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Getting Started With Your Essay: sub-module 1 of 3 of academic writing under types of writing hub

Academic Writing is the main form of writing required in post-secondary education. It involves understanding the key components of how to write an essay, formulate an argument or main idea, conduct academic research, integrate sources, and write effectively.

The general phases of academic writing include planning your essay (generating ideas, creating an argument or main point and conducting research to support your points), structuring and writing your essay (putting the essay structure together and integrating sources), and revising your essay (editing your essay so it is clear and coherent for your reader.) Explore this page and the two other essay/academic writing pages for guidance on this process.



  • Understand the instructions.Make sure you know what key terms in the assignment mean before you start writing. For example, ‘discuss’ is different from ‘critique.’
  • Identify a point.Try to identify a point that you want to make with your ideas.
  • Ask and answer ‘why?’Your reader make be asking why when you are writing, so make sure you are also thinking of “why” you are making this point or giving this piece of information.
  • Organize your ideas.Create an organizer that captures your ideas in a form that works for you, whether it is a sequential planner or a graphic organizer.
  • Have the research to support your thesis.Remember, a thesis statement that you cannot support will fall like a stone. You need strong points to help it from falling.

Study Tools

How to Start Your Essay

Before you begin to write your essay, it is important to do some planning to set yourself up for success. As the saying goes, “Well begun is half done.” This is because a good plan gives you direction and structure for your writing. Browse the tabs in this box for information on the following steps in the planning process:

  • Understanding your assignment (key terms that tell you what to do and patterns of organization for writing)
  • Brainstorming techniques
  • Outlining ideas (graphic organizers and essay outlines)
  • Writing a thesis statement
  • Conducting research

Understanding the Assignment

Understanding what is being asked in an assignment is the first step in planning your academic essay. If Google Maps says turn left and you turn right, you may not arrive at your destination. Following directions carefully is very important in academic essay writing and the consequences for going in the wrong direction can be serious. To better understand your assignments and how you should approach writing your essay, read the following topics:

Understanding Key Terms

There are many key terms in essay questions that can often confuse students. Having a good understanding of the meaning of each term can help determine how you should approach your essay.

Definition - Write an essay or answer about a particular topic.

Tip - Give a brief summary of the character(s) or idea(s) that you will be mentioning in your paper. You can do this by defining key terms or by using quick anecdotes from the piece.

Definition - Describe any similarities, differences, or associations between two or more subjects.

Tip - Do not simply summarize the story or article in your paper. You must go beyond surface ideas and dig deep for further meaning.

Definition - Provide concrete evidence as to why something is true or false.

Tip - This term directs you to show, not tell readers why something is true or false. The important thing here is how well you can support your position on a topic, not what the actual position is.

Definition - Provide an explanation on a specific subject or object.

Tip - Imagine that your readers have no background information on your topic. Consider the point of view of the reader when you write, so that your description can be clear and concise.

Definition - This term asks for your opinion on a particular subject.

Tip - Remember, your opinion is valid only when you are able to justify and support it with solid evidence. Be sure to look at both sides of an argument, and counter the opposing arguments.

Definition - This term asks for your position on a particular subject.

Tip - Do not simply critique something independent of its relationship to other parts. Instead, you should relate this idea or object to other parts of the text and explain how it helps you understand the overall meaning of the text.

Patterns of Organization

When you are reading your assignment and making sure you understand what you are being asked to do, it is also important to start to think about how you are going to organize your writing. Thinking about the different patterns of organization helps you not only to understand the expectations of the assignment but to generate ideas as well.

Using a specific pattern of organization will allow you to clearly outline your ideas. Using a recognizable pattern also makes it easier for readers to understand those ideas.

Here are some patterns of organization that are used to organize writing.

  • Description Ask yourself: What specific person, place, thing, or idea are you describing? Include a topic word or phrase.
  • Cause and Effect Ask yourself: What are the results, outcomes, consequences, or the effects of an action or non-action. The pattern of a cause and effect structure is often 'Because x happened or didn't happen, the effect is y'.
  • Sequence Ask yourself: Is this event taking place over time? This pattern can include steps or references to time such as dates.
  • Compare and Contrast Ask yourself: What are you comparing? How are they the same? How are they different?
  • Problem and Solution Ask yourself: What is the problem and what is the solution? Include the problem first followed by the solution.

