If I've learned how to do one thing as an English major, it's how to write a solid essay. This process took a long time to refine, though, starting way back in Junior Year of high school. (Well, before then, my teachers tried to teach me. Thank you, Ben Sombs. But I was not very receptive at that time, I guess! :) Many of the teachers at Regent University online have been particularly helpful in giving me personalized feedback about what wasn't working in my essays. Gradually, this and writing stories have helped me develop a good process. (The processes of essay-writing and story-writing actually don't differ a whole lot, as I'll note along the way.) I don't always use every step because each essay is a little different; but I wanted to share all the tools I have used. This post will share everything I wish I knew back when I first started writing essays.
*If I don't need a source, I just brainstorm about my topic and thesis. When I finish brainstorming, I skip to step 4 on this list.
Notes are like mind mulch. Good seeds come from mind mulch. (To see how I make mind mulch for stories, check out this post.)
5.) I compile the "good stuff" onto a new page or word document, separating it from the leftovers. Typically, by this point, some sort of central idea is beginning to percolate in the back of my mind, so I pick the notes that fit that idea. But I make sure to save the old leftover notes in case I change my mind later.
The thesis is a lot like the premise of a story. Or like God. It is the Alpha and the Omega of your essay.
13.) I tie everything up into a conclusion. I may form the conclusion at any time during the essay, not just at the end. Creating the conclusion helps me see my essay as a whole for the first time. It also forces me to see whether or not all the parts of the essay (introduction, body paragraphs and transitions) fit together. I summarize all of my main points and tie them into my argument, the thesis. And once I've finished with all these parts of the essay--thesis, body paragraphs, transitions and conclusion--there's only one essay component left to write.
14.) I write the introduction of the essay. This may seem backward, but let me explain. My introduction shows the reader the main points I will make and the order I will make them in.* If I don't know those things myself yet, how can I introduce them to my reader? I tinker with my introduction throughout the essay because it gives my essay both form and focus. It shares the "designing principle" (a term from John Truby's wonderful book The Anatomy of Story) of the essay with my readers--meaning, what will I cover and in what order? For example if I decide I'm going to argue how Moll Flanders changed after each of her (five) marriages in the essay, I might let them know the order: first marriage to last. Readers need to know this. So, to recap: once I've figured out my supporting points and tied them together using the transitions and conclusion, I can officially write "the" perfect intro to my creation because I finally have all the parts. That's what I write it at the end. Then I've finished my rough draft! The process gets easier from here on out.
*The introduction also interests the reader in my essay so they'll keep reading. This is called "hooking" the reader. A "hook" can be a quote, a question, a startling statistic or claim...anything that will interest them, really.
15.) I clean up the draft by clarifying rough spots, fixing typos and making it all-around prettier. This usually involves taking a step back and letting the work sit for a short time. If I have a few days (I usually don't), I'll come back to the essay and probably be glad I did. Oftentimes I'm too "close" to my work to catch all the typos. I almost always read my paper out loud to myself before turning it in, because that helps even an overloaded brain find the weak spots. Some people print papers out to spot more typos, but that doesn't do much for me. Save a tree. Once in a while I will change the font as I do a final read-through. This helps catch those final typos because, rather than skimming through all that Times New Roman again, I have to actually look at the words. And then? Then I'm finished.
16.) And I go celebrate. Seriously, that was hard work.
This process is extremely fluid, which can make it stressful. Every essay works out a little bit differently. I always use certain steps, but other steps I only use once in a while. And there is no set time period for writing an essay--often, it takes me at least a full day of slogging to complete a rough draft. But even sledding, an essay takes hours of diligent work. But once you learn to trust the process (your own process, I mean, not necessarily the one I've laid out here), then it will become a bit less stressful. We Scribblers must simply keep pressing on if we're going to write worth-while essays!
By Dbxsoul (Own work) [CC-BY-3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/3.0)], via Wikimedia Commons