How to Write an Academic Essay (With Useful Tools & Examples)
Anxiety is gnawing away at your insides.
That deadline is looming and you just don’t know if you’ll be able to hand in on time.
Heck. You don’t even know where to start!
You’ve been reading and reading but whenever you start writing, it feels like you’ve hit a brick wall.
The words just won’t come.
Let me guess, you have to hand in an academic essay soon but you don’t know if you’re doing it right.
Maybe you haven’t even started writing yet and the deadline is creeping steadily closer…
I’ve been there. I know how you feel. It sucks.
And because I don’t want you to feel like that, I’ll show you that academic essay writing doesn’t have to be a stumbling block. In fact, it can become a regular source of good marks.
What is an Academic Essay?
In its most basic form, an essay is a piece of writing that has to convince the reader of a certain perspective. Or in other words, it is an argument in written form. So it needs to have a logical flow.
Academic essays have to include relevant and recent information from peer-reviewed journal articles and it must be written according to a specific structure (more on this later).
Keep in mind there are different types of academic essays, so the way you present your logical argument will differ according to those various…
Academic Essay Styles
- Descriptive Essay
- Expository/Critical Essay
- Narrative Essay
- Persuasive/Argumentative Essay
From this list, it is already clear that you will need to approach each type of essay uniquely.
In a descriptive essay, you have to…
You guessed it, describe something! It can be an object, an idea or a place.
Use extravagant adjectives.
Tip: If you don’t know what a word means, look it up. Immediately.
The point of a descriptive essay is to dazzle your reader. You want to make the reader feel what you are writing. Make them cry. Make them laugh. Make them want to go to that place you are describing (or to never go there, if it is a bad place).
The main aim of an expository/critical essay is to present information about a topic.
For these types of essays, you want to be clear, concise and objective.
There is no space for your opinion on the subject at hand (apart from in the conclusion — forthcoming attraction).
All you need to do is gather the facts, lay them out in a logical order and tell your readers where you got the information. (Referencing is important! More on that later).
Jargon also plays an important role in expository essays.
Use topic-specific words where applicable — this will come naturally if you read up on your subject and come across new words (remember the first tip).
On the other hand, if you are uncertain of what a word means, leave it out and stick to what you (and everyone else) know. The entire point of expository essays is to give concise information on a topic, so don’t use big words just for the sake of using big words. You might get penalised for that.
A narrative essay, as the word suggests, tells a story.
When you write this kind of essay, you want to create an irresistible tale, filled with excitement and suspense. Think of it as a short story. At the end of each paragraph, the reader should be wondering, what happens next!?
Writing a narrative essay is (in my opinion) a lot of fun — you can basically write whatever you want!
You can tell the reader about your favourite childhood memory or about how you scored that epic winning goal. The options are endless (unless, of course, your teacher/lecturer gives you a topic).
If a narrative essay has deeper meaning it will stand out from the rest. For instance, if you tell your reader about a great family holiday, make them see how important relationships are.
Your opinion counts in persuasive essays!
Here, you want to make your reader believe in an idea. Hype up and sell that idea to your reader.
Try to anticipate questions your audience might have and answer them in your text.
Remember to include known counter-arguments in your essay. This will show your reader that you are serious about the essay and didn’t simply bulldoze your way to the minimum word count.
When anticipating questions and refuting counter-arguments, be sure to keep a logical flow to your essay. Jumping around between arguments confuses readers.
In spirit with anticipating questions…
Some of you are probably looking for good academic essay topics.
Call me a mind reader, if you will.
There are many inspiring topics to choose from. But in reality, it depends on the level of your education. Topics will vary greatly from middle school to university level.
Having said that, here are some general pointers for you.
Academic Essay Topics to Make Your Work Stand Out
A good topic is worth a ton of gold, academically speaking.
Sometimes you get the luxury to choose a simple and easy topic, like describing your perfect date.
Other times though, you have to dig a bit deeper.
If that is the case, make sure that your topic is,
- Relevant to your field of study
Here are some good topics:
Note how these topics can be used in almost any faculty? Economics, humanities, social sciences, medicine, geography…
You can try to put a natural science or technology spin on it. But as a rule, you’d leave sensationalism out of the equation in those spheres because you want to present unbiased information to your readers.
Let’s dig into what an academic essay looks like.
The Age-old Academic Essay Structure
There is a simple, tried and trusted structure for any academic essay:
Any good essay you come across will have this basic format. It is a good idea to plan your essay with this structure in mind (more on that later).
For now, you should know that every academic essay must start with…
An Intriguing Introduction
This is where you get your reader interested in what you have to say.
Think of it as going on a first date. You want to make a good first impression and you want that special person to stay intrigued. (In this case, the special person is your instructor/reader.)
