Student Toolkit: How to Write an Essay

Guest Editor Bradford A. Rogers

Whether you're attending college, pursuing your online education, or maintaining a career, written communication skills are a critical key for success. In this addition to the Online Degree Navigator Student's Toolkit, we'll discuss academic essay writing. Follow these 5 simple steps below, and you'll have no problem trucking through that 10 page research paper or any other writing assignment.

1) Read the Prompt Carefully

If you are are given more than one prompt to choose from, don't feel compelled to choose one right away – think through two or three of the options and weigh the costs and benefits of tackling each one. Once you have decided on a prompt, carefully consider what the prompt is asking and how you would like to go about answering that question. It may be helpful to sit down for five minutes and write freely about the topic to flesh out some of your ideas and in what direction you would like to take them.

2) Do Your Research

After selecting a prompt and fleshing out some ideas for exploration, thoroughly research everything you can pertaining to the prompt. If the prompt involves analysis of a book or an article, read through it carefully. Read through once to skim through the material and to familiarize yourself with the work's arguments, and read through a second time, much closer, to take the time to catalog quotes that may be helpful for inclusion in your paper's argument. If the assignment involves other veins of research, do an internet search on the topic and browse through the extant discourse on the web. This will help you get an idea of the alternative arguments and additional information for your topic that may be out there. But, as with all internet research, be careful about the credibility of your sources. Keep track of what you come across, and double check all information for accuracy.

3) Don't Forget to Outline

After compiling all of the necessary research information, you'll be ready to put your outline together. Writing an outline is possibly the most beneficial thing that you can do for your essay writing, and as such is a step that should certainly not be overlooked. Every outline should start with an Introduction section and end with a Conclusion section, with the paper's main argument points in between. Do your best to break down the requisite components of your argument into three or more distinct sections. This will help you focus on all of the relevant information you'll need for each point and allow for a smooth transition between parts of your argument. Once you've decided on how you want to break down your argument, make your outline more detailed bit by bit. Break each argument section into further sections, doing your best to organize your information in a way that will be most digestible for the reader. Then, begin organizing your research information by plugging in relevant points or quotes under the appropriate sections in your outline. Always be careful to avoid any sort of plagiarism (check out Natalie's plagiarism guide here).

4) Write a ROUGH Draft

If you're happy with your outline, you should have a pretty good idea of what your paper will look like, and you're ready to start the draft. For some, it is easiest to write from this point by starting a new document and using the outline as a roadmap to work through paragraph by paragraph. This strategy works great if you prefer to think through your writing linearly, but can be problematic if you are hazy on certain points of your argument, but have other parts of it worked out clearly. If that is the case, then don't be afraid to work on whatever part of the essay in whatever order you'd like or to even just continue detailing your outline until it takes paragraph form. Regardless of how you approach the draft, remember that it is only the draft - don't let yourself get hung up on getting everything perfect the first time around. You'll have time while your editing to fine tune each word choice and paragraph structure. Instead focus on getting the ideas out of your head and on to the paper.

5) Editize and Finalize

Now you're ready to edit. Read through your paper carefully as many times as you can to ensure that everything in your paper is in place. Check for spelling or grammar errors, but also think critically about your argument and how you would approach it as a discriminating reader. If you can, get someone to proofread your paper for you. Having a fresh set of eyes on the paper will help reveal any writing errors that may have been overlooked by your own tired eyes after hours of writing. If they are as happy with your paper as you are, then you're ready to turn it in. Congratulations and enjoy your celebratory post-essay nap.