How to Write a Great Essay: Advice for College Students

This article is an excerpt from the Shortform book guide to "How to Become a Straight-A Student" by Cal Newport. Shortform has the world's best summaries and analyses of books you should be reading.

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Do you need to know how to write a great essay? How can you make your essay thoughtful?

In addition to exams, essays often make up a large portion of your grades in college. In How to Become a Straight-A Student, Cal Newport gives writing strategies for essays.

Below, we’ll discuss these strategies for writing research papers and critical analysis essays.

How to Write a Research Paper

According to Newport, the first step to learning how to write a great essay that requires original research is to select an area of interest that you’d like to learn more about. Start looking for this as soon as you know about the paper by paying attention to small asides from your professor or in your texts that pique your curiosity. Once you have an idea, ask your professor about the topic; she should be able to suggest texts you can look at to learn more. 

Second, find a thesis. Newport clarifies that this is not a full-fledged argument; rather, this is a smaller area of research that seems promising. To find a thesis, reference a relatively encyclopedic source, then comb through its bibliography to find more specific sources. For example, in a class on US presidents, say you want to write a paper on Franklin Delano Roosevelt (FDR). You skim a biography of him and learn that FDR gave regular radio addresses. In reviewing the bibliography, you might find a journal article that describes how FDR’s radio addresses impacted his popularity and decide to examine how various presidents have pioneered new technologies (like social media) in election campaigns. Third, Newport recommends summarizing your thesis to your professor. Make sure that she thinks it’s promising, and ask if she has any sources you should look at or arguments you should consider.

Once you get your professor’s approval, it’s time for the fourth step: research. To do this, Newport first recommends that you create a list of topics, dividing them by whether they’re essential or merely useful (but not critical) to your paper. If we were to use our FDR example, “how FDR used the radio” is an essential topic; “how the radio became popular” might be helpful but isn’t critical. 

Once you have this list, start looking for relevant sources, continues Newport. If you’re stuck, your library is full of resources—like librarians—who can help. Each time you find a good source, photocopy everything relevant from that source, including everything you’ll need to cite it and its bibliography. Then, skim through your photocopy. Each time you find something that seems useful—like an opinion or fact—write down where you found it and a brief summary of it. Finally, ask yourself: “Do I have enough?” If you have two sources for every essential topic and one source for most of the useful topics, the answer is yes.

Once you have enough, it’s time for Newport’s fifth step—creating an outline. To do so, first decide what you want to say: Spend several days thinking about and regularly reviewing your sources and notes to decide on this. Then, once you’ve decided what to say, write a principle-level outline: List, in order, each point you plan on discussing to make your case. With each point, include any quotes you’ll use from your source materials as evidence.

After you create your outline, Newport recommends that you review it with others—ideally, your professor and one or two classmates. Doing so will help you pinpoint any sections that are murky or need to be moved around. (Shortform note: If you’re intimidated by your professor or don’t have friends in the class, go to your university’s writing center, which can usually help you refine your outline.)    

Once you’ve finalized the outline, it’s time to write your paper. For best results, Newport recommends that you do this someplace isolated and on a day that you’re not also outlining or editing your paper. Writing is a cognitively demanding task, so do it when you have as much energy as possible and can focus well. 

The final step, Newport states, is to edit your paper in three rounds. First, review the logic: Ensure that your paper makes logical sense and re-arrange any passages that seem out of place.

Second, print your paper and read it aloud: Your ears will catch any strange phrasing or spelling mistakes your eyes skipped over. Third, do a final check the morning your paper is due; doing so helps you correct any last-minute mistakes and reassures you that you have a paper worthy of an A.

How to Write a Critical Analysis Essay

As Newport notes, in addition to long papers that require original research, many of your courses will require what he calls critical analysis essays. These papers are usually two to three pages and involve a specific prompt that asks you to analyze the arguments in your assigned texts, such as, “Compare and contrast what Authors X and Y say about Topic Z.”

The step-by-step process for writing a critical analysis essay is basically a shorter version of the process for writing a paper that requires original research. Since you won’t need to select an area of interest, you’ll skip that step and instead start by finding your thesis, which involves reviewing the assigned reading and relevant lecture notes to determine how you’ll answer the prompt. Then, skip straight to step five, creating an outline. 

The following step—reviewing your outline with others—is optional and depends on how important your paper is: You don’t need to discuss a weekly one-page assignment with anybody else, but a 10-page essay might warrant review with a few people. Just be careful: Some classes may forbid you from discussing your essay with anybody else.  

After that, the steps are the same: Write and edit your essay just as you would one that requires original research. With this system, you’ll be able to churn out your essays with ease—and get good grades doing it, claims Newport.

How to Write a Great Essay: Advice for College Students

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  • How to ace your college courses with just a few hours of studying each day
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Katie Doll

Somehow, Katie was able to pull off her childhood dream of creating a career around books after graduating with a degree in English and a concentration in Creative Writing. Her preferred genre of books has changed drastically over the years, from fantasy/dystopian young-adult to moving novels and non-fiction books on the human experience. Katie especially enjoys reading and writing about all things television, good and bad.

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