How would you do that?
It’s simple. Just like on a first date, you won’t spill the beans all at once. You will most likely dress up and show up with a bang, give a bit of your backstory and talk about your future plans.
And that is exactly what you want to do with the introduction to your academic essay.
You want to write an intro that:
- Makes a bold statement (dress up & show up),
- Puts your topic in context (backstory),
- And explains the aim of your essay (future plans).
The future plans part is critical to any essay. Your introduction must clearly state what you want to achieve with the paper (aim) and how you are going to do that (means). This is also known as a thesis statement.
Bold statements are more relevant to descriptive, narrative and persuasive essays. Think about your favourite story. Did it start with a boring, nondescript scene, or did it grab your attention with a thrilling series of events that left you wanting more?
Probably the latter.
And that is how you want to catch your audience when you narrate or describe something.
On the other hand, context is imperative in expository and persuasive texts. Think about it. If you want to critically assess a theory, you have to at least give your reader the background of what you are about to discuss.
Let’s take this guide on how to write an academic essay as an example.
If this was an academic essay instead of a guide, my introduction would have looked something like this:
All of the introductory elements are there. Can you see it?
And now, with your thesis statement in mind, you can jump into…
The Detailed Discussion
You’ve introduced your topic, you have a thesis statement and you have an intrigued reader. Now all you have to do is keep that reader’s attention!
How do you do that?
By creating clear, easy to follow paragraphs that lead the reader from one idea to the next in a logical fashion.
Each paragraph should focus on one main idea (introduced by a topic sentence) and explore that idea in-depth:
- Give examples,
- Supply evidence to support your statement/topic
- And explain how it ties into your essay’s thesis statement (when necessary).
Then transition to the next paragraph.
Structure your essay in such a way that every paragraph builds on the previous one. Remember, if you write subject-specific essays, cater to your audience.
Let’s look at some academic essay examples:
One word (like similarly) is often enough to transition between paragraphs.
Tip: Words like similarly, likewise and whereas are great for transitioning between paragraphs.
It is clear that each paragraph has its own topic. And even though these topics are worlds apart, they are linked by a single word to make one paragraph flow logically into the next.
Back to the point with one more academic essay example:
From there you can transition to discuss the poem’s theme in the final paragraph before writing…
A Convincing Conclusion
This is where you close your argument.
You’ve given all the evidence to support your thesis statement and now you have to show your readers why your essay was not a waste of time.
In other words, you tie everything together with your conclusion:
- You combine the main points from your discussion to convince the readers of your perspective.
- You also show them that your essay is relevant and adds value to the community it is written for by summarising how your essay supports your thesis statement.
Be bold and firm in your final paragraph.
This is no place for maybe’s or might’s. If you use indecisive words in your conclusion, your reader will disregard your whole essay.
Never add new arguments or ideas in the concluding paragraph, unless you suggest that further research into the topic will be helpful (if applicable to your essay).
Remember how I mentioned that there is no space for your opinion in an expository essay except for maybe in the conclusion? Here’s why:
After doing all that research, your conclusion might differ from that of the authors you cite.
But be warned.
If you do this, you should be extremely sure of your interpretation and back it up only from what you’ve written. Remember, no new information in the conclusion.
Back to the example we used for the introduction. If this was an essay on how to write an academic essay the convincing conclusion would look like this:
How Do You Start an Academic Essay (Planning Your Essay) — 6 Thoughts That Lead to Action
Now that you have a good understanding of what the academic essay is and how it should be structured, you can start thinking about writing yours.
And believe me, the thought process behind writing an essay is vital! Thinking it through often saves a lot of time later on.
But how and what should one think about an essay?
Here are some points to ponder. Ask yourself:
- How much time do I have before the deadline?
- How many other tasks do I need to complete before the deadline?
- Do I understand the question?
- Why is this topic relevant?
- Where will I find information on this topic?
- How will I present my findings? Descriptive, narrative, expository or persuasive?
With these questions in mind, you can start actively formulating a plan on how to tackle the beast.
First thing’s first. Make time to conduct research and to write. Leave enough time before the deadline to revise your essay! A lot of us tend to think that writing an academic essay is a walk in the park. It’s not. That’s why you are here, remember?
In my experience, reading up on a topic can take longer than the actual writing part, so make enough time for that.
Tip: Block off essay time on your timetable/calendar.
After setting aside time to write, answer the remaining questions.
- Do I understand the question? Make sure you understand the essay instructions. Read the instructions out loud and then rewrite it by hand. This will give you a good grasp of what the instructor requires from the essay.
- Why is this topic relevant? If you understand why your topic is actual, it makes the process more bearable.
- Where will I find information? It is a lot easier to conduct research if you have a point to start from.
