Essay Basics

What is an academic essay?

Academic essays are thesis-driven papers.

This means that each time you sit down to write an essay, you should be writing with the goal of proving a specific point.

It’s not enough to have a focused sense of your topic. You also need to have a focused sense of what you want to persuade the reader to believe.

  • Your aim can be to argue for an interpretation of a work of literature.
    • (But your aim shouldn’t be to merely describe a book.)
  • Your aim can be to explain why one point of view is more compelling than an alternative point of view.
    • (But your aim shouldn’t be to merely explain two different points of view.)
  • Your aim can be mainly to inform the reader, but this information should serve a larger purpose such as a call to action or an argument as to why the topic is important.

An Academic Essay Briefly Defined

  • Thesis-Driven
    • Academic essays seek to prove a specific point
  • Written in distinct sections
    • Introduction (with Thesis)
    • Body
    • Conclusion
    • Works Cited

Body Section

  • The body presents specific points of support for the thesis argument.
  • Each paragraph in the essay should be distinct with a beginning, middle and end.
  • The format of the paragraph on the page should also make each paragraph clearly distinct.
    • Indent the line of each new paragraph.


  • Conclusions should be distinct from the body of the essay.
    • In the conclusion, you should stop offering new evidence and new support.
  • Wrap up the essay. Pose a question. Recap the main points.
Side-Note: Essays versus Reports
In humanities courses like an English class, you will always write essays. That means your job is to compose an argument, which is different from a report.

Reports do not require argument and often simply “report” information.

When you are selecting a topic and writing an essay, ask yourself if you are arguing a point.

Avoid writing papers that are purely informational. Instead, use information to support a point.

How many points should an essay try to make?

The short answer is one. An academic essay should focus on making a single, focused argumentative point.

Sometimes the point can be complex, which may create an illusion that more than one point is being made. However, a successful essay will always take a clear position on a single issue.

The challenge of writing the essay then becomes the challenge of (1) explaining the exact nature of the position being take and (2) demonstrating the reasons this position is better than others.

Write to clearly explain:

  • What exactly are you trying to say?
  • Why are you saying that (instead of saying something else)?

That’s it, really.

You might think that these two actions can’t possible take up the three or four or five pages you have been assigned. That’s simply not true.

Just think about making an argument where you’re saying the Avengers: Infinity War is a better film than Avengers: End Game.

To make this argument, you need to explain what you mean when you say one film is “better” than the other – better in what way?

You then need to illustrate why your position is better than the alternatives.

To do that, you need to use several specific examples for comparison, illustrating the strengths of one film and the weaknesses of the other. You need to explain why these particular examples are important when deciding which film is better.

Then you may want to explain why it is wrong to see things the other way around, describing that counter-argument and defusing it. You can’t do all of this in just one page, no matter how concise you are. To fully explain your main point, you are going to need some space to lay it all out.

This how we transform an opinion into an argument. We explain, expand, illustrate, and anticipate disagreement.

Every item of that content is dedicated to our two main tasks:

(1) Explaining the exact nature of the position being taken.

(2) Illustrating that position with evidence and demonstrating the reasons this position is better than others.

What kinds of information should be included in an academic essay?

Information can also be called evidence in the context of academic writing.


Evidence can take the form of:

  • Examples
  • Reasons & Logical Argument
  • Cited Sources
  • Facts

For more on the topic of using evidence in academic essays, take a look at these notes on body paragraphs.

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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