How to Write an English Essay

Five Parts:Getting StartedDrafting the EssayRevising the EssayPlanning Your EssaySample Essays

Essays are common assignments for English courses in high school and in college. While writing an essay for an English class may seem overwhelming, it does not have to be. If you give yourself plenty of time to plan and develop your essay, then you will not have to stress about it.

Part 1
Getting Started

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    Set aside time to write. You cannot write an essay in 10 minutes. It's best to leave yourself ample time to write and revise the essay, ideally giving yourself time for a break between drafts. If you're approaching a deadline, however, you may need to make the best use of the time you have.
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    Sit down and write. While it's important to prepare to write, when it comes down to it, you just have to start putting content on the page. Remember that you can always go back and "fix" things later and that substantive revisions are part of the writing process.
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    Draft a tentative thesis. Your thesis is one of the most important elements of your essay. A thesis statement summarizes the main argument or position of your essay in one sentence. It lets readers know what the essay will attempt to show or prove. Everything in your essay should be connected to your thesis in a straightforward way.[1]
    • Your instructor will expect to see a well-crafted thesis early on in your essay. Place your thesis at the end of your first paragraph.
    • If you do not understand how to write a thesis, then ask your instructor for help. This is an important concept that will keep coming up in other English courses as well as any other courses where you have to write papers.
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    Develop your introduction. Once you have a compelling thesis statement, you can craft the rest of your introduction around it. You can also save this step for after you've drafted the body of your essay if you feel intimidated by the introduction. The best introductions "grab" the reader and make them want to keep reading. Some effective strategies for creating an introduction include:[2]
    • Telling a personal anecdote
    • Citing a surprising fact or statistic
    • Overturning a common misconception
    • Challenging the reader to examine her own preconceptions
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    Jot down an outline for the remainder of your essay. Outlining can help you to develop a basic structure for your essay and you can use this when you are ready to draft your essay as well. Look over your notes and invention exercises and think about how you can organize this information in an outline. What should come first, second, third, etc.?[3]
    • You can create a numbered outline using a word processor or just put it on paper.
    • Don’t worry about being too detailed when you create your outline. Just try to get the basic ideas on paper.

Part 2
Drafting the Essay

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    Collect all of your notes and materials. Before you start to write, gather together all of the notes, books, and other materials that you will need to draw on to answer the essay prompt. Support is essential for an effective English essay, so do not try to write your essay without these materials. If you have time, read through your notes before you begin.
    • Make sure that you have your outline handy as well. You can build on the outline that you created to help you as your draft your essay. Just try to expand on each of the points in your outline in the order that you have placed them.
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    Include topic sentences at the beginning of each paragraph. Topic sentences signal to readers what a paragraph will discuss. Start each of your paragraphs in an essay exam with a topic sentence so that your instructor will be able to see that your ideas progress in a clear, direct manner.[4]
    • Think of the topic sentence as way to tell readers what you will talk about in the rest of the paragraph. You don’t need to summarize the whole paragraph in a topic sentence, just provide readers with a taste.
    • For example, in a paragraph that describes Okonkwo’s rise and fall in Things Fall Apart, you might begin with something like: “Okonkwo starts out as a poor young man, but then rises to a position of wealth and status.”
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    Develop your ideas as much as possible. Make sure that you include as many details as possible for your answers. Remember that padding (filling in with meaningless text or using extra wordy sentences) is not an effective strategy for writing essays because instructors can see right through it. Your instructor has probably read hundreds, if not thousands of student essays over his or her career, so she will know when an essay has been padded. Fill your essays with details that make your essay useful and insightful instead. If you get stuck, some good strategies for developing your ideas include:
    • Returning to the invention stage. To develop your ideas as much as possible, try returning to an invention exercise such as freewriting, listing, or clustering. You can also revisit your notes and books to see if there is anything that you missed or forgot.
    • Visiting your school’s writing lab. If your school has a writing lab, then pay a visit to them with your essay in hand. You can find a writing lab on most college campuses. Writing labs are free to students and they can help you to improve your writing at any stage in the writing process.
    • Talking to your instructor. Some instructors are happy to meet with their students and help them with their essays. If your instructor holds regular office hours or allows students to make one-on-one appointments, then take advantage of this resource. Meet with your instructor and discuss ways that you can improve your essay before you hand it in.
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    Cite sources using MLA style citations. If you use any sources at all in your essay, then you will need to cite them using the style that your instructor prefers. MLA style is the most common citation format used in English courses, so you will need to know how to use it. You will need to provide in-text citations as well as a works cited page at the end.
    • An MLA style works cited page starts on a new page at the end of your paper. In a works cited page, you will need to provide entries for each of the sources that you used. These entries should provide enough information that the reader could locate the source with ease. For example, a works cited entry for a book would include with the Author’s last name and first name, title of the work, publication information, year published, and the format.[5]
    • MLA style in-text (also called parenthetical) citations provide readers with the author’s last name as well as the page number for the information. It is necessary to include an in-text citation for any information that you quote, summarize, or paraphrase from a source. The in-text citation comes right after the information form the source and it includes the Author’s last name and page number in parentheses.[6] For example, an in-text citation for a quote from Things Fall Apart would look like: ….” (Achebe 57).
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    Work towards a conclusion. The general structure of an essay usually goes from broad to specific. You could visualize this tendency as an upside-down pyramid or as a funnel. By the time you get to your conclusion, it should feel as though the information in your conclusion is inevitable. It's essentially a recap of everything you've spent your whole essay trying to prove.[7] However, there is also potential to use your conclusion for other purposes. You may find that you want to use your conclusion to:
    • Qualify or complicate the information in your essay
    • Suggest a need for further research
    • Speculate on how the future will change the current situation

