Do’s and Don’ts of Academic Essays

Do’s and Don’ts of Introductions

  Do:   If at all possible, try to establish both the topic and the argument in a single sentence.  A strong college essay will almost always include a clear thesis statement in the introduction. The thesis statement will ideally be an encapsulation of the entire essay – a single sentence that provides an overview of the entire essay.    

What is the topic and what do you want to say about that topic?

The thesis statement should provide an answer to both of these questions (if possible). Sometimes, you will need two sentences to do this.  

You don’t need to summarize the entire argument of the essay here – just provide a clear sense of the big picture.  
  Don’t:   Don’t just mention the topic. Try to be specific and present a narrow sense of your topic.  The introduction should communication both topic and argument.  

It’s not enough to tell the reader that the essay will be about criminal justice reform. You have to also tell the reader whether or not you think we should reform the justice system (and why).   Don’t just say the essay is going to “talk about criminal justice reform.”

Instead, indicate your argument/purpose with a thesis statement. If your purpose is to inform the reader about the disparities of sentencing across racial lines for certain crimes, you should say that. If your purpose is to convince the reader that these disparities prove that sentencing guidelines need to be changed to ensure fair treatment under the law, you should say that.  

What do you want to accomplish in this essay?

The reader should have a clear answer to this question after reading the introduction.  
  Do:   Try to be specific and present a narrow sense of your topic.  If you are writing about criminal justice, you are probably not writing about everything relating to criminal justice. You may be writing about the need to reform certain sentencing guidelines to avoid racial bias in criminal sentencing.  

This means you are not writing about rehabilitation in the prison system, felons’ voting rights, juvenile incarceration, or the privatization of the prison system. So, if you open the paper by indicating that the essay will be about “criminal justice,” the reader will not really know what the paper is actually about.  

We want to let the reader know what particular area within the larger topic will be discussed in the essay.  
  Don’t:   Don’t start quoting sources or presenting evidence in the introduction.  Use the introduction to clearly establish the essay’s specific topic and specific goals.  

For academic writing, we want to wait until the body section of the essay to start offering support for your argument.  
  Don’t:   Don’t provide a question that the essay will explore unless you also offer a clear and direct answer to that question.  While magazine articles and web articles often end the first paragraph with a guiding question, academic writing takes the form of a purpose-driven argument. This means that the contents of whole essay should serve one clearly identified argument.  

If the introduction doesn’t establish a position – a point to be proved – the reader won’t know what side of the issue the body section of the essay is supposed to support.  

Analogy: The introduction should work like a set of driving directions.

You can’t just say, “Here’s a map,” without circling the destination.

You have to say, “Here’s where we’re going.” And it can also help to say why.  

The introduction should tell the reader where the essay is headed. 

Do’s and Don’ts of Body Paragraphs

Do: Be upfront and direct.  Use a claim statement (or topic statement) to begin each body paragraph. You can think about each body paragraph as having its own mini-thesis statement.  
Don’t: Don’t begin a body paragraph with a quotation.  First, establish the point of the paragraph. Then present evidence.    
Do: Explain how your argument fits together.  After presenting evidence, it’s time to explain: How does the evidence logically connect to the point of the paragraph? How does the paragraph support the thesis? This is where some of the most important work in the essay is done – in explaining how each part of your argument fits into the whole.    
Don’t: Don’t “overstuff” the paragraph.  Each paragraph should aim for the full expression of a single idea. Focus on one point per paragraph in the body section of the essay. When revising your essay, look for paragraphs that try to do too much and that may attempt to squeeze several different points into a single paragraph. Find those paragraphs and break them up into smaller, more focused paragraphs.  
Do: Aim for variety (and avoid repetition).  In the body section of the essay, a strong essay will present various and distinct points of support. If someone were keeping score in a debate, the winner will often be the person who presents the greatest number of reasons that his/her side is best. The person who presents one or two points repeatedly will not win, so avoid saying the same thing again and again.  

Try to use research to help with this and come up with examples that create an argument with multiple points of support.  
Don’t: Don’t end the paragraph with a quotation or a fact.  Use the end of a body paragraph to explain how the evidence fits the argument. See “Explain how your argument fits together” (above) for more on this point.  

Do’s and Don’ts of Conclusions

Do: Be reflective and evaluative.  The conclusion is a chance to reflect on the process of writing and researching the essay.   Here you can highlight the most important or interesting ideas your research turned up.  
Don’t: Don’t present new evidence.  Avoid allowing your conclusion to do the same kind of work your body paragraphs are doing. The conclusion should be more like your introduction than like another body paragraph. Look at the big picture here and stop presenting new evidence that will need to be further explained.  
Do: Acknowledge the reader.  The conclusion is a good place to communicate the idea that you (the writer) understand that the reader might disagree with certain points you have made. Even though the reader disagrees with a small point, there is probably some middle ground overall. Use the conclusion to identify opportunities for agreement between you and a resistant reader.  
Don’t: Don’t underestimate the importance of the conclusion.  The concluding section of the essay is often the section that lingers in the reader’s mind. Be sure to review, proofread and revise your conclusion and end the essay with a bang, not a whimper.  
Do: Be creative.  The conclusion is a great place to take risks in terms of using poetic language, imagery, analogy and metaphor.  

Do’s and Don’ts for MLA Works Cited Sections

Do: Title the section “Works Cited” and start the section on a new page.  For MLA, this part of the paper is called Works Cited and the phrase should be centered on the page. The rest of the page should not be centered, but should go back to “left justification” like the rest of the essay.  
Don’t: Don’t number the entries or use bullet points.  Arrange the items in alphabetical order.  
Do: Indent each line that follows the first line of the entry.  It’s the indentation that helps to indicate where a new entry begins on the Works Cited page.  
Don’t:   Don’t forget to include each research source you’ve used to build your essay.  If you are writing about a work of literature, that text should be included in the Works Cited section. If you find a single, fun quote from Dr. Seuss to use in your conclusion, the source should be listed in your Works Cited section so the reader can look it up too and find the quote in the same place you found it.  
Do:   Continue double-spacing in the Works Cited section.  Double-space the entire essay. Start double-spacing with your name at the top of the first page and don’t stop double-spacing in the essay – ever. Maybe it sounds extreme, but it’s not. Just double-space the whole essay.


The Works Cited section is a one of the ways that the essay participates in a community of scholarship.  

The information provided in each Works Cited entry should be enough for the reader to back-track along the same path you took and thus find the same resource.

College writing is scholarship and when scholars share essays with one another they are also sharing research resources. Help your readers inform themselves with the same resources you used – point them back to the specific location of each research source.

Essay Writing Tips

Essay Basics

Thesis Statements

Essay Introductions

Body Paragraphs


Do’s and Don’ts of Academic Essays

Common Essay Mistakes to Avoid

MLA Formatting Guidelines (Plus Common Mistakes & How to Avoid Them)

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Published by eric m martin

A writer, teacher and coffee shop owner living in the southern reaches of the Mojave Desert.

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