On this page, we are walking you through the writing phase step-by-step. We will provide you with instructions, examples, and curated lists of resources to utilize as you work on your own essay projects. Please, do not use any of our examples within your papers; that would be plagiarism unless they are properly cited and sourced.
In order to demonstrate how to write an argument, we are going to take apart an NPR Throughline episode call "Zombies"1 to showcase the different parts of an essay. The episode is not the perfect example of a traditional college essay, but we will discuss why some of their methods are not to be mirrored while explaining how each example functions within the writing process. When we have pulled directly from the transcript of the episode, we will mark those passages with quotation marks.
Creating an Argument
The place to start when writing an essay is, first and foremost, creating an argument. Now, we're not saying that you need to know every step of your paper from the very beginning; what you are doing at this stage is looking at your brainstorming activities and sorting through your notes to ascertain a topic to explore. Is there a theme to your brainstorming notes? Is there something that you focused on? Repeated? As we talked about in the Brainstorming section (of the Thinking Phase), the easiest way to begin developing an argument is to concentrate on the things that pique your interest. Once you have settled on a topic, you will begin outlining.
- Moving from Assignment to Topic from Harvard University
- Essay Structure from Harvard University
- Writing Task OWL Resource List from Purdue University
Ashford University created the outline structured below2:
The example outline structure can be adapted or expanded as needed. While it is structured as such, it is rare that a college essay is going to fall into the five-paragraph form. You will more than likely have more paragraphs, but in some cases, you could actually have less than three topics to explore.
We have an outline structured for the research process – How to Create an Outline – that can be adapted to help with organizing counterarguments and incorporating quotations. Research and quotations should be handled in similar ways; both need to be rigorously evaluated before inclusion into the essay proper as well as fully explored and explained when they are incorporated. For more information about quotation integration, check out Finding the Evidence.
- Outlining from Harvard University
- Writing a Paper: Outlining from Walden University
- Outlining from George Mason University
The information below is moderately adapted from Writing in Ethical Reasoning 22: Justice by Professor Michael Sandel from Harvard University3:
Your thesis should directly respond to the question asked in the assignment. It should clearly and concisely state your main argument. A strong thesis is crucial to a good paper.
- Take a position and provide a reason for that position. It might be helpful to test whether your thesis could fit into the following model: (Statement of your position) because (reason for your position). You want to avoid simply restating the paper topic without actually making an argument. If your thesis is an argument it should be arguable, which means that it should be possible for a skeptical reader to disagree with the thesis. There also should be evidence available to support your thesis.
- Evaluate, don’t just describe. Your thesis should be your argument. Don't fall into the trap of simply summarizing the plot of your text or listing what you want to look at in your essay. You need to draw the readers attention to the "why" and not the "what" – why is the author presenting information in a certain way not just explaining what the author is saying.
- Don’t be overly ambitious. Make sure that your position is something you can actually defend in the required page limit of your assignment. Don't have a vague or overly broad sentence that would exceed your allotted space to fully explore. [Professor Sandel's example: you probably should not try to prove that Lockean liberalism is right or wrong, but you might be able to demonstrate that a particular moral controversy reveals a weakness in one facet of Locke’s theory. Also be careful about using language that is too broad such as “the free market is always unjust” or “rights may never be infringed by the state.” Such sweeping generalizations are usually uninformative and false.]
- Be specific. Don't use general or vague terms in your essays. More specific concepts can help you focus your paper and keep you from having to discuss all the different versions of rights theory, which would be beyond the scope of the paper. Your thesis should encapsulate the main argument of your paper in one or two sentences so make every word count. A vague thesis is a weak start to your paper. [The example Professor Sandel uses is the general term “rights”. To make sure that your thesis is strong, you would want to uses the more specific terms “inalienable rights” or “natural rights” or “property rights.”]
- Check to ensure your thesis fits the paper. After you have finished writing the paper, you should check to make sure it actually argues for the position you take in your thesis and for the reasons that you give in your thesis. It often helps to rewrite your thesis after you have completed a draft of the paper, since your position may have evolved as you wrote the argument.
Podcast Example Thesis:
"Our collective fascination with zombies started almost a century ago, which made us wonder - who invented the zombie, and why are we still so drawn to these flesh-eating monsters?"
This is a two-fold thesis: they are setting up for their reader/listener that they will be exploring the origins of zombies (history) and the modern fascination with the mythology (cinematic representation as well as a contemporary over-saturation within pop culture).
