How to write an essay in 4 steps

Write an essay in four steps with a writing process that can help you enjoy writing more and get better results. This process can also work when writing reports, reflections, reviews, and many types of written assignment.

Prepare, plan, write, edit
  1. Prepare: Get a strong start by a) understanding the task, b) reading, and c) generating ideas. 
  2. Plan: Plan the project so you can get it done on time, and plan the structure of your essay so you feel confident when you start to write it. 
  3. Write: Read more closely and build paragraphs from sentences. The two main types of sentences you will write will a) make statements about other people’s ideas and work, and b) offer ideas or observations of your own.
  4. Edit: Clarify sentences, strengthen paragraph structures, add more evidence, and proofread for errors.

Note: These four steps don’t always happen in a tidy, linear way. You might have to go back and forth in your process, so be flexible and patient. It’s never perfectly tidy, and that’s totally normal.

But if you follow the four step process you can make the writing process feel more like the first drawing above and less like second drawing.

But what is an essay? An essay can be many things. Some essays are instructive; they teach or communicate knowledge. Others are persuasive; they use evidence and argument to try to persuade the reader of a certain view. Others are more discursive or exploratory; they look at ideas from different perspectives and may leave some questions unanswered.

Most of all, your essay is a chance for you to practice writing and communication, often to practice critical thinking. From an assessment perspective, your essay is meant to demonstrate that you can handle and work appropriately with the concepts, vocabulary, and practices of your chosen subject.

OK let’s look more closely at how to write an essay in four steps. Take out some pens, pencils, papers, etc. and make yourself a calm working space. Close browser tabs, turn off your phone, and let’s go…

1. Prepare

Understand the task: If you skip this step you may end up missing opportunities or going off track. That’s because most assignments, even simple ones, have a lot of detail. This can be confusing. Teachers’ guidance can be all over the place and difficult to find. Their way of organising reflects how they think, not how you work. 

So, make your own assignment brief. Transform their jumble of ideas and information into a tidy single-page document that makes sense for you. Identify the main tasks, important criteria etc, and put this all in one place.

Bring together your teacher’s mess into one tidy place

Pay attention the verbs (the action words) your teacher uses. For example: describe, analyse, or synthesise. These are all different ways of thinking and communicating. Ask for clarification if you don’t understand.

Notice what kind of question or prompt you are asked. For example, “Is the UK’s immigration policy fair?” can be answered with a yes or a no. This means your teacher may be asking you to take a position and argue for it. But be careful: even yes-or-no questions can be answered in a nuanced way (in the previous example, perhaps it depends how you define “fair”). Other questions might be asking for a more balanced approach. For example: “Discuss the pros and cons of GDPR regulations”.

Ask your teachers for clarification and examples to get a clearer picture of what they expect from you.

Look carefully at the marking criteria or rubric. If there isn’t one, ask for guidance — after all, you have a right to know how you will be assessed. Use these criteria to help you know what to aim for. 

For example, the rubric may say that an excellent papers will “demonstrate awareness of multiple perspectives”. That means you will show that an idea can be seen in different ways, or that there are more than one way to assess the validity of an idea. But if you don’t look for these clues, you may miss the chance to strengthen your work.

Read. Most strong student writing begins with reading. Your writing will likely report on and respond to existing ideas, theories, authors etc. So you must do early reading to get a sense for what you’ll be reporting on and responding to. This will also help you plan your paper. Use our active reading methods to cover many readings efficiently and effectively. Use our note-making methods to document what you learn.

In your reading, aim to understand main concepts and arguments, identify ideas and authors that might be useful for your paper, and generate ideas for what to include in your essay. You can make notes on readings using a literature or reading matrix, as so:

literature matrix
A reading matrix helps you keep track of ideas for your essay

As you read you will likely get ideas, which leads nicely to the next step…

Generate ideas: If you’ve been reading, you may have identified an aspect of a certain topic that authors disagree on, or disagree on, or which raises interesting problems to consider. In any case, this stage is where you create lists or maps of topics and themes to include in your essay. You can come up with lots of ideas at first, and then eliminate some as needed. 

Try using mind maps to document ideas creatively

Some written assignments give you a narrow topic to focus on, while others are more open, asking you to define your own focus. In your first year you might see more of the narrow type, but you may see open questions too.

These more open assignments are pushing you to develop as an independent thinker. Independent thinking means you make decisions, come up with ideas, and try to add to the knowledge of the world. That’s largely what college and university is trying to get you to do.

passive and active learners
How universities think of students before and after

Open written assignments: As you progress through your studies, you will learn to come up with your own topics more and more. Reading and brainstorming will help. Themes often emerge in reading that point you toward questions that need to be answered.

Examples might be: “This essay aims to review the literature on pedestrian safety in small cities and derive recommendations for new design guidelines in city X.” Or “Penelope Perri’s novel Sweet Sleep uses Yorkshire dialect to create a sense of place.”

The challenge is to get the scope right. The scope of the essay means how general or how specific it is. There is no one answer to what is the correct scope of the essay, and developing you judgement in this way is a powerful skill. You may have to seek guidance from your teaching team to help get this right.

