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

1. What is an Essay?

In our modern education-centered world, every student has to learn the basics of essay writing in school. It doesn’t matter whether or not they want to proceed with their education further, entering college or university — essays are an inevitable part of any kind of study, even the most basic ones. So, what exactly is an essay?

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

2. The Purpose and Importance of Essay Writing

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

For example, you might want to share your personal views on what the future might look like in 50 years, and provided that your work is written according to the set academic rules, it will be regarded as a proper essay. Essays can be personal, scientific, or otherwise: regardless of what kind you’re writing, the basic rules stay the same, just as the informative purpose of the essay stays the same.

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 the knowledge that will be critical in many areas of your life.

Each of us has our own talents. Some are good at Math while others forget even the simplest 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 obtained through essay writing, on the other hand, stay with you forever, no matter what.

  • Firstly, essay writing develops critical thinking skills. Even if you write a paper on a seemingly simple, personal topic, you still fulfill the goal of informing your audience about something. In order to do so, you need to develop at least some persuasive abilities, and this happens when you try to support and promote your point of view. For that, you must consider how to present your topic in the most attractive way, what to say to the audience to sway their opinion, and so on. True, some of us are better at persuasion than others; but the more essays you write, the better skills you will develop. It is a gradual and almost unnoticeable experience, but if you compare your critical thinking abilities before essay writing with said abilities months or years later, you are guaranteed to see a stark difference.   
  • Secondly, by writing academic papers, you learn how to express yourself. You must explore many drastically different topics in the course of education because almost every subject requires essay writing. As a result, you are forced to study scholarly sources to know more about your theme and use them for support. Much of what you will discover will shift your opinion in some ways, going as far as changing your worldview in regard to certain topics. You will learn new things, rethink some of your attitudes, and maybe even discover something unexpected about yourself.
  • Finally, essay writing develops the 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. If you compare your old and new essays, you are likely to see how much better your writing style has become.

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

3. Essay Types

What kinds of essays exist? There is a huge variety, each serving a specific goal. Let’s take a look at ten of the 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 is valid, view possible opposing arguments, and refute them. All four components are obligatory—otherwise, your essay won’t receive a good mark. The goal here is to convince your audience to agree with you, even if initially they are skeptical, and provide as many facts as you can.
  • Persuasive essay. It’s similar to the argumentative type but at the same time, it is a bit simpler. You do not have to discuss the opinion of the opposition here, although you may do so if desired. Persuasive essays require choosing a side and proving why it is correct. Specific facts are good, but you might also choose to appeal to the emotional side of your audience. Persuasive essays may be seen as a softer version of argumentative essays.  
  • Narrative essay. This is the most creative type. Here, you tell a story of some real or made-up situation. The goal is to show how something meaningful happened and consider 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, identify a phenomenon—for example, underage drinking. Then explain what causes it and what effects it has.   
  • Process essay. This paper is also impersonal and objective. With it, you merely describe how something is done step by step, using a chronological sequence. For example, you may describe a recipe. Describe the process using step 1, step 2, step 3, etc.
  • Expository essayThis is also known as a critical thinking essay. Here, you will conduct research and then analyze the facts you obtained, reaching a conclusion based on the research.
  • Compare/contrast essay. For this type of essay, you will need at least two subjects. It may be artwork, literature stories, or anything else that can be compared. Establish differences and similarities between the two. Explore them and explain how they differ from one another as well as what unites them.
  • Review essay. You should pick something like an article, book, speech, or movie, and then evaluate it. This evaluation should be critical. Remember, this is not simply a review you post on an informal book or movie site—it is an academic essay. Rule 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 are trying to get into a college or university. Based on how well you write it, you will be either accepted or rejected. In most cases, you must show why you should be accepted, mentioning your personal as well as your educational achievements, qualities, and interests.  

