Essays are used to assess your understanding of specific ideas and your ability to explain these in your own words.
Essays are usually written in a discursive style, bringing together ideas, evidence and arguments to address a specific problem or question.
They follow a particular structure: you will set out your argument in the introduction, build and present your argument in the main body, and should end with your overall key message or argument in the conclusion.
Essays take time to complete. You will need to set aside time for the following stages of writing:
- Thinking about the question.
- Gathering information and ideas.
- Organising your ideas.
- Getting something on paper.
- Writing a first draft.
- Reviewing in light of feedback or reflection.
- Producing a final draft.
Take a look at our handy quick guide to essay writing (PDF) for useful tips and techniques for you to apply.
You will find a number of great books on essay writing in the Laidlaw Library, Level 1, under Skills E-5.
Date published November 25, 2014 by Shane Bryson. Date updated: January 20, 2015
The first draft you write should not also be the last draft you write. Instead of aiming for polish in the first draft, many writers aim to develop the paper into something that can be polished later on.
Your goals are to turn your rough ideas into workable arguments, add detail to those arguments, and get a sense of what the final product will actually look like. When you finish the first draft, you will know which sections and paragraphs work and which might need to be changed. This possibility of change is one reason not to aim for perfect writing in the first draft: no need to waste your efforts polishing something you might later cut out or revise.
Order of first draft priorities
Order your priorities in writing your first draft as follows: forward momentum, clear organization, clear expression, clear citation, and finally, elegance, grammar, mechanics, and formatting.
- Forward momentum. Remember, the goal here is to produce a full workable draft, not a perfect one. Editing lightly as you write is fine, but the more that honing sentences slows you down, the less you will be thinking creatively and putting your ideas to paper coherently. So don’t edit heavily. Write your ideas now; perfect them later. If you’re unsatisfied with a sentence or argument, highlight it or flag it in some other way, and revisit it later.
- Clear organization. Nearly as important as getting your ideas into your document is ordering your ideas clearly so that you can retrace your logic when you begin to work on the second draft, minimizing the work you have to do there. Pay some attention to the logical ordering of paragraphs and sentences, but remember, much of this work should have been done in your outline to save you puzzling through organizational issues when you write the first draft. Also remember, though, that the organization does not have to be perfect, just logical, and when you begin your second draft you may decide to reorganize.
- Clear expression. Expressing your ideas clearly by, for example, creating smooth transitions and straightforward sentences is important to a degree. Again, giving your sentences clear expression saves you work later, but remember, sentences can be polished later. In your first draft, it’s only necessary that you will know what you meant by a certain expression.
- Clear citation. Students often make work for themselves by not noting sources when writing drafts. You don’t need to put in well-formatted citations yet, but you will save yourself much hassle later if in your first draft you note the essential information (names, years, page numbers) for each source you use. Forward-looking writers note citation information as they write.
- Elegance, grammar, mechanics, and formatting. Yes, elegance is your last priority when writing your first draft. At this point, flawless expression just is not very important. Do make sure that your writing is comprehensible, but that’s all you need to do. For most writers, forming ideal sentences takes much time and consideration. Worry about these time-consuming tasks when you begin to focus on editing. The same goes for formatting. And remember, there’s no point in perfecting a sentence before you are sure that it’s content is necessary and usefully explained.
Tips for writing a first draft
If you’ve taken the time to write an outline, you may think of writing the first draft as expanding on the outline you’ve prepared. Simply put, in your first draft you turn your rough outline into good, robust paragraphs.
Keep in mind the following while you work on your first draft:
- Start with the sections you want to. Some writers do not begin writing their essays at the introduction, or even the early body paragraphs. Start writing your essay where it seems most natural for you to do so. Some writers might prefer to start with the easiest section to write, while others prefer to get the most difficult section out of the way first. Think about what material you need to clarify for yourself, and consider beginning there.
- Keep your argument flexible. You may realize as you begin to write that some of your arguments don’t work as well as you thought they would. Don’t give up on them too easily, but be prepared to change or abandon arguments or sections if you need to. If you’re stuck on one section, move on to another and come back to the one that’s giving you trouble.
- Allow for conscientious expansion. Your first draft may incorporate ideas that you’d not yet thought of in the outline. In fact, probably you will find some new ideas as you write. Note these additions, and allow them to find a place in the paper, so long as you’re confident they will fit.
- Keep your outline nearby. To track your progress and stay on topic, continually refer to your outline while you write. Make notes, additions, and subtractions on it to reflect what you’re doing in the draft, and what you have in mind for the sections of your paper.
- If you are stuck, stop writing and start thinking. If you find yourself unable to continue to write, stop trying to write. Go back to an earlier stage in your writing process to generate more ideas, conduct more research, and work on your outline.
- Don’t delete content. If you begin to dislike the paper, do not scrap it in fit of rage. Put it in a different document if it makes you feel better, but keep what you have, even if you don’t plan on using it. You may find that it contains or inspires new ideas that you can use later.
- Write one manageable section at a time. Some writers choose to complete a full first draft before continuing work on their second draft, and this is especially effective for shorter papers or sections of papers. In long essays (about 20+ pages), though, some writers find it useful to write first drafts and second drafts for one section before moving on to another. In long papers, having a very clear idea of the organization of one section can help you write other sections.
What’s next? Read about the second draft