The Writing Process

In this module, we will begin our discussion of the methods of academic writing by looking at how the writing process works, with particular attention paid to the various elements of the college essay format. Return here as you need for tips on all aspects of the college essay writing experience. Remember, an essay is an attempt to understand something more deeply. When we write an essay, we are opening ourselves up to the full spectrum of human knowledge and wisdom while simultaneously reaching for new understandings of the truth and its relevance to our lives. It is a sacred, scientific and self-empowering task. One that we continue to perfect as long as we are alive and curious. While no essay can be reduced to a simple series of steps or formulas, we will see that the essay format does provide a coherent template, an ancient and powerful structure, through which we can engage the world of ideas and communicate our discoveries in meaningful and academically productive ways. Remember this is a process. There is an old saying, “writing is rewriting.” We never so much arrive at a perfect piece of writing as we edge closer to engaging the spectacular and complex world around us with increasing clarity of thought and vision. And, hopefully, a sharpened sense of the importance of inquiry, evaluation and synthesis as vital steps on any path towards understanding.


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 rhetorical technology meant to focus the writer’s inquisitive and curious mind towards an engaging, rational and academically sound discussion.  Initially, we will explore the basic elements of this very specific, yet adaptive, writing process:

  • Thesis driven
  • Primary pattern of development
  • Coherent, unified paragraphs
  • Strong, clear introductions and conclusions
  • Proper use of relevant, authoritative sources
  • Properly formatted (MLA format)

NOTE: Please refer back to this page throughout the term for help with crafting the 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. The point is not to follow one specific “Golden Road” to success in college writing but, rather, to become aware of the purpose and relevant structures of the model and apply them to your own critical and creative thinking processes in ways that make your 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 and the special areas of interest that make you the person you are and contribute to personal 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.

Thesis-Driven Essays

  • A strong thesis does not just state your topic but your perspective or feeling on the topic as well. And it does so in a single, focused sentence.
  • A strong, clear thesis tells the reader clearly what the essay is all about and engages them in the big idea of the entire essay.
  • Consult the “Thesis Statements” handout or follow this link to the OWL thesis statements

BEST: A thesis is strongest when the writer uses both the specific topic, and their educated opinion on it, together for writing a detailed and clear main point.

  • Thesis statements are usually found at the end of the introduction. Seasoned authors may play with this structure, but it is often better to learn the form before deviating from it.
  • Thesis statements are almost always a single sentence long, two tops.
  • Thesis statements often reveal the primary pattern of development of the essay.
  • Watch this video on writing a “Killer” Thesis Statement
  • Watch this video on writing an effective Academic Thesis Statement.

Primary Pattern Of Development

  • Many college essays follow a primary pattern of development for laying out their ideas and expressing their primary thesis.
  • A pattern of development is the way the essay is organized, from one paragraph to the next, in order to present it’s main point and support for it.
  • Your reader will be experiencing your essay in time. That is, they will read it starting in paragraph one and then two, three, four, five, six… This may seem obvious but we need to consider how the reader will experience the essay in time and in relation to our thesis statement. Thus, we will need to organize the essay into a coherent pattern which allows the reader to easily follow our logic through the essay and fully relate it back to our central theme(s).
  • Some essays use a combination of patterns to communicate their ideas but usually a primary pattern is established to present the overall structure of the essay.

BEST: Patterns of development work best when they are used consistently and in conjunction with the structure and theme of the primary thesis statement.

  • Patterns include:
    • Narration & Description
    • Exemplification
    • Cause & Effect
    • Comparison & Contrast
  • There are several more variations of patterns of development but these are the most common and the ones we will be exploring this term.
  • Consult this handout on the basic understanding and uses of the primary patterns of development.
  • Consult this handout on the patterns of development discussed as the modes of essay writing.

Coherent, Unified Paragraphs

  • Strong essays are built with solid, coherent and unified paragraphs. They should be digestible units of thought that have similar structure to the essay itself: a topic sentence, a body of support, and a concluding or transitional statement to help the reader move through the essay with clarity and focus towards your big idea.
  • Body paragraphs need to be arranged according to your primary pattern of development.

BEST: When the writer uses paragraphs to present a single, coherent and well-developed thought in support of their overall thesis.

  • A body paragraph is a developed single thought that is laid out according to a certain, logical structure.
  • A strong, clear topic sentence that states the main idea of the paragraph (which will likely be a sub-point that is helping you to develop and explore your thesis).
  • A strong, clear body paragraph will include several (two-four) sentences of development and support of your topic sentence: including quotes, summaries and paraphrases of relevant sources and your substantive responses to the source material.
  • A strong paragraph will have a closing sentence of summary and transition into the next paragraph.
  • Consult this handout on how to construct coherent, engaging and unified paragraphs: Constructing Paragraphs or click on this link to the OWL Website.
  • Watch this video on Writing Effective Paragraphs.

