The Helpful Essay Writing Guide: Structure, Outline, Tips and Format

1. What is an Essay?

In the modern education-centered world, every student has to learn the basics of essay writing starting with school. It doesn’t matter whether they want to proceed with their education further than that, entering college or university — essay is an inevitable part of any kind of studies, even the most basic ones. So, how can it be defined?

Essay is a relatively short piece of academic-level writing dedicated to a specific topic and area, with an individual focus. It’s divided into many different types but each of them has to follow an identical set of rules. They are related to academic language, formatting, and content quality.    

2. Purpose and Importance of Essay Writing

The purpose of essay lies in informing a certain audience, such as teachers, classmates, or just people interested in a studied topic, about something. There are different types of essays and each of them has a narrow field of focus. It doesn’t have to revolve around a strictly academic theme, especially when a person is new to essay writing.

For example, you might want to share your personal views on what a future might look like in fifty years, and provided that your work is written according to the set academic rules, it’ll be regarded as a proper essay. So, essays can be personal, scientific, etc., but regardless of what kind of it you’re writing, the basic rules stay the same, just as the informative purpose that every essay carries.

Why is writing so important, though, to the point where you can’t graduate without composing a good dozen of academic-level essays? The answer is quite simple: when composing a paper, you acquire essential skills as well as knowledge that will be critical in several spheres of your life at once.

Each of us has their own talents. Some are good at Math while others forget even the simplest notions of calculations as soon as they leave class. Some love literature while others can’t remember the characters of the book they’ve just read. Skills received after essay writing, on the other hand, stay with you forever, no matter what.

  • First, essay writing develops critical thinking skills. Even if you’re writing a paper on a seemingly simple, personal topic, you are still fulfilling the goal of informing your audience about something. In order to do it, you need to develop at least some persuasive abilities, and it happens when you are trying to support and promote your point of view. For that, you think of how to present your topic in the most attractive way, what to say to the audience to sway their opinion, and so on. Sure, some of us are better at persuasion than others, but the more essays you write, the better skills you get. It’s a gradual and almost unnoticeable experience, but if you compare your critical thinking abilities before essay writing and months or years later, you’re guaranteed to see a stark difference.   
  • The second important point is that by writing academic papers, you’re learning how to express yourself. You have to explore many drastically different topics in the course of education because almost every subject requires essay writing. As a result, you’re forced to study scholar sources to know more about your theme and use them for support. Much of what you’ll discover will shift your opinion in some ways, going as far as changing your worldview in regard to certain aspects. You will learn new things, rethink some of your attitudes, and maybe even discover something unexpected about yourself.
  • Finally, essay writing develops an ability to express one’s thoughts in a coherent and clear manner. Sure, if you refuse to make any effort, you might not move far, but generally, professors demand constant improvement and teach their students how to achieve it. So, if you compare your old and new essays, you’re very likely to see how much better your writing style has become.

All these elements are useful on all stages of life. Sharp critical thinking skills, new insights, and ability to say what you mean in a perfectly clear way are valued both in professional and personal areas. Essay writing develops them all slowly but steadily.

3. Essay Types

What kinds of essays exist? There is a huge variety of them, each serving a specific goal. Let’s regard ten most common types and see what they entail.