4. Basic Essay Structure

Regardless of how many types of essays exist, there is a set of rules that all of them share. The first major rule is about structure. Check the list 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, the introduction takes one to two paragraphs. It is a crucial part of your work because it helps readers decide if they are interested in reading further. In this section, introduce your topic by defining it, giving it some background, and explaining its relevance. Start with a hook—something intriguing, like a rhetorical question or a piece of surprising statistics. No need for detailed explanations or analysis here; just mention enough basic facts to interest your audience.
  • Thesis Statement. This is a critical part of every essay. Many students misunderstand what the thesis statement is, so it is important to clarify what it should and should not have. The thesis statement is an argumentative claim that is presented as the last sentence of the introduction. It must state your specific position on the issue and mention all the main facts you will discuss in the body of the paper. At the same time, the thesis statement should not have phrases like “this paper” or “I will discuss…” Start with the statement itself. Make a claim that you intend to prove, one that some people might disagree with.
  • Body. This is the essence of your paper, its very backbone. Each paragraph must focus on one fact from the thesis statement, preferably in the same sequence. Design an opening sentence that describes what will be discussed in the paragraph. It must be directly related to the thesis statement. Then introduce your facts as well as the evidence supporting them. End the paragraph with a closing sentence that creates a logical link with the next one or summarizes what was written. Remember, the maximum paragraph length should not exceed 200 words, which is approximately two-thirds of the page.   
  • Conclusion. Be careful here. Avoid using new information. Summarize everything you have stated in the body. Repeat the thesis statement in a new way. Make a final conclusive statement that reflects 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 may be so; but for most, the outline is actually extremely useful. With its help, you can list all your main points along with sub-points that you plan to discuss. This way, in case you lose a sense of direction later during the writing process, the outline will guide you. You can see what you have planned and stay on track. Unless your professor requires an outline to be submitted with the paper, you can have a semi-formal or even an informal one—as long as it is understandable to you.

So, how to complete it?

  1. Choose a topic. When you know what you will research, divide it into parts. What will be the brief piece of background you focus on? Write it in the introduction section. Most importantly, compose your thesis statement immediately. Determine how many parts it has. Take a look at this thesis statement for a process essay: “The most effective way to care 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 or three parts. If you want, you can have one or two more parts covering why people choose to adopt pets and/or why pets have special needs. All in all, it means that you will have between three to five body paragraphs.
  2. Mark body paragraphs. You may choose to have a detailed outline for your body paragraphs. For example, compose an opening sentence, mention the main fact to focus on from the thesis statement, and add a closing sentence. If you want a less detailed outline, just mention the paragraph’s essence, the central point of discussion. Repeat for all other paragraphs.
  3. Write a conclusion. State the final point here that reflects the purpose of your essay. Do not repeat your thesis word for word, though.

That's it! Your outline is ready. When you look at it now, you should be able to see the skeleton of the essay. It will keep you grounded throughout the writing process. Do not worry about changing some points, though, if it feels right. Remember, argumentative, synthesis, and informative essay outline isn't set in stone. They are just an approximate idea of how your final paper will look.

6. How to Choose a Topic for an Essay

Choosing a 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 a genuine desire to achieve some results. Brainstorm and take notes before you settle on something specific.

Say you are assigned an argumentative essay and cannot come up with a topic right away. Think: what was your last argument with your parents or friends? Maybe you fought someone in the YouTube comment section or had a heated discussion on Tumblr. What was the topic? If it evoked strong emotions in you, it may be a great subject for research!

Things are a bit more difficult when you are limited by restrictions imposed by your professor or your major. If you are interested in the TV show Hannibal but your subject is literature, uniting the two can be difficult. That does not mean it is 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 cannot come up with anything, there is still no reason to worry. Google what is trendy and up-to-date. Many sites offer different essay topics, so look through their lists. Sooner or later, you are bound to find a theme you are interested in. Once you do, here is your next step.

