Academic writing:  The Essay

You're probably wondering how to write an academic essay; before we get to that, let's think about a more fundamental question: What is an essay? That might sound like a silly question, since most of us have written plenty of papers. But let's reflect for a minute.

Chances are you've written some good, some mediocre, and even some lousy essays. Do you know what you did well when you got an "A," or poorly when you didn't? Would you be able to give a clear answer if someone asked you, "What's an essay?" If not, you might sometimes feel blocked when you sit down to write; you might even procrastinate and find yourself handing in work that falls short of your standards.

Understanding what an essay is can help us overcome our fear of writing one. Although there are many types of essays, most require simply that the writer state his or her thesis and then go on to explain, support, and/or prove it. It's truly that straightforward.

Although an instructor may require additional items, all essays require these basic elements:

 elements of a standard essay

elements of a standard essay


Before you start, stop and think about your audience: to whom you are writing? Think also about your purpose: what do you want your audience to do, believe, or think as a result of reading your work? Audience and purpose will determine what you say and how you say it.

Imagine that you are looking for a job as a housing stabilization specialist. If you were to apply at a progressive agency that emphasizes case management, you would likely highlight your experience with providing counseling, advocacy, and wrap-around services that help clients who receive housing keep it. If you were to apply instead at a state program that administers Section 8 housing vouchers, you would likely highlight your knowledge of the policies and regulations associated with the voucher program. In other words, you would tailor your application to align with the job posting: you would demonstrate that you possess the skills and knowledge called for in the posting and that you understand the mission and culture of the program. That is, your audience (agency personnel) and purpose (getting an interview at the agency) would shape the content and tone of your message.

The better you understand your audience--what they believe and value--and the clearer you are about your purpose for addressing them, the more effective your writing will be.

TIP: For more on audience and purpose click here and here.


The thesis statement is the overarching idea—the essential message or major point--that you want to convey to your audience. Here's an example: Adult learners typically get more out of their education than traditional-aged learners.

There's a big difference between a topic and a thesis. A topic is a word or phrase, like adult learners or adult learners versus traditional learners. A thesis statement is a complete idea about a topic, as seen in the example above. Another possible thesis statement for the topicadult learners might be: Adult learners need different support structures than traditional-aged learners to succeed in higher education. Both examples have the same topic: adult learners or adult learners versus traditional learners; however, the thesis statements--the overarching ideas--about the topic are different. Be careful not to confuse topic and thesis; you need both to write a successful essay.

You've probably noticed that most writers announce their thesis statement toward the beginning of the essay—often at the end of the first paragraph--so that their readers know what to expect. There's no rule that says a writer must do so, but it's usually a good idea.

TIP: To read more on WHALE about thesis statements, click here.


The main ideas explain, support, or prove the thesis statement. Each and every main idea in an essay must connect clearly to the thesis statement.

The main ideas answer the "w" questions related to the thesis:

 the "w" questions

the "w" questions

The main ideas usually serve as the topic sentences of the body paragraphs. Let's go back to that sample thesis statement: Adult learners typically get more out of their education than traditional-aged learners. Main ideas that support the thesis might include:

  • Because adult learners are clear about their professional and personal goals, they can select classes that are highly relevant to their lives.
  • Adult learners' professional and personal experience equip them to understand complex ideas and see connections between ideas.
  • Many adult learners want to role model the value of education to their children, which gives them additional motivation to succeed.

Each of these main ideas helps to explain or support the thesis statement Adult learners typically get more out of their college education than traditional-aged learners. And each of these sentences would make a fine topic sentence for a paragraph in the body of the essay.


After you have determined your purpose, envisioned your audience, chosen your topic, and crafted your thesis and main ideas, it's time to flesh out your paragraphs. Writers commonly use these strategies to develop ideas:

 rhetorical strategies to develop main ideas

rhetorical strategies to develop main ideas

Think of these strategies as tools in a kit: you do not have to use them in any particular order; nor do you need to use them all in every essay. Choose the ones you need to "get the job done" -- to accomplish your purpose and connect with your audience.

TIP: To read more on WHALE about developing ideas, click here.


You might think that since your title and introduction lead off your essay, you should write them first. Would you be surprised to learn that many readers work out their thesis statement and main ideas, and even develop their body paragraphs, before they craft their title, introduction, and conclusion? When you think about it, that approach makes sense. It's easier to introduce and sum up your ideas once you know what they are!

  • Title

An effective title gives readers a sense of the topic and, ideally, grabs their attention. "Taking Themselves Seriously: Adult Learners Succeed in School" might work for that essay we sketched out above. (Certainly that title is better than "Homework Assignment"!)

  • Introduction

Your introduction should draw in your readers and give them a sense of your piece. Some writers engage readers by telling a story or posing a thought-provoking question. Others give a summary of their main ideas. And, as noted, writers usually state the thesis at the end of the introduction.

TIP: To read more on WHALE about crafting an effective introduction, click here.

  • Conclusion

Your conclusion should close out your essay smoothly. Some writers refer back to thesis / introduction to create a sense of completion. Some--especially when writing long essays--restate their main ideas, so they'll stay fresh in the audience's mind. When examining a problem, many writers conclude by suggesting possible solutions, or posing questions for consideration. Whatever your approach, your conclusion should give your readers the sense that the essay is “finished.”

TIP: To read more on WHALE about crafting an effective conclusion, click here.


It might help to see how a typical paper is laid out. Consider this schema for a basic essay created by educator Richard Jewell:

 Richard Jewel's basic essay schema

Richard Jewel's basic essay schema

FINAL NOTE: So, then, what is an essay? In short, it's a piece of writing that explores a topic; it contains a clear thesis that expresses what the writer wants his or her audience to know or believe about the topic and effectively developed and supported main ideas that connect to the thesis. It also contains a title, an introduction, and a conclusion. When writers get these elements to work together successfully, they engage their audience and probably accomplish their purpose for writing in the first place.

TIP: To learn more about essay writing, view this excellent video, How to Write and Effective Essay, by James at on the fundamentals of writing an effective essay!