Problems with Thesis:
As a draft thesis, this is a fine place to start, but you would not turn in a paper with your argument structured in this way.
The main problem with the example thesis is that it is in the form of a question. You never want to have a question as your thesis unless your professor specifically asks for it. You also don't want to draw attention to yourself as the writer ("us") or to your reader ("our" and "we") as demonstrated above; in academic papers, you want to maintain an academic distance when writing essays.
While people's collective fascination started almost a century ago, the historic delineation of the zombie's literal connection to enslavement and oppression directly influences the metaphoric interpretations of the flesh-eating monsters popular in contemporary film franchises.
- Thesis Generator from Ashford University
- Developing A Thesis from Harvard College
- Writing Tips: Thesis Statements from University of Illinois
- Thesis Statements from UNC Chapel Hill
- Thesis Statements: Four Steps to a Great Essay: a vide from 60 second Recap
Active vs. Passive Voice
As mentioned above, one of the important things to keep in mind while writing a thesis is being precise in your language. (You should keep this in mind for your essay as a whole. You want to be as specific as possible whenever possible.) We thought it would be a good time to pause with the foundations of the essay to explain an important piece of grammar to keep in mind while you write: active vs. passive voice. Here's a small overview to help you identify it so you can avoid it.
Note: Some paper/subjects require you to use passive voice rather than active, such as Nursing papers. You need to keep in mind the objective of your assignment when deciding which verb type should be implemented.
- Active Voice is putting the subject at the beginning of the sentence, followed by an action, and then the object that receives the action. (Subject + Action + Object = Active Voice)
- Passive Voice is when the object of an action is turned into the subject of a sentence, which means
that whoever or whatever is performing the action is not the grammatical subject of
the sentence. (Form of “to be” + Past Participle = Passive Voice)
- UNC Chapel Hill has a very helpful webpage detailing what passive voice is and how to revise your paper to eliminate it: Passive Voice.
In order to keep you writing in active voice, you will need an active verb in your sentence. We are proving you with a list of verbs to choose from. (You can also use the list below to replace the word "said" when introducing quotes.)
Defined by Aims Community College4:
Since body paragraphs for an essay should be centered around one main idea that relates the thesis, creating a clear topic sentence is helpful for both the writer and the reader. For the writer, a topic sentence makes it easier to stay on topic and develop the main idea without getting off track. For the reader, topic sentences announce what the paragraph will be about and demonstrate how different paragraphs and ideas are connected to each other.
A topic sentence generally appears early in a body paragraph (often the first or second sentence) and controls the paragraph. A topic sentence is like a mini thesis sentence for each paragraph and serves to unify the contents of the paragraph. Everything that follows in the paragraph needs to relate to the topic sentence. Not all essays call for explicit topic sentences, but most beginning writers should learn how to write effective topic sentences early on in order to achieve paragraph unity.
It is also important that all topic sentences relate to the thesis statement. This allows for the essay to have greater unity and focus.
Podcast Example Topic Sentence:
"To understand how the zombie came to be associated with a death-like state, a body without a soul, we need to go back to the original zombie in Haitian culture. [...] [H]ow the myth of the living dead was born out of being enslaved."
Problems with Sentence:
The example is too conversational in tone. While you are talking to your audience through your essay, you need to maintain that academic distance throughout your paper; this sentence addresses the audience with "we" in an inclusive nature with the presenter (writer). The problem with the above statement derives from the medium’s argumentation structure. Now, if you were writing a conference paper or the written draft for a presentation, the topic sentence could and would work. You need a different type of distancing for an oral argument than for a written one. I would however still caution you about using pronouns in either type of presentation; it's not totally against the rules, but it is best to avoid if you are not 100% sure how you should include them. When in doubt, tell the audience who these placeholders are.
The original zombie from Haitian culture – a death-like state or a body without a soul – demonstrates the destructive nature of the institution of slavery, which lead to the creation of the myth of the living dead.
- Topic Sentences and Signposting from Harvard University
- Paragraphs & Topic Sentences from Indiana University
- How to Write Topic Sentences: a video from Ten Marks Amazon
- Using Topic Sentences from University of Toronto
The information below is moderately adapted from Writing in Ethical Reasoning 22: Justice by Professor Michael Sandel from Harvard University3:
In the body of your paper, you will provide reasons and evidence that support your thesis and acknowledge counterarguments to your position.
- Break your argument down into parts. If you have trouble with the organization of your papers, then you may want to break down the argument to be presented in the rest of the paper in your introductory paragraph.
