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Writing a terrific essay

By Ashleigh Viveiros

If you're a student at a Canadian university, you likely won't make it through a single year of school without having to write an academic paper of one sort or another.

So, since midterm season is on its way and more than a few courses use essays instead of exams to test your knowledge of the school year thus far, here are some basics to essay-writing.

Choosing a Topic

     

  • Whether your professor provides you with several possible essay questions to answer, or you have to come up with one yourself, make sure you pick a topic that you understand thoroughly, that you're interested in, and that you're reasonably certain you can find plenty of information on.

     

  • Avoid being too broad or too narrow in your essay's focus. Too broad of a topic will be completely unmanageable - you'll have more information than you know what to do with, and your paper will be a mess. But too narrow a topic and you just might paint yourself into a corner - there will be so little information available you'll have serious trouble filling out your paper. You need to find the sweet spot - a topic that allows you to present a reasonably detailed and focused essay. So, instead of saying that you're going to write a paper about, for example, global climate change (too broad) or, say, global climate change as it affects yellow fish with two purple spots in Walla-Walla (too narrow), try a paper arguing whether the research supports that global climate change is being caused by humans (ah, just right).

     

  • When in doubt about what your instructor wants from an essay, simply ask them. A short conversation could save you a whole lot of wasted time and effort by telling you that you've totally misread the assignment or that the topic you've come up with won't cut it.

     

  • Even once you've chosen a topic or essay question to run with, be open to changing it as you begin your research. You may find that you just can't find the support materials you need to write a good paper, or maybe you'll discover something even more interesting - but slightly different - to write about. If there's time, don't be afraid to mix things up a little - it may result in a much better paper.

Once you've chosen your essay's overall topic, you need to move on to ...

Research
At this point, you might know exactly what you're going to say in your paper about your topic - that's great, since it will help guide your research efforts. But, if you're still a little vague on the details of your essay, your research should help bring things into focus.

     

  • For many essays, the bulk of your research materials will be in the form of published books (including reference books) and scholarly journals. Scholarly journals are different from mainstream, popular magazines in that they are written by academic people for academic people. And since you're writing an academic paper . . . well, you can see where this is going. That's not to say that popular magazines are always useless as sources of material for essay papers, but you need to tread carefully and ensure it works with your topic (and that your professor will accept it).

     

  • To find research material, you'll often need to look no further than your school's library. If you're unsure how to go about finding books or journals on the shelves or in online databases, or how to order materials you need from other libraries, talk to a librarian or check out your library's Web site for tips.

     

  • Avoid non-academic Web sites like the plague. Although surfing the Web might be a good way to get an overall grasp on a topic (and it may point you in some interesting research directions), you usually can't use what you find on "Bob's Web site on Climate Change" in an academic paper. Don't waste too much time on sites like Wikipedia, either - instead, stick with verifiable research sources.

     

  • Once you have a number of books or journal essays before you, read or skim through them to get a good grasp on your topic. What are the arguments other authors have made? What parts of the topic interest you most? Are there common threads throughout what many of the "experts" are saying? As you do this, take notes - write down page numbers, quotations, and paraphrase important points. This will be especially important to you as you start to write your paper, since you will need to know where everything you use is coming from.

Speaking of the next step ...

Writing Your Essay
At its most basic level, an essay can be broken into three parts: the introduction, the main body, and the conclusion. Here are a few thoughts on each section:

Introduction
The introduction to your paper serves several functions. Firstly, you want it to grab your reader's attention, so they'll want to keep reading. Then, you want to explain your overall topic, hopefully providing some context on the matter. Finally - and most importantly - your introduction should act as a sort of guide to your essay - it should outline exactly what you plan to do in this paper.

This last function of the introduction is fulfilled mainly by your paper's thesis statement. A thesis tells the reader what the point of the paper is - are you arguing that Hamlet was only pretending to be crazy? Are you going to outline the effects the French Revolution had on the press at the time? Will you show how two pieces of literature from different time periods have strikingly similar themes?

Whatever your thesis is, you need to state it clearly and succinctly, and then set up the body of your essay by briefly breaking down the main ideas you're going to use to support your thesis.

To illustrate this idea a little more clearly, here's an example from an old linguistics paper of mine that was part research paper, part argumentative essay:

"Linguistic studies over the last several decades have shown that Canadians, although most certainly influenced by both Britain and America, do indeed have their own distinct dialect, complete with its own quirks of pronunciation, spelling, syntax and morphology, and vocabulary."

