How to Write an Essay

by Waller Jamison

When you are faced with college assignments, it is essential that you know how to write an essay.

The first step is to check any guidelines provided by your college so that you make sure you write your essay in the way that is required by your tutor. This would include things like number of words, style – essay or report and whether to use double line spacing. There may be very specific criteria based on the subject, fro example, if you are writing an essay in a foreign language you might be expected to use a variety of tenses.

How to Write an Essay - Interpreting the Essay Title

The next step is working out exactly what the essay title means. This is crucial to your success, in some respects the most important thing you need to know when studying how to write an essay.

This is because you can write a brilliant essay, beautifully written, well set out and well argued, but if it doesn't answer the question you have been asked, you won't get a good grade for it.

The most important aspect of the title is the verb or verbs, which will tell you how to approach the essay.

If you haven't written an essay in a long time, you may need to spend some time considering the types of essay you may be expected to write.

When you were much younger, your first school essays were probably descriptive, the classic “What I did during my Holidays” type essay, which merely asks you to describe something which happened.

Later, you might have been expected to write essays which included some criticial thinking and analysis and you will must certainly be expected to do so at college level.

So let's take a look at some of the words, more specifically, the berbs, which crop up in essay titles and what they mean.


if you have ever watched a discussion on TV, you will have observed a group of people giving their opinions on a topic. Some of their ideas will be similar to those of the other participants and others may be radically different.

At the end of the discussion, the host will give a summary of the points made. If your essay asks you to discuss something, it will be done in much the same way, but of course, all the points will be organized into logical order so that the essay flows

You'll begin with an introduction to the topic, state your own point of view and then present both sides of the argument and end with a summary

Compare and contrast :

you might be asked to compare and contrast the personalities of two characters in a novel or play or you might be asked to compare and contrast employment opportunities in two cities or a rural area and an urban area which are close to each other.

Compare means to discuss the aspects of the topic or character which are similar and contrast means to highlight the aspects which are different.

Again, you would introduce the topic or characters, give a general overview and then choose a certain number of points to compare and a similar number of points to contrast.


This means to look at each aspect of a situation or character in close detail and write about what these aspects might mean. You are examining the topic from various different angles to understand the meaning and the significance.

You start as always with an introduction and explain the areas you intend to analyse. then analyse them in an order which makes sense, with ecah point leading naturally into the next one. Finish with a summary of your conclusions.

In many cases there will be more than one verb. Make sure you do what each verb asks. For example, you might be asked to outline the plot of a novel and interpret one aspect of it or analyse one or more of the characters in the light of a specific event.


means to give examples of the topic or your interpretation of a situation.


means to assess a situation or point of view and back it up with examples or proof.


asks you to explain the topic, for example to give your opinion as to why a situation has arisen or what is meant by a poem or an aspect of a novel.


asks you to give a brief explanation the main aspects of the topic or situation, in other words a short overview.

How to Write An Essay - The Next Steps

Once you have a clear understanding of the essay title, you are ready to start writing your outline. Deciding what you are going to include and what you will leave out is an important part in understanding how to write an essay.

Think about what you are going to be focusing on in your essay. Make a list of all the points you want to cover, note the conclusion you intend to reach and put everything into logical order.

You may need to do some research. This depends on the topic you are writing about and could be anything from reading a few books or articles to interviewing experts on the subject.

If you are really not sure how to write an essay, don' t worry, you will find that your college or university provides study support and should be able to give you either individual sessions or a place in a class which will teach you all you need to know about essay writing.

For more information on how to write an essay go to our basic essay writing guide.