- Make sure you provide support for your argument. Do not write a paper that focuses too much on the practical problems of an issue without defending a broader claim. While some students have a problem with being too general or vague, others have a problem with being too focused and narrow.
- Acknowledge counterarguments. You can strengthen your argument by anticipating counterarguments, even if you cannot conclusively refute them. Entertaining counterarguments shows that you are aware of alternative explanations and demonstrates your knowledge and fairness. When selecting counterarguments try to find a balance between which are the strongest and which highlight some aspect of your argument.
- Organize your argument so that it has a logical flow. It is important that the different stages of your argument are easy for the reader to identify and understand and that the later stages of your argument follow directly from the earlier stages. Start each paragraph with a topic sentence that indicates what point that paragraph will cover. Topic sentences should also help the flow of the paper by connecting the ideas covered in each paragraph. Using transition words can help you connect your ideas (however, therefore, on the other hand, moreover, furthermore). Clear transitions will also help to avoid a laundry list style paper that lists seemingly unconnected points about an issue.
The MEAL Plan is the easiest way to explain how to structure a paragraph.
- Main assertion: an arguable claim that relates to or expands upon the thesis (i.e., Topic Sentence)
- Evidence: in the form of examples, reasons, illustrations, observations—use the most salient examples to support the thesis; think of examples as a springboard into substantial analytical inquiry (i.e., Quotation)
- Analysis: probing “so what;” drawing compelling conclusions; interpreting significance and relevance of ideas; unpacking meanings (i.e., figurative vs. literal; connotative vs. denotative); addressing “how” and “why” questions; arguments, assumptions, assertions, deductions, etc.
- Link between a paragraph and the paper’s thesis while as linking to the next paragraph
In the following example, we are taking the revised topic sentence from above and breaking down how the podcast strategically develops the Haitian association with the zombie mythos. We are going to demonstrate Kaplan-Levenson's argument through paraphrase with the outline format, because her historical exploration is quite lengthy. (Note: Topics can exceed a single paragraph. Transitional phrases help maintain the structural integrity of the argument for the reader.)
II. The original zombie from Haitian culture – a death-like state or a body without a soul – demonstrates the destructive nature of the institution of slavery, which lead to the creation of the myth of the living dead.
• A brief historical overview of slavery on the island of Haiti by the French.
• The two types of zombies – the broken and the revolutionary – and the duality of fear associated with the enslaved and the enslavers.
◦ The linguistic history of the word zombie and how it became synonymous with enslavement and death.
◦ The historical relevance of the Haitian revolution, and how despite earning independence, France maintained a strangle-hold over the economic prosperity of the island's people, thus continuing the elements of slavery through subjugation.
• The 20th century US occupation of Haiti created a propaganda campaign to demonize people resisting social and political oppression, which birthed the introduction of cannibalism into the zombie zeitgeist as well as began the popular culture's fascination with the zombie mythos as metaphor.
Transitional Expressions or Phrases
The below information is from UNC Chapel Hill along with the table of phrases5:
Effectively constructing each transition often depends upon your ability to identify words or phrases that will indicate for the reader the kind of logical relationships you want to convey. The table below should make it easier for you to find these words or phrases. Whenever you have trouble finding a word, phrase, or sentence to serve as an effective transition, refer to the information in the table for assistance. Look in the left column of the table for the kind of logical relationship you are trying to express. Then look in the right column of the table for examples of words or phrases that express this logical relationship.
Keep in mind that each of these words or phrases may have a slightly different meaning. Consult a dictionary or writer’s handbook if you are unsure of the exact meaning of a word or phrase.
- The MEAL plan from Kennesaw University
- Transitioning: Beware of Velcro from Harvard University
- Transitions from UNC Chapel Hill
- Paragraphs from UNC Chapel Hill
- Counterargument from Harvard University
Introductions: Not Your Average Starting Point
You may have noticed that we did not start this page off with walking you through how to write an introduction before showing you how to essentially write an entire paper. While it might seem contrary (or even go against your professor's trajectory), the introduction should be written towards the end of the writing process. Why? How are you supposed to adequately introduce an argument when you have yet to write one. If you try to start with a solid introduction (thesis included), you might divert from your initial argument when writing the majority of you paper.
You do still need to have a thesis statement when you are writing. Don't let me confuse that point. You just don't necessarily need to begin the writing phase with struggling through your introduction until you have written most, if not all, of you paper.
