How to Write an Essay or Research Paper (Better Than WikiHow)

One of my high school teachers told me, “Michael, I wish I could fail you so you’d be in my class again next year.”

Mr. G also gave me advice about becoming a lawyer, “not all lawyers are rich, you need to make sure you love the work.”

In the end, Mr. G did not fail me, and I did go on to become a lawyer. Along the way, between high school and college I wrote 250+ papers, and in doing so I became an unofficial expert on how to write essays and research papers.

I’m writing this guide to share what I’ve learned about how to write an essay, including how to begin, writing the thesis statement, guidance on the format, structure and outline, and how to write an introduction and conclusion. Plus, I’ve included essay examples, writing tips, additional thoughts on topics like buying essays, “how to write an essay fast” and more.

A few quick notes before we begin:

  1. The following is my advice on how to write an essay, and it based on my experience and research. This article is specifically about writing an academic essay or research paper in the English language.
  2. For the purposes of this article, the words “essay” and “research paper” are interchangeable. The advice applies equally to both types of papers.
  3. General disclaimer that anything you read here is subject to critical thinking; you need to consider what you read and how it applies to your specific situation. Also, there is nothing nefarious here, but you take full responsibility for the paper or anything else you produce as a result of reading this.

Okay, cool, let’s go…

Table of Contents

How to Begin an Essay

Most teachers, professors, tutors, TAs, online guides and other resources preach a very systematic approach to writing essays. You start with a strict essay structure or template to develop your outline, you then brainstorm your thesis, followed by intensive research and thoughtful analysis, and finally you write your introduction, body paragraphs, and conclusion, followed by revisions, peer editing, more revisions and extensive citations. As far as the basics of essay writing go, this approach isn’t bad (and it may be the guide for how to write a perfect essay) but it never really worked for me.

The reality is that many students or other people writing essays are producing their work on a short timeline, whether imposed by their school or self-imposed by crappy time management – and need to know how to write an essay fast. So, instead of the slow and systematic approach mentioned above, I generally preferred a more “jump in and start writing approach.”

Here’s how it works…

  1. Choose your essay topic. If you have an assigned topic, great, you can move onto the next step. If you are choosing your own topic, I’ve included a list of sample topics below, plus example essays for you to consider.
  2. Open a blank document and start brain dumping everything you know about the topic. Some of this writing will include facts and resources you already know. You can also fire off quick searches while you are working to find more info to include, as well as copying over citations to reference later. At this stage I also like to add specific phrasing or ideas that I have in mind, so it doesn’t all have to be specific facts, but you can also include the content that connects it all together.
  3. Consider your thesis. What do you want to prove or argue in your essay? What is the point? I write down some ideas, and occasionally competing ideas if I’m not sure yet where I fall on a topic. Important note: it’s okay to start writing an essay with one thesis in mind and then change to the opposite side of that thesis as you go. This switch is normal! And it’s an expected possible outcome of researching and learning more about a topic. Example: in high school I wrote research papers on topics like the use of atomic weapons in WW2 and how Adolf Hitler rose to power. In both cases I started my essay with one thesis, and changed to another one as I learned more about the topics.
  4. Continue writing! If you keep filling in portions of your essay, you will be off to a strong start.

How to Write a Thesis

I start writing a thesis statement the same way I do a paper; I just start. Usually, I’ve been thinking about what my thesis may be, and writing this down provides clarity. Once you have something on paper, you can iterate on your thesis until you have a good one, and then continue to review and revise until you have a great one.

I believe a great thesis statement is one that is clear, unambiguous and meaningful.

  • A clear thesis is one that the reader will understand on the first read, while an unclear thesis may need to be read several times and even then may not be fully understood.
  • An unambiguous thesis is one that makes a definitive statement; the reader shouldn’t have any doubts on what you are trying to prove in the remainder of your essay and which side of the debate you are on.
  • Finally, for a thesis statement to be meaningful, it should seek to prove something new. If you have a thesis statement that includes “some people like icecream”, it’s not interesting because of course some people like icecream. What can you prove that no one else has covered yet?