Strong, Clear Introductions and Conclusions

  • The beginning and the ending of any communication event, studies show, provide the best opportunities to speak to any audience when their attention is the highest and most focused on the communication. Something about our species pays special attention to the way things start and the way they end. We should use this to our advantage as writers.
  • Consult the “Beginnings & Endings” handout.
  • The introduction should grab your reader’s attention, focus it on your general topic and move towards your specific, engaging thesis.
  • The conclusion should provide a restatement of your main idea (thesis), provide a sense of finality or closure, and possibly challenge the reader with a “so what?” moment.
  • In communication theory, there is a saying, “Tell them what you are going to tell them (introduction), tell them (body), then tell them what you just told them (conclusion).” While this seems a redundant structure, it is useful to be reminded of the need to build a logical and self-supporting flow into your academic writing. Clear intent and focus helps your reader concentrate on the major ideas you are trying to communicate and it helps you be disciplined and calculated in how you structure the essay to establish, highlight and support those very ideas.

BEST: When the writer uses both the introduction and the conclusion to grab and focus the reader’s attention on the main point of their essay.

  • Both should clearly state the main point of the essay (thesis).
  • Both should grab and focus the reader’s attention on the greater topic and larger significance of the thesis.
  • Both should provide a sense of momentum for the reader to move through the essay with clarity, confidence and full awareness of the essay’s main point.
  • Watch this video on writing effective introductions and conclusions.
  • Here’s another video on Effective Introductions and Conclusions.

Proper Use of Relevant, Authoritative Sources

The discovery, analysis and integration of relevant source material into a research project can be referred to as a “research methodology.” This can be a daunting, frustrating and sometimes scary process. It takes a lot of discipline and courage to boldly go into the world of a given topic to check our ideas against those of authoritative, current and reliable source material. It can also expose us to the reality that most topics are far more complicated than they originally appear. This is an essential component of college writing. It is important to get our thoughts and ideas down on paper in a clear, disciplined and understandable way. But it is equally important to verify, challenge and expand those ideas by juxtaposing them with the most reliable information we can find on our chosen topic. We do not research just to verify what we already believe about a topic but to challenge our previously held ideas and, hopefully, move beyond the echo chamber of our own thoughts into a meaningful, substantive dialogue with others who have relevant experience and expertise on the topic. Doing this will help us to generate a depth of knowledge that goes beyond the superficial and into the real mechanics of knowing. The result will be an essay that is engaging, grounded and integrative.

  • The “essay” format itself is intended to get the writer to explore a topic by beginning with a question or idea and then going out into the world and finding relevant, authoritative sources to help develop, test and explore that idea.
  • Authoritative sources do more than just back up the ideas we have. They challenge us to dive deep into the topic we are exploring to get their full complexity and broad application.
  • Consult the “Evaluating Sources” handout.
  • Consult this handout on how to effectively blend sources into your essay.

BEST: When the writer uses relevant, authoritative sources to enhance a dialogue with the audience and themselves around the significant issues the essay addresses. Most effective when they are blended carefully and properly into an honest and focused exploration of the topic that is lead by the writer but open to where the relevant source material can take the discussion.

  • A strong essay will include enough relevant, authoritative and reliable sources to help develop and explore the topic and thesis. This level of what is “enough” will largely depend on the weight and scope of the thesis and the particulars of a given topic or assignment.
  • A strong essay will comment effectively on sources by integrating them into the larger topic, making them “talk to one another” and commenting on them in ways that stay true to their original intent and blend them into the writer’s main point and primary pattern of development.
  • A strong essay will include a variety of sources from various academic, professional and popular institutions to provide a wide array of perspectives on the topic and thesis under discussion.
  • Consult the Library Databases and our WR 122 Library Guide for help in finding and using relevant, authoritative sources.
  • Watch this video on Searching the Databases.
  • Watch this video on Evaluating Sources.

Properly Formatted (MLA)

  • Essays in Humanities classes are formatted according to Modern Language Association (MLA) format.
  • Formatting can be a frustrating and time-consuming process so we will work on it in sections throughout the term. Stay calm and focused and learn how to use the tools that will assist you in proper MLA formatting.

BEST: When an essay is properly crafted and formatted, the reader is able to clearly and easily follow the ideas and trace outside information to its original sources.

MLA involves three primary components when getting your essay into proper format:

  1. Formatting of the first page of your essay
  2. Proper use of “in-text” citations (citing sources you use in the body of the text of your essay)
  3. Properly formatted “Works Cited” or “Works Consulted” page.
  • Consult the MLA Style Guides nn the MHCC Library Website.
  • Note that on the MLA Style Guides site there is a section called “Citation Builders” which will help put sources into proper format for you. Note also that in most newer versions of Microsoft Word there is an MLA template you can select to automatically put your document in MLA format. Lastly, sources taken from the MHCC Library databases will already be listed at the bottom of the article in MLA format. Simple copy and paste the citation from the database entry to your Works Cited page (making sure to the entry is: in proper alphabetical position, double-spaced and in proper “hanging” format”).
  • Consult this handout on how to put your essay in MLA format.
  • Consult this template on how to construct your first essay.
  • Watch the following video on how to use MLA Format (8th Edition).
  • Watch the following video on how to use MLA Format for MAC (8th Edition).
  • Watch the following video on how to create the MLA Works Cited Page (8th Edition).

Please return to this page throughout the term for assistance with any of the elements of writing the successful college essay. Remember, writing is a process of self-discovery. It is a means by which we can educate ourselves about any topic and learn more about each other along the way. Embrace it, be patient, disciplined, and focused and it can help open the world to you.


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Critical Thinking by Andrew Gurevich is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.

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