Chapter 1 – What is an Academic Essay? Why Bother?

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The College Essay

The word “essay” originally comes from the French “essai,” meaning “an attempt.” An attempt to do what, exactly? Well, that is the question this texts hopes to answer. It is an attempt to first understand a concept more deeply, and then to explore its larger implications in relation to both writer and reader. The methods for creating a successful college essay are not the same for everyone. Some writers require complete silence with no distractions, while others crave noise and interaction while they work. Some are writing in their own native language, and others in a second, or even third language. Some of us are very political and feel comfortable challenging authority and the status quo, others feel more comfortable trusting authorities and following instructions carefully. Many of us also have little choice concerning how and when we get to write. We fit it in between life and work, marriage and children, and death and taxes. But a few questions remain, and even gain strength in this new and unpredictable world we live in: “Why bother? What practical reasons do we have for making students create these ancient documents to begin with?” The answer is both more complex and simple than we may imagine. The short answer is, because the essay writing process in one of the most effective ways for us to develop our skills in understanding, investigating, and collaborating with others on important topics and ideas. It is also one of the most potent self-education tools we have ever developed. The best way to learn more about a topic is to write an essay about it. So the purpose of the technology of essay writing is to learn, more than to teach. To explore, more than to explain. To generate and experience communal knowledge, not to bludgeon others with our own isolated ideas of truth. To write a good essay, we must bring our ideas into meaningful dialogue with the thoughts and ideas of others, and in the process, we learn more about both the topic under consideration and our own ways of making sense of the world. Essay writing is most effective when we are not afraid of being wrong or of being right. It works best when we see it as a process of discovery. And it works best when we bring our full selves to the exercise.

The Process

While no guide can help you find what exact situations will work best for you, there are aspects of the process that, when basically followed, promote a cleaner, more stable final draft. These six general stages are: discovery & investigation, prewriting, drafting, revising, editing, and formatting.

Discovery & Investigation

The first step in writing a successful college essay requires an active engagement with your sources. Simply reading a source for basic content is not quite enough. The questions should not be simply “What does this say?” or “What happened?” but rather “Why did that happen?” “What does that say about the larger themes and ideas I am exploring?” and “How does this help advance my thinking into the deeper layers of this topic?”

Make notes of your thoughts, ideas, and reactions as you read. Research is about following the conversation into your sources and allowing your sources to “talk to one another” as you develop your own presence in the conversation. What new questions emerge as your initial questions are answered? How do your sources relate to one another as you dive deeper into a research topic? Have you checked enough into alternative views and perspectives to make sure you are not reaching a biased perspective too quickly?

As you become more informed on the topic, your voice will begin to emerge, and even direct the conversation. But now it will be a voice as rooted in authoritative research as it is in your own valid experience and perspective.

Once you have completed an active reading of a primary source, it will often be necessary to obtain secondary sources to back up your thesis. Peer-reviewed journals available online through the college databases will be your most commonly used secondary resources. But remember that other search engines, such as Google Scholar, can yield strong results too.


Prewriting is the step in which tools such as free writing, brainstorming, outlining, or clustering are used. In prewriting, no idea is too off-topic or too strange to pursue. It is these sometimes outlier ideas that can lead you to a paper topic that you never would have considered otherwise. There will be time to eliminate and consolidate later. For now, cast the net as wide as you can. Let your curiosity guide and motivate you here. Again, you will have time to tailor and sculpt your prewriting ideas to fit the parameters of your given assignment later. For now, just let your mind wander. Be open, curious, and attentive to where your questions lead you.

Though the common perception is that there is nothing that hasn’t been written about before, if you allow yourself to think outside the box, you can find a way of looking at an old topic through new eyes. Or a new topic through wise and measured perspectives. Even if it has been covered by another writer, you will be able to bring your unique perspective and relevant experiences to the larger discussion through initially casting a wide research net to pull in potential new ideas and relevant associations.

It is also during prewriting that the writer needs to make a decision about audience. Asking questions like: “Who is going to read my paper?” “What is the purpose of this paper?” and “Why are they going to read my paper?” will help you set your audience. The simple answers to these questions are “My professor” and “Because they assigned it.” But these are not the true answers. It could be that your paper needs to be geared towards peers and fellow students, participants in a seminar, colleagues at a conference, or your family and neighbors.

Regardless, consideration of audience is crucial for setting tone, voice, and perspective in a developing essay. The language and tone for each of these possible audiences would be very different. Sometimes slightly, sometimes considerably. Considering this also helps you set your relationship to the topic and to the audience in ways that will make the essay more readable and accessible.


Drafting is the beginning of “writing” your paper. It is important to remember that in drafting you should already have a thesis idea to guide your writing. Without a thesis, your writing will be prone to drift, making it harder to structure after the fact. In drafting, the writer should use materials created in the prewriting stage and any notes taken in discovery and investigation to frame and build body paragraphs. You may change your thesis as you go. In the beginning, it is only advisable to have a general idea of where you are going regarding thesis. The more clarity here, the better. But don’t let an unfocused or underdeveloped thesis stop you from getting started. You can always return to it and sharpen it as you go deeper into the essay.