Brainstorming Techniques

Once you understand what your assignment is asking you to do, you can begin to come up with ideas of how to accomplish it. Brainstorming is a process of creative thinking that is used to generate ideas and/or solutions to a problem.

Watch this video or read the text below to learn how to brainstorm and generate ideas for an essay or assignment.

  • Define your topic. Be sure you understand your assignment. What have you been asked to write about and why? These questions will help you focus on the purpose of the essay.
  • Understand your audience. Who are your potential readers? Think about the type of information they will be looking for and what will interest them.
  • Become familiar with the topic. What do you already know? What are your immediate ideas and reactions to this topic? Make a note of your thoughts.
  • Determine what you need to find out. What areas are you still unfamiliar with? Create a list so your research is focused; this will also break the process down into smaller steps so that it’s less time consuming.
  • Select a topic that describes something of personal importance. Researching and writing your essay will be more enjoyable if you choose to write about something you are interested in.
  • Plan your objective. What is the goal of your essay? If you are presenting research, choose a topic that you have great interest in and one that you can find sufficient information about. If you are arguing a point, choose a side you can strongly defend.
  • Talk about your essay. Telling someone about your essay allows you to hear your ideas and prompts you to clarify your points. Feedback from your listener can also help you refine your ideas.
  • Pass the paper. Working with others often results in more good ideas than working on your own. If you are working on a group assignment, start by writing your ideas on a paper, then pass the paper to each of your group members so that they can write their ideas down.

Organizing Ideas

When you are thinking about an essay or ‘processing it in your head’, ideas can come rapidly and randomly. When you’re planning your writing assignment you need to put your ideas in a logical order so that your intended reader can follow your thinking.

An organizer helps you as well. It serves as a map that keeps you on track and demonstrates to your reader that there is an overall order to your ideas.

Check out the following sections below:

How to Use Graphic Organizers

Graphic organizers are great tools for learners who have strong visual preferences or who have strong visual memories. While we are treating them as pre-writing tools, they also make good note-taking templates for the right type of learner, since they help a reader to consolidate print-heavy information from another source— for example, a textbook— into a visual format.

Constructing an Essay Outline

An essay outline is the skeleton of an essay. It contains only the most important information, and helps the writer plan the essay. It also acts as a guide to writing the essay.
Writing an outline will help organize the ideas a writer has for an essay. Also, it provides a condensed look at the essay, which is useful in keeping the writer on track when the essay is being written. In addition, the writer can ensure that the subpoints always relate back to the thesis.

There are two types of essay outlines:

General outline

  • Contains only the main points
  • Is used during in-class assignments, or during time-limited situations

Specific outline

  • Includes main points and supporting material
  • Is used for take home assignments where more planning is needed

All outlines should include an introduction, a body, and, a conclusion. Below is a brief summary of the different parts:


  • Starts the essay by introducing the topic
  • Narrows down ideas from the topic to the thesis
  • Includes the thesis and the main points


  • Provides the evidence to prove the thesis
  • Contains at least 2 points


  • Wraps up the essay by restating the thesis and subpoints
  • Does not introduce any new evidence