  • Argumentative essay. This type of writing means that you have to choose a position you support, prove why it’s valid, view possible arguments of opposition, and refute them. All four components are obligatory — otherwise, your essay won’t get a good mark. The goal here is to make your audience agree with your opinion even if initially, they were skeptical about it, and provide as many facts as you can.
  • Persuasive essay. It’s similar to argumentative type but at the same time, it’s a bit simpler. You don’t have to view the opinion of opposition here, although you can do it if you want. Persuasive essay requires choosing a side and proving why it’s the right one. Specific facts are good but here, you might also appeal to emotional side of your audience. So, persuasive essay is a softer version of an argumentative one.  
  • Narrative essay. This is the most creative type of task. You’re telling a story of some real or made-up situation here. The goal is to show how something meaningful happened and regard it on an emotional level, describing feelings and experiences rather than facts.
  • Descriptive essay. In this type, you have to describe some concept or event. No analysis and no personal input are needed: you are merely providing an objective, impersonal description of something.  
  • Cause and effect essay. Here, you have to explain what happened, why it happened, and how it happened. First, you identify some phenomenon — for example, underage drinking. Then you explain what causes it and what effects it has.   
  • Process essay. This paper is also impersonal and objective. You should merely describe how something is done step by step, using chronological sequence. For example, you can describe a recipe of some dish. Tell audience how it’s cooked using step 1, step 2, step 3, etc.
  • Expository essay. It’s also known as critical thinking essay. Here, you should conduct a research and then analyze the facts you obtained, making a conclusion based on it.
  • Compare/contrast essay. For this type of essay, you’ll need at least two objects. It can be artworks, literature stories, or anything else. Establish differences and similarities between these two things. Explore them and explain how they differ from one another as well as what unites them.
  • Review essay. You should pick something like article, book, speech, or movie, and then evaluate it. This evaluation should be critical. Remember, it’s not just a review you post on some informal book or movie site, it’s an academic essay. So, you must be ruled by facts, not personal feelings, providing adequate and rational assessment.  
  • Application essay. This is one of the most important essay types. You submit it when you’re trying to get into some college or university, and based on how well you write it, you’ll be either accepted or rejected. So, in most cases, you must show why you should be accepted, mentioning your personal as well as educational achievements, qualities, and interests.  

4. Basic Essay Structure

Regardless of how many types of different essays exist, there is a set of the same rules that all of them share. The first major one is structure. Check the components presented below and keep in mind that each essay must have them, whether it’s semi-formal and personal or formal and scientific.

  • Introduction. Depending on the essay length, introduction takes about 1-2 paragraphs. It’s a crucial part of your work because it helps readers understand if they’re interested in reading it further. In this section, you introduce your topic by defining it, giving it some background, and explaining its relevance. Start with a hook, which is something intriguing, like rhetorical question or a piece of surprising statistics. No need for some detailed explanations or analysis here, just mention some basic facts to interest your audience.
  • Thesis. This is a critical part of every essay. Many students misunderstand what thesis is, so it’s important to say what it should and shouldn’t have. Thesis is an argumentative claim that is presented as the last sentence of introduction. It must state your specific position on the issue and mention all main facts that are going to be discussed in the body. At the same time, thesis shouldn’t have phrases like “this paper” or “I will discuss…” Start with the statement itself. Make a claim that you’ll be proving and that some people might disagree with.
  • Body. This is the essence of your paper, its very backbone. Each paragraph must be focused on one fact from thesis, preferably in the same sequence. Create an opening sentence that reveals what’s going to be discussed in a paragraph. It must be directly related to thesis. Then introduce your fact as well as evidence proving it. End the paragraph with a closing sentence that creates a logical link with the next one or summarizes everything that has been discussed. Remember, maximum paragraph length shouldn’t exceed 200 words, which is approximately 2/3 of the page.   
  • Conclusion. Be careful here, avoid using some new information. Summarize everything you have proved in the body. Repeat thesis, just use different words. Make a final conclusive statement that can be seen as the main result of your research.  

5. Essay Outline and How to Complete It

Many students grimace as soon as they hear the word ‘outline’, seeing it as something unnecessary and time-consuming. For those who have excellent essay-writing skills, this might be so, but for the majority, outline is actually extremely useful. With its help, you can list all main points along with sub-points that will be discussed. This way, in case you lose a sense of direction later, when you are writing your paper, outline will help you out. You can see what you’ve planned and stay on track. Unless your professor requires it to be submitted together with a paper, you can have a semi-formal or even informal outline — as long as it’s understandable to you, it’s all good.

So, how to complete it?

