How To Write an Essay

Writing an effective essay is usually a matter of finding a good self-limiting topic and covering enough aspects of that topic to satisfy your audience.  A well-written personal essay is not a manifesto or rant, but a relatively short and focused piece with both creative and journalistic writing elements.  Essays allow writers to inject their own subjective thoughts and observations into the work, not simply facts, figures and objective analysis.   If you're interested in writing an essay, here are some steps to follow:

  1. Find a self-limiting topic.  An effective essay usually tackles one narrow subject, which helps to keep its overall length short.  Instead of using "Christmas through the years" as an essay topic, for example, try winnowing down the Christmas theme to a single memory or aspect about the holiday.  "Common Myths of Christmas Family Reunions" would be a much more focused topic for a personal essay.  A writer may have to drill down several times until a suitably limited essay topic is found.
  2. Decide on a tone.  Essays can run the gamut from humorous to academic, so an essay writer should decide on the proper tone for the piece before starting to write it.  In our Christmas example, the essay could be written as a humorous piece about common events surrounding family reunions, or it could be an academic exploration of family dynamics during Christmas get-togethers.  If the writer decides to pursue a humorous tone, then the essay needs to reflect that tone consistently.  By choosing an overall tone, the writer can self-edit passages which don't match the mood of the overall piece.
  3. Select at least three different aspects of the topic.  Essays have a lot in common with the five paragraph themes of high school and college lore.  Essentially,  an essay writer should tell the audience what he or she is about to say, say it in at least three different ways, and then remind the audience of what he or she just said.  In our Christmas essay example, the various myths of family reunions could each form their own paragraphs.  It should be fairly easy to generate at least three different aspects of family reunions, if not dozens more.
  4. Use the first paragraph(s) to introduce the topic to the reader.  This could mean a few personal remarks concerning the writer's overall take on the holiday season, then some ideas on family reunions in general, then finally a description of some specific myths.  By the time an essay writer introduces his or her first major point, the reader should already have an understanding of the tone and focus of the essay.  An introduction for our Christmas essay could read as follows:  "I've never really understood the Christmas season now that I've become an adult.  I know that a lot of families insist on inviting dear Uncle Jim for some post-rehab refreshments, but I've never been that anxious to see my own family.  There are some compelling reasons why..."
  5. Arrange individual points in an effective order.  It could be weakest to strongest, oldest to newest, funny to funniest or any other order which leads the reader from the beginning to the end in a logical progression.  In our Christmas essay, the various myths could be outlined beforehand and arranged in a "Top Ten" format from the weakest to the strongest in terms of humor.  Transitions between elements in an essay are very important, so avoid using the standard "First, secondly, finally" varieties.
  6. Leave your readers with a good taste in their mouths.  The final paragraph of an essay doesn't necessarily have to be a stale rehashing of the previous points.   In our Christmas essay example, the writer could end with a tongue-in-cheek piece of advice for the reader or a tease for future essay topics: "So if you think there's a lot of mythology surrounding Christmas family reunions, wait until you see what happens on the Fourth of July."  The last paragraph of an essay can be as personal and subjective as the opening paragraph, or it can end with a poignant line, much like the final sting of a poem.


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