Once you have your thesis statement, you can start to tackle the essay format and outline.

How to Write an Essay Outline (Format & Structure)

In the teacher/professor/tutor world, an essay outline has a very specific format for you to organize your thoughts. A classic example is the five paragraph essay taught in many high schools, which includes an introduction, three body paragraphs and a conclusion. The introduction usually goes from broad to specific, with your thesis statement as the last sentence. The body paragraphs are approximately five sentences each, and include linking sentences, specific examples and citations. Each body paragraph focuses on one argument, including the opposing view on that specific argument. Finally, the conclusion starts specific and goes outward, which usually means repeating your thesis statement and working outward.

If you have an essay outline like this to follow then great, follow it. University essay structures can vary depending on your major and you should follow what is given to you or ask your professor for clarification.

However, if you are working without an assigned outline then IMO it’s enough to follow this simplified format:

  • Every essay is going to have an introduction, middle section and conclusion, so start with that. The number of paragraphs in each of these sections will depend on what level you are writing at, as well as what your essay is about and your style of writing.
  • Add headlines to each section. These headlines should be the main point of each paragraph or series of connected paragraphs. Then, under each headline write bullet points with information you expect to include in that section. Again, you can do quick research and add citations as you see gaps that you can fill in your essay.
  • Finally, review your outline to make sure that it’s consistent and complete. Would a reader, knowing your thesis, be able to follow your argument and consider it? Revise as necessary.

Once you have your essay outline, you can move on to writing or polishing your introduction.

How to Write an Essay Introduction

Knowing how to write an essay introduction is easy, but writing a GREAT introduction is more difficult. This difficulty is because a great introduction does some heavy lifting to set you up for success with the remainder of your paper.

Here are some guidelines or tips on how to write an essay introduction that will help you earn an A+ on your next paper:

  • Open with a bang: use your essay’s introduction to excite the reader and bring them in. Remember, your professor has a lot of reading to do. The right introduction will help keep his or her attention.
  • Have a point: have a thesis, not just a survey of information. There must be one main point.
  • Get to the point: the reader should know what your paper is about by the third line of your introduction.
  • Provide a map: in the introduction, show your reader an overview of your paper. For example: “In Part I: Impact of Facebook on Student Health, I find a positive correlation between time spent social networking and weight gain. In Part II:…”
  • Limit your scope: in the introduction, tell your reader the limits of your research. This step shows the reader why your paper has certain omissions. For example “My research is limited to English language materials from Canadian authors.”

Following the best practices above will improve your introduction and could make it better than most other submissions. When you come back to review and revise your paper, spend more time on the introduction and really polish it, removing all unnecessary words until it is clear and concise.

The next section considers the essay’s conclusion. I’ve intentionally skipped writing about the body section of your essay because of the wide variety these paragraphs can take based on your academic level, topic and other considerations. Below, I include essay writing tips that will help improve the quality of all sections of your essay, include the body paragraphs.

How to Write an Essay Conclusion

Writing an effective essay conclusion involves revisiting the main points of your essay. In many cases, this approach means repeating the thesis statement from your introduction and working outward from there.

I find that the best essay conclusions are like a good movie or series; they tie up any loose ends and leave the reader with a feeling of completion. A good exercise is to write a “post-outline” by creating headlines and bullet points as you read through your essay, and then comparing this to your starter outline to make sure the essay still has a logical flow and is complete. In the past, I made major changes to essays after doing this post-outline analysis, including deleting or adding sections and moving them around.

Essay Examples

There are many ways to find essay examples, including asking your peers to share their essays, reviewings past essays and research papers available at your school library, or asking your professor to share examples.

