Nora Villarreal, Instructor of English
Honors Program Director
Writing Center Director

 

Illinois Valley Community College

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The Writing Process  

Follow the links below to each aspect of the writing process, or simply scroll through the page.  

Overview

Prewriting

Formal Voice

Introductory Paragraph

Attention Getter

Transition to Thesis

Thesis Statement

Body Paragraphs

Topic Sentences

Support and Development

Claim-Evidence-Analysis Format

Body Paragraph Outline and Checklist

Sample Fully Developed Paragraph

Concluding Paragraph 

Transitions

Revising

Editing and Proofreading

Sample Shakespeare Essay

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Words are the thunders of the mind.
Words are the refinement of the flesh.
Words are the responses to the thousand curvaceous moments--
   we just manage it--
   sweet and electric, words flow from the brain
   and out the gate of the mouth.

We make books out of them, out of hesitations and grammar.
We are slow, and choosy.
This is the world.

~Mary Oliver

Mary Oliver's View 

 The poet Mary Oliver describes our connection to our world in the quote above. Essentially, she claims that our world is not, in fact, made of things, but of the language we assign to everything. Language, after all, is the system of shared meanings. Every time you whisper to a friend, order a hamburger at the drive-though, read an instructional manual, or identify an object by its name, you are engaged in the sharing of meaning. Of course, there are many ways we exchange this information: you may give a speech, write a text message, nod in response to a question, scream in frustration, give a thumbs-up to your child, use sign language, or sit silently. Each of these modes of communication can accomplish the goal of sending and receiving meaning. The focus of this class, of course, is on improving our writing. However, the larger goal of this class could be construed as improving our understanding of and connection to the world around us, which we create and understand through language. For more on this topic, you may wish to read about the study of semiotics.

There are many elements on which we will focus to hone our writing skills, but the first is the basic structure of an academic essay—think of it as a blueprint. While many other elements of essays are important (such as sentence structure, tone, and documentation of sources), it is crucial to master the basic necessities of any essay in order to have a successful paper. Below, you will find a walk-through of a typical essay structure. Remember, while we all understand that sometimes writers go off the beaten path, it’s necessary to first master the rules before we can understand how to effectively break them!

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The Writing Process

The writing process consists of a series of steps. However, although these steps are presented in a certain order, the writing process is often erratic. Don’t be alarmed if you find yourself moving back and forth between different steps of the process. Writing teachers refer to the writing process as “recursive,” meaning that we may return to and revisit the steps in a non-linear fashion. Again, this is not only acceptable, it is common!

The steps of the writing process:

  •   Invention (prewriting)                                                            
  •  Arrangement
  •  Drafting and revising
  •   Editing and proofreading

Prewriting

Before starting: It is important to be sure you fully understand the assignment before you begin prewriting. Carefully read the assignment and ask your instructor if anything is unclear.

Before we begin writing, we must first organize our thoughts and ideas. There are many types of prewriting that we can use. Below, you will find a few suggestions for prewriting activities. However, if these don’t work for you, remember that there are many more available for use; ask your professor or a tutor for help, or do an internet search for prewriting (or brainstorming) activities.

  • Freewriting

“Freewriting” means just what the word implies: writing without censoring yourself! Set an appropriate time limit (perhaps 4 minutes). Write your topic across the top of the page and dive right in! The goal of prewriting is to keep your pen moving or your keys clacking away the entire time, even if it means writing something along the lines of, “I can’t really think of anything else.” As you write, try not to censor yourself in any way—do not worry about grammar, spelling, punctuation, or whether or not your ideas make sense. Try to let the ideas flow without stopping. When you have finished, revisit your writing. Underline or highlight interesting ideas that could be developed into a topic, or perhaps be used as support for a topic. An excerpt from a student’s prewriting could sound something like the following:

Time Management

I’ve never really had good time management. I tend to really procrastinate all the time, like the time when i forgot to do my reoport6 for the science fair, omg my mom was soooo mad!!! Ugh I still remember the embarrassment I felt for not taking car of my homework. This semester I want to try really hard to not let my homework pile up before i do it. I guess it’s a good thing my counselor suggested I take the class on time management skills because it’s obvsly something I need to work on some more. There was the other time I waited too long to change my brake pads and had to pay 400 bucks to replace them!! I never realized that my homework problems and car problems could be related because I wait and wait and wait and watch TV or talk to my friends when I should be taking care of my car or doing homework. I want to do better this semester so I am gonna buy a planner and be sure to use

Example Freewrite

 As we can see, the topic for this student’s essay is time management, and she has written freely about whatever popped into her head (it may sound like a genre of writing called “stream-of-consiousness”). She did not bother to correct typos or write in a formal manner, and in this way, her writing flowed more freely. She wrote until the timer went off, and stopped mid-sentence. After she finished, she went back and re-read what she came up with, underlining ideas that may be useful in an essay on time management skills. We can see that she is considering using consequences of procrastination as support for her ideas, and that she has a plan of action to suggest for correcting the problem. Normally, of course, prewriting would be longer than the sample paragraph.

  • Clustering

Clustering involves creating a visual representation of your ideas. It is simple! Draw a circle in the center of your paper (or on your computer screen) and write your topic. As with freewriting, try not to censor yourself as you dream up ideas related to your main topic. Starting with the main idea, add more circles to your drawing, radiating from the center circle. For each word that prompts a new line of thought, add a new circle connected to the previous circle with a line. Eventually, your drawing will spider out across the page, and you will be able to see your ideas represented visually. Visit this webpage for a great cluster example.

  • The 6 reporter’s questions

We are familiar with common questions used by reporters to probe their subjects, and we may use these same questions to explore our writing topics. In relation to your topic, ask the following questions: who, what, when, where, why, and how. (Some of these questions may be more relevant than others, depending on your topic.) Again, sticking with the time management topic, a student’s prewriting could look something like this:

Who: Many people have issues managing their time, but it seems especially relevant to college students. That’s who I will discuss in my paper, focusing on first-year students.

What: My topic is time management skills and issues. Specifically, I want to talk about how first-year students often don’t perform as well as they could do to poor handling of time and responsibilities. I might also suggest some solutions to the problem.

When: For this topic, I will focus on the first year of college.

Where: This seems to happen everywhere!  I’ve noticed it here at IVCC, but I also saw it in high school.

