How to write an essay

10 min readOct 24, 2020

So, you need to write an essay? Possibly you’re thrilled (probably you’re not). Either way, it doesn’t have to be a dull chore. Essays are as fun and as simple as … ice cream! Don’t believe me? Read on!

What is an essay?

An essay is a succinct piece of nonfiction writing that presents an argument, interpretation or line of reasoning about a specific idea. The word “essay” comes from the French word “essayer,” which means “to try or attempt.” This word, in turn, comes from the Latin word “ exigere,” which means “to examine or test.” Both words capture the spirit of the modern essay, which to prove or demonstrate the truth of a premise through a literary examination and idea process.

Unlike journalism or research papers, essays rely heavily on the writer’s own thoughts, opinions, logical connections and reasoning. Because of this, they must be written with extreme clarity and control to avoid being a rambling, confusing and directionless composition.

Ingredients of an essay

The essay is a very flexible form of writing. So much so that it can be hard to tell the difference between an essay and a book report, autobiography, news story or journal entry. Just like ice cream! Is sorbet ice cream, or is it frozen juice? How about Hawaiian shave ice? Or the Alaskan delicacy known as Akutaq? Is there an easy way to differentiate essays and ice cream from travel memoirs and popsicles?

Yes! Just as there are three basic ingredients found in all ice cream, there are three simple ingredients found in every essay.

The thesis is a statement of fact or opinion that the essay will explore or prove. A good thesis is:

  • Debatable, not obviously true or universally accepted as fact
  • Provable
  • Concise and comprehensible

W.W. Norton has some great examples of basic ideas and assertions transformed into clear thesis statements.

A simple thesis for us to consider as we work our way through the essay-writing process might be: “Ice cream and essays are very similar.”

The supporting evidence is a collection of reasons, arguments or facts that will convince the reader that the thesis is true or accurate. Depending on the essay and the thesis, supporting evidence can include research, data sets, statistics, examples, personal anecdotes, counterarguments, or other factual information.

Three pieces of supporting evidence for our sample thesis could be:

  1. Ice cream and essays both have three basic ingredients.
  2. Ice cream and essays have been popular for hundreds of years among diverse cultures around the globe.
  3. Ice cream and essays are quicker and easier to consume than to produce.

Last but not least, we have the final verdict, which is the assertion that the thesis has been proven, often with a brief summary of how the writer proved it and a general wrap-up of the essay.

Our final verdict would be: “As we have shown, ice cream and essays share numerous similarities, from general composition to cultural relevance to ease of digestion.”

Now it’s time to learn how to structure the ingredients of an essay.

Basic essay structure

As with any recipe, each ingredient of an essay has to be portioned out in specific amounts. We measure these amounts not in teaspoons or cups, but in paragraphs. The most common form of essay has five paragraphs.

The first paragraph is called the introduction, and it contains the thesis. The second, third and fourth paragraphs comprise the body, and contain the supporting evidence. The final paragraph brings the essay to a close with the final verdict, and is called the conclusion.

Like an ice cream cone, these three sections are arranged and consumed in a linear, vertical manner known as the essay structure. The introduction comes first, followed by the densely packed body, and it all ends not with a scoop of ice cream but with a cone. Why? Because it’s the cone-clusion! (Oh, come on! That was a quality pun).

So far, we’ve described a “plain vanilla” sort of essay. But, like ice cream, essays come in a wide range of flavors, some familiar, others downright exotic. Let’s take a look at the eleven flavors of essay.

A menu of essays

These are the eleven types of essay you’re likely to encounter in the wild or be assigned in school:

  1. Narrative
  2. Descriptive
  3. Expository
  4. Persuasive
  5. Definition
  6. Compare and contrast
  7. Cause and effect
  8. Critical
  9. Process
  10. Argumentative
  11. Analytical

The first four essays on the menu are the most common; they’re the vanilla, chocolate, strawberry and cookies ’n’ cream of the literary world. Here’s how you concoct each of ‘em.

Narrative essay: Tell a story to prove your thesis. Typically, the story you tell will be from your own life, using your experiences to make your argument. Though this type of essay includes the same narrative techniques as novels and short stories, it’s not fiction. So don’t make up a fake tale to illustrate your point.

Descriptive essay: Use detailed descriptions of sensory details (sight, scent, sound, taste and touch) to convey your thesis. Unlike a narrative essay, a descriptive essay does not tell a complete story, it just describes a particular scene. The thesis may center on something subjective rather than objective. The aim is to provide the reader with a sensory experience rather than an intellectual one.

Expository essay: Explain a topic; your thesis is simply the explanation, supported by interpretation, relevant facts, and objectively formed opinion. This one typically requires research and careful thought. Accuracy counts!

Persuasive essay: Persuade the reader to agree with your thesis, which often centers on a social, philosophical or ethical issue. Though accurate information and clear details about the thesis topic are important components of the essay, appealing to the reader’s emotions is an acceptable tactic.

Next up, we have the more unusual essay flavors on the menu-butter pecan and rocky road, along with unfamiliar outliers like saffron and adzuki bean.

