Why Write an Essay?
An essay is an attempt to prove a point. Perhaps you're arguing against a change in your school's rules, or trying to convince readers that Fringe is the best television show ever, or simply persuade your parents to let you borrow the car Saturday night. Regardless of the point you're making, a well-written essay can help you convince your reader to see things your way.
What Makes a Well-Written Essay?
What does a well-written essay look like? One of my high school teachers provided this diagram:
What does this diagram mean? It means that you begin to write your essay with an introduction which starts from a general subject area and narrows down to a specific point. (That's why the first shape is a triangle that comes to a point at the bottom.) Once you've made that point, you provide three or more paragraphs that each contain an observation or fact that supports your point. When you feel you've provided enough evidence to support your point, you re-state the point in your conclusion, briefly summarize your evidence, and end with a general statement about your general subject area.
Writing a Sample Essay
That's a bit vague, so let's look at a more specific example. Let's say I'm writing an essay to convince readers that chocolate ice cream is superior to strawberry ice cream. That's the "point" I need to get to in my essay's introduction. Next, I'll need to provide evidence to support that argument. I do some research online and in my local public library, learning about ice cream in general, how chocolate and strawberry ice cream are made, examining nutritional facts about each, etc. Let's say that my research has given me three good points to support my argument:
- According to About.com, chocolate contains flavonoids, which area antioxidants that can help reduce blood pressure and cholesterol. That sounds like a good point to support the argument that chocolate is better.
- Wikipedia says that some people are allergic to strawberries. Allergies to chocolate are rare, according to About.com.
- According to the International Ice Cream Association, chocolate is a more popular flavor than strawberry. Vanilla is more popular than both, though, so I'm going to have to dismiss that point somehow.
In a "real" essay, I'd recommend finding some more persuasive points than these. I'd also put extra effort into ensuring that these sources are reliable and accurate. While Wikipedia and About.com are fairly accurate sites in general, it is possible that someone could find better evidence to dispute these points. If I was writing this essay for a grade, I'd want the best sources I could find.
When I look at my three points, let's say that I decide the "popularity" point is the least persuasive. The allergy issue is a bit more powerful. But the health benefits of chocolate are the point I think will really convince people. I'm going to arrange my points in order from least persuasive to most persuasive.
Here's how all this fits into the essay writing diagram:
My essay is practically written. I know the point I'm making. I can support it with at least three arguments. I know how to conclude the essay. So how might this essay look when it's finished? Try this:
Ice cream is one of the most popular desserts in America. Ice cream makers offer it in a variety of flavors. Strawberry and chocolate are two of the most popular ice cream flavors on the market. Of these, chocolate is the better flavor.
I'm not the only one who thinks chocolate is better. In a study done by the International Ice Cream Association, chocolate was far more popular with consumers than strawberry. The study reports that 8.9% of people prefer chocolate ice cream, while only 5.3% prefer strawberry. Clearly, many more people find chocolate to be the better ice cream flavor.
Chocolate isn't just more popular, it's safer to eat. According to About.com, allergies to chocolate are extremely rare. Allergies to strawberries are somewhat common. Who wants to risk a serious allergic reaction just to eat ice cream? Stick with chocolate.
If safety and popularity weren't enough, chocolate is also good for you. Chocolate contains antioxidants known as flavonoids, which studies have shown will reduce cholesterol and help lower your blood pressure. Strawberries, though they may be good for you, can't do that.
Chocolate ice cream is simply a better choice than strawberry. It's healthier. It's less likely to trigger an allergic reaction. It's also a lot more popular. The next time you're in the grocery to pick up some ice cream, remember to choose chocolate. You'll be glad you did.
That's really all there is to writing an essay. Choose a point, support it with facts, dismiss any likely arguments to each fact, and close by re-stating your point.
Linking Your Essay TogetherThere is one more thing you should do. When you look at the diagram, you'll notice there are "chain links" connecting the blocks. These tell you that it's important to transition from one paragraph to the next.
If you look at each of the paragraphs in my sample essay above, I did that. At the end of the first paragraph, I closed with "chocolate is the better flavor". The next paragraph linked back to that, saying "I'm not the only one who thinks chocolate is better..." The third paragraph started with a reference to the "popularity" of chocolate in the second paragraph. The next one calls back to the two preceding paragraphs, saying "If safety [second supporting point] and popularity [first supporting point] weren't enough..."
The end result is an essay that makes its point, backs it up with facts, flows nicely from one paragraph to the next, and reminds readers of the points it makes in its conclusion. Don't forget to re-read it, spell-check it, etc.