  1. Start with choosing a topic. When you know what exactly you’ll be researching, divide it into parts. What will be the brief piece of background you’ll focus on? Write it down in introduction section. Most importantly, compose your thesis right away. Determine how many parts it has. For example, take a look at this thesis for the process essay: “The most effective way of caring for an adopted pet entails creating appropriate conditions for it, spending time with it, and paying attention to its unique needs.”  It lists three steps, which are technically three parts. If you want, you can have one or two more parts revealing why people choose to adopt pets and/or why such pets have special needs. All in all, it means that you will have between 3-5 body paragraphs.
  2. Mark body paragraph 1. You can have a detailed outline — in this case, compose an approximate opening sentence, mention what main fact from thesis you will be focusing on, and add a closing sentence. If you’d like to have a less detailed outline, just mention the paragraph’s essence, meaning the central point of discussion. Do the same with all other paragraphs.
  3. Write down a conclusion section and state the final point here that would reflect the purpose of your essay. Don’t repeat your thesis word by word, though. That’s it, your outline is ready. When you look at it now, you should be able to see a skeleton of the essay. It will keep you grounded throughout the writing process.  Don’t worry about changing some points, though, if it feels right. Remember, argumentative, synthesis, informative essay outline isn’t set in stone, it’s just an approximate idea of what your final paper will look like.

6. How to Choose a Topic for an Essay

Choosing topic for an essay is the most important part of the entire writing process. The best advice here is to write what you’re sincerely passionate about, something you’re deeply interested in. Personal investment tends to pay off because it guarantees that you’ll approach the essay with interest and genuine desire to achieve some results. Brainstorm and take notes before you settle on something specific.

For instance, you were assigned an argumentative essay and you can’t come up with any topic right away. Think, what was your last argument with your parents or friends? Maybe you fought someone in YouTube comment section or had a heated discussion on Tumblr. What was the topic? If it evoked true emotions in you, then it’s a great subject for research!

Things are a bit difficult when you’re limited by some area that professor or your major has imposed on you. If you’re interested in the TV show ‘Hannibal’ but your subject is literature, uniting the two can be difficult. Doesn’t mean that it’s impossible, though! Twist the topic until it fits. Discuss the books that the show is based on, for example, or pick the favorite book of one of the characters. You can make even the most boring topic interesting if you want it strongly enough!

If you can’t come up with anything, it’s still not a reason to worry. Google what’s trendy and up-to-date. There are many sites offering different essay topics, so look through their lists. Sooner or later, you’re bound to find a theme you’ll feel interested in. After it’s done, here’s what you should do.

  • Do research to figure out what position you’re going to take and if there are enough credible sources that you’ll be able to use to support it.
  • Narrow your topic down if it’s still too broad. Remember, you have to focus on something very specific for best results.
  • Confirm it with a teacher. This way, you’ll be able to make sure that you have your supervisor’s support and that there won’t be any unpleasant surprises.  

7. Essay Writing Step by Step

Learning all pieces of advice related to essay writing is good, but it can also be pretty confusing. There is too much to remember, too many little things that can be easily missed or forgotten. To eliminate all chances of confusion, we’re prepared a guide of essay writing that will take you through all required steps and processes. It’s based on tips provided above.

  1. Analyze the prompt you’ve been given. Even if every student got the same one, all essays will be still different, so formulate your individual approach.
  2. Choose a narrow topic based on the prompt. Determine what you’d like to discuss or research.
  3. Do research. Explore what other people say about this topic. It will assist in choosing a perspective you’ll be taking during essay writing.
  4. Find credible sources. It’s very important, especially if you don’t want to spend hours on trying to find at least something to support your view. Credible sources entail articles from academic journals, officially published books, or sites ending with .edu, .gov, and some others. Note that sources shouldn’t be older than 5-7 years.
  5. Develop thesis. Think what your paper is about and form its main claim.
  6. Complete an outline. Refer to the section above to see how to do it.
  7. Make a draft. It’s optional but it can be a great way to test whether you like where your essay is going.
  8. Edit essay after it’s completed. Don’t worry about moving/removing/adding ideas, it’s still allowed at this stage.
  9. Proofread essay. Small typos and missing words are almost certainly there. Read everything carefully out loud or to your friend.
  10. Format it properly, adding all running titles, margins, page numbers, etc.
  11. Check for plagiarism. Is every fact that’s not your own cited? Did you copy something directly without mentioning who wrote it?
  12. Make final edits if plagiarism has been found. If you’ve done all that, then your paper is finally ready to be submitted!