Why: Students can procrastinate, be distracted, or not realize how much time commitment it takes to succeed in college. They often underestimate how much time will be needed to complete an assignment, or put it off until the last minute, resulting in work of poor quality. They may have significant responsibilities outside of college that interfere with their work.

How: The reasons listed above show how this happens, and there are many ways to correct this problem, such as taking a study skills class, using a planner, cutting hours at work, etc.

  • Listing

Super simple! Just make a list of every word, phrase, or idea you can think of in relation to your topic. Do not censor; just keep listing! You can nest lists to help categorize them as you work, if you prefer. See the example below.

Time Management

CAUSES

classes

homework

job

kids

procrastination

high school to college transition

 

EFFECTS

bad grades

failure

anxiety

low self-esteem

 

FIXES

planner

tutor

ask teacher

schedule

ask boss

study skills class

Example List

 

  •    Outlining

You have likely seen this prewriting activity before, as it is widely used in writing classes. Outlines are like a skeletal framework for your essay, and are especially useful in helping to organize your ideas. Often, it can be helpful to first conduct another prewriting activity to articulate your ideas and then complete an outline to help organize the ideas you have. You may find this sample outline helpful. Remember, outlines can be as sparse or as detailed as you choose! Your basic goal is to outline what your topic is, what your supporting ideas and details are, and in what order you will present them. A simple body paragraph outline could look like this:

 

II. There are many causes of poor time management among college students.

   A.    Some students have jobs

      i..       Work hours can interfere with homework time

       ii.      Work can cause sleepiness during class time

   B.     Other students have children

      i.       Children require lots of time

      ii.      Children often take precedent over everything else

   C.     Some students never learned the appropriate skills in high school

       i.       Students may have “skated by”

      ii.      Classes may not have been as challenging

      iii.       Student did not make a successful transition to college and has trouble adjusting to new schedule

Example Outline

As we can see, this outline provides a blueprint for the writer to follow once she is ready to draft!

Other Considerations

You should also consider the length requirement for the essay. How many words or pages are required? Is your topic too narrow or too broad to fulfill the requirement? For example, a student may wish to write about stem cell research. If the length requirement is 5-7 pages, this topic would be much too broad. However, a more appropriate topic would be the use of stem cell research to cure multiple sclerosis. This narrower topic would be a better fit for the assignment.

Another consideration is the purpose of your writing. Is this essay persuasive, informative, expository, descriptive, cause/effect, or another type? Your writing should reflect the purpose of your writing. For example, an informative essay about the dangers of smoking could have a much different tone that a descriptive essay about the effects of smoking on the body.

Furthermore, keep your audience in mind. Who will read this essay? Is it a “general/universal” audience, for “everyone,” or is it intended for a specific group, such as your class or “first-year teachers”? This will affect the tone of your writing as well. For example, an essay intended for pre-med students would have a much different content and tone from an essay intended for 6th grade science students. When considering audience, you should also ask yourself what knowledge your audience already possesses and what information you will need to provide.

Finally, consider the occasion of your writing. What is the situation that provoked you to write? Most likely, the occasion is an assignment. However, the occasion can also affect your tone, so be sure to keep it in mind as you work.

Remember, there are many other strategies for prewriting that can be found by conducting an internet search, asking a teacher for help, or by visiting a writing tutor. At IVCC, the Writing Center  is located in D201.

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Formal Voice

 You should use formal voice in all essays for college courses. This voice is the way in which academics speak and write about important topics, and is considered standard in most disciplines.

Tactics to avoid:

1.       Do not use first-person pronouns ("I," "me," "my," "we," "us," etc.). Using first-person is unnecessary. It sounds weak and equivocating

Ineffective

I think the author’s strategies are effective.

Effective

The author’s strategies are effective.

Example

The second sentence sounds stronger and more formal. You could also use a phrase like “the reader” or “one,” in place of “I,” but use them sparingly.  They often sound wordy or awkward.

2.       Do not address readers as “you” (second person). Addressing your reader sounds informal and also makes assumptions that may be untrue

Ineffective

The first time you skydive, you are immediately hooked!

Effective

 Many people find skydiving instantly addictive!

Example

 

Lots of people would never skydive, so the first sentence assumes something untrue about the reader. Again, “you” could be replaced with “one” or “the reader”, if done sparingly.

3.       Do not use contractions. Contractions are words which use apostrophes in place of letters (such as can’t, won’t, isn’t, shouldn’t, he’s, she’s, etc.)

Ineffective

Eveline doesn’t feel comfortable leaving, but she isn’t sure her father can care for himself.

Effective

Eveline does not feel comfortable leaving, but she is not sure her father can care for himself.

 

Example

 The second example sounds more formal.

4.       Avoid colloquialism and slang expressions. Colloquialism is the use of informal language (such as yeah, guys, kind of, got, ya’ll, etc.). Slang is casual speech and phrases that are normally short-lived (hip, bling, have a cow, groovy, rad, phat, smokin’, etc.) These are highly informal ways of speaking (although often very expressive) and should be avoided.

 

Ineffective

The lady freaked out after she saw the accident.

Effective

The lady was extremely upset after witnessing the accident.

Example

Nonstandard diction refers to words that are not considered Standard English such as ain’t, alot, hisself, etc. Since they are not even considered legitimate words, they should always be avoided. If you are unsure, look it up! Most dictionaries will mark a word as nonstandard.

5.       Do not abbreviate words. This goes for all words and common abbreviations, such as television and telephone.

Ineffective

To place a phone call to the U.S. can be quite expensive.

Effective

To place a telephone call to the United States can be quite expensive.

