Every semester as a college English instructor, I had students who were SHOCKED, SHOCKED I SAY that the deadline for a major paper had snuck up on them without their realizing it.
College does that to you: You’re busy with this assignment and that reading and this club and that sport and this roommate and that party, and pretty soon, you have a 10-page essay due November 11th or April 23rd, and what do you mean that’s tomorrow?!
A professional could bang that essay out in an hour or two. But you’re not a professional (yet). If you were, you wouldn’t be in college. Or high school. Or wherever it is that you’re stuck with a giant paper to write and a looming deadline.
I’m not going to show you how to write that essay like a professional would. I am, however, going to share a method that will allow you to write a passable essay in about the same amount of time it would take a professional to write an outstanding one.
A Note: This method will not turn out a good essay, by which I mean “an essay that uses the craft of writing itself as a means of persuasion.” It will merely turn out a competent essay, by which I mean “an essay that demonstrates that you read what you were supposed to read and learned something from reading it.”
Consequently, I do not recommend this approach for essays due in English or technical writing classes – the classes where you’re supposed to be learning the craft of writing. Nor do I recommend it for written works that must follow a specific structure, like lab reports or legal briefs.
If you just need an essay that demonstrates you read some things in the field and had a thought or two about them, however, here’s how to get it written fast.
Step One: Assemble Your Research
Your research is done, right? If not, you have a problem this blog post can’t help you solve.
If your research is done, get all your notes together in front of your face. It doesn’t matter whether you made them on notecards or in a Google Doc or on cocktail napkins or by putting Post-It flags on every page of every book you want to cite. Just get it all in your writing space.
Step Two: Thesis Statement
Open a new Google Doc, Word doc, or whatever your favorite word processor is. (You can also do this on paper, but it’s tedious.)
You may have already done your research with a particular thesis statement in mind. If so, just type it in at the top of your document.
If you didn’t do your research with a particular thesis in mind, here’s how to generate one:
- Think about all that reading you did. What’s something you can say about it that reasonable people could disagree about? Generate 3-5 such statements – things you could say about the reading that someone else could say “nuh-uh” to.
- Choose the one that bores you the least, not the one you think is easiest to defend.
A thesis statement should always be a statement about which reasonable people could disagree. “There are four Presidents’ faces carved into Mount Rushmore” is a fact, not a thesis statement. Reasonable people can’t disagree about it, because you can all just go to Mount Rushmore (or look at a photo) and count the Presidents yourself.
“The four Presidents’ faces carved into Mount Rushmore deface a sacred Lakota site,” however, is a thesis statement. A reasonable person can disagree, for instance by saying “No, they enhance the site,” or “They’re not a defacement, they’re an example of the glory of American imperialism.” (The fact that you might disagree with every counterargument doesn’t make the arguments themselves unreasonable.)
Avoid the option that’s easiest to defend, because an easy defense makes your essay sound like you phoned it in. “The viewing platform at Mount Rushmore could be placed closer to the Presidents” is easy to defend, and for that reason, it’s super boring. It screams “I didn’t really do any work, I just don’t want a zero.”
The one that interests you most/bores you least, however, will automatically be better written because you actually care about it somewhat. It’ll have an energy that says “Hey, I did enough reading to find a topic that matters.” Do that one.
Step Three: Because Reasons
Below your thesis statement, write down a list of points that support the argument the statement makes. Avoid the urge to get too specific – you want general “buckets” or categories, not details. You can write these as sentence fragments if you like.
THESIS: The four Presidents’ faces carved into Mount Rushmore deface a sacred Lakota site.
- the Lakota considered the Black Hills sacred ground generally
- the Lakota named the mountain “the Six Grandfathers” specifically
- the mountain in question actually terrible for carving
- the monument lionizes the same white leaders who consistently undermined Native Americans’ ability to live peacefully on their ancestral lands
Then, work in a reference to your thesis statement for each fragment:
- the Mount Rushmore carving appears in the Black Hills, which the Lakota consider generally sacred
- today’s Mount Rushmore is carved into a site the Lakota called the Six Grandfathers, which had a particular spiritual significance
- rather than choose a more stable site for the Presidents’ visages, the project was carried out on a sacred Lakota mountain that is actually ill-suited for sculptures
- the Lakotas’ sacred Six Grandfathers were turned into a monument that lionizes four US Presidents who pursued harmful policies against not only the Lakota but other Native Americans as well
Finally, slap on a transitional word or phrase. Like “also,” “as well,” “in addition,” or ordinals like “first,” “second,” “third.”
- First, the Mount Rushmore carving appears in the Black Hills, which the Lakota consider generally sacred.
- Also, today’s Mount Rushmore is carved into a site the Lakota called the Six Grandfathers, which had a particular spiritual significance.
