Basic Formatting Rules for an Essay

Jun 10, 2013
Shortly after they learn their ABCs, schoolchildren are introduced to the wonderful world of essay writing. They begin with personal essays and later move on to book reports and more advanced forms of the popular school exercise. By the time they get to high school or college, a single essay or term paper can account for a substantial portion of their grade. In other words, essay writing is a skill that every student would be well-served to master.

What is an essay?

Even though all of us have written one, we might not be able to define what the word actually means. The simplest definition of an essay is a short composition that concerns a single subject, although even that is open to interpretation. In order to receive their doctor of philosophy degree (PhD), students must compose a long essay or dissertation. It doesn't matter what you might study in your academic career, essay writing is a required skill. From English to math and science majors, you will be expected to write research reports and essays on a regular basis.
The etymology of the verb "essay" runs through several languages, including Old French, Middle English, and Late Latin. According to these Indo-European roots, it either means "to attempt" or "to weigh," which describe the process and its consequence. As we mentioned, there are many different types of essays, but most of them follow a familiar format. Let us take a moment to review it.
The three main components of the standard essay are the introduction, the body, and the conclusion. That is the simplest and most acceptable way to organize any essay. Unless otherwise instructed, the average student can use this format to compose most of the papers he/she will write in their secondary and even their tertiary education.

The Introduction

Arguably the most important part of your essay, the first paragraph must capture your reader's attention. Begin with a winning opening sentence that introduces your topic in a new, exciting way. After you get them hooked, give your readers some background information on the topic. If you aren't sure what to say, it is often a good idea to include a quote from a famous author, person, or historian. The ideas that are discussed in the intro should be quite general at the opening and gradually grow more specific as the paragraph comes to an end. The very last sentence of the exordium must conclude with a declarative thesis sentence.

Thesis Statement

The line that sets the tone for any standard essay is the thesis statement. This is a sentence that simply and succinctly tells the reader what the main idea of your essay is. It may only be a dozen words long, but everything that comes after it must support the points that are conveyed in the thesis sentence.


Let's say you're writing an essay on green energy, you might use a thesis sentence that goes something like this: "Electric automobiles provide a viable alternative to gas-powered cars because the pros finally outweigh the cons." Or if you are writing a health-related paper, you might use a line like: "There should be a total ban on smoking in all public places because secondhand smoke injures innocent non-smokers."


But whatever your thesis sentence might be, once it is firmly in place, you can start on the body of your essay. The purpose of this section is to support the main points that were expressed in your thesis statement. Each point should be addressed in one or more paragraphs and must be corroborated with specific examples and details, whether quotes and/or statistics. Do not simply state opinions, unless otherwise instructed, since essays generally require real proof to be persuasive.

Standard Citations

For the average essay, the writer uses quotes from books, newspapers, magazines, and online sources. Depending on the reference styles he/she is instructed to use, citations must be included in the text, in a footnote, and/or on a citation page at the end of the essay. Of course, your own analysis is also extremely important. You should say what you believe throughout your paper, but make sure you support your opinions with quotations and other citations.


The body paragraphs should always be organized according to the ideas you introduced in your thesis statement. As a general rule, you should always begin with your strongest point, the ones that support your supposition with facts. This will help you build on a firm foundation and draw readers to your side of the argument.


Because your major points may take several paragraphs to address, it can be difficult, even awkward to make a smooth transition to the next point. The most familiar and reliable way to make these seamless segues is to use transitions. Using words and terms like "first," next," "in addition," etc, can help you move things along and preserve the flow of your paper as it moves from one topic to the next.
When utilizing transitions, make sure that you get to the main point as soon as possible, preferably in that sentence. These topic sentences help set the tone for the paragraph or paragraphs that follow, and transitions make them easier to introduce in a fluid and natural way. Just make sure you mix it up a bit and do not use the same transitions in every new topic sentence.


This final section brings together all of the main points of your essay in a few succinct sentence. One of the most common mistakes most essay writers make is that they expatiate endlessly in this last paragraph. A writer must resist the temptation to hammer home all of the points they made. This hard-sell approach does not go over well with teachers and professors. They simply want you to reiterate what you have already said and go out on a strong note. Do not introduce any new ideas or opinions in the conclusion. Stick to the topics that were covered in the paper and remember to use citations, even if you are simply restating something.
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