. : ill. ; 22 cm. ISBN: 087779605X

The unabridged dictionary is huge. Go for the paperback.