For novice writers, the introduction will always be the first paragraph of an essay. The objective of an introduction is to establish the topic of your argument for your reader. As you advance in you writing skills, you can experiment with the structure of an introduction, but for beginners, the easiest way to format an introduction is as follows:
- The Hook:
- You want to start your paper off with something to grab your audience's attention: a "hook". Hooks can be an interesting fact or statistic about your topic, a rhetorical question, a common misconception about your topic, establishing the scene of your story (who, when, where, what, why, how?), an anecdote (a humorous short story) that encapsulates your topic, or a quotation that is relevant to your topic.
- Introducing the Topic:
- After the hook, write a sentence or two about the specific focus of your paper. (What is your paper about? Why is this topic important?) This part of the introduction can include background information on your topic or a brief summary of your text that helps to establish context.
- The last sentence of you paragraph should be the thesis. Make sure that your thesis encapsulates the argument of your chosen topic; it should act as a one-sentence summary for what the whole paper is going to be about. Remember, be specific. The easiest way to derail your argument is to have a vague thesis or one that does not line up with you paper.
Podcast Example of an Introduction (I've removed the names associated with speaking parts in order to give a better impression of what an introduction looks like, but I have maintained the quotation marks to indicate that these are not my words.):
"The fear is to become a zombie,” explains Patrick Sylvain. “The moment a family member is dead, they will drive a stake into the person's heart or into the person's head so that their children and so forth will not be turned into a zombie. And so the people are taking precautions out of their own understanding that perhaps a dead person is not fully dead. The zombie is real.” […] "Zombies are a global phenomenon. They're in the news [...] and appear in the countless number of books, movies, video games, and TV shows that make up the zombie genre. A genre that's going strong – at least 10 zombie movies have come out in 2019 alone. Some people are so zombie-obsessed that they dress up like zombies and roam the streets – and not just on Halloween. And then there are those people who are prepping for a zombie apocalypse. […] Our collective fascination with zombies started almost a century ago, which made us wonder – who invented the zombie, and why are we still so drawn to these flesh-eating monsters?"
- Hook: "The fear is to become a zombie,” explains Patrick Sylvain. “The moment a family member is dead, they will drive a stake into the person's heart or into the person's head so that their children and so forth will not be turned into a zombie. And so the people are taking precautions out of their own understanding that perhaps a dead person is not fully dead. The zombie is real.”
- Topic Introduction: "Zombies are a global phenomenon. They're in the news [...] and appear in the countless number of books, movies, video games, and TV shows that make up the zombie genre. A genre that's going strong – at least 10 zombie movies have come out in 2019 alone. Some people are so zombie-obsessed that they dress up like zombies and roam the streets – and not just on Halloween. And then there are those people who are prepping for a zombie apocalypse.
- Thesis: Our collective fascination with zombies started almost a century ago, which made us wonder – who invented the zombie, and why are we still so drawn to these flesh-eating monsters?"
- Beginning the Academic Essay from Harvard University
- How to Write an Effective Essay: The Introduction: a video from James ESL English Lessons
- Introductions & Conclusions from Ashford University
- How to write a hook: a video from Dan Sato (mistersato411)
Depending on your level of writing, the conclusion can operate in two separate ways: (1) as a reminder or summary of your topic and what you want your audience to gain from reading your paper or (2) as a further push of your argument into discussing the larger implications/significance of your topic. Remember, you don't want to add new information in your conclusion; this includes quotes. Quotations require analysis and explanation and therefore, typically, have no place in the conclusion.
One way to think about constructing your conclusion is to view it as the reverse of your introduction:
- Begin by rephrasing your thesis statement to remind your reader of your topic/argument.
- Summarize the points you made in your paper and show how they support your argument (i.e., tie all the pieces of your paper together).
- Explain the significance of your topic; this is the "So What?" of your argument. Why
is the topic important?
- This is the rallying cry of your paper. If you are trying to institute any type of change – the redefinition of a text's traditional interpretation, petitioning of one side of a debate over another, etc. – this is the last chance for you to attempt to change the reader's mind.