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

7. Essay Writing Step by Step

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

  1. Analyze the prompt you received. Even if every student has the same one, all essays will be different, so formulate your individual approach.
  2. Choose a narrow topic based on the prompt. Determine what you want to discuss or research.
  3. Do research. Explore what other people say about this topic. It will assist in choosing the perspective you take.
  4. Find credible sources. This is vital, especially if you do not want to spend hours trying to find something to support your view. Credible sources include articles from academic journals, officially published books, or sites ending with domains like .edu or .gov. Note that sources should not be older than five to seven years.
  5. Develop a thesis statement. Consider what your paper is about and form its main claim.
  6. Complete an outline. Refer to the section above.
  7. Make a draft. This is optional, but it can be a great way to test whether or not you like where your essay is going.
  8. Edit the essay after it has been completed. Don’t worry about moving/removing/adding ideas, it’s still allowed at this stage.
  9. Proofread the essay. Small typos and missing words always happen. Read everything carefully aloud or to a friend.
  10. Format it properly, adding all running titles, margins, page numbers, etc.
  11. Check for plagiarism. Have you cited every fact that is not your own? Did you copy something directly without mentioning its author?
  12. Make final edits if plagiarism has been found. Once you have done all that, 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 these and be 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 the professor specifically allows it. In other cases, never use “I,” “we,” “our,” “us,” and so on. Instead of “in our days,” use “these days.” The same goes for contractions: use “will not” instead of “won’t,” “are not” instead of “aren’t,” etc. You should maintain a formal writing style in all circumstances, even if the topic you are investigating is more personal than scholarly.
  • 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. The same applies to passive voice. You won’t be able to avoid it entirely, but do so when you can.    
  • Create smooth transitions between paragraphs. Use linking words as well as proper closing sentences. “Furthermore,” “in addition,” “thus,” and other similar expressions build logical links between ideas. Do not overuse them, though. They work best in closing sentences.  
  • Integrate your evidence carefully. Don’t throw everything into one paragraph. Sandwich structure works well here: make a claim, support it with a fact from a credible source, then explain how it works from a bigger perspective.
  • Write the introduction and conclusion after the body. This does not work for everyone, but it might be an effective strategy for you. Once you have created the skeleton of an essay, it might then be easier to compose the introduction along with the conclusion since you already have all the facts.
  • Start writing early. Even if you write one section per day, it will help you complete the task before the deadline. You will have additional time to re-read or edit it, and the process will ironically seem much less time consuming than if you write the 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 the discipline and/or the professor’s preferences. We will review the four most common ones 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 an essay immediately after that. Page numbers should be placed in a running title with your last name, like this: Last Name 1. Use 1-inch margins on all sides. For in-text citations, use the author’s last name followed by the page number where the information was found. For example: (Carrol 24). After the essay’s conclusion, create a “Works Cited” page where you list all the sources used in the paper.
  • APA. Create a title page with a running title. Put the title of your paper in the left corner and the page number in the right corner. Repeat the essay title in the middle of the first page as well, centering it. Include your name and institution affiliation. This style uses 1-inch margins as well. In-text citations should contain the author’s last name and the date of source creation as well as the page number if you’ve quoted something directly: (Williamson, 2014, p. 33). In the end, create a “References” list.
  • Chicago/Turabian. A title page is needed here. Type the paper’s title (in all caps) slightly below the middle of the page; include your name, subject, and date, all centered. The page number should be placed in the upper right corner, and use 1-inch margins. This style requires the use of footnotes for in-text citations, so check online templates or ask your professor for one. The “Bibliography” at the end should list all used sources.
  • Harvard. A title page should be present. Place your essay’s title (in all caps) centered in the middle of the page. Skip a few lines then write your name, the course, your professor’s name, the university, the city, and the date. A running head is needed as well: put your paper’s title in the right upper corner, add some spaces, then insert the page number. It should look like this: “Book Review   1.” This uses 1-inch margins as well. For in-text citations, follow this sample: (Soyer 2018, p. 26). Sources must be displayed in a “Reference List” at the end.

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