We know how hard actually writing something can be. We've compiled the basics of writing a great essay below, so have a read!

On this page:

1. Introduction to writing
2. Main points to focus on
3. Step 1: The introduction
4. Step 2: Body paragraphs
5. Step 3: The conclusion
6. Word economy and diction
7. Academic writing style

Introduction to Writing

In academic writing, there can be quite a different tone to what you are used to when writing essays in high school. This is because you’re now moving to a much more specialised area of your field, and starting to learn about how people actually contribute to the knowledge that you’re learning about! For this to be done effectively, there are loads of conventions that you will need to follow so that your work is easily read, clear, and effective at communicating your main points to the professor.

Firstly, it is a good idea to get to know some academic writing terms, so that you can follow the rest of this guide!

Thesis – the point to your essay. What you want to say, and be able to conclude by the end of your essay.

Argument – what you want to argue. Normally in your essay you will have at least three main arguments, or reasons, as to why your thesis statement is the case. These form the sections of your essay.

Counter-argument – the opposite opinion to what you are arguing. Including counter arguments in the essay is a good way to show that what you are arguing is right – only if you then prove why the counter argument is wrong!

So, what are the main things to focus on in your first few essays?

1. The tone

You’re a real academic – and this comes with responsibilities! You need to make sure that what you say is in clear and formal English, without contractions, colloquial words, and most of all, mistakes.

2. Arguing for something

It’s no longer the case that you should just write about a text, being descriptive and balanced about the author’s opinions – now you need to argue your case! Your essay should have a clear line of reasoning where each point builds from the previous, and where you are confidently asserting your opinions and critical analysis. This doesn’t mean that you forget about the counter-arguments though, as these are also crucial to proving your point!

3. Academic writing requirements

All universities will require you to write using certain specifications, such as 1.5 or double spacing, size 12 font in a particular style, including a title page, etc. These are things that you should check with your professor or department about before you start writing, so that you’re absolutely sure what to do! Some professors can fail students for forgetting something as simple as your name, so remember to follow all the requirements!

4. Plagiarism

Plagiarism is taken extremely seriously and in some cases if you copy someone else’s work without proper referencing you can fail the whole course. For this reason, you need to keep track of all the sources that you have used whilst writing your essay, so that you can put them into a bibliography at the end. A good way to do this is to use bibme.org, and create citations in the right format as you go, then copy the whole bibliography at the end. It’s also important to remember that each university may use a different type of referencing style – there’s ones such as Chicago, APA, Harvard… and many more.

Step 1: Introduction

The introduction is often the first step to writing an essay, and some universities make you write an introduction or proposal before you get the green light to go ahead and write your whole essay. If the introduction isn’t clear and focused, then the person reading your essay won’t know what you want to say, and you’ll risk confusing them and not being able to write your actual essay!

To write a great introduction, there are a few key parts to include:

  • An overview of the subject and context of the essay
  • The thesis statement
  • How you will go about proving your thesis statement
  • The main points that you will make in each section (if you include sections)

In your introduction you should aim to introduce everything that you are going to say so that the reader doesn’t get a surprise later on, but not explain every point that you will make. This means that the introduction of your essay will vary in length depending on the length of your paper. Very short papers of around 1000 words will only have a short paragraph to introduce the topic and thesis statement, as you will be able to explain everything else later on in the essay.

An example of a short introduction could be:

The complex notion of agency – how individuals build their own life worlds in a calculated way – comes to the fore in analysing social media and how we are able to scale our sociality, that is, changing the group or individual to whom we are communicating, and the extent of public or private communication. My use of social media application Snapchat on a near-daily basis enables me to communicate with different people at different levels of intimacy, most of whom are in different parts of the world. This essay will explore how Snapchat allows me to reach different social groups, how certain features enable the creation of boundaries, and what can happen when content is shared on unintended scales.

Step 2: Writing the body paragraphs

If you studied English in high school, the Anglo-Saxon way of writing prescribes that each paragraph should only be making ONE point. This means that your paragraphs shouldn’t be too long (absolutely no more than a page, double spaced).

If you have planned effectively then you should only need to work on the writing of the essay, and you don’t need to work on coming up with ideas. Use the plan, and follow what you have decided to write about, and ensure that you keep the structure that you have planned out previously.

How to write a good paragraph

Paragraphs are like making a hamburger the way you like it – they have some basic things like a burger and a bun, some sauce, but there are all sorts of other things that you can add when you get good at making them.

