How to write an essay: part 1

Essays are a very structured method of presenting a particular point of view.

How to write an essay remains a mystery to a lot of people! Putting all those ideas onto paper and presenting them as ‘an essay’ can be a daunting task for many people.  (Where do I start? How do I finish?)

Yet, it does not have to be so!  Very often, once the structure of how an essay is ‘supposed to’ be written is explained, writing one becomes easy, because there is a way to break the process down into very easily manageable steps.  However, not every person comes across a teacher who has taken the time to explain this structure and how to ‘get there’…

Not understanding the underlying structure of an essay makes ‘writing essays’, well, difficult (especially Aspies).  Here, I would like to ‘fix’ this:  essays are so very structured that everyone – especially people who do not deem themselves to be ‘writers’ in other ways, can compose effective essays.

There are two fundamental things that need to be understood about ‘essays’:  the ‘why’ and the ‘how’.  (OK, these are more ‘philosophical’ distinctions than anything else – but they do capture at least one aspect of the meaning…)

The ‘how’ is simple mechanics – but the ‘why’ underlies each bit.  So, let’s tackle the ‘why’ first.

The why of an essay (as I am using the descriptive) is the reason for writing it:  its main point, what it is saying and how it is saying it.  Once a person has understood the ‘underlying structure of an essay, many of the steps listed below can be combined, or skipped altogether.  However, listing them separately is one of the ways in which a person can gain an understanding how to build an essay, one little idea at a time.

The why of an essay can be arrived at as follows:

  • Examine the ‘assignement’:  question or statement.
    • Sometimes, the ‘main point’ is assigned, sometimes it is up to the ‘writer’ to define the ‘main point.
    • The ‘point of view‘ – or, the way in which this ‘main point’ is demonstrated (what evidence is cited to support the ‘main point’, how the evidence is presented and how the conclusion is drawn out) – that is always something the ‘writer’ must choose and ‘fulfil‘.

    This ‘main point’ and ‘point of view/means of making the main point’ (for lack of better terms) constitute the ‘reason’ for writing the essay (aside from it having been assigned, that is…).  In other words, they define the main idea which the ‘writer’ will build the essay to convey/bring across.

  • Define the ‘main point’ (unless it is assigned).
    • find a single word (OK, the word can be ‘contorted’ and hyphenated amalgam of a few ‘normal’ words, or it can be an expression:  the main thing about ‘this word’ is that it is the simplest-possible way of expressing the very core of the ‘main point’ which is the central focus of the essay.
      • this ‘main point‘ must be both ‘simple’ and ‘core’, because the ‘main point’ of each of the paragraphs in the essay will be ‘compared’ to it.
      • this ‘main point‘ is the focus of the essay
      • this is what the essay will say
  • Define the ‘way of presenting the main point’ (point of view)
    • write a sentence which defines how the ‘main point‘ will be made.
      • again, the ‘sentence’ is more of a suggestion than a hard requirement:  a phrase or point-form, or any other method which is ‘understandable’ to the ‘writer’ is acceptable, because this is all part of the ‘brainstorming’ or ‘rough work’ that so many teachers request to be handed in along with the ‘good copy’ of the essay, to prove the person actually did the work (and to demonstrate to the teacher the chain of thought that took the essay from ‘concept’ to ‘finished product’:  many teachers actually assign marks to these steps…so, if they are not handed in, the marks reserved for these steps cannot be earned…
      • the main goal of this step is to clarify in one’s mind the method (reasoning, proof, etc.) of how the ‘main point’ will be presented
      • once this is clarified, putting it down will help ‘the writer’ maintain focus, because it will be available for constant ‘feedback’…and, as subsequent steps ‘ought to’ be compared back to both the ‘main point’ and ‘the main sentence’ (which, for lack of a better term, is how I refer to this step for the purposes of this post.
    • This section will serve as the basis for the ‘opening’ and ‘closing’ paragraphs of the essay.
  • Gather the evidence
    • this step involves ‘putting down’/’brainstorming’ the pieces of evidence which will be used to support/demonstrate/prove the ‘main idea’ of the story
    • again, this can be done in two steps:  first, as ‘one word’ concept, then as the more concrete ‘simple sentence/point form’ (which might list the page numbers of quotes to be referenced, and so on).
    • while it is recommended (for the sake of self-discipline) that the individual points be put into the form of simple sentences, this is in no way a requirement:  point form is just as effective.
    • it is recommended (in order to ‘fit’ the expectations of ‘most’ essay assignments) that 3 major pieces of evidence be listed.
      • While most of these ‘major points’ can be expanded, it is important to clarify in one’s mind (and putting it down is a good way of achieving this – and being able to refer back to it) the main thrust each of these major pieces of evidence will make.
      • The ‘minor points’ or ‘development’ of the ‘major points’ will come during a later step.  They are very important – but it is also easy to go ‘off topic’ and loose the focus of the essay while ‘developing’ these bits.  Therefore, it is better to put all of the ‘minor points’ or ‘developments’ of these ‘major points’ into a section marked ‘notes’, not list them as the ‘major points of focus’.

      These points will go on to form the ‘body’ of the essay (the paragraphs in between the opening and closing paragraphs):  each one of the ‘major points’ of evidence will have one paragraph of the essay devoted to it.

This should (I hope) explain the ‘why’ of essay-composition:  if it does not, or if it is confusing (or just plain wrong), please, let me know and I will do my best to explain/fix it.

The next post (link to be inserted) will address the ‘how’ of essay-writing.

4 Responses to “How to write an essay: part 1”

  1. frustrated mom Says:

    you cannot imagine how ludicrous the process of essay writing seems to someone who has grown up in another country. My 3rd grader clams up completely when told to write outlines, and timelines and rough drafts and then a final essay when he was writing books (with lead sentences and a beginning a middle and an end even if he didn’t know it) by the time he could write! Our schools are doing kids a huge disservice by turning a simple enjoyable act of writing into an absolute leviathan project that is intimidating and would bore and adult to tears!

    • xanthippa Says:


      Our schools are forcing kids into ‘one-size-fits-all’ education – and are hurting our kids in the process!

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