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SMC|Academic Programs|History|History - Old|How To Write An Essay

How To Write An Essay

The Writing Zone: Or How to Write an Essay

[created by Glendale Community College and Joseph Longo, 1993;
with revisions by Ken Mason, 2007]


Writing is a process with three major steps:
  1. Prewriting
  2. Writing
  3. Revising


Prewriting involves:

  1. Coming up with a topic
  2. Developing a workable thesis
  3. Researching support for your thesis

Two techniques for coming up with a topic are BRAIN STORMING and LISTING.

The THESIS is the point you want to make about your topic. Developing a workable THESIS will help you in two ways:

  1. You will find out at once whether you have a clear or workable thesis.
  2. You will be able to use the thesis as a guide while writing your essay.

The characteristics of a good THESIS are:

  • It must not be too broad or too narrow.
  • It asserts one main idea.
  • It states the writer's clearly defined position on some subject.
  • It has something worthwhile to say.
  • It is clearly stated in specific terms.
  • It must be written as a complete sentence, with a subject and a verb.

After you develop your thesis, you back it up with SUPPORT. Support can come from documents, books, magazines, newspapers, pamphlets, mongraphs, statistics, laboratory reports, scientific articles, videos, movies, news pictures and so on. Live sources can also be used to support your thesis. For example, quotations from experts in the field or, if appropriate, from anyone who has something to say about the subject.


Writing involves:

  1. Developing an outline.
  2. Writing the essay by developing paragraphs.
  3. Each paragraph should reflect the major points expressed in your outline.
  4. Developing paragraphs involves writing an opening or introductory paragraph, with a lead sentence, and a concluding paragraph or conclusion that supports your thesis.

The OUTLINE is a map of your essay. The following is an example of the classic outline structure.


Thesis Statement

I. Main Point (One)
    A. Secondary Point (One)
        1. Supportive info on secondary point
            a. Additional info if needed.
    B. Secondary Point (Two)
        1. Supportive info on secondary point
            a. Additional info if needed.

II. Main Point (One)
    A. Secondary Point (One)
        1. Supportive info on secondary pint
            a. Additional info if needed.
    B. Secondary Point (Two)
        1. Supportive info on secondary point
            a. Additional info if needed.

III. Main Point (One)
      A. Secondary Point (One)
          1. Supportive info on secondary point
              a. Additional info if needed.
      B. Secondary Point (Two)
          1. Supportive info on secondary point
              a. Additional info if needed

The PARAGRAPH is a group of sentences on one topic. A paragraph has a topic sentence, development, and frequently a conclusion.

The OPENING PARAGRAPH or lead paragraph must capture the reader's attention: the aim of the opening paragraph is to hook and hold the reader. It also presents the thesis statement and sometimes supplies background information and indicates a plan of development.

A paragraph does two things: it makes a point and it proves a point. The first sentence of the paragraph, the topic sentence, makes the point, and the supporting details in the body of the paragraph support it. Your point must be related to the thesis of the essay, and each paragraph should advance your discussion of the thesis in at least one small step.

Another function of the paragraph is to signal the introduction of a new idea or the further development of an old idea.

The characteristics of a well-designed paragraph are unity, support, and coherence.

  1. If you can advance a single point and stick to it, you have unity.
  2. If you support the point with specific evidence, you have support.
  3. If you organize and connect the specific evidence, you have coherence. With coherence, the varied elements within your paragraph hold together, connect, cohere.

A paragraph also has coherence when its sentences are logically connected with transitional words and phrases, pronoun references, repeated key terms, and parallelism. Good paragraphs are always filled with facts, instances, examples, and details.

The concluding paragraph should include a final thought and sometimes a summary. It should also satisfy the reader.


The following are questions you should ask yourself when you are revising:

  1. What can I do to this piece of writing to make it most effective, interesting, compelling, inviting?
  2. Does it make sense?
  3. Is it well supported?
  4. Is it written in terms the reader can understand?
  5. Does it move smoothly from beginning to the end? Or does the reader have to backtrack and skip around?
  6. Do the opening sentence and paragraph grab the reader's attention?
  7. have all the unnecessary words been removed?
  8. Did you over explain?
  9. Have you developed your thesis throughout the essay?
  10. Do you have enough support for your thesis?
  11. Have you been consistent with one verb tense throughout? If you start in the present tense, make sure you do not switch to the past tense. And vice versa.
  12. have you corrected all run-on sentences and sentence fragments? A run-on sentence is two complete thoughts handles as one sentence, and a fragment is an incomplete thought presented as if it were a sentence.
  13. have you varied your sentence structure?
  14. have you checked your grammar? Make sure the subjects and verbs agree, that nouns and pronouns agree, and so on.
  15. Did you end with impact? Will your essay give the reader a satisfied feeling when he or she is finished reading?
  16. Did you proofread your essay one last time before handing it in?

NB: If you wish to learn more about writing history essays well, please look for these books:

Jules Benjamin, A Student's Guide to History (Bedford/St. Martin)
Mary Lynn Rampolla, A Pocket Guide to Writing in History (Bedford/St. Martin)
Richard Marius and Melvin Page, A Short Guide to Writing about History (Longman Publishers)
Robert Frakes, Writing College History (Houghton Mifflin Company)