The College Survival Guide: Essay Writing (blog 17)

If you’ve picked up this manual, it must mean you need some guidance when it comes to essay writing, or you could be wondering, what’s so complicated about writing an essay that someone had to write an essay about writing essays? Essay writing is harder than most people let on. Why else would practically every student groan whenever a professor assigns one?

What’s the Point?

To whom it may concern,

I am a college student and am required to take a course where we must write a fifteen to twenty page research paper. I personally think this is ridiculous. I guess my question is, why do I need to know how to write a paper? I’m not even an English major!


The Non-Writer.

This is a question that plagues the minds of several students, especially those who are not English majors. Why learn how to do something you will never have to use ever again? Unfortunately, you will have to use writing skills in practically every job you have. Writing skills are an important factor when it comes to a business.

One professor I knew told a story about her husband and how he had to hire a new accountant. In the application process there was a writing section. One gentleman stood out above all others, and was hired almost immediately. But when he handed in his first assignment, her husband couldn’t understand half of what he wrote. In fact, the proposal was so horrendous that there was no way he could fix it in time. He called the guy in for a meeting and asked him about it. That’s when the truth came out. The guys mother had written his application writing samples. He was fired on the spot.

If that doesn’t give an incentive to learn how to write a proper essay, I don’t know what will.

Choosing a Topic

“You can’t wait for inspiration. You have to go after it with a club.”

-Jack London

Choosing a topic for an essay is sometimes harder than writing the actual essay itself. A good rule of thumb to go by is picking a topic that you understand very well or that you are interested in. Choosing a topic that you understand very well will make writing about it a lot easier than writing about a topic you know nothing about. The same goes with writing about something you’re interested in. If you choose a topic you could care less about, research will be boring and you will be less inclined to actually work on the paper.

Sometimes, though, you don’t have a choice on what topic to write on. More times than not the professor of the course will assign your essay topic to you. There are pros and cons to having a professor assign a topic and letting you choose your own topic. It all depends on the type of professor you have. There are two types of professors to look out for:

The Assigner

The assigner is a type of professor that will give you the topic to must work on. Generally these are assignments that are discussed in length throughout the semester so that you understand completely what the professor wants. Of course, not every assigner professor does this. Sometimes they expect you know exactly what they want to see. They are generally known as the mind reader professor, and if you have one of these a good rule of thumb is to ask them exactly what they want if you are stuck. Half of the time they will tell you exactly what they are looking for. It is also a good idea to tell them what you are working on so they can let you know if you are on the right track or not. Of course, there are those mind reader professors who get offended that you don’t know what they want, or are even more vague in their second explanation than in their first. If this happens ask classmates what their interpretation is of it. If they have the same interpretation you know that you either all understood or misunderstood the professor. You are not alone.

The Chooser

The chooser professor takes two forms. There’s the professor that lets you pick the entire topic on your own and the professor who assigns a topic but let’s you pick how you’re going to explore the topic. The pro with this type of professor is that you have free reign with your topic and can choose something that works for you. The con with the chooser professor is that they tend to think you should know everything about the topic you choose to write on. Why else would you choose your own topic?

The Writing Process

Once you have your topic the writing process can begin. The actual process of writing a paper may take a few different steps, depending on what the type of paper is. In almost every type of paper there will be some form of research that has to be done. Either you’ll have to quote a book or you may have to find more information online or from electronic databases and newspapers in order to get the information you need.

A note on using the internet for research: rule of thumb is to use websites that have a .org, .edu, or .net ending. You should not use blogs or .com addresses because they generally will be opinions rather than information. Even when using the appropriate address link, be sure to read thoroughly through the material before using any information from the website.

How to Begin?

Even before you start your essay, it is recommended you make an outline. Some students can write a perfectly coherent paper without making an outline, but for those who struggle to figure out where to go with a paper, writing it out may help. Some ways of creating an outline are:

The List

Putting each paragraph into bullet form first will allow you to see if the essay will be coherent. You will be able to notice if you are missing any important points in your paper as well.

Starting from the Bottom

This isn’t technically an outline method, but it is another way to begin a paper when you have no other idea how to start it. As long as you have your thesis, this technique will be able to work. After writing down your thesis, start working on one of the body paragraphs and do the introduction later. It’s effective because it helps release some of the clutter in your mind and allows your brain room to breathe.

How long is a paragraph really?

Dear Survival Writers,

This may sound like an odd question, but how long is a paragraph really?



The length of a paragraph can be confusing to some students because not every professor follows the same format. Some professors want 6 sentences while others are happy with only 3. If you aren’t sure how long a paragraph should be, the general rule of thumb is that it’s 5-8 sentences long. Of course a paragraph can be longer, just make sure it’s not too long. A big block of text can intimidate and even bore readers, making them skim through it rather than actually reading it.


The form of a paper is considered: introduction, 3 body paragraphs, and conclusion. There can be more than 3 body paragraphs in an essay. Unless otherwise stated by the professor an essay should not include “I,” “me,” or “myself.” If you’re using headings for each section, make sure the heading is with the paragraph. Do not have the heading at the bottom of a page and the paragraph start on the next page. Try not to overuse transition words, and do not use “In conclusion” to conclude your essay. There are other ways to let your reader know that you are finished talking about your topic and you are ending it.


“No passion in the world is equal to the passion to alter someone else’s draft.”

-H.G. Wells

When to Edit

Editing is the last part of the essay writing process. A student should always edit their papers before handing them in to check for any spelling errors or odd sounding sentences.


After completing your essay, it’s always good to step away for a few hours, or even up to a week before looking at it again. This method may not be best for those students who are procrastinators, but for early birds it’s the perfect method. When you proofread a paper it is always best to read your writing out loud. This way you can hear how each sentence sounds. If you end up stumbling over a sentence, or it just doesn’t sound right, that generally means that your sentence should be re-worked.

Another approach to the proofreading method is to have a friend, fellow classmate, or parent proofread for you. It’s recommended that you ask someone who you know will help and not just quickly read through it and say, “It was good.”

Spell Check

Spell check is a fun little tool that, when clicked, pulls up every word it believes you spelled wrong and gives suggestions to what you might have meant. Spell check is also those green, blue, and red squiggly lines found under misspelled or grammatically incorrect words in the document. Microsoft Word also automatically corrects words that it sees you’ve spelt wrong.

There is nothing wrong with using spell check, but it should be used sparingly. It is important to go back and read over what the sentence says when using spell check. Students have the tendency to just click “change all” not realizing that some words Microsoft Word thinks is spelled wrong are really correctly spelled.

That’s All?

I hope this manual was helpful in some way. There isn’t much to essay writing, and it is really easy to get help on an essay if you ask. This manual did not discuss every aspect of essay writing, but focused on some rule of thumb topics. If you are still having problems with your essay talk with your professor or someone from your class. After all, seeking help is better than going through an experience blindly.

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