However, if you are looking for a quick resource for some essay examples, including PDFs, check out this resource by the University of Sussex. The list includes six specific examples of essays, ranging from English to Anthropology to Biomedical Science, and you can also see tutor feedback on the papers.

I am including additional examples of essays below.

Example of a Good Essay

There are many examples of good essays, including those that are published and well known, and countless more that are published or unpublished and which only a few people read.

One of my favourite examples of a good essay (actually a great essay), is George Orwell’s Politics and the English Language. George Orwell is one of the best authors of all time, and is best known for writing novels like 1984 and Animal Farm. However, Orwell is also a very competent essay writer, and Politics and the English Language is a perfect example. In this essay, Orwell makes clear points, follows his own rules and best practices, and perhaps more importantly: if you follow Orwell’s advice your writing will be better.

Short Essay Examples

Here are four resources for you to review examples of short essays:

  1. Short English Essays for Students: Small Non-Fiction Articles and Opinion Pieces – This resource has 21+ examples of short essays, ranging from ~200 words to ~1800. All of the examples are under 2000 words, which is about the length of a medium sized blog post.
  2. 7+ Short Essay Examples & Samples – seems to be a comprehensive resource for learning about short essays, including specific examples and tips and rules for improving your work.
  3. Essay Examples – AcademicHelp compiled a collection of 300+ essays, include short ones for you to review.
  4. An Open Letter to Humanity – This is one of my short essays about humanity, including discussion on the environment, tragedy of the commons, priorities, and more.

Essay Examples for High School

Here are three resources for high school essay examples:

  1. 9+ High School Essay Examples & Samples – coming in strong again. This page includes 9+ examples of essays, plus tips, guidelines and PDFs
  2. High School Essay Templates and Formats – This resource by WriteWell includes many templates and formats for high school essays that you can follow to write your own paper.
  3. High School Essay Examples – Kibin put together a list of 232+ essay examples specifically for high school students. Most of these essays are under 1500 words.

The following section includes essay writing tips.

Essay Writing Tips

In addition to all of the essay writing tips I’ve shared above, I put together a bullet list of 25 tips and best practices that I keep in mind when writing an essay or research paper. These are mostly academic essay writing tips, many of which I learned through trial and error or from one of my professors.

  1. Open with a bang: use your essay’s introduction to excite the reader and bring them in. Remember, your professor has a lot of reading to do. The right introduction will help keep his or her attention.
  2. Have a point: have a thesis, not just a survey of information. There must be one main point.
  3. Get to the point: the reader should know what your paper is about by the third line of your introduction.
  4. Provide a map: in the introduction, show your reader an overview of your paper. For example: “In Part I: Impact of Facebook on Student Health, I find a positive correlation between time spent social networking and weight gain. In Part II:…”
  5. Limit your scope: in the introduction, tell your reader the limits of your research. This step shows the reader why your paper has certain omissions. For example “My research is limited to English language materials from Canadian authors.”
  6. Appropriate methodology: think about the topic, then decide which tools are best for researching it. The internet is convenient, but is not the best source for every topic.
  7. The outline should show a logical flow of ideas and highlight any weaknesses.
  8. Titles: use descriptive titles to break up sections. This helps the reader understand the flow of your paper.
  9. Use lists: they are concise, break up paragraphs and look nice on the page.
  10. Length: aim for paragraphs that are 4-6 sentences each.
  11. Analyze throughout: think of this paper as your contribution to the field. The majority of words should be your insight on the topic, not a summary of others’ work.
  12. Adopt a measured tone: aggressive writing doesn’t support your thesis, facts do. Both supporting and opposing arguments should be written with the same tone. Write clearly and avoid emotional language.
  13. Be concrete: using “may”, “can” or “might” distracts the reader. You have done your research, now stand behind it.
  14. Snip-snip: Cut out every unnecessary word. I start be deleting unnecessary paragraphs, then sentences, then words. “A sentence should contain no unnecessary words, a paragraph no unnecessary sentences, for the same reason that a drawing should have no unnecessary lines and a machine no unnecessary parts.” – Professor Strunk
  15. Ctrl+f search for “that”: most of these will be unnecessary. Delete.
  16. Avoid echos: George Orwell says “never use a metaphor, simile, or other figure of speech which you are used to seeing in print.” An echo will distract your reader, while unique figurative language will help them understand your content.
  17. Active over Passive: this is a pet-peeve of many professors. Always use the active voice in your writing. The active voice structure is subject/verb/object. For example: “Ben (subject) passed (verb) the ball (object).” Not, “The ball was passed by Ben”. Often “was” means you are using passive voice. Change your spelling and grammar editor to highlight these points.
  18. Plain English: replace all foreign phrases, scientific or jargon words with an everyday English equivalent.
  19. Short and sweet: this one is Orwell too. Never use a long word where a short one will do. Especially try to use shorter words, sentences and paragraphs to explain complex points
  20. Use long words: if a longer word is more precise than a short one, use it. Did you know that the longest word in English is “Pneumonoultramicroscopicsilicovolcanoconiosis”
  21. Check punctuation: especially periods and commas. These regulate the flow of your sentences, and misuse can disrupt your reader even when you have selected the right words.
  22. Follow the rules for numbers: write numbers under 10 as words, and those above 10 as figures. ie. five, eight, 11, 15.
  23. Do research in advance: even if you don’t start writing the paper, overtime you will develop arguments and structure.
  24. Cite it!: as well as guarding you from academic misconduct, citations add credibility to your paper.
  25. The post-outline: you will likely start your paper by writing an outline, write one at the end too.

