When it comes to writing essays, different countries have different styles.
In the American higher education system, essays are expected to follow a particular structure that is similar to that of British or Australian academic essays.
If you are not familiar with the style, here is a breakdown of how best to approach essay writing in the United States.
Break Down the Question
One of the most common mistakes students make is not answering the question that was actually asked. To avoid this, first read the questions multiple times and underline the keywords.
There are three different kinds of keywords:
- Tasks words are usually verbs and they will tell you how to answer a question e.g. explain, analyze, contrast, define or evaluate.
- Content words are words that tell you what your topic is.
- Limiting words are words that narrow the scope of your topic and let you know what particular area focus on.
Noting down all these words will help you make sure you have a good understanding of the question you are expected to answer and how you are expected to answer it.
You should also remember that:
You should try to repeat some of your content and limiting words throughout your essay, to remind the reader of how your argument relates directly to the question asked.
Some essay questions may leave room for you to choose a certain definition of a key term. If this is the case, make it very clear what definition you are going to be working with.
Do the Research
It is critical to demonstrate that you understand what the ‘academic dialogue’ is surrounding your essay topic. That is, what have other academics or writers in the field said on your subject matter?
That is not to say that you should just repeat what has already been said, but rather, to reference their work as a means of positioning your own ideas. Do you agree or disagree with what has already been said? How does the work of previous scholars hold up to the issues that you are dealing with in your essay? This is why it is important to conduct thorough background research. You can do this by:
Using the key words in your essay question to search through your online library catalogue and Google Scholar.
If you are stuck in your research, go back through the assigned readings for your topic and explore the references listed in those readings. This will give you an idea of what to read next, as well as a picture of what has already been written about your topic.
Making sure, you know what kind of referencing you have to use and doing it from the start! Write down page numbers of ideas and quotes as you go so that you do not have to waste time searching for them again later.
Stick To the Structure
While essay conventions will vary from subject to subject, it is safe to say that the every essay should be made up of the same basic segments: the introduction, body (which is made up of paragraphs), and a conclusion. Each of these segments has its own purpose:
In the introduction:
- Introduce your topic
- Define key terms
- Briefly, discuss the main points of contention surrounding your topic
- Do not be mysterious – explain what you are going to argue and how you are going to do it.
In the body:
The body of the essay is made up of different paragraphs. Each paragraph should be devoted to addressing a particular issue or theme. Unless your teacher has requested something specific, it is up to you how you want to ‘theme’ your paragraphs and how long you want them to be.
Begin by writing down your main arguments or themes and then decide upon the most logical order to present them in. You want your essay argument to ‘flow’ naturally from one idea to the next.
Paragraphs have their own general structure:
- Statement – Start with a sentence that demonstrates what the main idea of that paragraph is.
- Elaboration– Go into further, supporting detail of your idea.
- Example – If you can, give an example that supports your argument’s significance.
- Explain – Explain the significance of the point you have made in this paragraph to your overall argument.
In the conclusion:
The conclusion can be brief – you should not be introducing new ideas into your conclusion. Instead, you should:
- Begin by referencing the essay question
- Re-state the main argument
- Explain how the arguments you have made directly answer the essay question.
- Be confident in your conclusion and finish with a strong statement.