 

Example

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Introductory Paragraph

The introductory paragraph of an essay is the place where we grab our reader’s attention. It does more than simply introduce your topic; it should leap off the page to snag the reader, drawing the reader into the essay and arousing curiosity about your topic. The introductory paragraph is the first of the essay, and should contain the following 3 elements:

1.      An attention-getter that grabs the reader’s interest

2.      A transition from the attention-getter to the thesis statement

3.      A thesis statement that previews what the essay will discuss

Attention-getter

The attention-getter (also called the hook) works to provoke interest in your reader. There are many different types of attention-getters; a few common strategies are listed here. (However, as always, there are more options that can be located online or through a teacher or tutor.) The overarching goal of the attention-getter should be to snag the reader through an original and intriguing opening. Here are some ideas to try as you brainstorm ways to create curiosity about your topic:

  •   Use a quotation

Start an introduction with a relevant quote from the primary source or another secondary source. Be sure it is interesting and relevant to your topic. Give credit to the person who gave the quotation, and be sure to copy the quote verbatim. For example: 

Stephen King calls fiction “the truth inside the lie.” (from an essay about a fictional story)

OR

 Blessed is the man, who having nothing to say, abstains from giving wordy evidence of the fact” (George Eliot). (from an essay about plagiarism)

Example Quotation
  •   Use a definition

Start an introduction with the definition of a word that is relevant to the focus and thesis of the essay. Be careful! Do not define commonly used words, a frequent mistake of writers. After all, not many people would be intrigued by the following: “Webster’s dictionary defines “book” as “a collection of printed or manuscript pages sewn or glued together along one side and bound between rigid boards or flexible covers.”  The word should be unusual, intriguing, or surprising to the reader. Since definitions are usually considered common knowledge, you probably do not need to cite the source (although you may, if you wish). There are a few ways to use this strategy:

Webster’s dictionary defines a “sicko” as “a deranged, psychotic, or morbidly obsessed person.” (from an essay about a serial killer)

OR

Sicko: a deranged, psychotic, or morbidly obsessed person. (from an essay about a serial killer)

Example Definition

 

  •   Use an interesting fact

Start an introduction with a fact that is relevant to the thesis and focus of the paper and that will catch the interest of readers. Aim for specific facts, not vague or broad statements. The fact should strike the reader as remarkable or surprising. For example:

While seemingly simple, a violin is made from over 70 different pieces of wood. (from an essay about a complex story)

OR

In 24 hours, most people wake up, go to work, head home, relax for the evening, and start over again the next morning. However, in the United States, on average, 3 women never make it to their next morning due to domestic violence. (from an essay about abusive relationships)

 

Example Interesting Fact

 

  •   Use a rhetorical question

Start an introduction with a rhetorical question for the reader that you do not necessarily answer in the paper.  The goal is to stimulate the reader to think about the question. Of course, be sure the question is closely related to your topic. For example:

How much privacy should we be willing to give up for national security? (from an essay about the Patriot Act)

Example Rhetorical Question

 

  •   Use one word

Start the introduction with one word that is poignant and fitting to the focus of the thesis of the paper. This method can be ineffective if a common word is used. Be sure the word is unusual or intriguing. For example:

Libertine: this word is often associated with someone of low moral character. (from an essay about a free-spirited hero)

Example One Word
  •  Use an anecdote.

Anecdotal stories, while not always effective as evidence, can make fabulous attention-getters. A short (sometimes personal) account of an event related to your topic can help draw in your reader. For example:

Many drivers race through yellow lights, but on this day, the person behind the wheel did not make it through the intersection. The paperboy, biking across the street on his route, took the force of the impact on his legs and flew from the bike. The driver popped out, yelling, “He came out of nowhere!” However, it was clear to everyone that the driver was at fault. (from an essay about reckless driving)

Example Anecdote

 

However, be careful about narrating in the first person (using “I,” “we,” “my,” and similar words). Most English classes require work to be written in formal voice, which discourages the use of the first person voice. Ask your professor if you are unsure about whether you may use the first person. The example above carefully avoids the tone of a personal narration.

  • Use a direct opening.

Sometimes, a great way to start a paper is to simply dive in! However, if you delve straight into the topic, be sure to begin in an intriguing manner. For example: 

While “The Lottery” is one of the most widely-read short stories in American literature, there is one element that seems to have been overlooked by students, teachers, and critics for years. (from an essay about the story  “The Lottery”)

Example Direct Opening

 

As we can see, there are many options for creating a provocative attention-getter! One final technique to inventing a truly effective hook is to brainstorm more than one. Pick out a few strategies and create a possible attention-getter for each one. From the 3 or 4 you devise, choose the 1 that seems most relevant or intriguing.

Finally, it can often be helpful to refer back to your attention-getter throughout the essay, and it should definitely be recalled in your conclusion. This doesn’t mean that you restate your quotation or anecdote over and over, but subtle reminders of your opening can help your essay hang together. Referring back to the attention-getter in your conclusion gives the paper a pleasing feeling of having come full-circle.

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Transition to Thesis

Once we’ve established how we capture the audience’s interest, we must be sure to make the connection between the attention-getter and the main idea of the essay. Jumping right from the hook to the thesis statement can be jarring if the reader is not aware of the connection between the 2. For example:

Blessed is the man, who having nothing to say, abstains from giving wordy evidence of the fact” (George Eliot). Plagiarism is a serious academic offense that can have severe consequences for students.

Example Confusing Transition

 

In this example, it may be unclear to the reader exactly what the quotation has to do with the main idea of the essay. After all, how does a facetious person relate to stealing another’s work? As writers, we must be sure to build the bridge from the hook to the thesis, guiding our reader along our line of reasoning. The transition should show the relationship between the thesis statement and the attention-getter. For example:

Blessed is the man, who having nothing to say, abstains from giving wordy evidence of the fact” (George Eliot). Often, when a student is having difficulty with an essay, he or she may feel at a total loss for words. In order to cover their confusion, students may turn to unacceptable practices to fill the pages of the assignment. Instead of asking for help or visiting the library, students may steal another’s work to hide the fact that they lack the necessary information, a form of cheating called “plagiarism.” Teachers, however, are trained to detect such dishonesty, and often, the “wordy evidence” provided by the student reveals his or her deceitfulness. Plagiarism is a serious academic offense that can have severe consequences for students.

Example Clear Transition

 Here, it is clear to the reader just how the quotation and topic are related.

Thesis Statement

The thesis statement of an essay is the lynchpin—the element that holds everything together. A thesis statement identifies the main idea of your essay. The rest of the essay will be organized around supporting your thesis statement. They are usually placed in the introduction to the essay, often appearing as the last sentence in the introductory paragraph. In our Composition class, thesis statements are required to appear as the last sentence of the introduction, but other professors may have a different preference.

As you begin to draft your essay, it is a good idea to work with a tentative thesis statement. This statement will help focus your ideas, but will likely change as you research your topic and write your drafts. Review your tentative thesis statement and revise it accordingly as you work. Try to avoid becoming committed to your first thesis statement—often, our ideas change as we write, and that is not only acceptable, it is encouraged!