Podcast's Conclusion (Again, I am combining everything to give a better impression on what a traditional conclusion would look like.):
“The invincibility of zombies seems to be that they can take on any desired meaning. They can shape-shift into almost anything we want them to.” Kelley Baker states, “So it can be about consumerism with this all-consuming monster. It can be about bio-terrorism and corporations who are negligent. It can be about epidemics and how they can ravage us in some sort of way.” Elizabeth McAlister expands on Baker’s point by explaining, “But the zombie also is, you know, the hordes of brown people at the border. The zombie is a cipher. The zombie, by definition, has no consciousness. The zombie is this empty category into which you can load meaning.” “[McAlister] says there's one consistent theme that keeps zombies relevant. It's always there, looming in the background or sometimes right up in your face and speaks to one of our most fundamental fears”: “Which is that we are all going to die and that everyone who's ever lived dies. So the zombie figure forces the living to face the condition of death, and - which is what religion is there to help humanity do, but the United States is becoming more and more secular. This is a kind of a secular way to contend with, think about, imagine, dress up like and confront the human condition of dying.” “Something that may be on our minds more than usual these days": “Certainly now more than ever, humans are facing the realities of climate change and of the degradation of the ecosystem, and the idea of apocalypse is on the minds of humanity” (McAlister).
“At the same time, because zombies are now everywhere, they've kind of casually integrated themselves into our everyday existence. People have zombie-themed weddings, go on zombie-themed cruises. The CDC has a gag zombie preparedness page on its Web site. And then, of course, there are the people who are just living their best zombie lives. […] Everyone that I interviewed for this story is clearly fascinated with zombies, but to be honest, they're also a little fatigued by the oversaturation and disheartened by a lack of substance - something Kelly [Baker] says zombies have gradually been losing post-Romero”: “George Romero has radical political commentary. It's very much about Americans. It's very much about the racial state in America. It's about the consumerist state. It's about thinking about what we're doing, the systems that we're inhabiting, how they're oppressive. When zombies are everywhere, maybe they've lost some of their radical power. Where they might have been subversive, now they're just mainstream. I mean, if Disney can have a movie about zombies in which a zombie and a cheerleader who is human fall in love...I really feel like we've reached a point where the radical commentary is gone." [...] "[Sylvain] worries that Haiti and the original meaning of the zombie is getting lost in all of this. The American zombie, that brain-eating ghoul, has been exported all over the world. But he wonders how many people know that this horror figure is rooted in his country's history": "Once we've had this globalized figure of the zombie, then the question becomes, who owns it? Does it really belong to Haiti? No. The zombie, again, is a wonderful trope, but we must not forget where it came from, its essence. To lose the genesis of the zombie within trans-Atlantic slavery, that would be a problem."
The conclusion here is broadening back out a little. The structuring of the metaphorical nature of the zombie in the first paragraph is reframed to discuss the contemporary hollowing out of the signifying property of zombie mythology present in the second paragraph.
Paragraph 1: The re-establishing of zombie as a signifier/metaphor of complex ideas (consumerism, corporate neglect, racism, etc.).
Paragraph 2: Oversaturation and lack of representative substance further removes the zombie from its origin in oppression and slavery thus losing its larger importance and historical significance.
Just like with all the other examples, this conclusion is far too conversational to use in a traditional essay; it also contains quotations throughout, which is to be avoided when writing an academic paper. The interview format also causes an over-reliance on the words of the experts. When you are writing your own conclusion, it should be all you. You don’t want someone else taking up space in the summation of your essay.
- Ending the Essay: Conclusions from Harvard College
- Conclusions from UNC Chapel Hill
- The conclusion of the essay from Uni Learning at University of Wollongong Australia
- Essay Conclusions from University of Maryland
General Writing Resources
- Harvard Writes is a joint venture of the Harvard College Writing Program, the Derek Bok Center for Teaching and Learning, and the departments and schools represented on our site.
- Analyzing Texts and Structuring Papers from UWC, which is an additional curated list of resources that are not included here. They are primarily comprised of web links and videos from Grammar Girl and Ted-Ed respectively.
- How to write a good essay: a video by Tim Wilson (zontulfilmsltd)
- Abdelfatah, Rund and Arablouei, Ramtin, hosts. "Zombies." Throughline, NPR, 31 Oct. 2019. NPR, https://www.npr.org/transcripts/774809210.
- "Outlining." Ashford Writing Center, Ashford University, https://writingcenter.ashford.edu/outlining. Accessed 6 May, 2020.
- Sandel, Michael. Writing in Ethical Reasoning 22: Justice. President and Fellows of Harvard College, 2010.
- "Topic Sentences." Aims Writing Center, Aims Community College, https://www.aims.edu/student/online-writing-lab/process/topic-sentences.php. Accessed 14 May 2020.
- "Transitions." The Writing Center, UNC at Chapel Hill, https://writingcenter.unc.edu/tips-and-tools/transitions/. Accessed 13 May 2020.