Online Writing Lab

Getting Started

One of the first and most critical mistakes a writer often makes is trying to start an essay without planning.  All writers know the feeling of sitting at a computer and staring at a blank screen, not sure where to begin or what to write next.  Many times, this problem can be avoided by taking the time to structure thoughts, planning and organizing the essay, and creating an outline for the essay. 
Here are some important things to consider before writing an essay:

  • Come up with a working thesis – Doing this will help keep the essay structured and on topic.  Don’t worry about the thesis being perfect at this point, as it may change, but crafting a working thesis before writing will provide a structure for deciding what belongs in the essay and what doesn’t.   For more information on thesis statements, see the page on thesis statements and the thesis statement exercise on this site.
  • Consider your audience – Who, specifically, are you addressing in this essay and how do you need to tailor the essay to fit this audience?  Do you need to provide background information to your readers so that they will understand the topic, or are you writing to an audience that already knows the basic background information?
  • Consider the goal of the essay – Are you attempting to persuade a reader’s thinking, or are you simply presenting information and hoping to educate the reader?  The way you structure your thoughts and the order they appear in the essay should be influenced by goal of the essay and/or the assignment’s guidelines.
  • Ask/formulate as many questions as you can – Formulating an extensive list of possible questions is helpful in expanding an essay and making sure it is comprehensive.  The more questions at this stage, the better.  These questions can then be answered and, in many cases, become specific points or paragraphs to develop in the essay. 
  • Perform research, if necessary – If your assignment requires you to use outside sources, it is helpful to perform research and find a variety of possible sources before writing the essay.  Doing the research in advance will help with structuring the essay and will ensure that there are enough sources to use. 
  • Come up with the main points that will be expanded upon in the essay – Along with creating a working thesis, it is also important to think about the main points that will be written about in the essay, how they can be expanded upon, and ensure that they relate to the thesis.  To do this, it may be helpful to create some initial topic sentences.  View the topic sentences page for more information.
  • Put together an outline – Some people are natural planners while others are not.  Regardless of your tendency, an outline can help any writer.  An outline can be detailed down to each individual paragraph and the evidence to be presented, or it can be less structured and just present the main points in a planned order.  Either way, an outline will make the actual writing process both faster and easier.  View the creating an outline page for more information.