Sample Essay Outline

Topic/title: The Advantages of Receiving Tutoring

  1. General statement/attention getter: Attract the audience to read on; introduce the topic
    • Everyone has required the help of another person some point in life.
  2. Connecting information: Link the general statement to the thesis
    • For example, students often require the help of classmates, teachers, or other individuals
  3. Thesis: Create an arguable thesis (i.e. Do not state a fact, such as “Seneca has a tutoring centre.”) Include your main points in the thesis sentence. Make sure the thesis is neither too broad, nor too narrow.
    • Tutoring provides an excellent source of help for students as it allows them to learn on a one-on-one basis, enables them to gain new strategies to tackle specific problems, and helps reinforce classroom concepts.
  1. Subpoint #1: One-on-one basis
    Topic sentence: First, the one-on-one basis tutoring utilizes is beneficial for students seeking help on concepts learned in class.
    • Able to ask specific or “stupid” questions
    • Tailor the presentation of the concept to a student’s learning method
      • Evidence to prove this point (2 to 3 points)
      • Facts, examples, quotes, etc. can be used as support
  2. Subpoint #2: New strategies
    Topic sentence: Second, tutoring will aid students to learn new strategies to help them understand and solve specific problems they may encounter in class.
    • Work with a tutor to develop a unique way to work through specific types of problems
    • Spend more time practicing a developed strategy on a specific type of problem in order to use it effectively even when the student is learning on their own.
      • Evidence to prove this point (2 to 3 points)
      • Facts, examples, quotes, etc. can be used as support
  3. Subpoint #3: Reinforcement of concepts
    Topic sentence: Third, a tutor can help reinforce concepts learned in class, deepening the student’s understanding of these concepts.
    • Present a concept according to the student’s pace and style of learning
    • Give the student a new insight into a learned topic.
      • Evidence to prove this point (2 to 3 points)
      • Facts, examples, quotes, etc. can be used as support
  1. Restate thesis in different words with your three points
    Tutoring can help students further their understanding of concepts learned from class in a one-on-one basis, by helping the student learn new strategies, and through the reinforcement of concepts.
  2. General or memorable statement
    Remember, learning is not a solitary journey, so don’t be afraid to ask for help.

Test Your Knowledge

Essay Structure Activity Accessible PDF Version

Creating a Thesis Statement

Watch this video or read the text below to learn how to write an effective thesis statement.

Click on the boxes below to read about thesis statements.

A thesis statement focuses your ideas into one or two sentences. Its purpose is to tell your audience what point or claim you will prove in your essay. In an essay, a thesis statement is most often found at the end of the introductory paragraph. In this way, the thesis statement creates more of an impact on the audience.

All thesis statements should have the following characteristics in common:

  • It should narrow the subject to a single, central idea.
  • It should claim something specific and significant about your subject.
  • It should be an idea that you can support with evidence, rather than a fact.
  • It should convey your purpose and reason for writing.
  • It can provide an outline of the points that you will be discussing in your essay. This will let the reader know what to expect, and it will help keep your argument focused.

When you are writing an essay you should construct your thesis statement around the question provided by your professor. If your professor has not given you a particular question, you should construct your thesis statement around your own viewpoint.

Make sure the topic is not too broad or general (e.g. choosing ‘the media’ as a topic is too broad; whereas focusing on One3 aspect of the media, such as television, is better). Your thesis statement should focus on a specific aspect of this topic. Make sure that your thesis statement clearly expresses your position or viewpoint on the topic. Think of an idea or viewpoint that you can easily defend with examples and evidence.

Also, be sure to keep in mind the type of essay you are writing (e.g. comparison/contrast, cause/effect, etc.) There are different ways you can formulate your thesis depending on whether you have to write about fiction or non-fiction.

Non-Fiction —Five paragraph essay

When you are writing a five paragraph essay, it is important to include three main points (One3 from each body paragraph).

Example: “Many people immigrate to Canada to escape oppression, avoid poor living conditions, and learn the English language.”

The main points that you are covering are:

  • People immigrate to escape oppression.
  • People immigrate to avoid poor living conditions.
  • People immigrate to learn the English language.

Fiction—Short story

When you are writing an essay on a short story, your thesis tends to be more specific and usually relates directly either to the question that you have been given, the short story, or both.

  • e.g. Question: Show how John is unable to escape a life of crime by referring to specific examples in the short story.
  • Thesis: “John is unable to escape a life of crime because of his abusive father, circle of friends, and drug problems.”

You can use the thesis statement checklist opens in new window to make sure your thesis statement is an effective thesis statement.

Conducting Research

An essential step in planning your essay is finding the right information so you can formulate your argument and plan what to say. Visit the Research Hub to find out how to find relevant, credible resources for your essays.