Planning and Writing Essays and Other Academic Writing

Planning Essays

When it comes to writing an essay (or any other kind of academic writing, for that matter), you want to plan as much as possible before you get started writing. There are very few circumstances where you won’t be able to plan at all. Even with in-class essays or essay-based exams (like the AP Exams for subjects such as English Literature), you usually have at least some time before you need to get writing where you can plan.

Planning can be as simple as writing a list:

  • Introduction
    • Introduction to your overall topic (Tell the reader what you’re going to tell them.)
    • Thesis Statement (My argument is…Topic 1, Topic 2, Topic 3 — why are you telling us about these things in particular?)
  • Body (Tell them)
    • Topic 1
      • Summary
      • Evidence (You should agree with me because…)
      • Transition sentence(s) to Topic 2
    • Topic 2
      • Summary
      • Evidence
      • Transition sentence(s) to Topic 3
    • Topic 3
      • Summary
      • Evidence
      • Transition sentence(s) to Conclusion
  • Conclusion
    • Re-state your thesis or claim (Tell the reader what you told them.)
    • Summarize your main points
    • What should readers ultimately take away from your essay? (Here’s why it’s important)

Here’s an example:

Topic: The College Application Process (based on this document from Purdue OWL)


Introduction: The college application process defined: choose the desired college, prepare an application, compile a résumé

Body:

  • Choose Desired College (Topic 1)
    • Visit and evaluate college campuses (what does a college applicant need to do when choosing their desired college to apply to?)
    • Visit and evaluate college websites
      • Look for interesting classes
      • Note important statistics
  • Prepare an application (Topic 2)
    • Write a personal statement (what does a college applicant need to know about preparing their application?)
      • Choose an interesting topic (what possible topics might a college applicant encounter in their college application package?)
        • Describe an influential person in your life
          • Favorite high school teacher (how might a topic on a teacher differ from a topic on a family member?)
          • Grandparent
        • Describe a challenging life event
      • Include important personal details (what sort of important personal details? What are some examples?)
        • Volunteer work
        • Participation in varsity sports
    • Revise personal statement
  • Compile Résumé (Topic 3: what needs to be included on a college applicant’s résumé that’s part of their application, but isn’t their personal statement?)
    • List relevant coursework (What is relevant to the desired college? Is it a veterinary school? A liberal arts school?)
    • List work experience (Why should students talk about their out-of-school experiences in a structured environment? How does it relate to the college lifestyle?)
    • List volunteer experience (What sort of volunteer experiences would a college want to know about? How does it demonstrate that an applicant is a well-rounded person?)
      • Tutor at foreign language summer camp
      • Counselor for suicide prevention hotline

Conclusion: The college application process is often thought of as complicated, but it really boils down to three simple parts: applicants must choose the desired college to apply to, prepare their application to that college, and compile a résumé to accompany their application. Following these three steps will present a strong application to any college selection committee and increase the student’s chance of acceptance into that school.


If you were writing an essay ABOUT the college application process, you would talk about choosing an interesting topic, and give some examples, such as “describe an influential person in your life” or “describe a challenging life event,” but you wouldn’t actually write about those topics yourself. In an ACTUAL college application essay, you would pick one of those topics and write about it, and not necessarily mention the process of selecting the college that the application is for, or go into detail about the résumé that’s part of your overall application.

Keep in mind, there are different kinds of essays you might be assigned. If you’re supposed to debate a topic (take a side), you need to include a section where you address counterarguments or the arguments that go against what you’re trying to prove.

Let’s say that your essay topic is on the growth of Sydney Carton as a character in Charles Dickens’ A Tale of Two Cities. You have to argue that he grew as a character. The counterargument might be that he did not grow as a character and that what he chose to do at the end of the story was inevitable; there was nothing else this character could have done.

Pay attention to what kind of essay you’re supposed to write. Are you informing people, or trying to persuade them? Those are the two most common goals of academic papers.

You might also need to pay attention to what your teacher says about the audience. Are you writing as if to your teacher, or to the author of the story you’re studying? To someone who’s read the book, or to an alien who has never encountered humans before? Are you trying to explain 1940s America to a ten-year-old, or 1780s France to a classmate?

Writing Essays

When it comes to the actual writing, it’s helpful to follow your outline or plan. You’ll probably have a lot of phrases that you’ll use throughout your essay when you want to provide evidence or transition from your evidence to the next topic (or part of your essay).

For example:

  • “According to Dickens…”
  • “As Potok explains…”
  • “Dickens focuses on […], but…”

If you are citing from a story like A Tale of Two Cities or The Chosen, pay attention to how many lines you’re using. If it’s less than four, you can just enclose the quote in quotation marks, but if it’s four or more, you should actually indent the text as a blockquote (which does not use quotation marks. For example, according to the QuickStudy Guide on Essay Writing, a circular argument is “[a]n assertion that is repeated” (BarCharts, 2014).

Define a purpose for writing. A clear purpose will help you develop a structure for your paper and select relevant information. There are two basic purposes for a research paper. This guide will focus on the second purpose listed below: to persuade. (BarCharts, 2014).

See the difference?

You probably won’t have to worry about citations and a Works Cited page or Bibliography yet, but if you do, check out the Purdue OWL resource below; it’s excellent for figuring out how to properly “cite your sources” and refer back to an original work.

What to avoid (DON’TS)

  • Casual language – academic writing is formal. Check your spelling, grammar, and word usage. Avoid slang.
  • Too many ideas – take at least five to 10 minutes to outline and plan what evidence you’re going to use to support your argument, or to make your point. You might have lots of thoughts and ideas about the topic of your essay, but you only want to include the strongest, best evidence in support of it.
  • Use of “I” or “you” – unless your teacher says otherwise, don’t involve yourself or the reader in the essay. You don’t want people to get emotionally involved with the topic or make assumptions about your reader.
  • Bias – as with the assumptions mentioned above, you want to present facts, not opinions. Present information in a logical and clear manner.

What to do instead (DO’S)

  • Read the essay assignment carefully – There might be more than one thing you have to mention in your essay or more than one topic you have to cover. Maybe you need to argue both sides of an argument by stating the Pros and Cons. Perhaps you need to address both the events of A Tale of Two Cities and the time period in which Dickens wrote it. Pay attention to these little details in the assignment and you won’t miss out on valuable points.
    • Pay attention to command words like “describe,” “list,” “explain,” or “persuade.” Do what those words suggest. This will help you plan your essay.
    • Make sure you answer the question that is being asked/you address the topic that is in the assignment. If you wander off-topic, you will lose points.
  • Plan – It’s easier to plan for how you will present your argument/topic/evidence/facts when you plan ahead of time. You can also choose the wording you’ll use to present certain facts, which can save you time later as you write the essay. Use terms you’ve learned in class by underlining them in your outline.
  • Leave time to re-read your essay before you have to submit it to make sure your arguments make sense and flow logically from one to the next. Check that your introduction and conclusion “match” in terms of the information you present. If your introduction says you’re going to talk about Sydney Carton’s growth as a character in Charles Dickens’ A Tale of Two Cities, your conclusion shouldn’t be talking about how Lucie and Charles was the cutest couple ever and Sydney was just an alcoholic jerk who was destined to die.

The goal of most essay writing assignments is to check and see if you have a broad understanding of a topic and the key points that support it. Think about why a teacher would have you read a specific book. What are you supposed to get out of it? Why?

Handy Tools and Resources

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