Many writers will tackle their body paragraphs first instead of beginning with an introduction (especially if you are not sure of the exact direction of your paper). Beginning with body paragraphs will allow you to work through your ideas without feeling restricted by a specific thesis, but be prepared to delete or alter paragraphs that don’t fit your eventual big idea.

Also be prepared to move body paragraphs around, if necessary, to better fit your pattern of development and thesis. Afterwards, create opening and concluding paragraphs (with an appropriately revised thesis) that reflect the body of your essay.


There are three different scopes of revision: global, regional, and local.

Global revision involves looking for issues like cohesion of your main idea(s) and the overall progression of your essay. If your essay has paragraphs that do not flow into each other, but rather change topics abruptly only to return to a previous thought later, your essay has poor cohesion. If your thesis is too generic or is not sufficiently developed and supported in the body of the essay, you need to explore this level of revision. If your topics change too drastically from paragraph to paragraph, it is necessary to consider altering the order of your paragraphs and/or revising your writing by either adding to existing paragraphs or creating new ones that explain your change in topic. An essay with a logical flow and smooth transitions is significantly easier to read and understand. These are the bones of the essay.

Regional revision involves reworking or reshaping: changing the muscles. This second level of re­vising means that you’re satisfied with what you are saying (or trying to say), but not with how you’ve said it. Working on “how” tends to mean thinking about readers: thinking about how your thoughts will be read or understood by people other than yourself. Thus feedback from readers is particularly use­ful for this level of revising. One of the most common kinds of reworking is to improve clarity. Perhaps you realize you need to change the order you pre­sent things in; or you need an introduction, conclusion, and some transitions; or you’ve implied ideas or suggested attitudes that you don’t want there. Most common of all, you simply need to leave out parts that may be OK in themselves (or even precious to you) but that don’t quite belong now that you’ve finally figured out what the piece of writing is really saying. These pas­sages clog your piece and will distract or tire readers.

Local revision involves looking for clarity in sentences, ensuring coherence within your body paragraphs, and addressing grammar, syntax, and formatting issues. This should be done after you are comfortable with the larger issues addressed in global revision. This is akin to copyediting the essay and is the skin of the essay. 

The greatest trick to avoid having to fix too many local issues is to use varied sentence structure and to avoid using the same words repeatedly. Repeating the same sentence structure can make your paper feel mechanical and make an interesting topic feel boring. Also, if you can, have someone else read a draft of your essay to help catch the many small mistakes our eyes can miss when looking at the same essay for too long.


The final stage in writing a strong college essay requires a review of what you have written. In this last read of your essay, you should look for any grammar, spelling, or punctuation errors that have slipped through the cracks during the revising stage, or that were introduced in your revisions.

Reading your essay aloud, or asking a friend to read your essay back to you, are good ways to catch errors. Often if you read your own essay, especially out loud, you can catch errors in grammar, spelling, and punctuation that can be missed in a silent reading. Though this step seems minor within the process of writing, it is an easy way to prevent the loss of points over simple mistakes.

Formatting, In-text citation, and Works Cited

The formatting required for your paper will change depending on the field of study and academic discipline. Generally, the sciences and business and economics use APA or CSE formatting. English and other humanities will use MLA, and History uses Chicago. The appearance of the first page of the essay, in-text citations, and the Works Cited page will all be affected by these different formats.

Consult your syllabus or ask your professor to learn what format you should use. Guides for MLA are available later in this guide. Guides for APA, Chicago, CSE and ASA are available here.


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The Format

Writing the college essay is a matter of answering a series of questions, of following a sequence of steps towards creating a coherent written document that explores a topic for greater insight and understanding. It is a time-tested rhetorical technology meant to focus the writer’s inquisitive and curious mind towards an engaging, rational, and academically-sound discussion. Initially, we will also explore the six basic elements of this very specific, yet adaptive, format:


Please refer back to this book as needed for help with crafting specific elements of your assignments. There are many other websites, nonprofits, and academic institutions who have published readily available materials on the academic writing process. Students and faculty should feel free to explore the options available to them and employ the ones that resonate the most.

The Purdue University Online Writing Lab (OWL), for instance, is one of the oldest and most reputable college writing websites available to anyone with an internet connection. Our own MHCC Tutoring Center also has a number of great resources available. The point is not to follow one specific “Golden Road” to success in college writing. Rather, we hope to become aware of the purpose and relevant structures of the model and apply them to our own critical and creative thinking processes in ways that make writing assignments more productive, engaging, and fun. This will translate to your reader, improve the substance of your writing, and inevitably elevate your grades along the way.

Here you can find most, if not all, of the technical material you will need to write competent, engaging college-level essays. But the content of your writing will be determined by the particular class or assignment, the special areas of interest that make you the person you are, and the ideas that contribute to the personal, social, vocational, and transformative nature of your education.

(As needed, this ebook will be updated with new materials and relevant links as the author continues to curate the collection.)


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Composition in Cultural Contexts Copyright © 2021 by Andy Gurevich is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.

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