Writing an Essay

by Rob Ormsby, PhD candidate at the Graduate Centre for the Study of Drama, U of T

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This sheet is meant to help you plan and write the sort of essay that is typically expected from you by many English and, more generally, humanities professors. Although it describes a very straightforward approach to the essay, and is by no means the only way to write essays, it offers the basic components of critical writing upon which you can build your own creative and interpretive work.

What is an essay? For our purposes, an essay can be described as a paper written in paragraphs that has an introduction, a middle, and a conclusion, and attempts to answer a question or a few related questions by developing an argument or thesis through reasoning and the use of evidence, especially appropriate examples from the particular text(s) that your argument involves.

What is a thesis? A thesis is typically a summary statement of the argument that you wish to make or position that you wish to take in your essay. Good theses typically share a number of traits: they make limited and definite assertions that need to be explained and supported by further discussion; they are not emotional or vague; they are relevant and relatively complex.

"Bad" thesis: "Shakespeare is the greatest artist the world has ever known."

This is far too vague, simple, emotional, and is difficult to prove.

"Good" thesis: "The image of a diseased or poisoned body that Hamlet uses to describe the corruption of the Danish court spills over into the relationships within the play, the drama's depiction of women, as well as Hamlet's own sense of identity."

This thesis hones in on a specific image in the play, and sets out a number of identifiable and related aspects of the play that the body of the essay can readily address.

There are some further general rules about the thesis. Keep in mind that for each of these rules, there are significant exceptions. First, most paper require a thesis. That is true for the papers that you will write for Prof. Percy's ENG 220Y class, although it might not be true for other papers. Second, thesis statements often come at the end of the first paragraph of the paper. This is not always the case, but when writing fairly short papers, such as you will be for Prof. Percy, it is a good idea to keep the introduction short, and put the thesis statement in that position. Third, thesis statements are often one sentence long, although two or three can be used if necessary. Fourth, a paper cannot be written until a final thesis is devised. This is by far the least stable rule; final theses are often arrived at after the whole paper has been written, although a very good idea of what you want to argue is normally crucial to developing a sound argument.

What is an introduction? Essays begin with a paragraph that introduces the topic you wish to discuss. Sometimes introductions can be several paragraphs long, but, again, because of the short length of the papers that you will be writing for Prof. Percy, it is best to keep your introduction to a single short (4-6 sentences) paragraph. Begin generally, and increase the focus of your sentences until you reach your thesis. Getting the introduction just right always takes time, but first impressions are extremely important.

What is a conclusion? A conclusion is the final paragraph of the essay, where you revisit the body of your paper, and bring all the threads of your argument together. You can use this paragraph to reiterate unresolved areas of your argument, or to note any "problems" or discrepancies in your reasoning or the evidence that you used. But you should also make some final statement about your thesis and the argument that you have made.

What is the middle or "body" of an essay? The middle of your essay should be made up of a number of paragraphs that progress in some logical or well-reasoned order towards your conclusion. One of the most important aspects of the essay is its use of logical transitions from one moment to the next.

What is a transition? Transitions are simply the logical movements from one section of the essay to the next. Transitions can occur at a number of different levels. The first is the general level, such as the movement from the introduction to the middle to the conclusion. They also occur at the level of the paragraph, where each paragraph should logically follow the preceding paragraph. Transitions occur even at the level of the sentence. That is to say, no sentence should follow a preceding sentence, unless there is some kind of logic or reasoning behind its placement. When professors mark papers, they are keenly aware of how well or how poorly a student has succeeded in making logical transitions. Furthermore, because papers with obvious transitions are easier to follow, a professor is much more likely to enjoy and favourably grade such papers.

What is a paragraph? This is not a stupid question. A paragraph consists of a topic statement, and a body of subsequent sentences. A topic sentence announces the idea that will be developed in the paragraph. You can develop topic sentences in a number of ways: explain more fully what you mean using definitions and distinctions; and offer details, such as examples or quotations. Each sentence in the paragraph should follow logically from its predecessor. Ensure that you have not included any sentences in a paragraph that belong in another paragraph, or do not belong in the paper at all.

Except for the first and last paragraph of your essay, topic sentences should occur as the first sentence of each paragraph. An excellent way to check whether or not you have written a logical paper is to read the first sentence of each paragraph. If the result is a logical argument, then there is a good chance that most of the paper is logically argued. Beware that many professors use this method when they first read a paper.

How to develop an essay. First, decide what idea about the text you will work with; that is, get an idea of a general thesis. Second, gather potential evidence for your argument by re-reading the text(s) with this idea in mind. Third, try to break that evidence into thematically (or stylistically) related groups. Fourth, create an outline for an argument that places those groups into some kind of logical sequence. Fifth, develop those groupings into completed paragraphs. Sixth, revise by correcting spelling, grammar, and, possibly, by rearranging some of the paragraphs if it seems necessary.


1. Don't make too strong or unilateral an argument. That is, make sure that you complicate your argument by providing evidence that challenges your thesis or makes it more complex.

2. Always use simple, yet elegant language. Beware of sentences that go on forever, or that have too many clauses. Make sure that the paper is written in the active, rather than the passive voice. Make sure that you have written only complete sentences.

3. Always revise. If you have time, put the essay away for a couple of days and come back to it. It always helps to get some distance from your writing, and this time off inevitably helps to catch spelling and grammatical mistakes.

4. Let someone else read it. You will thus be able to gague the kind of confusion that your professor will experience, and you can fix it before it affects your grade. Book at least one or two sessions with one of the university's writing centres. If you follow their advice, you can virtually be guaranteed of an increase of 5 to 15 per cent (that is my personal experience). The New College Writing Centre's phone # is 978- 5157, although you can also use the writing centre from your own college as well.

5. Start early. The more time you let the subject of the paper become part of your life, the more mature your essay will be.

-written by Rob Ormsby