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Writing can be intimidating, but following this step-by-step approach can make the experience less daunting.
Prewrite. Gather ideas and think about the focus of
Organize. Consider how to organize material.
Draft. Write the actual paper following your predetermined organization.
Revise. Evaluate the draft and rewrite by adding, moving, or cutting material.
Often the biggest challenge of writing is finding a topic that is focused and interesting. Even when a topic is assigned, deciding how to discuss that topic can be difficult. To generate ideas, try these prewriting exercises:
Freewrite: Write down anything about the topic that comes to mind without stopping, editing, or evaluating. Explore some of your ideas and questions about your topic. Look for central ideas or a system of ideas through which your ideas are connected.
Idea Map: Group your ideas into categories. Look for relationships between the categories that will lead to an assertion or argument you can make about the topic.
One or both of these techniques will give you ideas for your thesis (an arguable assertion that outlines what you will be discussing). Going from a prewriting exercise to a clear focus may seem like a big jump, but often it is nothing more than following a train of thought through to its logical conclusion. The following freewriting session on Nathaniel Hawthorne's The Scarlet Letter illustrates how a train of thought can eventually lead to a thesis:
Hester Prynne is my kind of woman. The Puritans sure were strict. Hester didn't seem to mind the punishment she received for adultery. In fact, the letter A took on new meaning. Hester didn't seem to believe in the moral codes of the Puritans; she seemed to live in a moral wilderness where she was free to decide on which moral values she would follow. Hey, that makes me think that Hawthorne created Hester to be a symbol of a new morality—a transcendent morality. So, Hester symbolizes Hawthorne's transcendental beliefs in a higher law—a law based on the morality of the individual soul. Hey . . . I know what I'm going to write about!
Prewriting can help you follow one idea to another until you start getting ideas for a thesis.
At this point, you should have a thesis that makes a central assertion or argument about the topic. This assertion or argument will be the focus of your paper. Once you have a thesis in mind, start considering how you will organize your material so that your essay will be clear and your thesis will be thoroughly supported.
Thesis Structure. The thesis should set up key words or ideas you return to throughout the paper to strengthen and tighten your argument. Some writers include a preview of the main supporting points in the thesis. For instance, an essay explaining the rhetorical tools Martin Luther King uses in his "Letter from Birmingham City Jail" might have a thesis statement that gives an organizational outline for the essay:
Dr. King uses the tool of allusion to biblical accounts, classical philosophers, and previous efforts of civil rights workers in his letter.
An alternative is to omit the organizational preview and focus only on the implication of the analysis of the tools Dr. King uses:
Dr. King wrote his "Letter from Birmingham City Jail" as a convincing rationale for the proper use of civil disobedience in the context of the Civil Rights Movement.
A third option is to include both the implication and the organizational outline:
Dr. King wrote his "Letter from Birmingham City Jail" as a convincing rationale for the proper use of civil disobedience in the context of the Civil Rights Movement through his use of allusions to biblical accounts, classical philosophers, and previous efforts of civil rights advocates.
Use whichever version works best for your paper—as long as your thesis announces exactly where you stand. With or without the preview in your thesis, be sure to express the supporting points as topic statements in subsequent paragraphs.
Note: For more information on writing a thesis, see the handout Thesis Statements.
Argument Structure. Each section of the body of an essay begins with its own topic sentence and should focus on one aspect of the thesis. A section may be one paragraph or several. Defined by its topic sentence, each argument treats one part of the big idea.
Organize Using an Outline. Some writers can organize their thoughts and material just by working from a good thesis statement. Others prefer an outline. An outline is an organized list of your arguments and supporting information that shows the order for discussing ideas and how each will be used within your paper to support your thesis. An outline will usually save you time and increase your control of the essay's direction as you begin a formal draft of the essay.
Introduction. Now you are ready to write a first draft of your essay. A formal essay begins with an introduction which awakens the reader's interest, sets the tone for the entire essay, and leads into the thesis and main discussion. Above all, your introduction must be clear. Besides the thesis, introductions should contain an initial comment on the topic and narrow the scope. Introductory paragraphs often take the following shape, sometimes called "the funnel."
General statement of the subject
Focus on an aspect of subject
Note: For more information on writing an introduction, see the handout Introductions.
Body. The body of your essay supports the assertions made in the thesis. You need sufficient material that readers can follow and believe to successfully make your point. Each paragraph within the body of the essay should address an aspect of the thesis. Within each paragraph, offer observations and examples that tie the ideas to the thesis and support the claims made within the paragraph. Staying focused on the thesis gives the essay unity.
Conclusion. The conclusion of your essay brings all of the arguments of your paper into focus. Often your conclusion will tie all of your arguments back to the main assertion. Never stop just because you run out of words to write. Keep the conclusion relevant to the essay by evaluating or discussing the significance of the assertion you've made about your topic—it should answer the question "so what?" Sometimes the conclusion will just review the ideas you've developed, and sometimes it will put your discussion of the ideas into a larger argument or focus.
Note: For more information on writing a conclusion, see the handout Conclusions.
The best writers are really the best rewriters—they polish their work over and over. When you have finished a first draft, you have really only begun. Plan to rewrite at least once, revising until the essay represents your best work.
Revision involves more than proofreading for spelling mistakes, though this is important. When revising, start by evaluating the content of your paper. Make sure that the thesis and each argument in the paper are sufficiently supported and that the arguments themselves are clear and logical. Also make sure the style of writing you've used is appropriate for the assignment. Then, focus on addressing any mechanical errors that remain.
Note: For more information on revising your paper, see the handout Revision.