 Effective thesis statements share these characteristics:

  •   Effective thesis statements clearly state the essay’s main idea.

Beyond simply stating your topic, your thesis statement should state what you will say about your topic. For example:

Although the stories “Panacea” and “Ground Zero” both use descriptive language, the authors differ greatly in the effect their language has on the reader.

Example Thesis Statement 1

 

Here, we see that the topic is two stories, but also know that the writer will focus on how the language affects the readers.

  •   Effective thesis statements communicate your essay’s purpose.

Depending on the assignment, your essay will likely have a specific purpose. For instance, some essays are informative while others are persuasive. Your thesis statement should convey your purpose to the reader. For example:

In order to prevent violence in schools, conflict resolution should be a mandatory class for all high school students.

Example Thesis Statement 2

 

Here, it is clear to the readers that this essay will attempt to convince them of a certain point of view. In other words, the reader knows that what follows is a persuasive essay that tries to convince him or her that students should be required to take a certain class.

  •   Effective thesis statements are clearly worded.

Use specific wording in your thesis statement; avoid vague language, irrelevant details, and confusing terminology when introducing your essay’s main point. The thesis statement should give an accurate preview of what you will discuss and indicate the essay’s direction and scope. In this way, your essay and thesis statement will share a sharp focus. For example:

While enacted with good intentions, immigration laws often create more problems than they solve.

Example Thesis Statement 3

 

Here, the understandable wording signals what will be discussed and highlights the focus of the essay. The language is clear and concise.

Now that we know what a thesis statement should do, it is helpful to become familiar with common pitfalls to avoid. Effective thesis statements avoid the following characteristics:

  •  Announcements of intent:

Statements like “I will discuss…” or “The thesis of this essay is…” are stylistically distracting and informal in tone. Never make an announcement or refer to yourself in the thesis statement. Your reader should recognize your main idea without an awkward declaration.

  •   Statements of fact:

Simply stating a fact is a dead end that cannot be developed into an essay. For example, “Hybrid cars are more efficient than cars with standard gasoline engines” is a fact that has already been established and leaves the writer nowhere to go. Be sure your thesis statement contains an idea open to original thought and exploration.

  •   Thesis statement as the title:

Titles are not detailed enough to properly preview your essay and communicate its purpose.

Here are some examples of effective and ineffective thesis statements:

Effective

Because second-hand smoke poses danger to school-age children, smoking should be banned with 1000 feet of a school.

Ineffective

Smoking is hazardous to your health.

Example 1

 

The first statement clearly states the main idea of the essay, while the second states a fact that cannot be developed into an effective essay.

Effective

Students should be required to take a course on time management skills before graduating high school.

Ineffective

This paper will discuss the consequences of poor time management for college students.

Example 2

 

The first statement clearly conveys the essay’s persuasive purpose, while the second contains an announcement of intent that has an informal tone and distracts the reader.

  

Effective

The benefits of attending a community college include quality instructors, financial savings, and career-oriented classes.

Ineffective

When it comes to ruminating upon what type of collegiate institution to attend, it is advantageous to consider that community colleges have many positive and favorable attributes; these include (but are not limited to) instructors who are dedicated to their fields of study,  financial savings to the student, and classes which are oriented toward careers.

Example 3

 

The first statement clearly and concisely previews the main points of the essay, while the second has overly complex wording.

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Body Paragraphs

The meat of an essay is the body paragraphs. These appear between the introduction and conclusion and work to develop and support your ideas. Just like introductions, body paragraphs have a few crucial elements:

1.      A topic sentence that directly supports the thesis statement and states the main idea of the paragraph

2.      Adequate support and development of your topic sentence

3.      A concluding sentence that revisits your main idea (and that may prepare the reader for the next paragraph)

Topic Sentences

The main idea of each paragraph should be stated in a topic sentence. The topic sentence should appear as the first sentence in each paragraph. It directly supports your thesis statement, developing the ideas previewed in the introductory paragraph. It acts as a guidepost for your readers, making it easy to follow your discussion. Each detail in the paragraph should work to support or develop this topic sentence. Any details that do not support topic sentences should be revised, moved, or deleted.

There are a few common mistakes to avoid when writing topic sentences:

  •   A topic sentence should never be a statement of fact; just like a thesis, it should contain an original idea (see examples above).
  •   A topic sentence should never simply summarize information we already know.
  •   A topic sentence should never offer a vague introduction or preview of your idea; it should state it outright.

Here are some examples of effective and ineffective topic sentences: (each is related to a literary analysis of Shirley Jackson’s “The Lottery” that uses the following thesis statement: Jackson uses symbolism, characterization, and foreshadowing to develop the themes of dangerous traditions and scapegoating within society.”):

Effective

Jackson’s use of rich symbolism, especially that of the black box, underscores her message that traditions can be dangerous.

Ineffective

Jackson uses a black box in the story.

Example 1

 

In the first example, the topic sentence goes beyond simple summary and offers an original interpretation of the use of symbolism. The writer does not only say that Jackson uses symbolism, but also mentions the function of a specific symbol to develop a theme of the story. The paragraph would go on to explore the significance of the black box and how it represents the dangers traditions can pose. The second statement, however, states a simple fact. It is overly simplistic, unsophisticated, and offers no original thought.

Effective

The character of Miss Hutchinson reveals the tendency of societies to use a scapegoat to atone for sins or plead for bounty in the face of difficulties.

Ineffective

Miss Hutchinson is stoned to death by her neighbors.

Example 2

 

In the first example, the topic sentence focuses on a specific character’s function within the story. It leaves room for lots of support and development of the idea. The paragraph would go on to discuss how the community forces Miss Hutchinson to take the punishment for the entire community, and would also explore how this relates to other societies around the world. On the other hand, the second sentence only summarizes something the reader already knows. It contains no innovative idea, and does not leave any room for support or development.

Effective

Jackson’s effective use of foreshadowing heightens the impact of Miss Hutchinson’s eventual execution.

Ineffective

Foreshadowing is used by authors to hint at events that will take place later in the story.

Example 3

 

In the first example, the topic sentence makes an evaluative statement about foreshadowing, and goes further by mentioning its purpose within the story. The paragraph following would discuss the specific ways Jackson employs foreshadowing to create an impactful conclusion. On the contrary, the second example gives a vague introduction to foreshadowing, but is not specifically referring to anything in the story. This is a very common mistake with topic sentences! Nonspecific, generalized topic sentences should never be used—they must always directly relate to the thesis statement and be specific to the topic on which you are writing.

