Writing an essay often seems to be a dreaded task among students. Whether the essay is for a scholarship, a class, or maybe even a contest, many students often find the task overwhelming. While an essay is a large project, there are many steps a student can take that will help break down the task into manageable parts. Following this process is the easiest way to draft a successful essay, whatever its purpose might be.
According to Kathy Livingston’s Guide to Writing a Basic Essay, there are seven steps to writing a successful essay:
1. Pick a topic.
You may have your topic assigned, or you may be given free reign to write on the subject of your choice. If you are given the topic, you should think about the type of paper that you want to produce. Should it be a general overview of the subject or a specific analysis? Narrow your focus if necessary.
If you have not been assigned a topic, you have a little more work to do. However, this opportunity also gives you the advantage to choose a subject that is interesting or relevant to you. First, define your purpose. Is your essay to inform or persuade?
Once you have determined the purpose, you will need to do some research on topics that you find intriguing. Think about your life. What is it that interests you? Jot these subjects down.
Finally, evaluate your options. If your goal is to educate, choose a subject that you have already studied. If your goal is to persuade, choose a subject that you are passionate about. Whatever the mission of the essay, make sure that you are interested in your topic.
2. Prepare an outline or diagram of your ideas.
In order to write a successful essay, you must organize your thoughts. By taking what’s already in your head and putting it to paper, you are able to see connections and links between ideas more clearly. This structure serves as a foundation for your paper. Use either an outline or a diagram to jot down your ideas and organize them.
To create a diagram, write your topic in the middle of your page. Draw three to five lines branching off from this topic and write down your main ideas at the ends of these lines. Draw more lines off these main ideas and include any thoughts you may have on these ideas.
If you prefer to create an outline, write your topic at the top of the page. From there, begin to list your main ideas, leaving space under each one. In this space, make sure to list other smaller ideas that relate to each main idea. Doing this will allow you to see connections and will help you to write a more organized essay.
3. Write your thesis statement.
Now that you have chosen a topic and sorted your ideas into relevant categories, you must create a thesis statement. Your thesis statement tells the reader the point of your essay. Look at your outline or diagram. What are the main ideas?
Your thesis statement will have two parts. The first part states the topic, and the second part states the point of the essay. For instance, if you were writing about Bill Clinton and his impact on the United States, an appropriate thesis statement would be, “Bill Clinton has impacted the future of our country through his two consecutive terms as United States President.”
Another example of a thesis statement is this one for the “Winning Characteristics” Scholarship essay: “During my high school career, I have exhibited several of the “Winning Characteristics,” including Communication Skills, Leadership Skills and Organization Skills, through my involvement in Student Government, National Honor Society, and a part-time job at Macy’s Department Store.”
4. Write the body.
The body of your essay argues, explains or describes your topic. Each main idea that you wrote in your diagram or outline will become a separate section within the body of your essay.
Each body paragraph will have the same basic structure. Begin by writing one of your main ideas as the introductory sentence. Next, write each of your supporting ideas in sentence format, but leave three or four lines in between each point to come back and give detailed examples to back up your position. Fill in these spaces with relative information that will help link smaller ideas together.
5. Write the introduction.
Now that you have developed your thesis and the overall body of your essay, you must write an introduction. The introduction should attract the reader’s attention and show the focus of your essay.
Begin with an attention grabber. You can use shocking information, dialogue, a story, a quote, or a simple summary of your topic. Whichever angle you choose, make sure that it ties in with your thesis statement, which will be included as the last sentence of your introduction.
6. Write the conclusion.
The conclusion brings closure of the topic and sums up your overall ideas while providing a final perspective on your topic. Your conclusion should consist of three to five strong sentences. Simply review your main points and provide reinforcement of your thesis.
7. Add the finishing touches.
After writing your conclusion, you might think that you have completed your essay. Wrong. Before you consider this a finished work, you must pay attention to all the small details.
Check the order of your paragraphs. Your strongest points should be the first and last paragraphs within the body, with the others falling in the middle. Also, make sure that your paragraph order makes sense. If your essay is describing a process, such as how to make a great chocolate cake, make sure that your paragraphs fall in the correct order.
Review the instructions for your essay, if applicable. Many teachers and scholarship forms follow different formats, and you must double check instructions to ensure that your essay is in the desired format.
