Writing tips

You should give each formal essay its own unique title.  "Paper 3" or "Essay One" are not titles.  The original title of a literary work is that work's title and should not be used as the title of your essay.  If you submit a paper entitled "Frankenstein," your professor might say, "That title is Mary Shelley's
where's yours?"

As stated in the Harbrace College Handbook, Revised 13th ed, "A good title fits the subject and tone of an essay.  The title is the reader's first impression and, like the introduction, should fit the subject and tone of the paper.  Sometimes the title announces the subject simply and directly: 'Grant and Lee' or 'Civil Disobedience.'  Often a title uses alliteration to reflect the writer's humorous approach, as in "A Pepsi Person in the Perrier Generation,' or a twisted cliché, as in 'The Right Wrong Stuff.'  A good title may also arouse the reader's curiosity by asking a question, as does 'Who Killed the Bog Men of Denmark?  And Why?'" (360). 

Except for brief questions, titles should not generally be complete sentences, but instead should be brief phrases, as in "Gender Roles Gone Awry" or "Cell-Phone Hell"

1) Addressing the assignment:

Often when you are given a specific writing assignment, the most crucial factor in the success of your work is whether or not you address the assignment squarely—directly, fully, and precisely.  Most professors put careful thought into writing assignments, intending that they accomplish very specific aims, so if you do not address a given topic squarely and precisely you risk your time and effort being rewarded with a disappointing grade.  Some professors will take pity and give decent grades for well-written essays that diverge from a specifically assigned topic—others, probably most, will not be so soft-hearted and will fail or at least penalize substantially otherwise brilliant essays if they do not address the assignment squarely.

One way to ensure that your essay addresses the assignment is to incorporate as much of the assignment question as is reasonable without blatantly plagiarizing into your first paragraph.  Especially on in-class essays or essay exams, don't be afraid to refashion the assignment topic in your own words.  Identify the most important terms, or "key words," in an assignment, and be sure you use those specific key words in your intro paragraph.

Sample assignment question, with key words highlighted:
In today's world so concerned with political correctness, feminists have made it tough on men.  In many respects, men today are having to pay for the "sins" their forefathers committed in the past when they unwittingly considered women second-class citizens.  Discuss the most significant obstacles contemporary American men face as a result of the "feminist revolution" in the late twentieth century.

Sample essay beginning: The feminist movement of the 1970s and 1980s brought about many long overdue changes in society that have allowed women in the 1990s and early 2000s to enjoy greater freedom and equality with men than ever before.  However, in some respects the advances women have made in recent decades and the current concern with "political correctness" have made life tougher for men today.  For example, an undergraduate male applying to medical school today has to face the real possibility that a female applicant with the same GPA and a list of extracurricular accomplishments identical to his will be accepted ahead of him—only because the school in question wants to show the world that they have "x" number of women medical students.  In some respects men today are having to pay for the "sins" of men in the past, when women were wrongly considered second-class citizens.  Because of the "feminist revolution," there are a number of significant professional, social, and personal obstacles facing American men today.

2) Maintaining focus: intro questions and topic sentences

The previous in-class exercise concentrated on an essay's addressing a given assignment squarely by "borrowing" key words from the assignment itself.  After an essay's overall focus on an assigned topic, one of the most important factors in the success of an essay is how well it stays focused on the stated topic (the topic established in the introduction) throughout the body of the essay.

One effective way to ensure that your essay focuses at the paragraph level on the stated topic throughout is to have your topic sentences answer the "intro question" directly, repeating key words from the intro question in each topic sentence so that the primary point—or topic—of each paragraph relates directly to your thesis (the full, complete answer to the intro question).

Note how the topic sentences answer the question directly in the example below.

Sample topic sentence outline:

Intro question:  Why do so many people commit adultery?

Opposing view topic sentence 1:
One theory as to why so many people commit adultery holds that human beings are not by nature monogamous, that lifelong fidelity to a single sexual partner is unnatural.

Another theory would have us believe that the so-called "mid-life crisis" is the reason so many people commit adultery.

Author's view TS1:
It may be that many people engage in adultery from simple boredom.

Author's view TS2:
People commit adultery, too, because some see cheating as method of escape or relief from problems within their marriages.

Author's view TS3:
Perhaps the most pervasive underlying cause for the frequent occurrence of adultery is our society's casual attitude towards both marriage and divorce in general.

Adultery is common mainly because people get bored with their partners, because they have deeper problems in the relationship and seek solace or relief in the arms of others, and because our society has a casual attitude towards both marriage and divorce in general.

