How to Revise a Draft

Updated September 20, 2017
Of course, an essay usually requires a few revisions once the first draft is complete. Let's look at the professor's comments on Lois' first draft:

As you can see, Lois needs to provide more evidence to support her thesis. Here are a few different ways to revise a draft:
  • Take a break and come back to it - it is always important to read the draft a few times, but it is better to take a break and read it the next day. You are more likely to notice subtle differences when you have a fresh outlook
  • Read it out loud - oftentimes you catch incorrect grammar or awkward phrasing better if you read it aloud to yourself
  • Have a friend read it - it is always great to get a second opinion on what you wrote. Bonus: have your friend read it aloud and maybe you will notice wording that you want to change
  • Run it by a teacher - if your paper is for a class, many teachers give students the opportunity to turn in a first draft. Always take this opportunity because it gives you an idea of whether you are on the right track, and the teacher might have a great idea you never considered
  • Take it to the Writing Center - many high schools and universities have a writing center with trained students who can sit down with you for a bit and give you advice on your paper. This is a great opportunity to really talk about your paper with someone else and make sure that your transitions are effective
The last point to note is that a paper is never truly finished. You could revise it ten times and it still would not be done. By then, it is certainly ready to be turned in and read by an audience, but it is not finished. If you think about it, our world is constantly changing. New data comes in every day. People change every day. You might feel differently about a topic from one day to another, which could alter the tone and content of your writing. So in essence, a piece of writing is never finished because it can always be altered. Just some food for thought before your next project.

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How to Write a Conclusion

Updated September 18, 2017
At last, you have reached the final phase of the writing process for your essay. The conclusion can vary depending on the style, purpose, and intended audience of your paper. For example, if you are writing primarily for a science class professor the traditional, “In conclusion” followed by a summary of your findings may work perfectly. If you are writing a persuasive paper for a communications class then you might want to end with a call to action. Whatever the case, the best thing you can do to make your paper stand out is to go beyond the normal conclusion.

Just as the purpose of the hook of your paper is to bring the reader in, the purpose of your conclusion is to leave your reader thinking. For example, if you are analyzing motifs in two different Victorian novels, start your conclusion with a brief summary and then discuss why (or why not) these motifs are still relevant today. It is great when applicable to give your audience a reason to relate to your paper.

If you are careful to thoughtfully analyze the content of your essay, you might even be able to end your paper with a question, which is the easiest way to ensure that your reader will continue to think about the topic once they have finished reading. Of course, this is not always accomplished successfully so make sure to analyze whether or not it goes with the style, purpose, and audience of your paper.

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How to Include Counterarguments

Updated September 8, 2017
At first, it might seem like a bad idea to include an argument that goes against the whole purpose of your essay. Yet, this is exactly why it is important to include one. First, it shows that your thesis is arguable, which is necessary if you are writing an argumentative or analytical paper. Second, by adding a counterargument you are able to both acknowledge that another opinion exists and refute why it is not valid for the purpose of your paper. It is also acceptable to agree with part of a counterargument as long as you explain why your essay argues the topic differently. This step of the essay writing adds credibility to the writer and makes your argument even more powerful since you have addressed opposing views. However, make sure that you do not linger too long on explaining a counterargument because you do not want your reader to get confused on the intended meaning of your paper. In general a few sentences to a paragraph should be sufficient space to address the issue. Try to use transitional phrases such as “although” and “however” that make it easy to turn the attention back to your argument.

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How to Transition Between Ideas

Updated September 14, 2017
Once you have a good grasp of what you are writing, the next step is to link the different ideas together as you write. Many of the points mentioned in How to Develop A Thesis and How to Develop Topic Sentences are going to come into play during this part of the writing process. For the sake of this explanation, let us use the typical essay outline:

  1. Intro-Thesis (XYZ)
  2. Body Paragraph 1 (X)
  3. Body Paragraph 2 (Y)
  4. Body Paragraph 3 (Z)
  5. Conclusion
As previously discussed, the thesis consists of the main idea of your paper written in subject, verb, object form. In addition to these three components, your thesis should have details about how you are going to analyze or argue the main idea. In the example above, there are three details (X,Y, and Z). Each body paragraph is assigned one of these details. Now, you have to figure out how to link them together.

Think of all five sections as separate puzzle pieces. The first sentence of each paragraph will be the topic sentence. The topic sentence must accomplish two things: refer back to the previous paragraph and give insight into the present paragraph. Thus, each paragraph will have a piece of the previous paragraph, and all five pieces will fit together to complete the puzzle. This step ensures that all of the content is connected on a paragraph by paragraph level.

In order to ensure that all of the wording is connected, it is necessary to focus on individual paragraphs. Here are a few tips to link ideas together on a sentence by sentence level:
  • Use complex sentences (and, but, or, ; ⎼ ) 
  • Use transitional words (since, so, however, furthermore, similarly, thus)
  • Use transitional phrases (In contrast, For example, On one hand, On the other hand, In this case, For instance, etc.)
  • Use synonyms - For example, if the verb of your thesis is explores, come up with a few synonyms to use throughout the paper such as analyzes, examines, evaluates, considers. This simple tool will help keep your reader engaged AND focused.
Once the sentences are linked together in each paragraph and the content of all the paragraphs is connected, you have mastered transitions. Even though an essay is thought of as one cohesive idea there are a variety of small components. Making those components line up is what makes the paper cohesive.

