Whether you are working on a writing assignment for a class or are faced with the chore of putting together an essay to be submitted along with a college application, the same basic questions arise: How do I start this thing? What is the best way of putting my ideas down on paper? How do I get my point across to the reader?
There is no great mystery here. There are four fundamental steps that must be followed in order to create a clear, readable essay that is on the mark and which displays your best effort.
The first step is to fully understand the assignment and to reflect on what you are being asked to do. What is the topic? What ancillary themes are supposed to be written about? Is there a particular style that is required, such as autobiographical writing? If, for example, the instructions indicate that the essay is to be about “…a major crisis in your life, how you faced it, and what it taught you about yourself, including heretofore unrecognized weaknesses,” then you would need to put a great deal of thought into your own life experiences.
Yes, there are times when you cannot think of any experience in your life which meshes with the assigned topic. Maybe you have never faced a crisis. Lucky you. If that is the case, then you may need to bring the topic down a little…from crisis to problem. It is generally acceptable to write about a slightly different theme from the one that is being called for, if you must. In the example stated above, you would simply indicate that the problem about which you are going to write is the closest to a crisis that you have ever experienced.
Some people, when they cannot think of an experience from their own lives that fits the assigned topic, borrow events from other people’s lives or they fabricate situations for use in their essays. This is generally not a good idea for two reasons: If you are being asked to write about your own life, then using someone else’s experiences or manufacturing an incident may result in an essay that does not ring true. There is also the possibility that the reader may discern your creative efforts, and lose interest in the essay.
In any case, once you have fully understood and spent time thinking about the assigned topic, it is time for the second step—planning your essay. The best method, in terms of planning a well-organized essay, is to write an outline. You may use any format that is comfortable for you, from scratch notes to a formal outline, such as the one below, in which what is written next to each Roman numeral is what will be in a paragraph in the actual essay:
My Greatest Crisis:
- Everyone faces problems at one time or another.
- Most problems are solvable.
- Some problems are serious enough to be called crises.
- Dealing with a crisis is difficult.
- Sometimes, there is no satisfactory solution to a crisis.
- The effects of some crises may be long-lasting.
- I faced a crisis when my mother developed Alzheimer’s Disease.
- The responsibility of caring for her fell to me.
- At first, my mother moved in with my wife and me, and I was able to take care of her, with help from my wife and a neighbor.
- As my mother’s condition deteriorated, I had to spend more time with her.
- My wife and I rarely went out after work or on weekends, and I sometimes had to take days off from my job.
- The neighbor felt that she could not cope with my mother’s worsening condition.
- My mother’s illness made it impossible for us to invite people to our house.
- The neurologist who was caring for my mother stated that she would soon need twenty-four hour a day care.
- I was adamant in my refusal to lodge my mother in a facility.
- She fell, fracturing her hip, and was hospitalized.
- After surgery, she was transferred to a skilled nursing facility.
- Dealing with my sense of guilt.
- At first my mother hated the nursing home, and I felt guilty about abandoning her.
- I decided to bring her home.
- The director of the facility advised me to give her a chance to acclimate herself.
- My wife assured me that she was not against my mother returning to our house, but she asked me to do as the director had advised.
- After two guilty, torturous weeks, I was relieved to discover that my mother seemed to feel comfortable where she was.
- I still felt guilty, but I did not bring her home.
- What I learned about dealing with a crisis.
- I learned that, sometimes, there are no simple, neat solutions to crises.
- I found out that relying on the advice of others, especially family members and experts, can be useful.
- I realized that, during this crisis, I was not thinking about my mother’s welfare as much as I was concerned with my own sense of guilt.
- Now, years after my mother died, I am still attempting to convince myself that I made the right choice.
Notice that the outline begins with a title. Sometimes, it is better to choose a title once the outline or even the actual essay has been completed. The first paragraph in the essay will be based on Roman numeral one in the outline. Each of the following paragraphs should be based on each of the subsequent Roman numeral sections. Your opening paragraph should clearly state your topic or thesis statement. You may need two or three sentences in order to clearly make your point.
Once you are sure that your outline is complete, you are ready for the third step, writing the essay. Follow the outline, adding additional sentences to clarify and fortify your points. Your second and third paragraphs (You may write more) should each contain information about a topic that relates to your thesis statement. Do not add extraneous ideas. Do not write more than you need to in order to explain your point.
Your concluding paragraph should reiterate the thesis statement. The last sentence or two should resolve the issue under discussion so that the reader develops a sense of completion. After reading your essay, he or she should be thinking, “Okay. I understand what this person has in mind” or “I see his (or her) point” or something of that nature.
The final, very important step is to carefully—very carefully proofread what you have written. Do not rely only on your computer’s Spell Check function. A good idea is to print what you have written, and read it—word for word. You are more likely to catch errors when reading a printed page than when you read what is displayed on a computer monitor. Some people find it helpful to point to each word with a pencil or pen, as they read. Don’t be reluctant to mark up your paper, if you find errors or think of a better way to say what you have written.
Remember, your essay is a reflection of your best effort. If you can submit a carefully organized, clearly written essay that is free of grammar, punctuation, spelling, and usage errors, then you are accomplishing your goal of creating an essay that is worth reading. It will be a mark of your excellence.