My introduction was nearly a page-long, setting up the topic of Canadian dialect and explaining that I would be outlining some of the linguistic and cultural history behind Canadian English. But the introduction really all came to a head with this thesis - which clearly states the argument of the paper (that Canadians have their own dialect) and how I'm going to prove that argument (by looking at pronunciation, spelling, syntax, etc.).

After you've set all this up in your own introduction, you move on to the ...

Main body
In the pages stuck between the introduction and the conclusion go all the ideas and research that support your paper's thesis. You might break the body of your paper into separately titled sections - the French press before the Revolution, the press during it, the press after it, etc. - or you might just write your paper so that the main points all flow naturally from one to the next, divided by topic sentences.

Basically, each section of your paper should revolve around a single idea that supports your thesis. At the start of the section's first paragraph, you'll define that idea with your topic sentence. Your job then is to elaborate on the assertion made in your topic sentence, and support it with relevant research and evidence.

So, for example, let's say your thesis is that the main character in Shakespeare's Hamlet isn't really bonkers, and you know this because of X, Y, and Z. Then the main body of your paper will start by dealing with X - explaining what X is, outlining how you can prove or support your theory of X by using examples from the text itself and from things experts on the subject have said, and so on - and then you do the same for Y, and then Z.

After you've done this for each section - attributing all your evidence and support to their appropriate sources - the bulk of your paper is done.

All that's left now is the ...

Conclusion
Like your introduction, your conclusion should sum up what it was you accomplished in your paper. Briefly summarize your main points (but in a slightly different way than you did in the introduction), and leave your reader with your final thoughts on the issue at hand. After you've done this, a strong quote that will resonate with the reader can sometimes be an effective way to wrap up your paper.

Random Essay Tips

     

  • Every quote, fact, and idea in your paper that is not your own needs to be properly attributed to its original source, both in the paper itself and then in your works cited page, using whatever documentation style your professor prefers (ie: MLA, APA, CBE). This is incredibly important, unless you want to be brought up on charges of academic plagiarism.

     

  • When starting work on an essay, some people find they can focus better by having an overall outline before them. This outline can be barebones (basically: Thesis, Main Point #1, Supports for Point #1, Main Point #2, Supports, Main Point #3, Supports, Conclusion) or more detailed, depending on your own personal preference. Either way, an outline can help guide you during the research stage and keep you on track during the writing of your essay.

     

  • Start work on your essay as early as you can before the deadline. Think of the benefits: you'll have access to your library's full range of related material, before your 100 or so fellow classmates descend on the bookshelves; you'll have time to change your topic or thesis if your original focus hits a snag; you'll have more time to write and rewrite your paper; and, in some courses, you may even be able to hand in an early version of a portion of your paper (likely the introduction) before the due date to get your professor's feedback before you hand in a final version (not all profs do this, but, if they do, try to take full advantage of the opportunity).

     

  • Read your paper out loud - it'll help root out troublesome sentences and ensure you're writing what you really mean.

     

  • Use your computer's spellchecker, and then go out and find yourself a human spellchecker, as well. Get a friend or classmate to give your paper the once over before you hand it in to catch any glaring spelling or grammatical mistakes your tired mind may have missed after you'd read the paper yourself a million times.

     

  • Follow proper formatting. Sure, it may be tempting to use 15 point font and to make the margins a little smaller, but it's not worth it. Teachers know all the tricks, and you will be penalized for trying to misrepresent the length of your paper. Also in regards to the presentation of your paper, always use a font that's easy to read and print your essay out on plain, normal-sized white paper with regular black ink. Unless your instructor states otherwise, include a cover page with your paper's title, your name, and the course and instructor the paper was written for. You might also want to place your essay in a report cover to make it look even more professional.

     

  • Ensure your essay's tone is appropriate both for the topic and the assignment. Generally, you'll want to go with a formal academic tone, which mean no or few "I" statements allowed, as in "I think", "I believe", etc.

     

  • Is your essay too short? Go back to your research. Are there any arguments you make that you didn't support well enough? Can you add the voice of another expert to a given section? Sometimes simply incorporating the support of just one more journal article throughout your essay can help beef it up.

     

  • One last tip: when in doubt, get help. There are literally thousands of good books and Web sites out there that outline every aspect of the essay-writing process in way more detail than we can get into here. Your school also likely has an academic writing centre with plenty of handouts and one-on-one support to teach you the basics. If you're at all leery of the process, seek out help before your grades start to suffer.

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