Essay Writing Guides

Essay Writing Tips & Techniques

MSt, Women's, Gender & Sexuality Studies (University of Oxford)

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Whether you are a seasoned essay writer or total novice, the tips and techniques below can help you write an essay effectively and efficiently. In this guide, we’ve collected our top tricks for acing every stage of the writing process.

Tips for Pre-Writing

Start early.

It’s essential to start working on your essay long before the deadline, especially if your essay requires research. It’s clear when an essay was hastily written the night before.

Your ideas will change as you research and write; half of the writing experience should be re-writing. With this in mind, give yourself time to develop your ideas and revise on the back end. 

Make an outline.

The process of writing can go so much more smoothly when you’ve already planned what you want to say! Before you start writing, make an outline to figure out how your evidence, argument, and structure work together.

The basic structure of an essay is:

  1. Introduction: Hook the reader, introduce your topic, and state your argument.  
  2. Body: Present each of the main points that prove your argument, backed up with evidence, in individual paragraphs.
  3. Conclusion: Reiterate your argument and conclude your paper.

Many people are taught the five paragraph essay structure (one introduction paragraph, three body paragraphs, one concluding paragraph). While this is helpful as a starting point, don’t be afraid to expand as necessary, especially when you’re writing a longer paper. Use as many body paragraphs as you need to make your argument (within your word limit).

Whether there are three or 13 body paragraphs, each should address one specific point that supports your thesis. An outline can help you make sure that’s the case. See our full guide on how to structure and layout an essay here.

Track your sources.

When writing a research paper, you’ll handle a lot of sources that need to be cited in your paper. Citation can be a slog, so it helps to stay organized throughout the research process. Keep track of the sources you use, and the evidence/purpose they offer, so that it will be easier to cite them later on.

Consider using a citation management system which can help you track your sources and create citations. Some common citation tools are:

  • Zotero
  • NoodleTools
  • Endnote
  • RefWorks

Many of these tools can automatically generate citations and bibliographies, but always read through and check that the information generated is correct. 

Read good writing.

One of the best ways to improve your own writing is to read examples of good writing. Reading with the eye of a writer, you can notice what moves other writers make, how they follow (and break!) the rules, and when writing is particularly effective. When dealing with secondary sources, notice how these other writers have handled this topic before, balanced evidence and analysis, and crafted a compelling argument.

Although it can be hard to compare your own essay to published works, all writing starts from the same essential elements. Look at book chapters or journal articles to get a sense of how writers make arguments in shorter spaces. Even TedTalks and newspaper editorials can show you some of these moves and elements in action.

Tips for Writing

Use the Magic Thesis Statement.

The Magic Thesis Statement translates your argument into well-worded sentences. It also helps you check to make sure that you have all the necessary elements of a good argument.

By looking at [EVIDENCE] , we can see [ARGUMENT] [which most people don’t see]. This is important because [STAKES] .

The MTS narrows in on the specific evidence you’ll be analyzing, the argument you’re making from that evidence, and why that argument matters. 

The phrase “which most people don’t see” shouldn’t appear in your final thesis statement, but it reminds you to make an original argument, one that isn’t self-evident; “this is important” can be reworded in many ways, but it tells you that your argument should have high stakes.

For more about how to write a strong thesis, see our guide on how to write a thesis statement.

Be aware of sentence length.

As a rule of thumb, sentences should be less than three lines long. If your sentences are longer than that, your reader will likely struggle to find the main point. Don’t be afraid of short sentences; they keep things snappy and help the reader follow along. 

Vary sentence length to engage the reader and make your essay more exciting to read. An essay of all short sentences would be choppy, but an essay of all long sentences would be difficult to follow. Focus on concision and clarity.

