Throughout the years you've probably heard tons of advice on how to write an essay
. From teachers who advise you on how to craft the perfect thesis statement to websites that want to help you fix your grammar mistakes, everybody has something to say about how to write. So, when it comes time to actually sit down and work on an essay
or research paper, the process can feel a bit overwhelming. With all those guidelines, rules, and advice, how can you make sure that you've gotten everything right?
Why Use a Checklist?
For anyone who isn't a great organizer (and really, that's probably most of us), checklists are a great way to make sure that everything that needs to get done actually does. We all use them from time to time, from to-do lists to shopping lists. And while it might not seem like you can apply the same idea to something as complex as writing, in fact a checklist can improve your work and make the whole process less stressful.
The Essay Writing Checklist
The following checklist is designed for free-form essays and research papers
(i.e., not papers that use the IMRAD model or that present new data). It's purposely vague so that it can be used with any type of academic writing assignment, from a history paper to an in-class essay on Shakespeare
. Notice that the list starts with big picture concerns that address the paper as a whole, then narrows focus to issues like paragraph structure and grammar.
Big Picture Questions
Is there a clear thesis statement?
For most papers, the thesis statement should be a one- or two-sentence summary of your argument that is placed at the end of the introduction.
Does this essay effectively answer the prompt or research question?
If you were given a specific prompt or question to answer, you need to make sure that you're paper fully addresses that topic. It's not uncommon for papers to meander or change course while you're writing, so once you're done double check that you've stayed true to the original prompt.
Who is the audience and does the paper address their needs?
Are you writing for a class or a particular publication? If you're writing for a teacher or professor who's graded your work before, ask yourself if you've met their particular standards.
Are you successful in proving your argument?
It's not enough to just give your thesis statement - you also have to prove it with evidence and sound analysis.
Is there a clear introduction, body, and conclusion?
If not, then you need to have a really good reason for not using this tried-and-true formula.
Does the overall structure of the paper make sense?
In other words, there needs to be an obvious organizational structure in your work that the reader can easily follow.
Does each paragraph add to the argument put forth in the thesis statement?
Make sure that every paragraph has a purpose and that that purpose ties back in to your thesis statement. Any sections that don't address your thesis or add to your argument need to be rewritten or cut out.
Are the transitions from paragraph to paragraph logical and well-written?
Transitional words and phrases should be used to seamlessly move the reader from one paragraph to the next.
Does each paragraph have a topic sentence, evidence, and analysis?
In most essays, the paragraphs should fit the PEAL model: Point (the topic sentence), Evidence (a quote that backs up the point), Analysis (your analysis of the evidence), and Link (how the point connects to the thesis).
Can you identify the role each paragraph plays in your argument?
Go through your paper paragraph by paragraph and identify how each one fits without your paper. A reverse outline can be a helpful way to look at the relationship between paragraphs.
Are there any paragraphs that are too short or too long?
While there's not set length for a paragraph, in general if a paragraph is too short or too long that means it's not doing its job well.
Sentences and sentence structure
Are all your sentences complete and grammatically correct?
Be on the lookout for fragments and run-on sentences.
Do you vary sentence length and structure throughout the paper?
Good writing has sentences that vary in length and structure instead of repeating the same simple structure over and over.
Grammar and word choice
Does your word choice fit with the level of formality required by the assignment?
If you're writing a formal academic work, you need to avoid jargon, slang, and casual idioms.
Have you checked for common grammatical mistakes like misused pronouns, subject/verb disagreements, and misplaced modifiers?
When you're editing you should always be on the lookout for common grammatical mistakes.
Did you check for spelling, including issues like homophones, author's names, and technical vocabulary?
There are a lot of spelling issues that spellcheck will miss, so don't rely on your computer to catch every mistake.
- Is your paper the correct length?
- Do you have the correct margins, font size, and spacing?
- Are your sources formatting correctly?
Creating Your Own Checklist
Once you get used to using a checklist, you can start creating your own and tailoring them to specific assignment. For example, when you have specific instructions from a teacher, you can include questions like "do I have X number of sources?" or "is the title page formatted correctly." You can also tailor the list to meet your needs. For instance, if you know that you tend to turn in papers that are organizationally sound but that have lots of grammatical mistakes, you can expand on the grammar section to include issues you commonly make.
Remember, the checklist isn't there to scare you-it's there to help you make sense of all those rules and guidelines you need to follow. When you use them regularly, you'll find your writing getting better and better.