Essay Writing Tips for Competitive Exams

The best way to improve your performance on a competitive exam is obsessive preparation. For most people, this level of preparation means reviewing your textbook and notes until you know the material by heart, and then retaining that information long enough to write your competitive exam.

When I studied for the LSAT, I followed the above method. I got two books, one that was “the hardest questions you will see on the LSAT” and the other was “the hardest logic games you will see on the LSAT”. Both books were helpful, and through repetition I learned to answer the questions correctly (I did well enough to get into a top law school).

However, in law school I developed a new method of writing essays in exams that achieved superior results. Every exam was “open book”, which meant you could bring your study notes into the exam. I learned that I could usually anticipate the specific topics, or general ideas that would be brought up in the essay for the exam, and so I would write the entire essay in advance, leaving blanks for variables that I would need to fill in like names and other specifics of the scenario. This madlib style was very successful because instead of rushing through the essay, I could take my time copying it out from my printed version.

How to Improve Your Essay Writing Skills

The following are a few additional questions or loose ends about how to write an essay.

How to Write an Essay About Yourself

Here is a quick way to write an essay about yourself; have a friend interview you, record the interview so you can make notes, and then write the essay from that source material as if it was a book or other research.

How to Write an Essay Fast

Need to know how to motivate yourself to write an essay? The #1 tip I have for writing an essay fast is to just start writing. On my phone I have an alarm that goes off each day that says “why not just do it now?” I find this reminder helps me avoid procrastinating. If you get started, and follow the basics of essay writing I outlined above, then you may not write “the perfect essay”, but you will do fine.

Buying Essays

I have assisted friends with writing essays, including college admission essays, research papers for specific classes, and several graduate theses.

In general I don’t recommend buying essays. Any student can buy an essay, but in doing so you will learn nothing. Instead, follow the tips in this article to write a great essay of your own, and then ask for help from friends to improve it.

Final Thoughts on How to Write an Essay

After writing 250+ essays and research papers, plus many more long form blog articles, I’ve developed a specific style of writing. While all the essay writing tips I shared above will help improve your work, by far the best work you will do will come from learning to write in your own voice, and in learning to write clearly. This combination, of your unique style and a high level of clarity will help you earn high grades, and win the affection of your professor – he or she probably loves to read, and will love to read your work.

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