Finally, a great way to double-check the unity of your topic sentences and thesis statement is to use formula below. Pull out each of your topic sentences. They should “add up” to your thesis statement. In other words, your thesis statement previews what the entire essay will be about, and the topic sentences support and develop that statement. In turn, each paragraph should support its topic sentence. This results in a unified essay. Keep in mind the following formula when dealing with topic sentences:

Topic sentence + topic sentence + topic sentence = thesis statement

  • (Topic sentence 1): Jackson’s use of rich symbolism, especially that of the black box, underscores her message that traditions can be very dangerous. +  
  • (Topic sentence 2): The character of Miss Hutchinson reveals the tendency of societies to use a scapegoat to atone for sins or plead for bounty in the face of difficulties. +
  • (Topic sentence 3): Jackson’s effective use of foreshadowing heightens the impact of Miss Hutchinson’s eventual execution as the scapegoat of her society. +
  • = (Thesis statement): Jackson uses symbolism, characterization, and foreshadowing to develop the themes of dangerous traditions and scapegoating within society.

Note that the thesis statement is specific, but that the topic sentences are even more precise in how they develop the ideas. For instance, the thesis statement mentions symbolism, but the related topic sentences mentions a specific symbol. No matter what the topic, every essay should approach development in this general-to-specific approach. Furthermore, each body paragraph follows the same pattern.

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     Support and Development

Once you have determined your topic sentence for a particular paragraph, you are ready to add support and development to bolster your main idea. This helps to convince your reader that your thesis is reasonable. There are three considerations to keep in mind when writing body paragraphs:

1.      Each paragraph should be unified:

A paragraph is unified when each sentence it contains supports the main idea of the paragraph. To achieve unity, use topic sentences. This sentence is the first of the paragraph and states its main idea. Every sentence in a particular paragraph should work to support the topic sentence of that paragraph.  In turn, each topic sentence should support the thesis statement of the essay. In this way, your paper builds support for the main idea of your essay and your paragraphs are unified.

2.      Each paragraph should be coherent:

All the sentences in a paragraph need to flow smoothly and logically. Using key words is one way to help connect your sentences. Key words can echo important terms to carry concepts from one sentence to another. Pronouns are also useful; use these to refer to important nouns in previous sentences. Finally, use transitions to show chronological sequence, cause and effect, etc.

3.      Each paragraph should be well developed:

Your paragraphs should contain support to bolster your main idea. Some common types of support are examples, quotations, statistics, details, facts, and personal experience. Be sure to explain how your support helps to strengthen your topic sentence. A well-developed paragraph is roughly two-thirds of a page in length. Paragraphs that are shorter than this may be underdeveloped, while longer paragraphs may not have good focus.

Here is a sample body paragraph. This essay would have the following thesis statement: “The benefits of attending a community college include quality instructors, financial savings, and career-oriented classes.” (However, please note that in the interest of space, it is not 2/3 of a page in length. You can find a sample paragraph with full development at the end of this section.)  

 

Instructors at community colleges tend to be very dedicated to their work. At most four-year universities, the professors and instructors are focused on more than just teaching. They work in a “publish or perish atmosphere that puts emphasis on research” (Smith 12). While this is very important work, it can result in professors who are more concerned with their next publishing deadline than effectively teaching a class. However, at a community college, the instructors operate in a completely different atmosphere. Most of these instructors are dedicated to teaching and identify helping students as the most important aspect of their jobs. They are under no pressure to publish, which leaves them free to focus on their teaching career.

Example Paragraph

Notice the paragraph has a clear topic sentence, uses a quotation as support, repeats key words, uses pronouns to refer back to important concepts without being repetitive, and uses a transition to guide readers.

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Claim-Evidence-Analysis (C-E-A) Format

An effective approach to composing paragraphs is to use the claim-evidence-analysis formula. In this strategy, each paragraph begins with an assertion which is supported or amplified by evidence, which is in turn interpreted through analysis.

  •   Claim: The claim should appear in your topic sentence. It states the main argument of your paragraph and prepares the reader for what the paragraph will prove or explain. Often, the claim goes beyond a statement of mere fact to preview the interpretation of the evidence you will present later in the paragraph.
  •   Evidence: The evidence, which should be relevant and credible, should work to support your claim. Quotations, paraphrases, descriptions, examples, and statistics are common types of evidence.
  •   Analysis: The analysis is where you present your interpretation of the evidence.  It should explain how the evidence supports the claim and show your perspective on the topic, which may not be evident to the reader. Think of analysis as answering the question, “So what?” Why is that evidence interesting and important?

Keep in mind that you should have no “floating” evidence; your comments should surround and explain your support. Be sure to introduce quotations in your own words.

Here is a sample paragraph using C-E-A format. In this paragraph, the claim is underlined, the evidence is italicized, and the analysis is bolded. (Please note that in the interest of space, it is not quite 2/3 of a page in length. You can find a sample paragraph with full development at the end of this section.)  

     Gansberg’s precise language and lack of judgment allow the readers to draw their own conclusions. He writes, “A housewife, knowingly if quite casually, said, ‘We thought it was a lover’s quarrel’” (122). However, it is clear that something more than a quarrel was going on. Witnesses admit that they heard the commotion but chose to ignore it. Gansberg says that Miss Genovese screamed that she was being stabbed and later, that she was dying (121). Gansberg’s writing, which does not judge the witnesses, invites the readers to do the judging themselves. Clearly, the people who heard the murder happening could have stepped in. By not placing blame through his writing, Gansberg encourages readers to make the connection themselves.

Example C-E-A Paragraph

 

Notice that the evidence and analysis pattern repeats, a common feature of well-developed paragraphs. The writer uses one quotation and one paraphrase as evidence, creating variety within the support. 

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Concluding a Paragraph

Body paragraphs should end with a pleasing concluding sentence that wraps up your ideas (and that may prepare readers for the following paragraph). Notice in both sample paragraphs above, the writer does not trail off at the end, but ends with a meaningful statement that revisits the main idea (without repeating it verbatim). After you put hard work into creating a well-developed paragraph, be sure to end on a strong note!

