Kurt Vonnegut will tell you a good essay has to start with good ideas. It doesn’t matter if you can craft a paper with excellent construction and form. Your ideas have to be interesting, new, deep and worthwhile in some way. Why is what you are writing about important? You may not know exactly what your whole paper is going to be about when you start writing. I have started papers and just written to see where I end up. However, you should have a good idea of where you may be headed. After you have good ideas, then use all the standard writing techniques to effectively communicate your thoughts. Just as great construction is no good without good ideas, great ideas aren’t worth much when presented ineffectively.
So how do I come up with good ideas for a good essay?
One method I have picked up this year, though it is more time consuming, is to thoroughly look over the material that I am writing about. This is easier when I mark up whatever I am reading the first time I read it. Go ahead, whip out the pens and highlighters and mark up your book. I used to think it would be rude to mark up a book and ruin the experience for the next reader. So I tried post-it notes. Those were messy. I quickly got over it and decided to have at it with my books (or make photocopies if it’s from someone else’s book). Marking the text has helped me tremendously. So when I read, I think ahead about the fact that I will be writing a paper and revisiting the words, and I therefore read carefully and mark things that are important or could be useful.
After picking a topic for my essay, I go back through my markings and jot notes (with page numbers) of everything related to the topic. I re-read those passages carefully and pay closer attention to the words and their meanings. That way, my mind is refreshed as to what exactly each work says about my chosen topic. This way, what I think, and end up writing, will be accurate. I will be writing about the text and not bringing new things to it that may not really be as applicable. It’s better to be based on what is actually there, and not what I am bringing to the work and mistakenly attributing to the author.
As I write, I cite the text frequently. Even if it is just a single word. Using the author’s words (and then expanding or following with my own connecting analysis) demonstrates two things: 1) that I read carefully, and 2) that my thoughts derive from the text. Now, I won’t go overboard and have more citations than my own words, but backing myself up with material from my sources (not just further explanations by myself) is always a good idea. It keeps me grounded in the experience other people can actually have with the work, since I am sticking to what is there.
Lastly, it takes time to write a good essay or a good paper. A first draft is never good enough. The papers that I have done the best with are the ones where I have taken the time to re-write and re-think whole paragraphs or sections. It is annoying to delete a great paragraph and re-write another, but that’s just how to make my work better. The easiest way to accomplish this is to write a draft as soon as I can. Preferably, five or more days before deadline. After I have a draft, I take it to a professor or another qualified individual and discuss it with them. I choose people who can help me with my ideas, not just proofread for errors. Once I started caring about writing good essays and showing that to the people I asked for help, they started earnestly wanting help me improve my words. I find the reviewers who know that I care are more willing to give additional advice and suggest better ideas than those who perceive I just want to get it done.
My papers and essays have been as good as the thoughts I came up with (my thoughts, not thoughts borrowed from another critic or source) and the time I spent making it better.
I know it’s tough to crank out a good essay, but I hope this helps.