Steps to Writing a Good Essay

This article was originally written for students. I just wanted to break down the steps for writing a basic five paragraph essay. I had the TOEFL independent or opinion essay in mind when I wrote this, but many high-school teachers still demand this form. While there are more complicated ways to write an essay, this is the basic model of the American academic essay, so it’s good to understand it well, if only to improvise off of it.

A lot of students just sit down and write and write and when they run out of ideas, they stop. Then they see that they forgot to add an important detail in the middle of the essay. On the iBT, that’s not a big deal because you write on the computer so you can add things, move text, even cut-and-paste to your heart’s content. But it’s a pain for the paper-based TOEFL. And in general you want to have a clear plan to make sure your essay includes all the right information, addresses the question clearly, and doesn’t go off track.

So what are the steps to writing a good essay for the TOEFL (or even for school or university?)

  1. Read and understand the question
    Sounds obvious but make sure you understand: What is the topic of the essay? Is it education in your country, or primary school education in the world? Is it problems in your school? Or recommendations to improve your school? Each of these topics is slightly different. For the TOEFL you must stay on topic, so make sure you understand the exact specific topic they give you?

Also make sure you understand what you are being asked to do. Compare? Discuss? Describe? Give your opinion? You must fulfill all tasks in the question.

  • Brainstorm for Ideas
    Take 3-5 minutes to think of ideas. What will you write about? When you are brainstorming, don’t think much about the quality of your ideas. Just let your mind wander on the topic and write down as many things as you can think of. I have posted elsewhere with a couple of ideas for brainstorming
  • Evaluate your Ideas
    Pick only ideas that you can write about in detail, that are relevant to the topic and that are serious!
  • Outline
    Draw a brief plan of your essay. What will the main idea of paragraph 1 be? What examples or support will I give? What about paragraph 2? 3? How will I conclude? Just a brief plan with words or phrases to keep you on track.
  • Write your Thesis Statement
    Come up with one sentence that clearly expresses the main idea of this essay. If you had to answer the question in one sentence, What would you say?
  • Write your Intro
    It should include your thesis statement, any information your readers need to know, and it should try to make the essay interesting for the reader.
  • Write your Body Paragraphs
    Using your outline as a guide, write each main paragraph–one idea per paragraph
  • Write your Conclusion
    Summarize the main point of the essay–hint: it should be very close to your thesis statement. Any other remarks you want to make so the reader will agree with you.
  • Proofread
    Reread your essay and look for mistakes you make a lot. You should know by now what areas of English are hard for you. Also look for any place that is confusing. Remember, the reader doesn’t know how you think so it has to be clear to them what you mean to say.That’s it. It’s pretty straightforward and this method is taught in any American school. We often call it process writing because it lays out a process for writing a good essay that includes planning and editing, as well as actually writing. It works well for a TOEFL essay, or any other writing you do under a time limit, as well as for a 500 page book. I even use it sometimes with these blog posts! And a good thing I proofread; I misspelled “Conclusion” the first time!
  • You can see a couple of sample TOEFL essays here and here. I also have a post up on writing for the task 1 IELTS essay.

    Grammar Rules Illustrated

    Not a lesson plan per se. This is more a fun resource that you can go over with your class or put up on a wall. It has the advantage of making style and grammar rules more memorable. I certainly remember when my English teacher gave us something like this in 6th grade, over 20 years ago now (That one included, “Avoid senseless repetition. Avoid senseless repetition” and I still remember it to this day).

    If you don’t use these rules exactly come up with some similar funny expressions for your top ten pet peeve mistakes or the most frequent errors you see. That can make it easy to correct errors in a fun but memorable way by referring to the rule.

