Your first step: Your first step is to create your thesis sentence. Choosing first the topic, then the stance to take on that topic might be the most important step in the essay. Turning a poor thesis into a good essay is a difficult task.
Avoid the stale, worn-out topics like gun control and abortion; also avoid vague, wishy-washy topics like “music” or “what a real friend is.”
Once a suitable topic is chosen, avoid taking the obvious stance on that topic. Arguing that the elderly should have access to food is a waste of time and effort. Of course the elderly should have access to food. Everyone already agrees with that proposition.
Instead, choose a minority opinion—go against the grain. We want fresh insights, new angles on old problems. An essay about how we should go to school so we can get a better job is tame and obvious. Think beyond the obvious. Is making money really the only reason to go to school? Is the kind of intelligence valued in school the same as the intelligence valued in work? Why do we want to make money anyway? How did this economic system come about? Is this really the best of all possible worlds? And so on. This is the kind of critical thinking writers should engage in before selecting a topic and creating a thesis sentence. Good thesis sentences cover new ground; bad thesis sentences cover the same ground that thousands of others have already covered.
Prewriting: There are many forms of prewriting; ultimately, an outline serves as the best platform from which to create an essay. As a bare minimum (a “barebones outline”), the writer should have a major point (the thesis) and three sub-points—the support. A barebones outline might look like this:
We should focus on obtaining what is necessary for life. (thesis)
This minimal structure can serve as the jumping off point for an essay. Or, if further security is desired, the barebones outline can be made fuller:
- The one-word items can be turned into complete sentences.
- A third level can be added. If we think of the thesis as level 1 and the three sub-points as level 2, then the next level of the outline would be level 3. Some details about food—examples of food or explanation of why food is so important—would become the third level of the outline. The same is true of details about shelter and warmth.
Once a satisfactory outline has been created, two steps still remain.
The first is to check for overlap. Our three points must be distinct from one another. In fact, our sample above is guilty of overlap. Since the terms “shelter” and “warmth” are not entirely distinct, we would probably want to revise—a better third term would improve our outline.
The second step is to arrange our three points in some logical order. The most common order in which to place our points is weakest to strongest. Such an order takes advantage of the psychology of argument, giving our readers the impression that our essay is gaining in strength as it unfolds. So if we were to arrange our three sub-points, we would probably reverse the current order: warmth (weakest), shelter, and food (strongest). (Due to the fact that we usually think of our strongest points first, it is often the case that we need to discuss our points in the reverse order that we thought of them.)
Not till we’ve take all these steps are we ready to begin writing.