Writing a Great Essay in Six Simple Steps

When you write an essay, you explore a specific topic or answer a specific question. The point of writing an essay is to organise well-researched, coherent ideas, and weave these ideas together to communicate your important argument or point of view. Essay writing helps you:

  • Organise your thoughts
  • Expand your knowledge 
  • Sharpen your ability to think for yourself
  • Commit ideas to memory
  • Refine your redrafting skills
  • Become more persuasive

We associate essays with academia; however, the skills learned from essay writing are incredibly useful in the wider world too. For instance, you’ll know how to structure logical and articulate emails to workplace colleagues. If you ever find yourself in a dispute, you'll be able to construct persuasive arguments. 

Essay writing also encourages you to think more critically and authentically, so you’re less likely to be manipulated into believing false information. Lastly, essay writing develops your introspection abilities. 

Introspection is the observation of your mental and emotional processes. Our digital addiction is draining our capacity to concentrate for long periods of time and consequently, introspection is becoming a dying art. So let’s keep the introspection torch burning!

Six Steps to Writing a Great Essay

1) Break down the question 

But how do you break down a question? Simply highlight the most important words or phrases in the question. These are the keywords that your essay needs to keep referencing as you develop your argument. 

As you’re writing your essay, it's worth keeping these keywords at the back of your mind and inserting them into sentences where they feel most natural. Some highlighted words in the question might be quite difficult to understand, so it's likely that you'll need to look up some definitions. Write these definitions down in your own words to make sure you understand the question fully. Below are some sample questions. I've highlighted the words and phrases that are most important to keep referencing throughout your essay:

University style question:

What does Michel Foucault mean by describing the author as an "ideological figure by which one marks the manner in which we fear the proliferation of meaning”?

A-Level style question:

Men may seem to be more powerful than women but the reality is very different. In light of this view, consider how Chaucer explores power and gender in The Merchant’s Tale.


GCSE style question: 

How does Lady Macbeth use language to manipulate her husband in the play Macbeth?

Write about how she persuades him to align with her point of view in this extract and how she uses her powers of persuasion in the rest of the play.

2) Research. 

If you’re prepping for an exam essay, it’s likely you’ve done all your research prior to the exam by studying the texts in question. However, if you’re preparing for a coursework essay, you should read widely; collect any quotes that excite you; write whether you disagree or agree with the quote—why and why not.

Write about how this quote is relevant to the question. Go deeper and explore where the author formed their own ideas and influences by following the chain of bibliographies. Also, start a bibliography as soon as you begin collecting quotes to avoid a last-minute panic scouring your web history for valid citations.

This blog on creating a cheatsheet with ready-made points from your chosen text has great advice on collecting this research. You can draw from these points as you practice exam writing using the size steps in this guide ahead of the exam. It's really important to practice exam planning, structuring and writing ahead of exams so you avoid improvising under the time pressures of an exam hall. This can lead to muddled answers and lower marks as a result.

3) Plan or Outline 

Ever gone completely blank in the middle of writing an exam essay and not know what to write next? Me too. But this never happened if I’d already drawn up a plan or outline. The outline is the skeleton; the detail is the body. The body would not function without a sturdy framework—so if you get your plan/outline right, you’ve done half the hard work.

At the start of an exam, take seven to ten minutes to quickly jot down a plan. This includes:

  • a rough topic sentence
  • a few quotes
  • a short analysis of the quote (a few words will suffice, so you know what it means and why you’re mentioning it). 

This will save you loads of time because every paragraph knows its purpose and where it needs to lead next. 

The essay length will vary according to your exam board and total of marks. Your essay will be made up of several paragraphs: 

  • the introduction
  • the main body
  • the conclusion

Each paragraph should present a single idea. Show this single idea in the topic sentence right at the beginning of the paragraph—this way, you clarify your ideas from the start. I've written an example topic sentence for the question below:

Example Question: How does Lady Macbeth use language to manipulate her husband in the play Macbeth?

Example Topic Sentence: 

Lady Macbeth uses rhetorical questions to persuade Macbeth to kill King Duncan. 

It's really as simple as that. After introducing the topic sentence, you'd quote an example rhetorical question, explain and analyse it. 

4) Introduction. 

