When writing an academic, college-level essay, the first and most important step—even before brainstorming topics—is to determine the audience. While the audience might seem obvious (the professor), this isn’t always necessarily the case. Sometimes the professor might want you to frame your paper as if you are addressing your fellow classmates; other times he or she may want you to write to a scholarly audience that already has knowledge of the subject matter. If you are unsure, ask first before you begin to brainstorm topics.
In fact, at any time during the process of prewriting, writing, and revising your essay, it’s always a good idea to contact your professor if you have any questions. If you’re not sure what the requirements are for the essay, it’s better to ask now than after you’ve put in a substantial amount of work on the project. Again, if the directions are unclear, ask! Your professor will be more sympathetic if you clear things up now, versus after you’ve turned in your paper. Also, if you are worried about conflicts with the due date, speak up as early as possible to alert your professor, not a few hours before your paper is due.
The length of the brainstorming stage will depend upon the level of direction your professor has given you about the essay. If the topic is already predetermined, this prewriting process may take less time than it would an open-ended assignment or an independent research project. But even if your topic is already established, you will likely still need to narrow it down to a specific thesis statement. Make sure you start brainstorming early, whether you are writing a five-paragraph essay or a major research paper.
Next, determine your sources. Once again, this will be determined by the nature of the assignment. You may have been given the required sources by your professor or you may be responsible for doing independent research for sources outside of the class syllabus. Regardless, have an idea of what sources you need and where to find them, even if they change somewhat over the course of writing the essay.
Now you can outline your essay. Sometimes a formal outline will be required as part of the assignment. But even if it is not, having a map of where you want to go is essential. Establish the points you will need to make over the course of your essay. For a five-paragraph essay this will include an introduction, three body paragraphs, and a conclusion. Different essay formats will require different approaches, however. For a persuasive essay, you will need to deal with the opposition’s arguments as well as your own in favor of the proposal.
When writing your first draft, you will still be exploring what you need to say. Some people find it helpful to write their introductory paragraph last, rather than first, because they still don’t have a clear idea of what they want and need to articulate.
Now it’s time to revise your essay. Make sure that your ideas flow together in a logical manner. Look for any errors in grammar and punctuation. This may be when you write your real introduction or substantially revise your initial thesis. Your conclusion may also need additional work. Make sure that it truly sums up your essay and you have said everything you want and need to say. After your second draft, revise what you have written again (if you have time). Have a friend proofread it or take it to your university’s writing center for a second pair of eyes to look over it.
Writing a good essay takes time and preparation. But with practice, anyone can become a good writer. Writing is a skill and just like anything, with practice you will improve. Trust in the process and don’t give up!