Example of a passage with overlong sentences, from an essay about the Black Mirror episode “San Junipero” read through the lens of Svetlana Boym’s theories of nostalgia:

Certain notable elements of restorative nostalgia, what Boym characterizes as an urge to “rebuild the lost home and patch up memory gaps,” usually in a way that distorts the reality of the past, can be identified in the reconstructed past of “San Junipero,” mirroring the “phantom homeland” restorative nostalgists remember in a state of perfection that never truly existed. Rather than existing in reality, “San Junipero” is the product of collective memory and a physicalization of the past which attempts to “conquer and spatialize time” and not “reveal any signs of decay; it has to be freshly painted in its ‘original image’ and remain eternally young,” evidenced in the bright and youthful fashions, games, music, colors, and bodies of its eternally young inhabitants.

Here’s the (improved) passage with varied sentence lengths:

“San Junipero” exhibits several notable aspects of restorative nostalgia. Boym characterizes restorative nostalgia as an urge to “rebuild the lost home and patch up memory gaps,” usually in a way that distorts the reality of the past. Restorative nostalgists remember the past in a state of perfection that never truly existed, creating a “phantom homeland.” This description aptly describes San Junipero. The town does not exist in reality; instead, it is the product of collective memory. Just as Boym’s restorative nostalgia attempts to “conquer and spatialize time,” San Junipero makes the past a place you can visit. To Boym, this restorative past must not “reveal any signs of decay; it has to be freshly painted in its ‘original image’ and remain eternally young.” San Junipero also does not age; its fashions, games, music, and colors are all bright and youthful. Even its inhabitants appear eternally young.

Move from old information to new.

As a general rule, start your sentences with information your reader may already know, or information you’ve already mentioned. End your sentences with the most surprising or significant information, what you want to stress or expand upon in the next sentence.

Ordering the information in your sentences from old/known to new/unknown can guide the reader and make your points clearer.

Consider this example (from Style: Toward Clarity and Grace by Joseph M. Williams): 

Some astonishing questions about the nature of the universe have been raised by scientists exploring the nature of black holes in space. A black hole is created by the collapse of a dead star into a point perhaps no larger than a marble. So much matter compressed into so little volume changes the fabric of space around it in profoundly puzzling ways.

See how the sentences lead you through this paragraph by flowing from “old” to “new” information? 

  • The first sentence finishes by introducing black holes. 
  • The second sentence begins with black holes and provides the definition, finishing with the compression of a star into a small space. 
  • The third sentence picks up where the previous sentence leaves off, restating the point about space compression and moving toward “profound and puzzling” changes that the writer will likely talk about in the next sentence.

Now, consider a version of this passage where information does not flow from old to new:

The exploration of the nature of black holes in space raises some astonishing questions about the nature of the universe. The collapse of a dead star into a point no larger than a marble creates a black hole. The fabric of space is changed in profoundly puzzling ways by the compression of matter into so little volume.

This passage contains all the same information, but it’s much more difficult to follow. The sentences feel like they’re jumping around to different points rather than building on what came before them.

Cite as you write.

Citations can feel like a chore, but they’re an important part of academic integrity. Adding all your citations after you’ve written your paper sets up a lot of work for yourself when you’ll already be feeling the pressure of a close deadline. Cite your sources as you write.

Some writers don’t like to pause when writing (especially a first draft) to look up citation rules and the specifics of sources. That’s okay, but at least leave a note in your draft with the author’s last name and (if relevant) the page you’re quoting from. You’ll thank yourself when you’re going back through your essay to get your citations in order and the information is already there.

Build your argument from paragraph to paragraph.

One distinguishing feature of a great essay is an argument that builds throughout the body paragraphs. Rather than making the same point but with different examples in each paragraph, or even making three different points that all contribute separately to a thesis, the argument in a great paper progresses over the course of the essay. 

Imagine each paragraph adding another layer to your argument as it gradually develops over the course of the paper. Consider how each point builds from the one that came before it and leads into the next, creating a sense of momentum over the course of the essay.

For more information on building an effective argument, please see our guide.

Tips for Revising

Build in time for edits.

