There are an abundance of existing collegiate writing guides already, some of which are even excellent. So then, why do we need yet another guide? Because those other guides do things wrong.


Most guides aim for a breadth of knowledge. They are expensive enough so that you would only ever want to own one of them at a time (if even), so they’d best contain all the answers you might conceivably need. This guide is free, and the answer to any question it can’t answer should be searched for elsewhere.

This allows focus on the key topics, concepts, and techniques that are actually relevant to the vast majority of students, instead of saturating you with an abundance of inapplicable information.


This ties in with the previous point; in their quest to answer every possible question many guides still fail to answer the most relevant questions concerning a modern student, such as the appropriate use of Wikipedia in research, among other modes of conducting research.

In-depth Study

Unlike many other guides, this book is not meant so much as a reference manual but as a self contained course on paper writing.

Table of Contents

The Beginning—the essay as a process.

The Hypothesis—the essay as a question.

The Structure—the essay as a conversation.

The Paragraph—the essay as a persuasion.

The Source—the essay as a presentation.

The Sentence—the essay as a whole.

The Beginning—the essay as a process.

The first thing to realize about writing an essay is that there is no way to get around having to do a lot of work. If you are like me, then you’ll want to spend your time efficiently so you can get more value from your few hours. An essay can only be the product of your labor, so it’s best if you get ready to do some labor.

Fortunately, doing some ground work can really simplify the process of writing in later stages. It may seem like more work in the beginning, but it has long term pay-off.

When you receive a writing assignment you should begin it immediately—first chance you get. This is because, as we will see in the next section, doing appropriate research makes the rest of your paper possible. Last minute research isn’t pretty, and neither is last minute writing.

The process of revision.

You’ll also want to run your writing through three drafts. The more revision you do the better your essay gets. I want to clarify something. There is a difference between a revision and an edit.

Revision is one of those words that is entirely self explanatory. It is RE-Vision. ‘Re’ meaning do it again. It had better get better, too. A revision should not be confused with a mere edit. An edit is pedantic, detail orientated. An edit looks at all the tiny parts of a sentence, an edit is a dissection. On the other hand, a revision is a sweeping revolution, a haphazard macro-evolution.

In an edit you fiddle with the little details of a sentence, adjusting it for grammatical accuracy and stylistic beauty. In a revision you look at your piece as a whole and ask yourself hard questions about what you are saying. An edit is the process of polishing something to a deep shine. A revision is checking to make sure you aren’t polishing a mere rock.

Doing revision on your own is difficult, though. It is hard for you to have a fresh perspective on your writing each time you revise. After all, it is your writing—writing you tend to agree with. That’s why you have friends, classmates, professors, and family. Get critique from as many people as you can each revision, and always have at least one other perspective.

These other people are willing to ask questions about your writing that you wouldn’t necessarily ask. They have no emotional attachment to the writing, because it isn’t their writing. Critique means criticism, so be clear about this. Both praise and criticism are useful and appreciated, but you might find you get too much praise and not enough criticism if you don’t specify that is what you are after. Let your other perspective know that you won’t take it personally or be hurt if they find flaws in your writing. They are pointing out flaws to help you improve, not as a slight on your character.

When you get some useful critique you’ll want to revise using that, and write another draft. In general, you write in this cycle. Revise -> Critique -> Revise, lather, rinse, repeat. When you’ve gone through the cycle two or three times you can end with. Revise -> Critique -> Edit. By your third revision you’ll start to find the critique has trouble turning up any major flaws, and they start going after the details. This is when you can edit, to remove the small imperfections and present a finished product.

You save a lot of time if you don’t edit with every draft. Editing is a very time consuming process, and you don’t want to edit something you are going to revise. Why? You could spend fifteen minutes fiddling with a sentence during editing, to make sure it is perfect, and then have to cut it during the next revision because the entire paragraph doesn’t fit. That hurts.

