Essay writing for college involves a few steps. Each step is equally important and skipping steps or not allowing yourself enough time to complete each step will result in a less impressive paper.

If you don’t have a lot of experience writing essays, get used to following these steps each time you write an essay until you develop a system that works best for you. You should remember that starting an essay the night before it is due is not enough time to write an excellent paper.

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Step 1: Preparing to Write

This may seem like common sense, but preparation before you actually start writing is a key part of writing a paper. Read over your assignment and make sure you know exactly what your instructor wants from you. If there’s anything you’re unsure of, this is the time to ask for clarification. Things to be aware of:

  • how many pages or words are required?
  • how many sources are required?
  • what types of sources are acceptable?
  • when is the assignment due?
  • how much is the assignment worth?

This is the stage to start mapping out your ideas for your paper. Your instructor may have a very specific topic to write about or may allow you to choose your own topic. Make sure you’re clear about what you’re hoping to prove and write some notes for yourself about the topic. You don’t need to do a lot of writing; this is just the stage where you’re deciding your topic. Write a very short outline of what you think you may find or to keep track of what you already know about your topic. The next step will help you narrow your topic even more and see if your thesis statement or the main point you’re hoping to prove can be supported.

Step 2: Researching

Usually your instructor wants you to include certain types of information sources to support your thesis. If you’re used to finding all your information from Google, you may find this step more challenging in college. Most instructors expect more thorough research for academic courses and the JIBC Library should be your first stop for research. Besides books specific to your courses, the Library has subscriptions to academic journals and article databases that will meet the requirements from your instructor and help you write a stronger paper. There may also be a subject guide for your course that will give tips on researching. Librarians can help you if you’re not sure how to get started, or check through the Research Help page.

Choosing the best search terms is the hardest part of researching. Books and articles are described by people who organise information, so they use standard descriptions to make finding materials easier. A few tips:

  1. avoid using a, an, the, of, and other short linking words. These are not useful in searches and can make your results less accurate
  2. avoid verbs like “describe,” “discuss,” “compare,” or others. Concentrate on descriptive keywords for more accuracy
  3. put two or more keywords together by using “and” and “or” to narrow or broaden your search (e.g. leadership AND Canada)
  4. think of synonyms for your keywords so you can try different combinations of search terms. Keep track of the words and combinations in case you have to do your research over a few days

Once you’ve found some information sources, skim through each to figure out if they will be useful for your essay. Is it related to your topic? Is this source reliable? How current is this information? Does the information fall in one of the areas of your outline? Even if the information contradicts your thesis, make a note of it in case you decide to change your point of view during the writing step.

Make sure you’ve kept excellent notes on where all your information came from so you can more easily put your bibliography together. See the JIBC’s APA Guide if you’re not sure how to cite your sources. At the very least, make sure to write down the following pieces of information about each source you look at, even if you don’t use it in your first draft:

  • author
  • title
  • date of publication
  • page numbers
  • edition number, for journal articles
  • publisher
  • place of publication
  • where you found it, for journal articles

Step 3: Writing

This is the time to synthesize or combine all the information you found and the ideas that you’ve developed from your research into written form. Start with a first draft of your essay, adding in everything you listed on your outline. Make sure you’ve stated your thesis, or the main point you’re trying to prove in your paper, in the opening paragraph or the introduction.

Arrange your ideas into separate paragraphs and your paragraphs into a logical order. Include your introduction, the body of the essay that supports your thesis statement, and a conclusion to summarise your findings or research.

When you’ve completed your first draft, read through your paper critically or have someone else read your paper and give feedback. Often a tutor, a friend, or even an instructor will agree to read a first draft and let you know how to improve on it. The second draft should fix all the issues or changes from the first draft review. Ask yourself the following questions during this review:

  • Have you included everything your instructor required?
  • Did you answer what you stated you would in the Introduction?
  • Does the flow of information support your argument in a clear way for the reader?
  • Is there a balance between analysis and facts?
  • Is your thesis or argument clearly supported by your research?
  • Have you made grammar or spelling errors?
  • Is the writing style clear?
  • Did you answer the thesis statement in the Conclusion?
  • Have you forgotten anything?

Last updated February 9, 2012