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English Composition 1

Getting Started on Essays

Chapter 1: Discovering Ideas (3-25) offers a lot of information about beginning an essay, and "An Overview: From Subject to Essay" (22-24) provides a helpful summary of the writing process. You should become familiar with this information. This page offers additional suggestions to help you get started on an essay assignment.

  1. Before you begin writing a rough draft, you should take many notes on your subject. Study your subject carefully, writing down anything about it that you think might be important. Asking questions about your subject, and trying to answer those questions, is often a good way to start generating ideas.

  2. After taking some notes, you should start to get a general idea of a topic that you could write about. A topic is more specific than a subject. Your subject could be the Internet, but your topic might be privacy and the Internet. Your subject could be an essay, but your topic might be a particular point that you think the writer is making through the essay. Just a general idea of your possible topic would be helpful at this point.

  3. Once you have begun to come up with a possible topic, look over your notes carefully. You will probably have to return to your subject and write down additional notes relevant to your topic (and not just relevant to the more general subject). Most likely, you will also have to cross out some of the ideas that you wrote down earlier that are not relevant to your topic.

  4. With your topic in mind and plenty of notes before you, identify any patterns, connections, or similarities that emerge from your notes. See if you can do some "grouping," organizing your notes into a few logical groups.

  5. Make a rough outline of the three or four main ideas you might discuss in your essay. These ideas could later be the bases of the different body paragraphs of your essay.

  6. Under each main idea on your list, write down the information that you could include in a paragraph on that idea. Return to your subject to see if you can find more details that you could discuss under the main ideas you have identified. If you have difficulty finding supporting details for one or more of your ideas, you should ask yourself if the idea is best left out of your essay. If this is the case, you may need to come up with one or more different ideas to develop.

  7. Think carefully about your topic and take a close look at the different main ideas you have identified. See if you can write a tentative thesis statement of just one sentence that brings all of the main ideas together is some logical way. If so, good! Write that sentence. If not, see if you can change the main ideas so that they come together more logically in just one sentence.
    A thesis statement is even more specific that a statement of the topic.

    A thesis statement should (1) identify the subject and topic, (2) identify the main ideas to be presented in the essay, (3) clarify how the ideas are logically related, and (4) convey the main point of the essay.

    If you can state all of the main ideas in one sentence that makes sense, then you can probably bring all of the ideas together in one essay that makes sense. Writing a tentative thesis statement at this early stage is a good test to see how well, or not, the ideas are likely to come together in your essay.

    The thesis statement is the most important sentence of your essay, and writing an effective thesis statement is not easy. Keep in mind that you are trying to come up with a tentative thesis statement at this point. Try to get all of the elements listed above into one sentence that makes sense, but don't worry if you are not pleased with the wording or structure of the sentence: you can change these things later.


  8. Write the tentative thesis statement at the top of the page or screen, and put your three or four main ideas into a logical order under the thesis statement, creating a rough outline for your essay. You should try to put each main idea in the form of a complete sentence, which can then serve as the topic sentence for a body paragraph. (And the topic sentences, when added together, should equal the thesis statement.)

  9. Begin a rough draft of your essay. At this point, you should be concerned with putting your notes and ideas onto the page or screen in some logical order. Do not be overly concerned about how your sentences sound or about any errors that may come up: you can give attention to these aspects of your essay later. At this early stage, you just need to give yourself a rough draft that you can later revise and refine.

Once you have written a draft, you are ready for a break. After the break, though, the major work of revising should begin. You should use the Revision Checklist page, the "Checklist for Revising and Editing an Essay" on the inside back cover of the textbook, and the suggestions in Chapter 2: Drafting and Revising (26-50).

You will also receive some constructive feedback on your draft in class. Consider all feedback carefully. Don't be frustrated or discouraged if the instructor or other students find many ways that your essay could be better. As the textbook emphasizes, revising is an important stage of the writing process, and getting constructive feedback, even if it might sting as first, is an important part of revising effectively.


This page was last updated on July 21, 2006. Copyright Randy Rambo, 2006.