The basic things to include in your paragraphs are the following:

  • An introductory sentence to introduce the topic that the paragraph will be about and flow on from the previous paragraph
  • A point – you need to actually assert something that contributes to what you want to say!
  • Some evidence, examples, opinions, explanations… something to make sure that you aren’t just making it all up and don’t know what you are talking about
  • A closing sentence to tie up what you have said in the paragraph.

These are the crucial things to include in a paragraph, and when you start to develop a good writing style you will be able to draw from your understanding of writing and the text that you are writing about to change these up and add different things to the paragraphs.

Here’s an example of a good paragraph:

The dual-process theory has been researched by many cognitive scientists, including Evans (1984, 1989), Reber (1993) and Sloman (1996); each coming up with a slightly different way to explain the two mental processing systems in the brain. System one, or the heuristic system, is comprised of a set of subsystems which involve instinctual behaviour, learning through association, and rapid, intuitive decisions. It is the more emotional system, and because of its intuitive nature, it is more likely to base its decisions on previous experience, than on a rational calculation of the possible outcomes and the expected reward. System two, or the analytic system, on the other hand, is responsible for rational and analytic thinking, using the working memory in order to create hypothetical situations and plan out their results. This system is likely to use the descriptive statistics given in order to make a financial decision in the experiment described in section one. We can then begin to analyse the results from the experiment using the idea of two systems working in tandem in the brain.

As you can see, it contains all the necessary components for a good paragraph, and the final sentence links to what the next paragraph will be about. This is really important to create a FLOW to your essay.

Step 3: Conclusion

Your conclusion should be a restatement of your main points, and should not add anything new to your arguments or ideas. The point of the conclusion is to summarise the points that you have made, and finalise the argument. If a reader read only the conclusion, they should know what your points were, and have a basic idea of how you arrived at these points.

Therefore, you should include the following things in your conclusion:

  • A restatement of your thesis statement, in the form of “I have shown that” (or words to this effect)
  • A summary of your argument
  • What your main examples or sources were – who enabled you to write what you did?

An example of an effective conclusion is below:

The ideal education system may seem far-fetched and slightly ambiguous, and this is understandable. The current idea of education, and the perceived importance of education in the development and growth of young New Zealanders I believe has not yet reached the level required for a curriculum change to be seen as acceptable by the general population. As I have shown in section one, plagiarism is a problem that requires our attention, especially because students who do plagiarise do so without meeting the educational outcomes set in New Zealand. If the prevalence of plagiarism in New Zealand high schools is to be reduced, clear pedagogical strategies need to be adopted in order to achieve this goal. As I have demonstrated, it will not be solved by increased punishment or teaching students about the immorality of plagiarism, whilst the education system they are in allows for an environment of rote-learning and repetition. The educational outcomes explored in section two will be better achieved by an increase in creativity and conceptual thought in the curriculum, namely through project-based assignments and students taking more authority over their own learning. Plagiarism is a problem, and it is a problem that is solvable, if we are willing to change our ideas about education.

Points to note

Word economy and diction

There are many ways to get your point across, but which is the most effective?

When writing essays, you want to be as concise as possible, and choose the words that best fit what you are trying to say. Look at the differences between the two sentences below:

The writer uses various techniques such as a metaphor to show the message that what we strive for in life doesn’t always end up happening.

The writer uses a metaphor to convey that our ambitions do not always become reality.

Can you see the difference between the sentences? They say the same thing, but the second one uses a much more concise style, and uses words that better express what the student is trying to say. It sounds more “academic” and will make your writing more fluent and clear.

At the same time, don’t use a word that is ten letters when a four-letter word would work just as well! You don’t want to be repetitive or lazy with your word choice, and you don’t want the meaning to be lost because you’re using a really long word that doesn’t quite fit.

Don’t be discouraged if you can’t write like this overnight – it takes time and practice to be able to clearly express your ideas. One of the best ways to develop your vocabulary and writing style is to read books – you’ll learn new words and also learn about different writing styles!

Some possible words that you can use to vary your vocabulary choices (use with caution as they all have slightly different meanings!):

Shows – conveys, gives the impression, educates, yields, establishes, reveals
Think – believe, understand ___ to be, conclude, surmise, suppose
So – therefore, thus, consequently, hence, then
Says – expresses, communicates, alleges, suggests, remarks, mentions, maintains, declares

Academic Writing Style

This is perhaps one of the biggest challenges for students to get their heads around. How do I sound formal and important when writing about my topic?

Some people write like they talk, and this usually results in a conversational style of essay. It doesn’t sound very academic because the way that you are writing is for a lackadaisical and non-specific way of explaining things. It will sound fluffy!

One of the solutions to this problem is to read more academic styles of writing and work on copying these styles as you practice developing your own style. There’s no one quick fix, but here are some possible ways to help!