3) Focused, unified body paragraphs

Introductory and concluding paragraphs are a different matter, but the paragraphs that make up the guts of your essays, the body paragraphs, need the following to be effective units of argument or analysis:

1)  A topic sentence, a direct statement of the main point of the paragraph.  In question-driven essays, topic sentences should answer the intro question directly (from the opposition viewpoint in paragraphs of "opposing views" in persuasive format).

2)  Unity and coherence: the paragraph should remain clearly focused on one primary point throughout the paragraph, proving or backing up the major point the paragraph contributes to the larger argument (i.e. the topic sentence).  Usually, "body paragraphs" should elaborate only one major point of argument—one main point per paragraph.

3)  Development: the paragraph should offer effective and convincing support to prove or illustrate the primary point of the paragraph—a developed paragraph gives evidence through illustrative examples and detailed explanation of the topic sentence.

Topic Sentences:
Consider again the hypothetical paper from the third in-class exercise, addressing the question, "Why do so many people commit adultery?"

1st opposing view:
One theory as to why so many people commit adultery holds that human beings are not by nature monogamous, that lifelong fidelity to a single sexual partner is unnatural.

2nd opposing view:
Another theory would have us believe that the so-called "mid-life crisis" is the reason so many people commit adultery. . . .

Author's point 1:
 It may be that many people engage in adultery from simple boredom—it is a sad but true fact that in many marriages sex becomes "old" within months of the honeymoon.

Author's point 2:
People commit adultery, too, because some see cheating as method of escape or relief from other, deeper problems in their marriages.

Author's point 3:
Perhaps the most pervasive underlying cause for the frequent occurrence of adultery is our society's casual attitude towards both marriage and divorce in general.

Adultery is common mainly because people get bored with their partners, because they have deeper problems in the relationship and seek solace or relief in the arms of others, and because our society has a casual attitude towards both marriage and divorce in general.

Recall that essays maintain focus globally by having each topic sentence answer the question you are answering directly, by repeating "key words" from the question in each topic sentence.  Note how the "key words" from the topic sentence in the sample paragraph below are repeated and reiterated throughout the paragraph, sometimes through direct repetition of the most significant words in the topic sentence and sometimes through iteration of words closely related to those key words: i.e. synonyms, antonyms, different forms of the key words.

Sample Body Paragraph (Author's point 3):

Perhaps the most pervasive underlying cause for the frequent occurrence of adultery is our society's casual attitude towards both marriage and divorce in general.  Since it is almost the norm today for people to be married two or more times, the social consequences of getting caught in adultery are not so grave as they once were.  Our society has such a permissive attitude towards divorce that we have made marriage a far more casual institution than it was only a few decades ago.  It was only mildly inappropriate that a certain wiseacre at a wedding I recently attended commented to the happy bride and groom, “I hope you two have a good time on your honeymoon: you only get married two or three times in life.”  The couple had hardly sworn their sacred vows to remain faithful to one another until death, and this joker suggested that marriage is not a serious commitment that should last forever.  “There's always divorce if the marriage doesn't work out,” this smart aleck implied.  As much as his comment was in poor taste, the fact is, the groom had indeed sworn the same sacred vows to a different woman five years before.  This casual attitude today that seems to anticipate marriages ending in divorce even before they are underway makes adultery, the gravest of marital sins, almost acceptable in the eyes of society.  If adultery is not exactly accepted today, it has certainly come to be tolerated: hence the contradictory phrase, “a casual affair.”  Our society tolerates people breaking their marriage vows by cheating on their spouses because we do not value marriage as an institution based on serious commitment as our grandparents did.  We almost seem to value divorce more than we do marriage.


Many experts believe the introduction is any essay's most important paragraph. In addition to establishing the central focus of the entire essay, the introduction also provides readers with a very important first impression of a writer.  A hasty, predictable, or boring introduction can impact your reader's perception of the entire paper negatively, making the task of persuading the reader to agree with your assessment of a particular issue more of an uphill challenge than it has to be.  On the other hand, a strong, interesting, engaging introduction produces a favorable first impression that entices your reader to listen more receptively to what follows in the body of the essay.  

Introductions should be thoughtful, fully-developed paragraphs. I'm not one who believes any paragraph should contain a specific number of sentences, but as a rule, introductions should be at least approximately as well developed as your typical body paragraphs are.  At a minimum, a decently well-developed introduction should be half a typed page in length— preferably closer to two-thirds of a page.