Fully Developed Sample Paragraph

These sample paragraphs, courtesy of student writer Ian Schindlbeck, contain all of the elements discussed above. This essay centers on William Shakespeare’s drama Richard III and the film version of the play (directed by Richard Loncraine).The thesis statement of the essay reads, “Both Shakespeare and Loncraine use symbolism and setting to show Richard of Gloucestor’s appalling approach to becoming the king of England.”

          Symbolism is an important element used by Shakespeare in Richard III. The physical appearance of Richard is symbolic of his nasty personality. Richard is disfigured. One of his arms is deformed, and he walks with a limp. Richard describes himself:

                        Cheated of feature by dissembling nature,

                        Deformed, unfinish’d, sent before my time

                        Into this breathing world, scarce half made up,

                        And that so lamely and unfashionable

                        That dogs bark at me as I halt by them (1.1).

 Shakespeare writes about Richard’s deformities as a way of showing that Richard is like a monster. The physical deformity of Richard’s body is also symbolic of his deformed, demented personality. Richard, however, does not let his physical problem get in the way of his devious plans. The only time that he complains about his arm is when it is to his advantage. The comparison of Richard of Gloucestor to animals is another symbolic element used by Shakespeare. Richard is called a boar throughout the text. The boar is considered a dangerous and repugnant animal, so this comparison with Richard is an excellent representation. When Lord Stanley has a dream about Richard, he sends word to Lord Hastings. His message is, “He dreamt to-night the boar had razed his helm” (3.2). This is saying that he had a dream in which Richard cut off his head. Richard is a dangerous individual, shown by his willingness to kill everyone in his way, and his physical deformity makes him ugly like a boar. Shakespeare symbolizes Richard’s abhorrent actions with his vile appearance.

            Similarly, Loncraine uses symbolism in the movie to show Richard’s foul character. Richard is a physically deformed character in the movie, just as he is in Shakespeare’s play. The movie gives an actual visual picture of Richard’s deformity. Richard III, played by Ian McKellen, always keeps his left arm in his pocket to try and hide his physical problem. However, in one scene he shows his arm to Hastings and others. Richard of Gloucestor says, “Behold, my arm is like a blasted sapling, withered up…” (Richard III). This is a case where he uses his deformity to his advantage. He claims that his disfigurement is because of a witch’s curse placed on him by Queen Elizabeth. When Hastings does not believe this, Richard says Hastings is a traitor and has him murdered. The animal symbols are also predominant in the movie. Richard of Gloucestor is compared continually to a boar, just as in Shakespeare’s original text. He is also compared to some other vile creatures such as spiders and toads. When Richard is courting the mourning Lady Anne, she says to Richard, “Never hung poison on a fouler toad. Out of my sight! You do infect mine eyes” (Richard III). Richard of Gloucestor is always being compared to animals that are considered to be the most disgusting, vile animals. In addition, the movie uses symbolism in the setting. Loncraine sets the medieval story in a fictional 1930s England. This setting is used to show a comparison between Richard’s treachery and Hitler’s rise to power. The drab color of the scenery and military uniforms draws an instant association with Nazi Europe in the 1930s. Loncraine’s use of symbolism has direct influence from the original Shakespeare text, showing Richard’s vile personality, while still creating his own connection to more modern themes.

Example Paragraph

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Body Paragraph Outline and Checklist

Just as you can use an outline to plot your entire essay, you can also use an outline to plan your paragraphs. Use the following outline to guide your writing:

Topic Sentence

                        Evidence 1:

                                    Explanation:

                        Evidence 2:

                                    Explanation:

                        Evidence 3:

                                    Explanation

Conclusion:

Example Outline

 

After drafting a body paragraph, it is a great idea to check over your work and be sure you have included each element. The following checklist will help ensure you have covered all the necessary components:

  •   Does my paragraph begin with a topic sentence that previews what the paragraph will discuss? Does the topic sentence directly support the thesis?
  •   Do I develop my topic sentence by using support and development (evidence and analysis)?
  •   Does every sentence support the topic sentence? Should any be revised, moved, or deleted?
  •  Do I include several instances of support? Do I explain how the support bolsters the topic sentence?
  •   Is my paragraph roughly 2/3 of a page in length?
  •  Does my paragraph have a pleasing concluding sentence?
Body Paragraph Checklist

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Concluding Paragraph

An essay’s conclusion is often what readers remember best. Effective conclusions are rarely longer than a paragraph but should be consistent with the rest of your essay. Do not make the common mistake of writing a super essay, but ending it with a throw-away paragraph at the end. Student writers often have strong introductions or body paragraphs, but end on a sour note by having a half-hearted, repetitive, or underdeveloped conclusion. The final paragraph should “wrap up” your essay and reinforce the thesis of the essay. Often, effective introductions and conclusions echo each other; they may share ideas, examples, or metaphors which tie them together.

Types of effective conclusions:

  •  Review your key points or restate your thesis. (However, avoid using the exact words/phrasing already used in your essay.)
  •   End the discussion of a problem with a recommended course of action.
  • End with a prediction. Be sure if follows logically from your essay’s ideas.
  •  End with a relevant quotation.  Be sure to explain the quote’s relevance to your ideas.   
  •  End with a thought-provoking question, suggestion, or statement.

Tactics to avoid:

  •  Do not repeat the exact words of your thesis and list your main points. This will bore your reader, who already has this information.
  •  Do not end with an empty phrase. Clichés like “The more things change, the more they stay the same” are overused and have little impact on a reader.   
  •  Do not introduce new points or go off in new directions. Your conclusion is not the place to introduce ideas.
  •   Do not end with an unnecessary announcement. Avoid phrases like “In the end,” “Just let me say,” or “In conclusion.” Readers will know the last paragraph is your conclusion without an announcement stating so.

 Sample Concluding Paragraph

This sample conclusion, provided by student writer Kelsey McLendon, contains all of the elements listed above. The thesis for this essay reads, “Due to its continual applicability to everyday life, Arthurian legend transcends the generations and is regularly compared to ‘real world’ occurrences.”

 

            Without question, the legend of King Arthur has been extremely influential in literature over hundreds of years. Because the themes and characters of the stories are timeless, they remain relevant to modern times and they will no doubt continue to inspire many writers of the new ages. The struggle between good and evil never ceases, as stable balance requires the existence of both. Human fascination with obtaining the “ideal” society is unlikely to ever diminish and the weaknesses that all human beings harbor shall never fully dissolve. Arthurian legend provides readers with a tale and characters that remain symbolic and significant to everyday life and the ordinary world. Writers continue reviving Arthur’s tale and surely, as promised by Merlin, he “should come again / To rule once more” (“Passing” 191-192).