    1. Verbs HAS to agree with their subjects.
    2. Prepositions are not words to end sentences with.
    3. And don’t start a sentence with a conjunction.
    4. It is wrong to ever split an infinitive.
    5. Avoid cliches like the plague. (They’re old hat.)
    6. Also, always avoid annoying alliteration.
    7. Be more or less specific.
    8. Parenthetical remarks (however relevant) are (usually) unnecessary.
    9. Also too, never, ever use repetitive redundancies.
    10. No sentence fragments.
    11. Contractions aren’t necessary and shouldn’t be used unless you don’t want to seem too formal.
    12. Foreign words and phrases are not always apropos.
    13. Do not use more words, phrases, sentences, or other linguistic elements than you, yourself, actually really and definitely need to use or employ when expressing yourself or otherwise giving voice to what you may or may not be thinking when you are trying to say how many words you should use or not use when using words.
    14. One should NEVER generalize.
    15. Comparisons are as bad as cliches.
    16. Don’t use no double negatives.
    17. Eschew ampersands & abbreviations, i.e. etc.
    18. One-word sentences? Eliminate.
    19. Analogies in writing are like feathers on a snake.
    20. The passive voice is to be ignored.
    21. Eliminate commas, that are, not necessary. Parenthetical words however should be enclosed in commas.
    22. Never use a big word when a diminutive one would suffice.
    23. Kill excessive exclamation points!!!
    24. Use words correctly, irregardless of how others elude to them.
    25. Understatement is always the absolute best way to put forth earth shaking ideas.
    26. Use the apostrophe in it’s proper place and omit it when its not needed.
    27. Eliminate distracting quotations. As Ralph Waldo Emerson is said to have once remarked, “I hate quotations. Tell me what you know.”
    28. If you’ve heard it once, you’ve heard it a thousand times: Resist hyperbole; not one writer in a million can use it correctly.
    29. Puns are for children, not groan readers.
    30. Go around the barn at high noon to avoid colloquialisms.
    31. Even IF a mixed metaphor sings, it should be derailed.
    32. Who needs rhetorical questions?
    33. Exaggeration is a billion times worse than understatement.
    And finally…
    34. Proofread carefully to see if you any words out

    I took this list from SPOGG, the Society for the Promotion of Good Grammar.

    Sample TOEFL Essay: Favorite Sport

    This is another Sample TOEFL essay. Check out my first one on writing a persuasive TOEFL essay here.

    Some students have issues with the description essay question. A description essay question looks like this:

    Describe your favorite sport. Include details and examples to explain why you enjoy this sport

    It’s a really simple question, which is probably what confuses students. There are two common mistakes that people make:

    1. Writing randomly all sorts of facts and opinions about their favorite sport.
      The problem is that the TOEFL expects you to write an organized essay. That means an introduction, a conclusion and body paragraphs that have only one main idea each. That means choosing only the most important features of your sport. Most important, that means actually describing the sport. And telling in detail why you like it.

    2. Underwriting
      Faced with this kind of simple question, some students write something like:My favorite sport is football.It is the most popular sport in the world. I like it because it is fun and interesting.

      They have no idea what else to add. But the TOEFL demands concrete examples, reasons and details. So let’s look at an essay that hits the happy mean between writing too little and writing too much.

      Sample Essay

      Baseball is called America’s national pastime, and for good reason. It is an exciting sport in which anything can happen. I don’t play baseball very well but when it comes to watching sports, I am addicted to the ballpark. While the action is not as fast as in American football or hockey and the sport is not as popular worldwide as football, it is still my favorite sport because it is fun to watch live and because it is a very strategic and complex game.

      Baseball is an unusual sport and the first thing you notice is that the field is different. On a baseball field, there are four bases or plates at each point of a diamond. The base at the bottom is called home base and the goal of the game is to run around the diamond, touch each base and return to home. This scores one point. In the game, a batter stands on home base with a bat. A pitcher, standing in the middle of the diamond, throws the ball. The batter should try to hit the ball and then run around the diamond. Meanwhile the pitcher’s team catches the ball and tries to touch the batter with it.

