How to Write an Excellent Formal Essay

by Diane Kampf

    A formal essay is defined as an extended composition written in response to an assigned topic or written to prove or support a claim about a specific topic. Traditionally, a formal essay is comprised of five paragraphs: an introduction, three body paragraphs and a conclusion. A formal essay that is an in-depth analysis of a topic may have more body paragraphs. The task is not as daunting as if first seems if the writer breaks it down into manageable steps.

    The Thesis Statement

    A thesis statement is an opinion or a claim the rest of the essay supports. During the early stages of the writing process, it sometimes is called the tentative thesis because the writer may need to narrow it, broaden it, slightly change it or completely change it as he goes through the writing process. The thesis statement should accomplish three objectives: be in line with the assigned topic, answer a specific question about the topic and model the basic structure of the essay. For a classic five-paragraph essay, the thesis statement should mention the three items that will appear in the body paragraphs. If the assigned topic is the American Revolution, the thesis statement might be, "The causes of the American Revolution were disputes over representation in Parliament, economic independence and unreasonable impositions on the colonists."

    The Introduction

    The job of the introduction is to spark the reader's interest in the topic and lead toward the thesis statement which usually appears at the end of the introductory paragraph. There are several simple strategies for writing an interesting introduction. An introduction may start with a definition of the assigned topic. This may include a dictionary definition, but a better tactic is to define the topic in your own words. An introduction about genetically altered food might begin this way: "Genetic engineering refers to the manipulation of a living organism’s DNA or other cellular material to achieve a desired result." A second method of introduction is to use an interesting quotation that is related to the topic. A final idea is to use an interesting fact or statistic that relates to the topic: "It is estimated that more than 25,000 colonists died during the American Revolution."

    Supporting Paragraphs

    The body of the essay sustains the reader’s interest and supports the thesis with well-developed paragraphs that contain interesting facts, details, examples or events. A good paragraph will contain a topic sentence, supporting sentences and a transition sentence that leads the reader to the next paragraph. The length of a paragraph will vary depending on the topic. If a paragraph is too short, it may be undeveloped. If it is too long, it may be repetitive or it may contain too many ideas and probably should be broken into two or three separate paragraphs. The best way to organize the body paragraphs in a formal essay is to use the thesis statement as a map. The body of the American Revolution essay mentioned in the previous section would be organized into at least three paragraphs: one discussing disputes over American representation in Parliament, a second giving examples of the types of economic independence the colonists sought and a third giving examples of the impositions the colonists considered unreasonable.

    The Conclusion

    Although a good conclusion will offer the reader a sense of closure, the idea of a conclusion is not simply to end the essay. A good conclusion should inspire a reader to continue to think about the topic. One type of conclusion makes a prediction based on the ideas in the essay. An essay addressing vandalism in the town could conclude with what the writer thinks might happen if the problem isn't solved. Another good conclusion is one which offers a solution or a recommendation to a problem discussed in the essay. A final idea for a conclusion is to use it to offer an opinion on the topic of the essay. The essay about the causes of the American Revolution could end with the writer stating whether or not the colonists' complaints were justified.

    Revising and Rewriting

    No essay will be perfect on the first draft. A writer will have to revise and rewrite each section two or three times before he is satisfied with the result. The process of revision actually contains three parts. The first is resting. One of the most effective ways to write a better essay is to allow some time to pass between writing the first draft and writing subsequent drafts. Walking away from the writing process for a short time allows the writer to tackle the essay with a fresh viewpoint. Secondly, the writer needs to review the essay, or better yet, have someone else review it to make sure it meets the requirements of the assignment, contains adequate support for the thesis, does not stray off topic and engages the reader throughout. Finally, the writer uses the revision notes to rewrite the parts of the essay that need more work.

    Editing and Proofreading

    The final step in writing an excellent essay is for the writer to edit and proofread the composition. If possible it is best to have someone other than the writer proofread the essay. This is where sentence structure, grammar and spelling errors are noted and corrected. This step is important. A nicely written essay can be perceived as a poor effort if it is riddled with spelling and grammatical errors.


    About the Author

    Diane Kampf has more than 20 years of teaching experience ranging from middle school to college freshmen. She holds a Master of Arts degree in creative writing and English literature and a New York State Secondary Teacher Certificate. She has written educational materials for Learning Express, LLC, Kaplan and Pearson.

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