Writing Composition: General Essays

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Everybody knows how to write an essay – don’t they? Well, many third-level students often find themselves staring at a blank screen and a blinking cursor for the longest time, as they struggle to write even the most basic introductory sentence to their topic.
Sound familiar? Well, you’re not alone. Help is at hand and by following just a few easy steps, you will also become much more comfortable with the essay writing process in a very short time.
Everybody knows how to write an essay – don’t they? Yet, many third-level students find
themselves staring at a blank screen and a blinking cursor for the longest time, as they
struggle to write even the most basic introductory sentence to their topic.
Sound familiar? Well, you’re not alone. Help is at hand and by following just a few easy
steps, you will also become much more comfortable with the essay writing process in a very
short time.
Where do I start?
A very natural inclination, when you are first handed an assignment title, is to begin writing
immediately. However, what if we were to tell you that this is, in fact, the fifth step you should
be taking, and not the first? Have a look at the step-by-step guide below, which should be
followed as soon as you receive your assignment, and see if you can see why we recom-
mend them:
1. Choose Your Topic
This may seem like an obvious choice, but you really do need to choose your topic
carefully. Think about how much you already know about each of the options given to
you, and just as importantly, which of those topics interests you most? If you choose a
topic simply because it appears to be the easiest or the most straightforward option, this
will show in your writing: a writer who is just going through the motions is immediately ob-
vious to the reader. The opposite is also true, and a writer who is genuinely interested in
their topic will immediately convey that to their reader. Also, researching your chosen
topic is not as much hard work if you choose wisely!
2. Think About It
Time spent thinking about an assignment topic is NOT time wasted. Nor, for that mat-
ter, is any time spent talking about, or debating, these topics. Discussing different matters
2. with classmates and friends helps to clarify our own thinking. This, in turn, helps us to
form a particular line of argument and to create a framework upon which we can base our
Brainstorming is also a very effective means of getting whatever is in your head down on
paper. This will free up some headspace when you feel you’re overwhelmed with infor-
mation and cannot decide where to go with a topic.
Freewriting will help you get it out of your head and down on paper. It can be edited,
proofread and organised at a later stage. Every student should free-write for thirty
minutes a day!
3. Research
Use all resources available to you. Your lecturers will have given you a reading list, and
make sure you actually use it! These texts are specifically chosen to help you with your
coursework and you’ll gain some valuable insights into the topic that are sure to make
writing your assignment easier. Familiarise yourself with the course content as listed on
Canvas and, also, make full use of the various resources available through the Boole li-
brary here in UCC.
Read widely and be mindful of the guidelines you are given by lecturers and tutors on
various texts. E.g. ‘essential’ reading is just that, and it is not optional! Try to incorporate
texts that are not on the recommended reading lists as well.
4. Plan/ Structure
Planning your essay is vital and will help you to feel more in control of your assign-
ment as it begins to take shape. Again, this is not time wasted, so do not skip this step!
Use a mind map, bullet points, spider diagram or any other form of planning tool you wish.
Doing this will:
- Help organise and prepare a coherent argument.
3. - Enables you to design a logical structure for your work, and it provides
you with an end point before you start writing.
- Make the process of essay writing far easier; if you are trying to structure
and write your essay at the same time it can be quite difficult and confusing.
- Will help you to stay on track and stick to the point.
Write out your essay plan and keep it near you as you write.
Your plan should include an outline of each of the paragraphs in your essay and key
ideas/ topics/ themes you wish to address. You will always have the basic structure of an
essay in any written assignment: an introduction, a conclusion and a number of body para-
Once you have settled on your central claim (argument) and you have written down which
main points you need to discuss in order to justify your position, you will find it much easier
to maintain a clear focus throughout the essay.
A 2000-word essay may be broken down as follows:
250-word introduction
250-word conclusion
4x 300-400-word paragraphs
5. Write
Now you are finally ready to write! Each one of your main body paragraphs should focus
on one point relevant to the one central claim/argument which you will have identified
as you planned your assignment. Each of these main body paragraphs should introduce
its central idea, and this should then be developed fully, using plenty of literature refer-
ences as well as details, definitions, illustrations, comparisons and contrasts where appro-
4. 6. Revising, Editing and Proofreading
The first draft of an essay should never be the one that is submitted for marking. Yes,
this means that you need to begin your assignments well in advance of the deadlines.
Ideally, you should leave a day or two between finishing a draft and revising it, just so
you are looking at it with fresh eyes and a clear perspective.
So, what do we do when we are revising our assignment drafts? We look at:
1. Main argument - is it clearly stated in the introduction?
2. Structure of the assignment – is it logical and balanced?
3. Content – is what you have discussed in the essay keeping with the title of
the paper? Is the content covering all the points that you mentioned in your
4. Is all the information discussed in the paper relevant?
5. Clarity – are all the main points clearly linked to the overall argument?
6. Consistency – in tenses, referencing, etc.
7. Economy of word use – are there overly-complex sentences that could be
cut out? Are there too many descriptive words?
Where possible, you might also get a friend to read over your paper before you submit
it, to check for spelling, punctuation and grammatical errors.
You might find it helpful to read the text aloud to yourself.
Your ear will most likely pick up what tired eyes often miss, and you will be more alert to
the clarity and flow of your assignment as it will sound to another, less familiar reader.
You can also enable text to speech in your Microsoft Word Document (see the useful links
5. Useful Links
- UCC Library, ‘Assignment Essentials: Steps 1-5’, Available at: https://lib-
- Purdue University, Online Writing Lab, Available at: https://owl.english.pur-
- Using English for Academic Purposes For Students in Higher Education,
Available at: http://www.uefap.net/
- Massachusetts Institute of Technology, ‘The Writing Process’, Available at:
- Guide to Grammar, ‘Getting Started: Overcoming Writer’s Block’, Available
at: http://guidetogrammar.org/grammar/composition/brainstorm.htm
- Skills You Need, ‘Develop The Skills You Need for Life’, Available at:
- University of Birmingham, ‘ASC resources’, Available at: https://intranet.bir-
- University of Sheffield Academic Skills Centre, ‘Study Skills Online’, Availa-
ble at: https://www.sheffield.ac.uk/ssid/301/study-skills
- University of Nottingham, ‘Study Resources’, Available at: https://www.not-
- University of Leicester, Student Learning Development, ‘Develop your Writ-
ing’, Available at: https://www2.le.ac.uk/offices/ld/all-resources/writing
- Tutorials4view, ‘How to add Text to Speech option to Word (voice) – Tuto-
rial’, Available at: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=YFznemOKQ44
Other Relevant PDFs
- Unpacking the Question
- Essay Planning & Structuring
- Introductions
- Conclusions
- Paragraph Structure
- Sentence Structure
- Punctuation
- Editing
- Proofreading
- Grammar
- How to Build an Academic Argument
- Evidence & Incorporating Research
- Paraphrasing