Think of your introduction as being like a trial lawyer's opening statement to a jury: if a lawyer says little more than "My client is innocent of the charges, and I'll explain why later," the defendant may be in (even more) serious trouble! Or say if the lawyer were to take only two or three minutes to state very quickly the bare bones of the case—"Good morning, thank you for your service to the community.  I'm sure you all know the importance of keeping an open mind as you hear the evidence on both sides of the case.  And as you know, too, if you find any reasonable doubt in the prosecutor's case, it's your duty to vote Not Guilty.  My client is in fact not guilty: she has an alibi, she had no reason to want the victim dead, and the prosecutor has no evidence putting her at the scene of the crime." Anything short of a fully developed, carefully elaborated opening statement is going to influence a jury to think poorly of the lawyer and/or defendant before any of the case proper, the presentation of evidence, has even begun.

Engage your reader's interest and attention
Different topics require different tones and approaches, of course, but you should strive to grab your reader's interest from the very first sentence.  In a manner fitting your subject and the audience you are addressing, you might try such strategies of engaging the reader's attention as opening 1) with humor—a quick joke closely related to your central topic, for instance; 2) with an eye-opening fact, as in the number of cases of beer sold each day in the U.S. (in an argument about the drinking age, for example); or 3) with a brief anecdote or hypothetical story or scenario illustrating your general topic vividly—describing the last ten minutes in the life of a convicted murderer before he is to be executed might work well, for instance, in a paper on the death penalty. 

Start broad, then narrow to your central focus
It's always good to get straight to the point, but effective introductions often open with broad, general information on a subject before narrowing the focus to the specific issue at hand.  Introductions, in addition to engaging the reader's interest, should also establish your credibility as a reliable thinker—remember, "first impressions" are important.

For a literary paper on War and Peace, for instance, you might start with statements on how war has been an integral part of history from the earliest recorded times; then you might narrow the focus to European wars after the Renaissance, then you could constrict the focus even more to Napoleon; you might next transition into Tolstoy's novel, War and Peace, by commenting on Tolstoy's background as one of the world's greatest novelists and as a soldier in the Caucasus early in his life, further tightening the focus down to his depiction of war in several of his different writings—then further narrower still to a two-sentence overview of the plot of War and PeaceThen you would get to the heart of the matter by stating the central focus of the body of the essay (i.e. a thesis statement, a statement of purpose [ "this essay will examine the legitimacy of Tolstoy's theories of warfare," e.g.], or in question-driven essays, the central question the rest of the paper will strive to answer, as in "Is Tolstoy's portrayal of the Battle of Borodino faithful and accurate, or does he stretch the truth to further his larger artistic aims?").

Broad, general information to set up a topic should be closely related to the central focus, of course, just as war in broad historical perspective is certainly related to the subject of Tolstoy's portrayal of a single battle during Napoleon's invasion of Russia in War and Peace. Tactics for "starting general" can include historical background, relevant statistics and facts, definitions of key terms, and biographical information, among other possibilities.

Emphasize the relevance of your topic
It's not always possible to explain how some topics have important relevance (as in an essay about W. B. Yeats's various uses of different types of rhymes, e.g.), but when you can, you should in the introduction strive to convince your reader of the particular importance of your topic, especially at the specific time you are writing.  For example, in an essay on the morality of abortion, you might emphasize the topic's relevance by mentioning recent news stories about increasing violence against workers at the Planned Parenthood clinics.  Or in an essay on the pros and cons of lowering taxes, you could emphasize the issue's timely importance in the months leading up to national elections.  If you can convince your reader that your topic has meaningful relevance to him or her, you are more likely to get that reader to attend more carefully to what you have to say in the body of the essay. 

Introductions ending in questions: keeping general and neutral
In the introduction for a question-driven essay, the essay's central question should be the last sentence in the introduction (where a thesis would be in a thesis-driven essay).  The question should be a literal question, an interrogative sentence ending in a question mark, and it should set up the central issue of the entire essay in the simplest, most direct fashion possible, as in "Should marijuana in fact be legalized?" or "Do harsher sentences really deter criminals from committing crimes?"  In argumentative papers, introductions can present both sides of an argument before raising the question, as if to say, "well, which of these views is best?"  But on topics where you are not presenting argumentation of two or more sides of an issue where there is considerable disagreement between the different viewpoints, it is important that you do not give away specific "answers" to the question before you raise it at the end of the introduction—the answers should come only in the body of the essay.  The idea in the introduction for the question-driven essay is not to state your major views on the topic, but merely to set up the question in the most neutral and engaging fashion possible.  Instead of answering the question before you raise it, which often makes raising the question seem redundant or unnecessary, you should follow the tactics outlined above for engaging your reader's interest and attention, starting broad and then narrowing the discussion to your central focus, and emphasizing the timely relevance of your topic.  Again, do not answer the question before you raise it!