Part 3
Revising the Essay

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    Give yourself plenty of time. Leaving your essay to the last minute is not a good idea. Try to allow yourself at least a couple of days to revise your work, or more if possible. It is important to take a one to two day break from your essay after you have completed it. Then you can come back to it and revise with a fresh perspective.[8]
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    Focus on improving the content of your essay first. Some people only focus on the grammar and punctuation when revising an essay, but this is less important than the content of your essay. Answer the essay question in as much detail as possible. Reread the essay question or assignment guidelines and ask:[9]
    • Have I answered the question in a satisfactory way?
    • Do I have a clear thesis? Is my thesis the focus of my essay?
    • Do I include adequate support for my argument? Is there anything else I could add?
    • Is there a logic to my essay? Does one idea follow the next? If not, how might I improve the logic of my essay?
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    Ask a friend to read your essay. Having a friend or classmate take a look at your work can be helpful as well. Someone else may catch simple errors or notice something else that you missed because you have been looking at the document so much.[10]
    • Try swapping essays with a friend from class. You can read and comment on each other’s essays to make sure that both of you have done the best work possible.
    • Make sure that you swap papers at least one day before the paper is due so that you will have time to correct any errors that your friend finds.
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    Read your essay out loud. Reading your essay aloud can help you to catch simple errors that you might not have caught otherwise.[11] Read your essay out loud slowly and have a pencil nearby (or be prepared to edit on your computer).
    • As you read, correct any errors that you find and underline anything that you think could be improved, such as by adding more details or clarifying the language.

Part 4
Planning Your Essay

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    Analyze the topic or essay question. Take time to read over the essay question or guidelines and think about what the assignment is asking you to do. You should underline any keywords such as describe, compare, contrast, explain, argue, or propose. You should also underline any central themes or ideas that the assignment asks you to discuss such as freedom, family, defeat, love, etc.[12]
    • If you do not understand what an assignment is asking you to do, then ask your instructor. It is important to make sure that you have a clear idea of what your instructor wants before you start working on the assignment.
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    Consider your audience. Your instructor is your primary audience for the essay, so you will need to consider your instructor’s needs and expectations before you write.[13] Some basic things that your instructor will need and expect from you may include:
    • a well-detailed answer that satisfies the assignment requirements
    • a clear and direct piece writing that is easy to follow
    • a polished paper with no minor errors, such as typos or misspellings
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    Think about what you will need to include. After considering your instructor’s expectations, take some time to think about how you can accomplish these broad goals. Consider what you will need to include in your essay.
    • For example, if you are tasked with writing about a character in a book, then you will need to provide lots of details about that character. This will probably require rereading some passages of your book as well as revisiting your notes from class.[14]
    • To make sure that your paper is easy to follow, you will need to make sure that there is a logical order to your essay. You can accomplish this goal by taking time to create an outline and checking your work for logic when you are through.
    • Having a polished paper will be easier if you start early and allow yourself lots of time to revise before you have to turn in the final draft. If possible, try to complete your first draft about one week before the paper is due.
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    Develop your ideas. Invention exercises can help you to draw out details that you already know, which can give you a great jump start on writing your essay. Some useful invention exercises include:[15]
    • Freewriting. With this exercise, you simply write as much as you can without stopping. Even if you can’t think of anything to write, write “I can’t think of anything to write,” until something else comes to mind. After you finish, read over what you have written and underline or highlight any information that might be useful for your essay.
    • Listing. Listing is where you make a list of all of the details and information that are relevant to the essay prompt. After you have listed everything that you can think of, read over it and circle the most important information for your essay.
    • Clustering. Clustering is where you connect ideas using lines and circles on a piece of paper. For example, you might start with your topic written at the center of the page and then branch out from this central focus with other connected ideas. Keep branching out and drawing connections until you cannot do any more.
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    Research your topic if necessary. If you have been asked to conduct research for your paper, then you will want to do this before you begin drafting as well.[16] Use your library’s databases and other resources to find the best information possible for your paper.
    • Good sources to use for English essays include books, articles from scholarly journals, newspaper articles from trustworthy news sources (NY Times, Wall Street Journal, etc.), and government or university sponsored web pages.
    • Many instructors include “research quality” in their grading criteria, so including poor sources such as blogs and author less web sources, may result in a poor grade.
    • If you are not sure if a source is of good quality, ask your instructor or a librarian.

Sample Essays

Sample Othello Essay

Sample Ozymandias Essay

Sample Tess of the d'Urbervilles Essay


  • If you choose to have someone critique your essay, try to find someone who fits your essay's target audience. You won't be able to improve your literary analysis of "To Kill a Mockingbird" if you hand it to someone who's never read it.


  • Don’t put off your essay to the last minute. Good writing takes time and careful planning.

Article Info

Categories: English | Essays