2. Plan

Now you can start to plan your time and the structure of the essay itself. Many students skip this step and simply start writing. That can work for some people, but it often leads to stress. Try planning and see if it helps you.

Plan your time: Work back from the deadline and identify as many steps as you can. Break each step into smaller tasks and try to estimate the time each will take. This process will give you a sense of how long the whole assignment will take.

work breakdown structure to plan an essay project
Break a written project into small pieces to plan it better

Now put all of those tasks into your diary or calendar. Many people feel an immediate relief when they do this, and can move forward with more confidence. This kind of project plan will make writing more enjoyable and give you a better shot at achieving a strong essay (and on time).

Plan the essay structure: Use a structured list to identify the main topics or main points of each section.

outline of essay structure
One example of a basic outline to begin planning your essay structure

Add more detail and try to plan on a paragraph-by-paragraph level. Try using further sub-levels of list. (This is called a multi-level list in MS Word, and it’s easy to learn.)

Add detail to your outline

Note in the outline example above that the student includes reminders to themselves of different topics as well as actual statements they can use in their writing. They also include specific authors and other detail. This level of planning can make writing your paragraphs a lot smoother. It can also help you write clearer paragraphs, which should impact your grade nicely.

Plan for one main point per paragraph and ideally use this point as your first sentence, your topic sentence. This prepares you well for the next stage…

3. Write

Now with your outline close at hand, write one sentence at a time as slow or fast as you like. Don’t worry about going exactly in order. Jump around as ideas come to you and feel free to adjust the outline as you go. You will also likely need to do more reading at this point. Most good essays report on other people’s ideas and writing. So even though you’ve already done some reading and note-making, it’s normal to go back to the books in the middle of writing your paper.

Again, you can try a literature or reading matrix to help you take notes on readings.

literature matrix
Try a literature to keep track of readings

You can also go from reading directly to writing in your document. Either way, use your own words to paraphrase other authors’ ideas. This helps you process and understand the idea and puts the idea in a form you can use (always with a citation to that author).

Look for patterns and themes in your reading notes. Use those themes to build paragraphs. For example, maybe you’ve taken notes on three different studies of malaria prevention in tropical climates. What common theme do you see in your notes? Maybe you can use that theme as the topic of a paragraph. For example:

Studies show that the distribution of mosquito netting is one of the most effective ways to prevent malaria. Nguyen (2016) describes a project in Malawi that was able to reduce malaria infections by 50% in just three months. Supporting this finding, the United Nations made a statement that “Malaria netting…” (United Nations 2019, p. 14).

In the example above, note the first sentence or “topic sentence”. It is the main idea of the paragraph and in this case it makes a clear statement. This is something the student learned from doing a number of readings, so this sentence is their own observation. That is why it has no citation. It’s their contribution.

The second sentence reports on some research by another author. This sentence identifies the author, Nguyen, and gives a citation (the date in brackets). Now the marker of the essay knows where that idea came from and can go check it. 

The third sentence starts by connecting to the previous sentence, indicating the how this idea is related to the previous idea. It uses a direct quotation to provide more evidence. 

Notice that each sentence has a logical connection to the previous one, and that the concept of malaria recurs even though new information is added. This gradual development, adding new ideas while repeating main concepts, is typical of how essays are written.

These are just a few basic methods for writing. There are many others. But try writing a few practice sentence now using the example above as a guide. Your topic can be anything.

4. Edit

Editing is where you make your writing stronger. It can include many things: adding more evidence, clarifying the logic of your explanations, tidying paragraphs, removing repetition, removing very wordy language, and of course correcting errors.

Here are a few techniques how to edit your essays effectively:

Print out and read aloud: Reading on paper and hearing the sound of your writing will give you an edge. Your eye will catch errors more easily, and your brain with be able to pace itself to think more creatively about possible changes. And your ear will hear awkward sentences and want to do something about them.

person reading printed paper

Reverse engineer your paragraphs: Next to each paragraph make a note of what you think its main focus or purpose is. Hint: if the first sentence, the topic sentence, doesn’t make that clear, rewrite that sentence. Look through the rest of the paragraph. Is everything in there supporting the main focus and purpose? If not, delete, move, or rewrite as necessary.

printed paper with editing marks on it
Digital is fine, but try edits on paper and see if you like it

Check back with your outline: Did you stay on track or veer off course? Sometimes changing your mind as you write is necessary and good, but you should always be aware that you have done so.

Check back with the assignment brief: Go back to intended learning outcomes, marking criteria etc., and see if you are satisfying all the requirements (and perhaps exceeding some). If you made your own assignment brief, this step could be easier.

Use an editor: Another human or an app can help identify areas that are unclear or in need of some improvement. Keep in mind that everyone gives feedback differently. One person might say “This paragraph is confusing,” while another will say “This paragraph covers three different topics; try to pick on and focus”.

Your institution will have a support centre of some kind. Budget time to have an appointment with them. Book early and prepare specific questions.

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