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How to Begin Writing an Essay

Updated September 7, 2017
Here is perhaps the most daunting task of them all. Coming up with a topic and even writing out a thesis can be fairly simple to do, but it is oftentimes difficult to sit down and actually begin writing the essay. So, here are a few pointers that should help alleviate the process.

Outline / Sketch - Have an outline or sketch handy to help guide your thoughts as you write. Outlines are great to keep your thesis and topic sentences structured. Sketches are useful if you are more of a visual learner. These can be done in various ways. For example, you can make a scattered list of some ideas and link the ones that are connected to form a web-like structure. This would also be a good place to arrange your outline cut outs (Refer to How to Structure an Essay).

Freelance - This type of starting process is very similar to brainstorming. After taking a look at your outline and notes, simply start writing. For this style, it does not matter if you repeat words. Simply go with whatever comes to mind and keep going for about 10 minutes. Afterwards, you can look back and see the different ideas you came up with, as well as edit out anything that you feel is unnecessary.

Keep track of time - breaks are your friends! Taking a 20 minute break every few pages or so really helps you focus and keep up your energy.

Set goals - unless it is a shorter paper, you are probably going to need more than a day to complete the paper so make sure to set goals for what you want to accomplish during your writing session.

The most important thing to keep in mind throughout the writing process is to always refer back to your thesis. Make sure that every paragraph is somehow linked to your thesis. If you notice that many of your paragraphs have a different main idea, maybe you need to refer back to your thesis and do some tweaking.

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How to Structure an Essay

Updated August 31, 2017
Essay structure is perhaps one of the most difficult components of writing an academic essay. Always have the structure of your paper in the back of your mind. More often than not you will have to go back and alter sentences and sometimes even change paragraphs from one place to another to adhere to the logical flow of your claim, which brings us to the main idea of essay structure: logical flow. The structure of your essay relies on coherence. In other words, logic is the spine of your essay, and your claim, ideas, and supporting evidence rely on the spine to properly function. Without the alignment of logical flow throughout your essay, your readers would be confused as to what you are analyzing, explaining, or arguing and would be unable to grasp the overall message of your paper. Whether the reader is a teacher, a student, or the world of academia, you want them to be able to read your paper and understand it.

So, here are a few ways to make sure that you stay on track. First, make an outline. It never hurts to have an idea of where you want to go as long as you are willing to make changes along the way. Start with your thesis and continue with the topic sentences for each paragraph ensuring that they are in logical order. Make sure to add in any supporting evidence that you think goes well with each idea, and of course, finish with a conclusion. If you get confused during the writing process, check back with your outline. Most importantly, if you feel that your paper is going in a different direction that you had initially planned or if you feel that your second paragraph would go better after the third paragraph, make those changes. For a full explanation of this step see How to Begin Writing an Essay.

The second step is one that requires a little more knowledge on what you are going to write. After you have written your first draft, tear your paper apart. Yes, you read that correctly. If you write by hand like I do, make a copy (take a picture or type it out on a computer). If you already typed it out, then just print out a copy, grab a pair of scissors, and cut each paragraph of your essay (if your essay is really long you might want to write out the topic sentence and last sentence of the paragraph instead.) Now that your essay is literally in pieces, have some fun with it. Try putting paragraphs in different places to see if they make more sense there. Chances are that once you are finished you will have a better idea not only of where each piece should go but also of the purpose that each piece serves for the writing as a whole.

The last step to staying on track is the most simple one. Have a friend or classmate read your paper. There is nothing better than getting a second pair of eyes on your paper because they can give you a fresh outlook that you might have never considered. Maybe have them read it aloud so that you can both listen to your writing. If something sounds off, there is probably a clearer way to say it that will make more sense for your reader. Remember that even if something makes sense to you, you always want to think about whether it makes sense on the page. Essays are informing, analytical, or argumentative in nature and are written to be read, so always strive for the reader’s utmost understanding.

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How to Develop a Thesis

Updated August 31, 2017
So you have read through the assignment and have a general idea of what is expected for this academic essay. Now what? Well, now you have to decide what you are going to write about and how you are going to write about it - this will essentially be your thesis.

Here are a few different ways to figure out the topic of your paper.

  • Brainstorm - have a brainstorming session. Grab a piece of paper or open up a new document. Read the assignment sheet once more and simply write down whatever comes to mind. Even if some of your ideas seem silly, write them down anyway. You never know if they could turn into something great.
  • Pro/Con List - If you are having trouble deciding between certain topics, make a list of pros and cons for each one. If you have a lot of cons against an idea, it might be a really difficult one to explain/analyze/argue.
  • Refer to the text - If your academic essay is related to a text you have read in class, by all means look back at the text or any notes that you have on it. Chances are that you will find something meaningful to write about or that your teacher has hinted at good essay topics beforehand.
Always remember to refer back to the assignment sheet. It is easy to get carried away once you have found a topic that you like. Just be sure that your topic follows the qualifications laid out in the assignment sheet before moving on to crafting your thesis.