- How will I present my findings? Your tone of writing and the amount of time you’ll spend on research depends on the essay style you choose (or are asked to write).
Now you are ready to start doing some research…
Tools That Will Revolutionise Your Research
It is my sincerest hope that most (if not all) of you know what Wikipedia is!
Now use it.
“Hold it just a second mister! We’re not allowed to cite Wikipedia as a reference, so why are you telling us to use it?”
Some of you are thinking along these lines, yes?
If that is the case, good.
You are right. Never in the history of academic essay writing was it okay to cite Wikipedia as a source? However, it is a great place to find sources.
Here is the thing.
Wikipedia has something to say about pretty much everything under the sun. And even though what the website says might not always be 100% accurate, they have a great references section at the bottom of the page. From there, you can start finding credible sources on your topic.
Moreover, reading through a Wiki article on your topic is not a bad idea. It will give you a general overview of the topic and help you to start formulating your own ideas about your subject.
Tip: Get a general idea for your topic by reading up about it in your textbook or on Wikipedia.
If you already have a good understanding of your topic, skip the previous step and jump straight into the hardcore research.
Go ask the librarian to help you find relevant sources. Alternatively, log onto your student portal, type in those keywords and set the search filter to show the most recent results first.
This is important! Especially in science and technology spheres.
Theories and tech change over time. You don’t want to hand in an essay on some 1980’s theory when there is a more widely accepted, newer one around. Besides, if it is a peer-reviewed journal article you are after, the recent one will most certainly have something to say about that 1980’s one.
If your library doesn’t have what you are looking for…
Use Google Scholar. It is a great research tool.
You can find millions of journal articles there.
But here is what I like about it: If your keyword search doesn’t show any recent results, you can click on a link that navigates to articles that cited the ones that showed up in your search.
Isn’t that useful?
You can also customise your Google Scholar search filters so that it only shows articles published between certain dates or set the search to show either the most relevant or most recent results.
At this point, you should’ve identified a couple of recent sources that look promising. Now what?
Read the abstract!
Instead of wrestling through an article for hours, just to find that it’s not what you’re looking for, read the abstract. It will tell you if this paper is useful or not. If it’s useful, grab it. If not, move on to the next one.
Now you can start taking notes!
You’ve found the sources and you’re ready for a readathon!
That’s great! But why not combine your reading with taking notes?
Sure, it will take longer to get through the material but you won’t have to read through everything a second time. What’s more, if you take notes (and jot down where you got a specific idea from) you can always refer back to the source material if your notes aren’t extensive enough.
There are many ways to take notes:
- Scribble a note in the text you are dealing with. This method is fine if you are using your copy of an article or book. But if you are using a library source, it won’t do.
- Highlight important concepts in-text. You can do this on paper (not on loaned material) or in your PDF reader.
- Write down a separate set of notes with references to the text (my preferred method).
- Create a mind map with all the key concepts you found in your reading.
- Create a flow chart of the ideas from your research.
I’m sure there are more ways to take notes. If you have a better method, please share it with us! We are all here to learn.
Tip: Use a split-screen on your computer or tablet to take notes. Text on one side and notes on the other. It works like a charm!
My favourite tool for taking notes in split-screen mode is Workflowy. It’s a great platform for dumping your ideas and reorganizing them into an outline once you’ve decided on a logical flow for your academic essay.
Planning the structure of your academic essay is a lot easier with a tool like Workflowy, where you can chop and change the order of things with a simple click and drag.
At this point, I’d like to add that I compile my bibliography/reference list as I read through my source material. You might want to do the same but we’ll get to that later.
If you have more questions regarding research and the tools I use to make my research easier, feel free to get in touch. Otherwise, ask your local librarian. I’m sure they’d love to help!
After taking notes, you are ready to start writing that academic essay! Let’s dive into it…
How to Write an Academic Essay
By now you have everything you need. Sources, an outline and a good idea of what you want to accomplish with your essay. All that’s left is to put your ideas into writing.
And here’s the thing. If you followed all of the above-mentioned steps, writing an academic essay is not as difficult as it seems!
I mean, you’ve done all the hard work already. Now all you have to do is fill in (literally) the gaps.
Here’s how you do it:
- Paraphrase — If you take information directly from a source, rewrite it in your own words (that’s what paraphrasing means) and cite the source. Otherwise, you are plagiarising, which is stealing intellectual property.
- Be formal — Don’t use slang or colloquialisms (informal way of speaking). You can’t write an academic essay in your normal conversational tone.
- Use words you understand — As I mentioned earlier, jargon is important in some types of essays. However, don’t use words that you don’t understand! Rather use an everyday word that you and everybody else are familiar with.
