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Essay Writing: Everything You Need to Know and Nothing You Don’t—Part 1: How to Begin

Essay Writing Part 1: How to Begin


This guide will explain everything you need to know about how to organise, research and write an argumentative essay. It is also available as a video on Capstone Editing's YouTube channel.

I developed this method as a tertiary student and perfected it as an academic. I have taught this system to hundreds of students who have used it successfully to improve their grades and refine their writing skills.

If you are a first-year student, you might think it is easier to skip some of these steps now when you are writing essays as short as 1,000 words. For example, you might be able to read a few sources without noting them and still remember what you read and where. However, it is important to develop sound research and writing skills and practices now so they are already in place as you progress in your studies and start working on longer and more complicated essays.

One of the benefits of using this method is that every step builds on the one before it, so you don’t feel as if you are starting from scratch when it comes to actually writing the first draft of your essay. Another is that it allows you to use your time effectively. You will not end up repeating work, for example, going back to search for page numbers. Importantly, it will also help you to avoid unintentional plagiarism, which can occur when students use poor research practices.

Argumentative essays

An argumentative essay (mostly used in the humanities and social sciences) is an essay that puts forward an academic argument, called a thesis statement, in answer to an essay question. This argument must be supported by academic sources (references). You are expected to form your own opinion and argue why it is correct.

This is a different type of essay to an explanatory or descriptive essay, which explains or describes a process or topic in answer to an essay question.

Analyse the question

It is very important that you understand what is being asked of you before you begin researching and writing your essay.

  • You need to recognise the task words that tell you what you have to do.
    • Example: argue, discuss, compare or analyse.
  • Make sure you correctly understand all the terms being used in the essay question.
    • Example: What were the most significant logistic issues confronting European armies in the period 1100–1815 and how were these resolved?
  • Make sure you understand the scope of the question.
    • Example: Are there ‘eastern’ and ‘western’ schools of military strategy? Why? Do you know what period you are being asked to write about? What countries or what themes? Does ‘eastern’ and ‘western’ refer to Eastern and Western Europe, or to Europe and China?

If you are writing your own essay question, you need to design a question that allows you to make an argument to answer it. The questions above invite an argument. A question that would not allow an argument to be made in answer is: ‘What are two definitions of eastern and western military strategy?’ (This would be an explanatory or descriptive essay instead.)

If there is anything you are unsure about in relation to the essay question, it is vital that you clarify this with your lecturer or tutor before beginning any work.

Draft your rough essay plan

Developing a rough essay plan prior to beginning your research will provide you with direction and ensure you use your time effectively.

This plan will indicate the word count of sections you will write on particular topics, which will give you an idea of how much research you need to conduct to write those sections. It will also give you a structure that you can use to organise your research.

It is not intended that you will write a definitive essay plan at this point since you may not have in-depth knowledge of your topic yet. However, having attended lectures and (possibly a tutorial) on the topic, you will know enough to make a rough plan.

Below is an example of a rough essay plan. It lists the components of the essay (introduction, body paragraphs and conclusion), what the topics to be discussed are likely to be and in what order, and the approximate word count of each section. Note that in essays of fewer than 5,000 words, the introduction and conclusion are each normally 10% of the total word count of the essay. The remaining word count is usually divided evenly between the topics, which should be discussed in order of importance.

Question: ‘Was indigenous culture completely decimated in the Americas as a result of Spain’s colonisation in the 16th century?’ (1,000 words)
  • Introduction (100 words)
    • Thesis statement: Spain’s colonisation had a negative effect on the indigenous population of the Americas but some aspects of the culture of some indigenous groups survived—it was not completely decimated.
    • Introduce main points or topics to be discussed: disease, language, art and craft, religion
  • Topic 1: Disease and demographic impact (200 words)
  • Topic 2: Language (200 words)
  • Topic 3: Art and craft (200 words)
  • Topic 4: Religion (200 words)
  • Conclusion (100 words)
    • Concluding statement: Thus, while Spain’s colonisation of the Americas had a negative impact on the culture of its indigenous peoples, it was not completely decimated, as some aspects survived.
    • Sum up main points or topics that have been discussed: disease, language, art and craft, religion

You will develop and improve your rough plan as your research progresses so that once your research stage is completed, you will have a detailed, comprehensive and well-structured essay plan before you begin writing your first draft.

Planning your introduction and conclusion

As shown in the example essay plan above, for essays under 5,000 words, it is typical to allocate 10% of the word count of the essay (e.g. 100 words for an essay of 1,000 words) to both the introduction and the conclusion. This leaves 80% of the word count for the body of your essay. 

An introduction must do two things: 1) make a clear statement that answers the essay question (i.e. your thesis statement) and 2) introduce the main points that your essay will make in support of your argument. You must introduce ALL the main points you will make. You cannot discuss any main point or topic in your essay that you have not included in your introduction. These topics should be listed in the order that you will discuss them in your essay.

Your conclusion must include the following information: 1) your thesis statement and 2) a summary of the main points that your essay made in support of your argument. Your conclusion is a reflection of your introduction but it should not repeat it exactly. Your conclusion must not contain any new information. 

Planning the body of the essay and topic sentences

As mentioned above, if your introduction and conclusion will be 10% of your word count each, your body text should be around 80% of your word count. How these words are divided between the main topics depends on the relative importance of each topic. If your topics are equally important, you will devote an equal number of words to each and discuss them in the order that is most logical. If one of your topics is more important than the others, you will discuss it first and spend more words on it compared to the other topics. Likewise, if one of the points is less important than the others, it will be discussed last, in fewer words. Note that in addition to informing how you should divide your word count, the relative importance of your topics will also inform how long you spend researching them. 

It is essential that each new paragraph begins with a topic sentence, to ensure your essay is well structured and that your reader can easily follow your arguments. A topic sentence must 1) introduce the new topic to be discussed and 2) clearly link the new topic to your thesis statement, making it obvious how the topic supports your argument. 

By starting your research process with a clear understanding of the purpose of writing, and with some idea about the shape of the final essay, you will be in a better position to identify important information to include, what can be excluded, and how your argument can be refined and improved. This process of researching and refining is explained in detail in ‘How to Organise Your Research’, the second article in this series.