Definition essay: Your thesis is the definition of a term. But you won’t define it the way a dictionary would. Your task is to explain what you believe the word does and does not represent. An abstract, difficult to pin down concept like “justice” is a good example. Your thesis can be supported by historic, linguistic, political, legal and sociological research; comparison with similar and dissimilar terms; and examples of the term’s use in real life.

Compare and contrast essay: Take two things that seem similar and demonstrate how they are actually very different. Or, take two things that seem different and show the reader how they are really very much alike. That’s what we did above with our “Ice cream and essays are very similar” thesis.

Cause and effect essay: Your goal is to prove two things are directly related in a very special way: one of them caused the other. This can be tricky because, as the saying goes, “Correlation does not imply causation.” In other words, just because two things are related (precisely at noon, the doorbell rang and the dog barked) does not mean that one thing caused the other to happen (maybe the dog barked because she saw a cat outside). Careful historic, scientific or sociological research is crucial.

Critical essay: Evaluate a piece of writing, a work of art, a film, or some other creative output. Your thesis can be a statement of what you believe the creator intended the work to mean, whether the work achieved what it set out to do, or an informed opinion as to the merit of the work. Your understanding of, and knowledge about, the work in question is key to the success of this type of essay. It’s not as easy as it looks!

Process essay: A how-to guide in essay form. Your thesis can either be “This is the best/easiest/most efficient way to do something,” or it can be “This is how something works.” You’ll be judged on the accuracy of your description of the steps in the process, the clarity of your language, and the thoroughness of your research as demonstrated by the level of detail you’re able to provide.

Argumentative essay: This type of essay is similar in many ways to the persuasive essay. The big difference is that, rather than merely trying to convince the reader to agree with your thesis, you must also argue against any differing viewpoints or opinions about the thesis. In other words, it’s not a seduction, it’s a fight. It’s a good idea to include and refute as many counterarguments as you can. Hard evidence and facts are indispensable.

Analytical essay: Like an expository essay, this type of essay explains a particular topic to the reader. However, instead of stopping there, an analytical essay continues by analyzing the merits of the topic objectively and in-depth.

Here’s a handy list of the many flavors on our menu of essays:

But flavor isn’t everything. There’s one last step in your essay-writing journey: presentation.

Essay presentation: cone, bowl or other

When it comes to ice cream and essays alike, presentation is key. Just as ice cream can be served in a cone, a bowl, or something unexpected like an ice cream cake, essays can be presented to the reader in one of three contexts:

And just as some flavors of ice cream taste better than others when presented as, say, the filling of an ice cream sandwich, certain types of essays work better when “served” in one context as opposed to another. Let’s take a look at the three ways you can present your essay, and which flavors go best with each.

1. How to write an academic essay

Are you a student? Then the academic essay presentation is for you. Academic essays are served to teachers and occasionally classmates. Precise arrangement of the essay’s elements and a rigid formality of language is required, with a highly hierarchical “top-down” structure being the main feature of the composition. “Toppings” in the form of word play or rhetorical embellishments aren’t typically recommended.

Best flavors:
Expository essay
Definition essay
Compare and contrast essay
Cause and effect essay
Critical essay
Analytical essay

2. How to write a professional essay

You thought your essay-writing days were over when you accepted your diploma? Wrong! Depending on your job, you could find yourself writing just as many essays as you did when you were a student. Professional essays are served to readers via corporate communications vehicles like company newsletters, industry white papers and opinion pieces; professional blogs and social media sites; magazines and newspapers; and job-seeking documents like cover letters and college admissions essays.

The level of formality and rigidity of structure can vary, depending on the flavor of essay and the audience. However, in general, a less hierarchical and more sophisticated structure is desirable; an elegant and capacious bowl rather than a stiff and spindly cone, if you will. Throw on a couple toppings to liven up the tone if you want, but not so many as to make the presentation seem flippant or frivolous. There’s no grade forthcoming; it’s just your professional reputation at stake (no pressure).

Best flavors:
Persuasive essay
Cause and effect essay
Critical essay
Process essay
Analytical essay

3. How to write a personal essay

These are the banana splits and baked Alaskas of the essay world. Personal essay presentation is wilder, less disciplined, and more creative than the other two by far.

Personal essays are served to readers via blogs, literary journals, and essay anthologies. Their structure can range from traditional to unconventional to boldly experimental. Smear the introduction and body across a cookie-conclusion. Float your paragraphs in a cup of espresso. Roll your thesis and supporting arguments up in a crepe to make an ice cream essay-taco. You’re also free to include all the toppings you like: sprinkle on similes, add dollops of dialogue, drizzle puns and word play all over everything. The only limit is your imagination.

Best flavors:
Narrative essay
Descriptive essay
Critical essay

Well, that’s it, folks! We’ve come to the conclusion … or cone-clusion! Still nothing? Perhaps my thesis, “Cone-clusion is a quality pun,” was flawed after all. You’re sure to come up with a better one for your next essay. Good luck!

Katherine Luck is the author of the novels The Cure for Summer Boredom and In Retrospect. Her latest book, False Memoir, combines the high stakes of a gritty psychological thriller with the guilty pleasure of a sensational true crime tell-all. You can read more of her work, including the “Dead Writers and Candy” series, at

Originally published at on October 24, 2020.