      The game is a lot more complicated than that, with strikes and balls and fouls. For the first-time watcher, the game may seem far too complicated to understand. But it is also very exciting to watch. Every move changes the whole game. For example if there are men standing on every base (the bases are loaded), trying to go home, it is very important what happens with the batter and the pitcher. If the batter hits the ball very far, and gives every man a chance to run home, his team will score 4 points. Every time the batter misses the ball, it’s one less chance for his team to score. In such a situation, the fans are holding their breath to see if the batter will hit or miss. Unlike other sports where the action is ongoing, in baseball you have a lot of time to anticipate what will happen and process what has happened and how it changes the strategy. A good play in football lasts 30 seconds. A good play in baseball can take 2 minutes to set up, happen and then be realized.

      But even if you are a first time watcher, going to a baseball game will be the best day of your life. First of all, ballparks are often smaller than other sports fields so you are closer to the action. Second baseball fans are the most energetic in the world, screaming for their favorite players and insulting the other team. But you won’t see hooligans at a ballpark. Fans are there to watch the game, not make trouble and baseball is the game of gentlemen still so fans try to be polite and considerate. In fact, it’s the only crowd in the world where you can ask, ‘What just happened?” and have a fan happily recap the action for you.

      So baseball is the greatest spectator sport in the world because there is a lot of strategy in this complicated game and because it is simply fun to watch, especially live.

      Evaluation

      The strongest point of this essay, and what I really want you to pay attention to, is the second paragraph where I describe the game. Notice that I try to hit the most important details, without getting too complicated. Good descriptions should strike a balance between giving someone the outline of something without overloading them with information. It is often a good idea to use shorter sentences and to repeat the same word over and over. Notice how I repeat diamond so the reader can relate further details to my first description.

      Now many of my readers are foreigners, so hopefully you aren’t familiar with baseball. Do an experiment: Close your eyes and try to imagine baseball from this description. Can you do it? If you can, I wrote a good essay. If you can’t, I didn’t!

      For Americans, read the second paragraph. Do you find yourself saying, “Yeah, that’s about right.”? If so, good. If not, I need to rewrite.

      The introduction is solid although I went back and inserted the word live into my thesis statement because I realized that I wrote about what it was like to watch live, not on TV. I would also reverse the order of that last sentence and make it: it is still my favorite sport because it is a very strategic and complex game and because it is fun to watch live. so it follows the order of my essay paragraphs. Notice that in the two paragraphs where I talk about why it is my favorite sport I try to give a lot of reasons and link those to concrete details, like when the bases are loaded.

      So I hope this is useful for you. As usual I’m happy to take questions and comments in the comments section.

      Also see my Steps to Writing a Good Essay for a basic idea of the process of writing a good essay.

    Sample TOEFL Essay

    This is a new idea I’ve had to help students prepare for the Written Section of the TOEFL by providing you with a sample essay. I hope to do this fairly regularly.

    UPDATE: In fact, I followed up on that promise. Check out a descriptive essay about my favorite sport.

    Overall I think one of the biggest problems with the TOEFL Essay is that there are too many problems. Students don’t know what to write about, how to organize it, what level of language to use, what the introduction and conclusion should look like. The best way to address all these problems is to show a sample essay and analyze it. That way you, the dear reader, can take away the lessons you need to learn.

    Feel free to add your questions and comments. And your critiques. What do you think I did wrong? What could have been better?

    Sample Essay

    This topic was taken from the Test of Written English Guide, Fifth Edition (c) 2004 by Educational Testing Services, pg. 23.

    Supporters of technology say that it solves problems and makes life better. Opponents argue that technology creates new problems that may threaten or damage the quality of life. Using one or two examples, discuss both positions. Which view do you support? Why?