Once you have a topic picked out, it is time to craft your thesis. Normally, a thesis will look something like this: F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby explores the disillusionment of 1920s American society particularly through diction, imagery, and allusions. The thesis takes sentence formatting a step up. We have a subject, verb, and object. The subject is what you are arguing about. It can be a text (in this case, The Great Gatsby) or it can be a person, a character, or even a thing. Next, the verb tells your reader what kind of essay they are about to read. The example above uses the verb “explore,” which tells us that this is an analytical essay. The object, “disillusionment of 1920s society,” demonstrates that there might also be some argument involved on the writer’s part.
Now the thesis goes a step further by adding how you are going to explore the disillusionment of 1920s society in this novel: diction, imagery, and allusions. The detail section is a very important and oftentimes overlooked component of the thesis. Without the “how” details, the reader has no idea how your paper is going to develop. This component adds clarity to your analysis or argument and adds a sense of credibility to your writing. There does not always have to be three details, but the idea is that each detail will be the topic of one or two of your supporting paragraphs in your paper. In general, just make sure that you have enough details to give yourself and your reader a roadmap of where the rest of your paper is going.

Looking back at your thesis is crucial throughout the paper writing process. Very rarely does a thesis stay exactly the same as when you first wrote it. Usually, you will have tweaked or maybe entirely altered parts of it to match your paper as you continue to write. Know that that is normal, healthy even. A thesis that is flexible enough to alter different sections is a strong thesis because it shows that you have a good understanding of the format. The thesis is your guiding tool as you write the paper and in turn the paper will continue to shape the thesis as you develop the different ideas of your topic.

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How to Read an Assignment

Updated August 31, 2017
First, don't panic! Before you even think about what you want to write or how you want to write it, you have to read the assignment sheet clearly and carefully. The key here is to take your time. If you rush, you are much more likely to skip over a minute detail that actually has a huge impact on the essay so go slow. Secondly, make sure to have a highlighter, pen, pencil or whatever you prefer to use on hand. Mark any details that directly affect your essay. Look for the when, what, and why (chances are that the why is what you will have to figure out!)

Let's look at a quick example: For this assignment, students are required to pick one of the two novels that we read in class. Analyze a theme that we discussed in class from one of the novels. Make sure to include a clear thesis as well as at least three examples to support your argument. The first draft will be due Sept.14 and the final draft will be due Sept.21.

It is important to keep in mind that assignment sheets vary by class. You will most likely receive more background information and perhaps even a few examples of what to write about, but it all depends on the class and the teacher. The brief excerpt above allows us to practice reading the assignment sheet carefully. The when is Sept. 21, but I would strongly urge you to take advantage of drafts! Turning in a draft early shows the teacher that you take his or her class seriously and want to do well. Also, you will get feedback on what to improve, which increases your chances of getting a higher grade on your final draft. Next is what, which refers to a theme from one of the novels discussed in class. This what will be your topic throughout the essay. Lastly, why are you writing this paper. In this case, the assignment asks you to both analyze and make an argument with at least three examples to support your claim. Therefore, you are ultimately writing this paper to analyze a novel and to make a claim about it. You get to figure out all the details as you write.

Keep an eye out for any dates that are listed on the assignment sheet as well as any examples regarding how to write the paper and what to write about. If anything in the assignment sheet is confusing, ask the teacher! Their job is to help you learn and being able to clearly understand what you are asked to do is a very important part of the learning process.

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How to Develop Topic Sentences

Updated August 31, 2017
Once you have developed a working thesis, it is time to start thinking about topic sentences for your paper. A topic sentence is usually the first sentence of a paragraph. Sometimes it can be two sentences long. The primary purpose of the topic sentence is to relate the content from the previous paragraph and to introduce the content of the new paragraph smoothly and efficiently. It is important to always include both parts in the topic sentence to really clarify your writing. For example, let us use the sample thesis from the previous essay: F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby explores the disillusionment of 1920s American society particularly through diction, imagery, and allusions. Notice the subject, verb, object structure as well as the detail at the end. Here is an example of a good topic sentence to follow this thesis: One of the tools that The Great Gatsby uses to emphasize the disillusionment of 1920s American society is diction. In addition, make sure to mention if your are focusing on a certain character’s diction. Notice that the topic sentence follows the structure of the thesis with a narrower scope. Since this topic sentence immediately follows the thesis, it reminds the reader of the subject, verb, and object. It is good to have a few different words to rotate for your main idea throughout the paper. For example, you would not want to use disillusionment every time in your paper. Perhaps use a variation such as disappointment or facade to further describe the object of your paper. Make certain that you do not stray too far from your original idea in these variations. They should enrich your thesis, not take away from it.

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