Example Conclusion

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Transitions

We have now covered many essential elements of an academic essay—the introduction, thesis statement, body paragraphs, and conclusions. However, there is still another crucial element to discuss: the use of transitions. These words and phrases, while they may seem minor, are very impactful in the way they create a smooth and pleasing flow in your writing.

 Transitions help the reader move smoothly from old ideas to new ideas.  You should use transitions in your writing to communicate the relationship between two points. Think of it as building a bridge between your ideas—your reader may not immediately understand the relationships between your ideas, but transitions help clarify these connections.

 However, select transitions with care.  For example, it is fine to begin a sentence with “In contrast,” yet many instructors prefer that you do not begin a sentence with “But.”  Additionally, watch that you do not use “therefore” when you really mean “furthermore.”  Select the transition that best fits the idea you intend to express. 

 Transitions should always be used between body paragraphs, and are also often useful within paragraphs. Any time you move from one idea to another, consider employing a transitional word or phrase to shed light on how they are connected. If you leave out transitions, moving from one idea to the next may sound jarring or abrupt to the reader, or he or she may not quite understand the association. For example:

 

Sookie Stackhouse seems like an ordinary girl. She is constantly embroiled in supernatural events beyond her control.

Example Jarring Transition

 

Someone who read this would probably be left wondering why someone considered “ordinary” would be involved in “supernatural events.” It does not seem to make much sense! However, the use of a simple transitional word helps guide the reader through the ideas:

Sookie Stackhouse seems like an ordinary girl. Nevertheless, she is constantly embroiled in supernatural events beyond her control.

Example Smooth Transition

 

As we can see, the use of the word “nevertheless” tells the reader that the second idea contrasts with the first. Instead of seeming nonsensical, the reader knows that despite Sookie’s ordinary appearance, she is faced with uncanny events. The connection between the ideas is clear.

Before using a transition, determine the relationship between the two ideas. Do they contrast? Do they demonstrate a comparison? Do they indicate a chronological relationship? Ask yourself how your ideas relate before choosing a transition.

Common Transitional Words and Phrases

  •   Present another point (Transitions of Addition)

additionally                 besides                                    moreover                     first                 

and                              further                         next                             second

also                              furthermore                 in addition                   too

again

Transitions of Addition

 

  • Give an example

for example                 in particular                 such as

for instance                 specifically                 

in fact                          to illustrate     

Transitions of Example

 

  •  Show contrast

but                               in contrast                   even                 though            

on the other hand        nevertheless                 yet                   whereas          

however                      on the contrary            still                  conversely

although

Transitions of Contrast

                         
 

  •   Show comparison
    

also                               in the same way

in the same manner          as well as

similarly                    likewise

Transitions of Comparison

 

  • Indicate cause/effect

in effect                       as a result                    if                                  because

consequently               since                            so                                 hence

thus                             therefore                      for this reason             because of this

Transitions of Cause/Effect

 

  •   Summarize/Conclude

in other words             thus                             to summarize               on the whole

      finally                          therefore                      consequently               in summary

      in conclusion               to conclude                 in brief                        

Transitions of Summary/Conclusion

 

  •   Indicate time 

now                 after                 earlier              gradually                     immediately   

then                 next                 soon                 suddenly                     during             

before              later                 meanwhile       when                           finally

simultaneously                        previously       at the same time                      

Transitions of Time

 

  •  Indicate place

near                 far                    above               below                          inside              

near to             far from           behind             close to                        outside           

nearly              beside              beyond                        to the right                  around

surrounding     across              alongside

Transitions of Place

Using Transitions between Paragraphs

When moving from one paragraph to the next, a writer often needs to use more than one word or phrase to show the connections between ideas. You can use a word, phrase, or sentence to connect a previous paragraph to a new one. These can come either at the end of the previous paragraph or in the beginning of the new paragraph. These transitions will help maintain coherence and logical flow in your essay. Below, you will find examples of types of transitions between paragraphs.

  •   Use a transitional word or phrase (see above)

The poetry of Langston Hughes persists in popularity today.

       However, students should be aware that Hughes wrote far more than the poetry he is so well-known for.

 

Example Transition 1

 

  •   Use an entire sentence to act as a bridge between ideas.

The Motion Picture Association of America is charged with assigning ratings to movies.

       In the film industry, the issue of censorship remains controversial. Some prominent filmmakers consider the MPAA’s guidelines a not-so-subtle form of censorship at work today.

 

Example Transition 2

 

  •   Echo a key word or recall an important idea

Words provoke emotional responses in readers.

       In your writing, consider the emotional associations you may arouse in your audience.

 

Example Transition 3

 

  •  Use parallel structure

They imagined the quick, sweet pain, then the evacuation to Japan, then a hospital with warm beds and cute geisha nurses.

       They dreamed of freedom birds…They felt the rush of takeoff. (Tim O’Brien, “The Things They Carried”)

 

Example Transition 4

 

  •   Answer a question from the previous paragraph

How could so many have witnessed the crime and not called for help?

       The answer, it seems, is fear.

 

Example Transition 5

 

  •   Write a “half-and-half” sentence—a sentence in which the first half refer to the paragraph just ended, and the second half refers to the paragraph just beginning.

Shylock at first was joking about taking “a pound of flesh,” but his daughter’s flight changed his mind.

(The paragraph ending was about Shylock’s joking, and the new one is about his change.)

Example Transition 6

 

  •   Use the phrase “not only, but also” to show similarity

Krebs has lingering confusion not only about the war, but also about his family.

(Instead of “also,” sometimes “too” or “as well” can also be used.)

Example Transition

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 Revising

Once you have completed a solid draft, you are ready to revise, which literally means “to see again. “ All good writers engage in this process. Revising differs greatly from proofreading, which has to do with correcting errors like commas splices and spelling errors. It also differs greatly from editing, which has to do with checking for things like repetition and sentence variety. Revising asks you to reconsider your essay and make deep level changes. Here are a few ideas for revising:

  •   Reread the original assignment

Do not assume you can remember exactly what the assignment said. Reread it before revising. Assess your first draft to see how well it meets the assignment. Note anywhere you can improve your essay’s focus—is there anywhere you drifted away from your thesis?