    Technology is a fundamental part of our modern life. Every day we wake up to an alarm clock, shower by means of indoor plumbing, go to work in a car or subway train, work with a computer or tools and, in the evening we watch television until we fall asleep. It is simply impossible to imagine human life without tools and technology. On the surface it would appear that technology has improved our quality of life by providing more comfort, completing tasks more quickly, and increasing our capabilities. Unfortunately we rarely think deeply about the impacts on our quality of life. For example, technology does lead to a dependence on materials and processes that are damaging to the environment. However, in the end the benefits of technology in providing a high standard of living and solving serious problems outweigh the problems.

    As I mentioned in the introduction, technology is inseperable from our standard of living. While we often think of technology as including only complicated electronic devices like TVs, radios, and computers, technology also refers to simpler manmade inventions such as paper. Compared to other writing materials like slate, bark, or papyrus, paper is cheap and easy to make, highly portable, long lasting and easy to write on. Bark and other natural materials are difficult to work with. Chalk on slate is not permanent. Papyrus is difficult to make. It also uses animal skins which can be better used for clothing. We know from history that there was an explosion in book production when paper was introduced to the Western world from China. Although the printing press was obviously a huge innovation in mass production of books, the existence of a cheap, easy-to-make material made the printing press possible. Paper improves our quality of life by preserving ideas from the past, allowing us to learn from people around the globe and to share our knowledge with future generations. In this way, paper has much in common with other technologies like the Internet, the television and the radio which all improve communication by making it faster, cheaper and more convenient.

    On the other hand, paper is also an example of how technology can be damaging to the environment. Paper is made from wood pulp and that means cutting down trees. A lot of trees. Trees are essential to provide oxygen to our atmosphere, to protect smaller plants in the forest from the sun and to give food and shelter to animals. Forestry not only damages the forest ecosystem by removing trees, but also because lumberjacks enter forests with chainsaws, trucks and shelters. New highways are built in natural environments. All this human activity negatively affects the environment by killing plant life, scaring away animals and introducing pollution in the form of exhaust fumes and tarring chemicals. Similarly a lot of technology depends on energy, which in this day and age, means oil products. Oil wells are also dug in natural environments scarring the land. Burning oil pollutes the air and oil spills can cause immense damage to the water and the land.

    Nonetheless, the benefits of technology far outweigh the costs. First, because the removal of technology from our lives would cause drastic harm to our lifestyle. Can you imagine your life without manmade tools? Second, because in the same way paper provided a cost-effective solution to the problem of transmitting information, someday technology will provide an efficent solution to the problems of pollution and environmental damage. There is no other way to solve these problems besides technology itself. (588 words)

    Analysis

    I tried to write this in 30 minutes because that’s the time you will have on the TOEFL. The key to this essay is following the instructions: Provide one or two examples. I provided one example, paper.Discuss both positions Talk about the good and bad points of technology not just the side you agree with
    Give your own opinion and why This is probably where I fell down. I have a thesis statement and a conclusion that give my opinion that technology is good. But the conclusion introduces a new idea: technology will solve environmental problems. That should be more developed. Probably in the third paragraph I should talk about technological steps that are taken in the paper industry and oil industry to solve environmental issues. But 30 minutes is a short time.

    Good points:

    • The essay is clearly organized with an introduction, 1 paragraph on the positive side of tech and 1 one the negative side, then a conclusion.
    • There are only 2 spelling mistakes and they are hard words: Can you find the mistakes?
    • There is a mix of long and short sentences, formal and informal language, passive and active.
    • The example, paper, is developed in some detail. And it’s clear why paper is good.
      I follow all the instructions.
    • The essay stays on the topic is technology good or bad?
    • I chose one small part of the topic because otherwise I could write all day. In this case, I took one example of technology and developed it to cover the requirements. You won’t have time to write everything you think so pick and choose.

    So, how well can you write an essay? Write something up on this topic in 30 minutes and post it here in the comments. I’ll give you some feedback.

    Also see my Steps to Writing a Good Essay for a basic idea of the process of writing a good essay.