Many of those experts who do not believe the introduction is an essay's single most important paragraph say the conclusion is the most important paragraph in any essay because it is the crowning culmination of the entire discussion, and just as the introduction provides an important first impression, the conclusion offers your reader an even more important final impression of your work.  As a separate unit, the conclusion is literally your "last word" with the reader, and if the conclusion is hasty, underdeveloped, and simply a predictable repetition of what you've already established in the body of the paper, this last impression can seem anticlimactic and leave your reader disappointed and unimpressed with the essay as a whole.  The conclusion is an essay's climax: it's what the entire paper is building to deliver, so it really should be as strong and convincing as possible.  In fact, impressively strong conclusions can have the impact of mitigating weaknesses in the body of the paper, effectively making readers "forget" substantial objections or problems they might have had with points earlier in the body of the discussion. 

Just as with introductions, conclusions should as a rule be at least approximately as well developed as your typical body paragraphs are: at least roughly half a page in length, if not more.

To return to the example of the trial lawyer: if a lawyer's closing statement contains little more than a cursory "My client is innocent, just as I showed when we were interviewing witnesses," the jury is likely to be entirely unimpressed—wondering, "well, is that all?"  An effective closing statement doesn't simply reiterate the thesis of the argument that has preceded in the "body" of the trial; it drives home the major points of the argument in the most emphatically convincing fashion possible.  If you're old enough to remember the O. J. Simpson trial, recall how artfully Johnnie Cochran kept hammering home to the jury, "You must acquit."

Summing up: presenting the thesis
You do in a conclusion, of course, need to sum up the major points of your argument or analysis from the body of the essay—and in a question-driven essay, where you have been building the thesis one point at a time in each body paragraph, the conclusion is the first place where you actually deliver the thesis, the full and complete answer to the central question, tying together the different major points from the body paragraphs as illustrated above in Writing Tip #2.  But beyond mechanically restating each point separately and then combining them in the thesis, you can reiterate the high points in your elaboration of each point individually from the body of the essay without repeating each of those points heavy-handedly. In the thesis it is important to repeat the key words from topic sentences, but the conclusion should not, as a whole, be so directly repetitive as the topic sentences and thesis should be.  Leading up to the thesis—here is the place for creativity: sum up the essential points from the body of the essay individually with all the style and creativity you can muster. Don't lose steam at the end of the paper just because you're nearing the end—finish strong!  Here at the end should be your most effective and inspired writing.

Connecting back to the introduction
Many writing teachers advise referring back to specific matters mentioned in the introduction.  This tactic can be especially effective if you have opened with a definition or an anecdote or quick story to grab your reader's attention.  For example, if in the introduction you set up the topic of cell phones being an irritation with the hypothetical examples of Billy and Cindy's spending more time on their cell phones than talking to each other on a first date, or of a constant chorus of ring-tones going off during a funeral, referring to Billy and Cindy or the funeral again in your conclusion gives a satisfying sense of unity and closure.  Granted, depending on how you constructed the introduction, "referring back" so directly may not always be applicable, but at the very least, you might begin the conclusion with a restatement of the question itself from the introduction.

Close by convincing the reader why he or she would be better off agreeing with your views on the issue
One tactic for wrapping up an essay that is almost always effective is to remind your reader why the topic as a whole is relevant, perhaps here, too, harkening back to the introduction.  In essence, the conclusion should explain why the topic as a whole is worth your taking the trouble to write about in the first place—and even more, why it's worth your reader's time to read and consider carefully what you have to say.  But going beyond simply that the issue is timely, in the conclusion you should, if at all possible, drive home forcefully how the issue may have some direct impact on the reader in his or her own life.  For instance, in an essay on how Chaucer is critical of the clergy in his fourteenth-century Canterbury Tales, you might drive home to your reader that he or she would do well to keep in mind that even today people in the church often have the same failings and weaknesses as the rest of us do, sometimes even to a greater degree than we do.   You might go one further and say, too, that Chaucer's continuing relevance on this matter shows the value of literature through time, urging the reader not to dismiss medieval literature as merely "school stuff," but as a source of life-lessons that apply to us today just as much as they did in the 1300s. . . .  Or if you have argued that mandatory drug testing of junior high school students helps to identify many drug users before their adolescent experimentation has led to serious addiction, you could close by reminding the reader that the child whose life may saved from ruin could be his or her own one of these days. . . .  I hope you get the idea: whenever you can, try to close by showing the reader how the topic as a whole may be more important to him or her than it might appear at first blush, and even more, how your specific "take" on the topic, especially in an argument, is one the reader would benefit from agreeing with.