Finally, review what you have written. Reread your paper and check to see if it makes sense. Make sure that sentence flow is smooth and add phrases to help connect thoughts or ideas. Check your essay for grammar and spelling mistakes.
Congratulations! You have just written a great essay.
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Strategy in Practice
This guide provides resources and step-by-step directions for using the Idea, Citation, Explanation, Defense of Thesis (ICED) strategy, which allows students to strengthen body paragraphs through various elaboration exercises. After considering the purpose and composition of body paragraphs, students are introduced to the ICED acronym. Students then practice the "C and E" steps (citation and explanation) of the strategy independently and in small groups. Finally, students apply the ICED strategy to an essay they have previously written.
Students often struggle to provide concrete examples that demonstrate their understanding of the content being assessed and with connecting their ideas back to the focus of the paper. Students also assume too much of their reader and do not develop their individual ideas but rather replicate textbook information. Building on Newmans Theory of Intellectual Achievement as discussed in Sisserson, Manning, Knelper, and Jollieffes article, "Authentic Intellectual Achievement in Writing," higher order thinking skills and real-world examples and/or citations are necessary for students to cultivate their own composition style. Students must practice analyzing, synthesizing, and evaluating information to support their thesis/claim with real evidence.
This Strategy Guide offers criteria for elaboration that dovetailed nicely with the new core curricular standards, mainly drawing evidence from literary or informational texts to support analysis, reflection, and research. The focus of ICED is supporting the claim through reasonable evidence, i.e., a citation which can come from literature studied, personal observations, or concrete real world examples. Then students must explain the citation using key ideas and details, another core standard. Though somewhat formulaic in nature, the ICED technique offers students a framework for thinking critically and for developing their own ideas with confidence.
Sisserson, Kendra. Carmen K. Manning, Annie Knelper, and David Jollieffe. Authentic Intellectual Achievement in Writing. English Journal. 2002 July.
This strategy works best when introduced early in the year, perhaps after the students have submitted a writing sample, allowing for modeling of the steps of ICED using an actual prompt and authentic student responses. Scaffolding this technique further enhances students ability and confidence.
- Have students journal about what they think the purpose of a body paragraph is and the strategies they use when they compose body paragraphs. Next, allow them to pair-share their ideas and compare the strategies they use. As a class, put the ideas on the board for all to evaluate. After looking over the class list, have students identify what they think are the best components of an effective body paragraph.
- Using ICED: The Key to Elaboration handout, introduce students to the acronym and connect the ideas back to the student-made list. Allow them time to group the techniques on the board and sort/pair each to one of the four elements of ICED. Then, create a master ICED list that combines the students ideas and ICED as a review or checklist for writing body paragraphs.
- Independently or for homework, have students complete the C and E in the ICED Format handout.
Here you can demonstrate how straightforward ICED is and how it can be used in all academic disciplines. The handout is intentionally rudimentary so that students with all levels of writing ability can see how elaboration works and how it expands on their original idea to add greater depth and clarity. You may even choose to add examples that are discipline-specific to enhance the universality of the technique.
- The following day, give students the opportunity to share their best example of the C and E in the ICED Format homework on the board.
- Next, share the Student Samples Modeling Effective ICED Paragraphs handout. See The C-Rule writing prompt and The Crucible literary analysis. As a class, discuss how the student models elaborate on their topic sentence, thereby developing the thesis more fully. Refer back to the list from yesterday and discuss the successful traits of the paragraph. For more advanced students, show the college level example of ICED.
- In groups, have students discuss the importance of elaboration in all types of writing in all subjects. As a class, create a Top 10 list for elaboration.
- Using the Building a Fully ICED Body Paragraph: A Revision Exercise handout, have students choose a previous essay to review and to revise using ICED. After completing the revision, students can critique each other through peer conference.
Utilizing authentic samples from students is an extremely successful method to break down and to model ICED. Analyzing actual student essays together as a class allows students to begin to recognize what is lacking in their writing and simultaneously gives them a strategy to improve it.
Grades 9 – 12 | Lesson Plan | Minilesson
Draft Letters: Improving Student Writing through Critical Thinking
Draft letters ask students to think critically about their writing on a specific assignment before submitting their work to a reader. This lesson explains and provides models for the strategy.
Grades 6 – 12 | Lesson Plan | Recurring Lesson
This lesson teaches students how to revise dull "telling" sentences into vivid, descriptive "showing" sentences.
Grades 9 – 12 | Lesson Plan | Minilesson
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