- Another reason the Mount Rushmore presidents constitute a defacement of sacred Lakota territory is that rather than choose a more stable site for the sculptures, the project was carried out in a place that is ill-suited for carving.
- Finally, the Lakotas’ sacred Six Grandfathers were turned into a monument that lionizes four US Presidents who pursued harmful policies against not only the Lakota but other Native Americans as well.
At the bottom of this list, write your thesis statement again, but say it differently. For example, “These four factors support the position that today’s Mount Rushmore is actually a defacement of a sacred site.”
Repeat this process for however many points you have. If you’re writing to a page count, estimate that you’ll need half a page for each point, plus half a page each for your introduction and conclusion. The example outline, then, is going to cover about three pages – maybe more, if you did a lot of research.
Step Four: Plug and Play
Get your research back in front of your face, and start dropping it into this outline under each point that is supported by that bit of research.
Drop in your summaries, quotes, and paraphrases with the author, title and page number attached. I cannot stress this enough. Nothing is more boring or eats more time than having to go back and fix all your citations after you already wrote the paper. Besides, it greatly increases the chances you’ll miss one and get dinged for plagiarism. Just put them into the outline, and you won’t have to deal with any of that.
You can use bullet points and sentence fragments here, too. Just put all the evidence bits where they go.
If you have a particularly weird or scandalous tidbit of information, or a fact or statistic that doesn’t quite fit anywhere else, set it aside. It’ll be great material for the introduction. (We’ll get to that.)
Step Five: Sew It Together
Once all your evidence details are in the outline, do the same thing to each of them that you did to your four topic sentences. Connect them to the topic sentence, and drop in transitions where you need them so someone who has never even heard of your topic before can still follow your train of thought. The body paragraphs are a great place to use “for example,” “for instance,” and “to illustrate” in order to introduce actual examples of whatever you’re talking about.
Take out the bullet points, start each paragraph with the topic sentence, line up all the details behind it, and end the paragraph by writing your topic sentence again in a different way. (You can leave out the transition when you rewrite.)
Step Six: Conclusion
Once all your body paragraphs are done, it’s time to write the conclusion. Start with your restated thesis sentence, then summarize the body paragraphs in a sentence or two.
For example, in our Mount Rushmore essay, your conclusion might read:
These four factors support the position that today’s Mount Rushmore is actually a defacement of a sacred site. The Six Grandfathers are a specific sacred site on sacred land. The sheer difficulty of carving them suggests an ulterior motive, particularly when the result is a sculpture of white imperialists with aggressively anti-Native American policies appearing on Native sacred land.
Finish this paragraph with a “call to action,” or a punchy sentence intended to make your reader feel, remember, or do something with all the arguing you just did. An example here might be “Not only must similar projects be prohibited in the future, but reparations should be made to the Lakota Sioux for the damage caused to their land and culture.”
Step Seven: Introduction
Scroll back to the top. In front of your thesis statement, plug in that particular juicy tidbit of information that you pulled out of your research back in Step Four. For example:
In 1868, the Lakota Sioux were promised that the US Government would not interfere with their lives in the Black Hills. Just two years later, the US Government broke that promise.
Connect this juicy tidbit to your thesis statement with a sentence or two that moves your reader from here to there. If you’re not sure how to do it, just summarize the points in your topic sentences. It’s okay to be really obvious about this. Remember, your reader has no idea what your argument is yet.
In 1868, the Lakota Sioux were promised that the US Government would not interfere with their lives in the Black Hills. Just two years later, the US Government broke that promise. In 1927, white sculptor Gutzon Borglum carved the faces of today’s Mount Rushmore into a mountain the Lakota considered one of the most sacred sites in a sacred land. Adding insult to injury, the four Presidents he carved all executed anti-Native policies. The four Presidents’ faces carved into Mount Rushmore deface a sacred Lakota site.
Step Eight: Cite Your Works
Finally (finally!), grab your sources one more time and put them in order on a Works Cited page, using whatever citation format you’ve been using in the paper itself. If you’re not sure how to cite something, Google it.
(In my day, there was no Google. We had to look up citation formats in print editions of the various style manuals. We also had to walk uphill both ways five miles in the snow to attend a one-room university with only a wood stove for heat, with an onion tied to our belts, as was the style at the time. “Give me five bees for a nickel,” you’d say.)
Give the paper a title, if you feel like it.
You’re done! Read it once to make sure there aren’t any obvious mistakes, then turn it in and get some well-deserved sleep while your friends pull all-nighters.
Have other questions about how to survive the research and writing portion of your education? Drop them in the comments. Keep me alive by buying me a coffee, and help your classmates by sharing this post on social media.