If you can remember one big tip for writing, this is it! Good writing is about good rewriting. Writing is an act of discovery; your argument will shift as you write your first draft and determine what you really want to say, regardless of how much you’ve planned in advance. Give yourself enough time for editing and proofreading so that you can fully develop your thoughts and present them in the best way possible.

Revise with fresh eyes.

After finishing your draft, step away from it for 24 hours, then come back to edit it. This time away allows you to re-approach the essay with a fresh perspective; you’ll more easily spot errors and figure out improvements.

Use the x-ray/reverse outline tool.

The x-ray (also called a reverse outline) is a great exercise for checking that your evidence is translated into your main points, that your main points support your thesis, and that your structure reflects the organization of your argument. Once you’ve written a rough draft, try this:

Read your essay. Next to each paragraph, try to summarize the main point of that paragraph with a heading, bullet point, or short sentence. Now, ask yourself:

  • Are there multiple points in this paragraph? If so, it should probably be two paragraphs, not one.
  • Is the point of this paragraph implied rather than stated? Do I have a topic sentence that makes the point of this paragraph clear to my reader and a concluding sentence that reminds the reader what the main takeaway is?
  • Does the evidence in this paragraph prove the point I’ve written down? Is there any evidence that doesn’t seem to fit in this paragraph?
  • Do I explain through analysis how this evidence relates to the main point of the paragraph?

For a more advanced version of the x-ray, along with the main point of each paragraph, write down its purpose or contribution to the larger essay (key terms/definitions, counter-argument, explanation of methods, evidence/analysis, etc.).

Tips for Proofreading

Read your essay out loud.

Reading out loud helps you spot errors or awkward moments your eyes might skim over when reading silently.

Change the text to another font size, style, and color.

Your eyes have become accustomed to seeing words in certain places in your essay and might be correcting for typos. Changing how the essay looks can help you catch errors.

Print your essay out.

Our eyes function differently when they’re looking at a screen versus at a piece of paper. If you can, print out your essay and proofread once by hand.

Tips for Time Management

Plan ahead.

You might find it helpful to plan in advance when you’re going to work on your essay and when you want to complete each stage of the writing process. If you don’t completely stick to your schedule, it can still serve as a baseline to track your progress.

Even if you don’t plan out every work session, do plan to start working far ahead of the deadline. Budget ample time for revisions and proofreading. It really makes a difference!

Use the Pomodoro Technique.

The Pomodoro Technique is a time management tool that divides your work sessions and helps keep you focused. Francesco Cirello invented the technique and named it after the tomato (‘pomodoro’ in Italian) kitchen timer he used to time his sessions. Here’s how to do it:

  • Set a timer for 25 minutes.
  • Work until the timer goes off, then take a short break (usually 5 minutes).
  • After four work sessions (or pomodori), take a longer break (usually 15–30 minutes).

This time management technique helps you stay on task by dividing your work into smaller chunks and building in consistent breaks.

Learn more about how to get the most out of the Pomodoro Technique with our guide.

Minimize distractions.

With your phone buzzing next to you and notifications flashing across your screen, it can be hard to get into the groove of writing. Take advantage of the “do not disturb” feature on your phone, or even put it out of arms length while you’re working.

Do you write best in silence? Find a place to work that’s as quiet as possible. Do you like working with other people to hold you accountable? Go to a library or gather a group to work together. Figure out how you write best, and set yourself up in these circumstances for writing.

If you can, try not to work on your bed. You’ll find yourself falling asleep while working on your essay or thinking about your essay when trying to fall asleep — or both!

MSt, Women's, Gender & Sexuality Studies (University of Oxford)

Paige Elizabeth Allen has a Master’s degree in Women’s, Gender, and Sexuality Studies from the University of Oxford and a Bachelor’s degree in English from Princeton University. Her research interests include monstrosity, the Gothic tradition, illness in literature and culture, and musical theatre. Her dissertation examined sentient haunted houses through the lenses of posthumanism and queer theory.