When writing from home or at the library…
Use spellcheck and grammar tools to polish your work. Losing marks for incorrect grammar or spelling is sloppy.
MS Word has a built-in function to check both your spelling and grammar.
And if you are not happy with that, there are plenty of other programs that does the same. I use the free version of Grammarly to double-check my writing. However, there are more options out there.
Use the tools that are at your disposal!
If you are unsure about your essay, go and ask your instructor. They are there to help, so don’t be afraid of them.
Sometimes you are asked to write an essay during an exam.
In that case, the examiner will usually give you a few options to choose from.
- Read through each option carefully and pick the topic you are most familiar with.
- Quickly put together an outline of what you know and how you want to present it.
- Draw diagrams to supplement your writing, where applicable.
- Write a killer essay.
Additional Academic Essay Elements (Where Applicable)
Think back to the hydrochemistry example. In an essay like that, it would be useful to include the test results in your text.
Keep in mind that if you do include diagrams, tables or graphs, you should number them in order of appearance and refer to them in your writing. An image that doesn’t relate to your essay is a waste of space and, unfortunately, marks.
Here is a quick guide on how to label/number and refer to additional essay elements:
- When you insert one of these into your text, caption it with a label and short description of what the image/table/graph represents.
- Tables, graphs and images should be labelled separately. In other words, if you add all of the above into your text, the labels will look like this: Table 1, Table 2 etc. (for tables). Figure 1, Figure 2 etc. (for images) and Graph 1, Graph 2 (for graphs).
- When you refer to one of these elements directly in your text, write out the entire label, i.e. “in Figure 1 we see…” On the other hand, if you refer to Figure 1 indirectly, simply put (Fig. 1) in parentheses at the end of that sentence.
Tripped Up on Referencing/Citation?
Many students struggle with in-text citations and incorrect bibliography/reference lists at the end of their academic essays.
They get tripped up in the nitty-gritty details of commas, full stops, names, dates of publication, place of publication, page numbers and so on.
It doesn’t have to be that way, though!
Don’t tell your teacher this, but…
Here are some referencing hacks that will make your writing infinitely less stressful!
Add sources to your bibliography as you do research. As soon as you’ve decided to use a source, write it down in your reference manager.
Speaking of which… Did you know there are free reference manager tools online!?
Use them. Please!
Sure, MS Word has a built-in reference manager, but it is tricky to use and you have to fill in every detail manually. Google Docs has the Paperpile add-on, but I haven’t used that so I can’t comment on how effective it is.
With both of these free tools, you simply have to input your referencing style, select what type of source you are using (book, journal article etc.), enter the name of the source and hit search.
A bunch of results will appear on your screen. Select the one that matches your source and click “cite” or “save”. Boom! Another source is added to your bibliography. Moreover, MyBib puts your sources in alphabetical order automatically.
Once you’ve added all of your references you can simply export it and paste it in your essay (make sure the fonts are the same).
You can also copy in-text citations to your clipboard from those websites and simply paste the relevant source into your text when the time comes.
Did I just change your life? I think I did. You are welcome.
You are now ready to hand in your academic essay.
Oh, wait! You’re not.
After completing your essay, take a break, do something else, then revise your essay.
Tip: Before you hand in, read your essay out loud. If there are any sentences that don’t sound right, revise them.
Now you are ready to hand in.
Reading improves writing.
Is this news to you?
I know it is a lot easier to watch a video on how to do something than to read up on it — or to watch a Netflix show instead of reading a novel.
But here is the thing: If you read, your spelling and grammar will improve without you even knowing it.
So my final tip to you is this…
Tip: If you want to see a dramatic improvement in your writing, start reading outside of your academic framework — comics, mystery novels, car magazines… Whatever tickles your fancy.
By now that deadline is probably half an hour closer.
Do not fear, though. You’ve got this!
With all of the useful tips and tools I’ve given you, writing your next academic essay will be a breeze. With less stress about reference lists and citations, your mind will be free to focus on writing a high scoring essay.
Let me know how much your essay mark improved after following this advice.
Frequently Asked Questions
Does an academic essay require an abstract?
In general, no. However, your instructor might ask for one.
What is the difference between an abstract and an introduction?
An abstract summarizes the entire paper by giving snippets of evidence, as well as the conclusion, whereas an intro merely states what the paper will be about.
Can I refer to myself in the first person in an academic essay?
As a rule, it is better to use the royal plural “we” when you refer to yourself in academic writing. However, for some essay styles, it is appropriate to use “I”. If you are uncertain about this, ask your lecturer.
How long should my academic essay be?
This is up to your instructor. Generally, they’d give you a specific word count. If they don’t, it is always a safe bet to write five paragraphs in total — one for the introduction, one for the conclusion and three for the discussion.