So far I’ve been a bit vague on the details of revision, and talked more about the philosophy of writing, so to speak. But you’ll want to have the right questions to ask during revision.

Don’t ask

Does this sentence look right? It seems a bit awkward?

Do you think this should be a semicolon or a comma?

Instead ask

Am I presenting my logical argument in a coherent manner? Is it clear to you what each step of my argumentation is? Are cause and effect relations easy to understand?

Are my paragraphs ordered effectively? Would it read better if this paragraph went ahead of that paragraph? Should I change my argument?

Am I presenting my case strongly? Are you convinced by what I say? Is the evidence I use credible?

Go for the big questions. On that note, we move to the next section.

The Hypothesis—the essay as a question.

If we ignore our metaphor of an essay being a process, what else can we think of an essay being? Perhaps as a question.

Exactly. An essay starts with a question and ends with an answer. In college people take to calling this a ‘hypothesis’, since we are educated and can therefore be pretentious if we please.

One might object, though. Isn’t the hypothesis supposed to be an answer? That’s one way to think of it, but doing it like that is hard.

When you are asked to write an essay (I’m assuming you get to pick your hypothesis) you’ve got to pick a hypothesis that is non-trivial—something people wouldn’t just know (common knowledge), something interesting, something that can be argued.

So, for the purpose of illustration, the topic is globalization. If you think of the hypothesis as an answer, then try to think of some hypotheses.

China is benefiting massively from globalization.

That’s common knowledge.

Workers in China have poor working conditions.

Also common knowledge. We can read the newspaper.

Um… Chinese automakers have been given a chance to expand?

Yes! A question. Do you start to see? When you think of the hypothesis as an answer, then you are only able to come up with hypothesises you already knew. But a hypothesis you already knew without having to research is uninteresting. However, just about any question you have can become a hypothesis. Once you answer the question you can change it to the answer style teachers like. So let’s start with

Have Chinese automakers expanded their overseas markets as a result of globalization?

as an example. Let’s say the answer to the question is no. Then your Hypothesis-Answer is just

Chinese automakers have not expanded their overseas markets as a result of globalization.

Voilà. But that isn’t the only benefit. This method helps you weed out weak hypotheses that are too broad, general, or nonsensical.

Let’s go back to the example we had of our hypothesis, back in question form.

Have Chinese automakers expanded their overseas markets as a result of globalization?

Try and answer the question. What’s the problem?

I can’t really give a yes or no answer. It depends on the company and the time span. It’s not answerable.

Right you are. Our hypothesis needs to be narrow enough for us to answer.

Has Brilliance Jinbei expanded its overseas markets as a result of globalization?

The time span we can narrow down because we know approximately when globalization became a global trend. So this is a better hypothesis.

Cool, so I can just go asking whatever questions?

Well, not quite.

Why’s that?

Maybe I should have mentioned this in the Process section—there are two phases of reading you should do for your hypothesis.

Sometimes you still manage to ask trivial questions. Say you were writing a paper on math (you wouldn’t be, but I’m a math major, so bear with me on these examples) and you wondered “Could two perfect cubes add up to a third perfect cube?” because you’ve been curious about that.

You might think, “Great, now I’ll just turn this into Hypothesis-Answer form” and you go to look up the answer. The answer is that two cubes can never add up to a third cube. So you type merrily away at this paper of yours, until some math student walks by and tells you your paper is very uninteresting.

Why was it uninteresting?

Because any math major will tell you that what you’ve asked about is just part of Fermat’s Last Theorem, and your hypothesis is actually common knowledge to them. If you were writing this for a math class your peers would be awfully bored.

Not only do you have to avoid what is uninteresting for you, you also have to avoid what is uninteresting for your audience. And the only way to determine what will be interesting to your audience to do some research. You can’t quite just ask any old question for your hypothesis, you are expected to ask good questions, and to figure out what the good questions are you must know some things about the subject.