4. Guidelines for Writing Essays

Whether you are writing a one-page essay to address a problem succinctly, a thousand-word essay to analyze some part of your reading, or a longer research paper, your essay needs a beginning, middle, and end which should serve to introduce, develop, and conclude your central idea. When you begin, your central idea may be vague, your method of development uncertain, and your conclusion only a hunch; but as you work your way through the writing of your essay, you can clarify and refine your central idea, choose the best way to develop it, and proceed to a well-supported conclusion. To do so, you need to start early and allow yourself enough time.

Your central idea provides the thesis of your essay, presented in your introduction in a way that establishes the focus, scope, and purpose of your essay. If your assigned topic is in the form of a question, then try to answer that question in one sentence that is as precise as you can make it: that answer will be your thesis statement. If your assigned topic is not in the form of a question, then formulate your own question that examines some aspect of the assigned topic that you want to explore, and then compose an answer that will serve as your thesis sentence. The rest of your introductory paragraph may account for the importance of your thesis, indicate its ramifications, identify the method you are applying, or set the limits of your essay.

Now that you have answered the question briefly and directly, you need to support that answer with evidence from the text, and develop in detail its significance for understanding the work of literature that you are writing about. Consider using comparison, definition, or analysis to examine your central idea thoroughly. Organize the development of your essay in a logical manner.

As you write, keep in mind your audience and your purpose. Your instructor does not need to have the plot summarized or the poem reiterated, but your instructor does need to see clear, specific reference to those parts of the text that support your statements. Let your writing show how you read the particular work of literature and how you make sense of it. Your purpose is to deal with your topic, to develop its importance within the context of the literary work, to account for the conclusion that you are leading to, and thereby to show how well you understand what you have read.

You may find that, in the course of developing your main idea, you have modified your thesis statement. Go back and adjust the thesis so that it takes full advantage of what you have worked out in your discussion. Also this is a good time to formulate a title for your essay that identifies your topic. A good title indicates the point you will make and catches the reader?s attention.

Finally, your conclusion should draw upon your whole discussion to show the significance of your main point.

Throughout your essay you should support and clarify your argument by referring to specific parts of the text you are discussing, by quoting, paraphrasing, or citing particular details. Follow the MLA style of documentation to identify all your sources (Gibaldi). (“Gibaldi” in parentheses indicates that the source referred to here is listed at the end under the author’s name.) To identify the exact location of your reference, put the page number or, for poems, the line number in parentheses at the end of the quotation. For longer poems divided into books or cantos, use arabic numerals for both book and line number. For example, the first line of Paradise Lost is identified as (1.1). Lines from plays are identified with arabic numerals for act, scene, and (if the play is in verse) line; so Hamlet 3.1.56 would be “To be, or not to be.” At the end of your essay include a list of works cited, giving the particular edition you have used. For fuller detail, see the MLA Handbook for Writers of Research Papers (Gibaldi).

Writing an essay allows you time to consider carefully what you have to say, so take advantage of that time by planning and writing a first draft within the first few days after the assignment is given, setting it aside for a few days, and then coming back to it to have a fresh look. Examine the soundness of your argument. Reading your essay aloud, perhaps to a friend or classmate, often helps you to examine more carefully what you have written. Check for accuracy, logic, clarity, conciseness, and effective writing. Remove wordiness, vagueness, and excessive generalization. Use active verbs and precise diction. Adjust your sentence structure for variety and emphasis. Check for any grammatical errors—sentence fragments, subject-verb agreement, pronoun reference, verb tenses, and so on. If you have any questions, refer to a good writing manual. There are a number of good writing manuals available: those by Aaron, Buckley, Rook, Rosa, and Troyka, (listed below) are among the ones used by instructors in the English Department. These manuals will give you much fuller information on effective writing—appropriate diction, sentence construction, organization of paragraphs, smooth transitions, unified development, and so on. Improving your writing improves your reading, and your grade.

If you are using secondary sources, use them critically: judge for yourself how applicable and valid they are. Acknowledge your indebtedness precisely so as to avoid plagiarism and to let your reader understand the context of your argument. Use parenthetical documentation in your text and include secondary along with primary texts in your list of works cited at the end of your essay, following the MLA Handbook (Gibaldi). You can receive help in locating secondary sources from your instructor, from the librarian at the reference desk, and from http://www.umanitoba.ca/libraries/, where you will find information not only about using the University libraries but also about writing papers, evaluating information, avoiding plagiarism, and citing sources. All students are obligated to adhere to the University policy on plagiarism: see


Format your essay according to standard manuscript conventions (also in Gibaldi): double-space with margins of one inch on top, bottom, and both sides. Use only one side of 8½ by 11 inch white paper. Typewritten papers are always preferable; handwriting may be acceptable if it is legible, but ask your instructor first. Number your pages. Provide your name, course name and number, and date along with the title of your essay on the first page.

The guidelines are intended as a basic, generic instructions. They should be adapted to the assignment as given by your instructor.

Works Cited

Aaron, Jane, E., and Elaine Bandor. The Little Brown Essential Handbook for Writers. Toronto: Longman, 2005.

Buckley, Joanne. Fit to Print: The Canadian Student’s Guide to Essay Writing. 6th edition. Toronto: Thompson Nelson, 2004.

Gibaldi, Joseph, and Walter S. Achtert. MLA Handbook for Writers of Research Papers. 6th ed. New York: Modern Language Association, 2003.

Rook, Constance. The Clear Path: A Guide to Writing English Essays. 3rd Canadian ed. Toronto: Nelson Thomson, 2004.

Rosa, Alfred, and Paul Eschholz. The Writer’s Brief Handbook. Toronto: Longman, 2005.

Troyka, Lynn Q. Quick Access: Reference for Writers. 2nd Canadian ed. Toronto: Pearson (Prentice Hall), 2004.

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5: What the Grade on Your Essay Means