Tell the reader what your essay will cover. This is easier than you think. Simply reference the topic sentences from each paragraph. This establishes a map for your reader to follow. Imagine: you’ve created five paragraph topics which resemble five checkpoints. You want your reader to arrive safely and effortlessly, so they can award you good marks.

Example Question: How does Lady Macbeth use language to manipulate her husband in the play Macbeth?

Example Intro: 

Throughout the Scottish play Macbeth, Lady Macbeth uses many language techniques to manipulate her husband. They include: rhetorical questions to make him doubt himself; zoomorphism to humiliate him and the use of a hyperbole to guilt-trip him. 

There are three language devices mentioned here: rhetorical questions, zoomorphism and hyperbole. I've made these three language devices the focus of each of my topic sentences. Therefore, I flag them in my introduction, which acts as a map for the examiner to follow. The introduction is the map and then the main body of the essay is the journey that we take them on. So, make your map easy to follow and the journey will feel more effortless. 

5) Main body. 

Each paragraph should have a topic sentence in the first line. To give you some idea of how to visualise the paragraph, it should resemble a triangle: 

  • start with a sharply observed point (topic sentence)
  • enrich the point with a quote (that contains a literary device, a contextual or structural point)
  • explain what the quote means
  • analyse the quote even deeper

Example Question: How does Lady Macbeth use language to manipulate her husband in the play Macbeth?

GCSE Level Example Body: 

Lady Macbeth uses a hyperbole to guilt-trip her husband into killing King Duncan. When Macbeth comes to her saying he has changed his mind about killing Duncan, she feels betrayed. In fact, she says that she feels so betrayed, that she would rather sacrifice their own child than betray him. From this scene, we realise that the Macbeths did in fact have a child, but they lost it, so they know the grief and pain of losing a child. Evidence of this occurs when Lady Macbeth says "I have given suck and know how tender tis to love the babe that milks me." This means that she has experienced the strong loving bond that forms between mother and child during breastfeeding. However, despite this bond and despite knowing the pain of losing a child, she would still have "dash'd the brains out" rather than betray her husband. The alliterative words "tender tis" capture the deep love she has towards her child. "Dash'd the brains out" creates a blood-curdling, gruesome image of infanticide and it's made to seem all the more cruel when contrasted against the nuturing breastfeeding image that she speaks about earlier. The word "dash'd" is an example of onomatopoeia, (where the word reflects the sound of the action). This creates an even more sickening picture of a mother killing their child. A Shakespearean audience would be extremely shocked and possibly even terrified of Lady Macbeth because she goes against the stereotypical expectations of a kind, loving, maternal woman. Whether Lady Macbeth would actually kill her child or not, we cannot be sure. However, her lack of resilience shown later in the play - when she descends into madness through guilt and regret - would suggest that it goes against her nature to be so cruel. Therefore, the idea of dashing her own baby's brains out could be interpreted as a hyperbole that she uses to convince her husband that his betrayal is horrific and an insult to their marriage. The purpose of the hyperbole is to guilt-trip her husband into believing that their marriage is unequal, that he does not contribute the same amount of effort and trust as she does. This would make Macbeth feel ashamed, guilty and more likely to seek a way to prove his loyalty to his wife by killing King Duncan.   

After reading this example, you should see that your ideas should thicken out like the base of a triangle. GCSE students use PEA (point, explain, analyse); A-Level students have a little more freedom, yet it’s much more context heavy. Whereas University students have more freedom still. However, PEA remains the building blocks for any good essay. As you can see in this example paragraph, I did also include a little bit of context highlighted in green. 

6) Conclusion. 

Your conclusion should not introduce any new ideas. Quite simply, a conclusion should be an enhanced version of your introduction. The only difference is your conclusion should reveal that you’ve learned something new, valuable, and most importantly, it should show you’ve answered the question.  

Example Outro: 

Throughout the Scottish play Macbeth, Lady Macbeth uses many language techniques to manipulate her husband. However, they only work because he unconditionally loves her and trusts her judgment. If his love had ever faltered, maybe he would be able to see through her persuasion tactics and trust his own instincts. However, her rhetorical questions make him doubt himself; her use of zoomorphism humiliates him and her use of a hyperbole guilt-trips him. All this contributes to his downfall because it drives him to kill King Duncan. 

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