  •   Pull out your thesis statement and topic sentences

Reading your thesis statement and topic sentences should sum up the key points of your essay. Any topic sentence that does not directly support the thesis, contains a quotation, or simply summarizes something the reader already knows must be revised. Again, check that each of these elements corresponds to the assignment.

Take a close look at your thesis statement. Do you still agree with it? Do you still like it? Does it need to be adjusted or changed completely? Does every single element of your essay work to support this single statement?

Take a look at your transitions. Again, your thesis statement and topic sentences should summarize your whole essay, and transitions should be used between paragraphs and ideas.

  •   Examine your support

Are all topic sentences adequately supported? Do you prove them to be true?

Is there anywhere you could strengthen an argument, perhaps by using different/new evidence? Do you correctly integrate and cite evidence used? Have your ideas changed? Do you need to revise your claims to reflect your new opinion?

  • Consider your arrangement

Again, look at your topic sentences and determine what organization pattern they follow. Does it flow logically? Would another arrangement work better? You may wish to determine a new arrangement that still makes logical sense.

  •   Consider your balance

Look at your paragraphs just as blocks of text. Are any much longer or shorter than others? Are they all approximately 2/3 of a page in length? Do you give equal consideration to each element? Or do you focus more heavily on some? Have you fulfilled the premise of your thesis? 

  •   Examine your introduction

Push yourself to come up with an original and truly intriguing attention-getter. Brainstorm at least 3 new attention-getters that are fresh and exciting. Choose the one that you feel best suits your essay. Check that your thesis statement is the last sentence of the introduction (or wherever your instructor prefers it).

  •  Examine your conclusion

Did you echo your attention-getter in some way in your final paragraph?

Have you reworded and restated your main ideas and thesis statement? Remember to end with a strong, memorable sentence that satisfies your reader and introduce no new information. Be sure the conclusion maintains a proper balance with the rest of your essay-this section is often much shorter that body paragraphs.

  •   Listen for your tone

Have you maintained formal voice? Keep a sharp eye out for 1st and 2nd person, contractions, and informal wording. Assess the tone of the writing—is it appropriate for the assignment?

  •  Revise at sentence level

Peter Elbow advises, “Look for places where you stumble or get lost in the middle of a sentence. These are obvious awkwardness’s that need fixing. Look for places where you get distracted or even bored—where you cannot concentrate. These are places where you probably lost focus or concentration in your writing. Cut through the extra words or vagueness or digression; get back to the energy. Listen even for the tiniest jerk or stumble in your reading, the tiniest lessening of your energy or focus or concentration as you say the words . . . A sentence should be alive" (Writing with Power 135).

The Writing Center at UNC at Chapel Hill offers suggestions for revising at the sentence level:

“Use forceful verbs (i.e. attained instead of got).”

“Look for places where you've used the same word or phrase twice or more in consecutive sentences and look for alternative ways to say the same thing OR for ways to combine the two sentences.”

“Check your sentence variety. If more than two sentences in a row start the same way (with a subject followed by a verb, for example), then try using a different sentence pattern.”

“Aim for precision in word choice. Don't settle for the best word you can think of at the moment—use a thesaurus (along with a dictionary) to search for the word that says exactly what you want to say.”

  •   Other considerations

a.       Use a hard copy while revising—it’s easier to make notes and is easier on your eyes.

b.      Read your essay aloud—this can help spot awkwardly worded sentences.

c.       Revise for one item per session—don’t overwhelm yourself.

d.      Read your essay backwards, one sentence at a time. This may sound odd, but it can help you spot errors and awkwardly worded sentences.

e.       Make a revision plan and check off items as you go.

          i.       Reread the original assignment

            ii.      Pull out your thesis and topic sentences

            iii.       Examine your support

           iv.       Consider your arrangement

            v.       Consider your balance

            vi.      Examine your introduction

           vii.      Examine your conclusion

          viii.       Listen for your tone

          ix.        Revise at sentence level

           x.        Finally, realize that revision is a process and needs adequate time for success.

Notice that the revision process moves from larger concerns, such as thesis statement and arrangement, to smaller concerns, such as sentence level errors. The larger considerations are often referred to as “global,” while the smaller are known as “local.” When revising, be sure to start with the global concerns before moving to local concerns. After all, it does not matter if every sentence is grammatically perfect when your essay does not respond well to the original assignment!

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Editing and Proofreading

The final stage of this process is known as the editing and proofreading stage. In this phase, you are refining your writing by looking for smaller (local) errors such as misspelled words or ungrammatical sentences. Do not blow off this step! Many wonderful essays are marred by errors that could have been easily corrected. Keep in mind the following tips as you finalize your essay:

  •   Do not rely only on Spellcheck and Grammarcheck! This cannot be emphasized enough. While they can sometimes catch errors, they are far from reliable and often create mistakes of their own. For example, your computer may not realize that you used “weather” when you should have used “whether,” and often cannot determine the correct grammatical form of a sentence. You are smarter than these functions! If you are unsure about a spelling or grammar issue, look it up or ask for help from a tutor or instructor.
  •   Print out your essay and proofread the hard copy. It is easier on the eyes and can help you find errors you missed on the computer screen, which is filled with distractions from your writing.
  •   Read your essay aloud, perhaps to another person. This can help you hear awkwardness or poor flow in the essay.
  •   Read your essay backwards. Since we know what we meant to write, our brains can actually “fill in” the correct wording or spelling as we read, even if it’s not there! For example, when creating my wedding invitations, it took me a disturbingly long time to notice that “marriage” was spelled wrong! Because I knew how it should have been spelled, my eyes skipped over it again and again until someone else pointed it out. Reading backwards helps eliminate this problem.
  •  Have a friend, family member, peer tutor, or instructor read your essay. It seldom hurts to have a second set of eyes peruse your writing, and someone else may spot something you missed. Writing tutors can be found in the Learning Commons at IVCC (D201).
  •  Keep an eye out for errors to which you are prone. You know your writing better than anyone, so be conscious of patterns of errors which frequently occur in your writing. If you have already received feedback on writing from your instructor, refer to it as you proofread. Often, rubrics and comments from previous assignments can help you perfect current writing. For example, if your instructor pointed out that you often become repetitive, pay close attention to the wording and phrasing of your essay.

Sample Shakespeare Essay 

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