8. Tips for Effective Writing

The following tips for successful essay writing cover the remaining rules that are applied to all papers regardless of their type or size. Remember them and make sure to follow them whenever you start working on your academic tasks.

  • Don’t use personal pronouns and contractions. The only exception here is if the task entails writing a fictional story, a reflection, or if professor specifically requested it. In other cases, never use ‘I’, ‘we’, ‘our’, “us”, and so on. Instead of “in our days”, use “these days”. Same goes for contractions: use “will not”, not “won’t”, “are not”, not “aren’t”, etc. You should maintain a formal writing style in all circumstances, even if the topic you’re investigating is more personal than a scholarly one.
  • Avoid phrasal verbs and keep passive voice to a minimum. These are also essential rules of academic language.  Phrasal verbs aren’t formal, so they have no place in any paper. Think of how to replace them. Same applies to passive voice. You won’t be able to avoid it entirely but do it when you can.    
  • Create smooth transitions between the paragraphs. It can be done with the help of linking words as well as proper closing sentences. “Furthermore”, “in addition”, “thus”, and other similar expressions build logical links between ideas. Don’t overuse them, though. They look best in closing sentences.  
  • Integrate your evidence carefully. Don’t throw everything into one paragraph. Sandwich structure works greatly here: make a claim, support it with a fact from some source, then explain how it works from a bigger perspective.
  • Write the introduction and conclusion after the body. It doesn’t work for everyone but it might be an efficient strategy for you. After creating a skeleton of an essay, it might be much easier to compose introduction along with conclusion because you already have all facts.
  • Start writing early. Even if you write one section per day, it’ll help you complete the task before deadline. This way, you’ll have additional time to re-read or edit it, and the process will ironically seem much less time consuming than if you are to write an entire essay in one day.   

9. Essay Formatting

Another general rule of essay writing lies in proper formatting. Each essay has to follow a certain academic formatting style depending on a discipline and/or professor’s preferences. There are four most common ones that we’ll review below.

  • MLA. It doesn’t have a title page, so you should create a heading with your name, subject, and date in the left upper corner. Start writing essay immediately after that. Page numbers should be placed in a running title with “Last Name”. It’ll look like this: Last Name 1. Use 1 inch margins on all sides. In terms of in-text citations, you’ll need an “author’s last name page number” format. For instance: (Carrol 24). After essay’s conclusion, create a “Works Cited” page where you list all sources used in a paper.
  • APA. Create a title page with a running title. It should have a title of your paper in the left corner and page number in the right one.  Repeat essay title in the middle of this first page as well, making it centered. Include your name and institution affiliation there. 1 inch margins are also needed. In-text citations should contain author’s last name, date of source creation, as well as page number if you’ve quoted something directly: (Williamson, 2014, p. 33). In the end, create a “References” list.
  • Chicago/Turabian. Title page is needed here. Mention the paper’s title (all letters in Caps) in its middle and a little below; point out your name, subject, and date, all centered. Page number should be placed in the upper right corner and 1 inch margins should be present from all sides. This style requires the use of footnotes in in-text citations, so check online templates or ask professor to provide one. “Bibliography” should entail all used sources.
  • Harvard. Title page should be present. Place your essay’s title (in Caps) in the middle of it. Make it centered. Below, after skipping a few lines, write down your name. Further below, mention course, professor’s name, university, city, and date. Running head is needed as well: put your paper’s title in the right upper corner, skip some spaces, then add page number. It should look like this: “Book Review   1”. 1 inch margins should cover all sides. For in-text citations, follow this sample: (Soyer 2018, p. 26). Sources require a “Reference List”

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