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Three Steps for Writing High School Essays

Adult ESL, English writing tips
High school essays writing tips

The most common high school essay is a five-paragraph essay. However, I’ve observed that many  students do not know what is expected of them. They just have no idea WHAT to write or HOW to write it. Part of the problem is that many students are not paying attention. (Be honest here, please.) However, your teacher may partially be at fault too. Some teachers make essay writing sound more complicated than it is or your teacher may have a very complicated style that he or she wants you to follow. (Then again, if you want the marks, you’d better follow your teacher’s style!)  Either way, I can help you understand what is going on, how to learn the rules and to be aware of the styles of high school essays.  


     To begin with, writing a good essay involves three simple steps: Plan, Write and Edit. I didn’t say, easy steps, I said, simple steps. None of this will be “easy.” You will need to think and rethink each step of the way. But at least you will not find it complicated.

1st step:PLAN

Plan an essay out carefully. Don’t just start writing.

You need to have a mental diagram or an outline on paper before you start writing. To plan properly, carry out these four activities: 

Read The Question​

You will laugh but the MAJORITY of bad essays start here. The student–that’s you–didn’t read the question. You “looked” at the question and then ran off with the first idea that came into your head and starting writing. Wrong.


You need to read the question and understand each word. Write synonyms for each word in the question. Now, re-write the question in your own words. (And nothing is wasted: these synonyms you will use again another time. All is recycled.) If you don’t answer the question, you get zero!

    I recently heard that brainstorm is a bad word among those at the Calgary Board of Education. What?? Can you believe it? Talk about more political correcting nonsense. Well if you don’t like brainstorm, then green-light or conceptualize or pray. Why? Because once you READ the question, you will  want to allow any idea come into your head — this is known as BRAINSTORMing … thinking creatively of examples from your novel or play or film that will answer your teacher’s boring question. (I can be cynical at times, can’t I? Plus, I like to start sentences with because just to annoy teachers who think because is not possible to do that. And if you don’t believe me, Google it, “Starting sentences with because” and see how many agree with me.)

Most of your pre-writing time will be spent looking for examples from the story that prove your thesis and brainstorming what the significance is.   

This is the time to look for juicy quotes too. Make sure that you take quotes that are maximum of 10 words only. Shorter is better. Look for quotes that are unique and clear that you can connect your sentences into, such as,  Macbeth was tired and worried stating  that he was “in blood steeped so far” that going ahead was as much work as going back and therefore implying that he might as well proceed as give up.   

Now you decide how many ideas you have and which comes first, second and third. Here is where you look at your ideas to see if you have three great ideas or just 2 small ideas. Perhaps you can take something that looks like one idea and make it into two different ideas. Or perhaps you see that 


2nd step: WRITE

The second step is getting it down on paper because you have planned your the essay, and writing your essay will be simple and faster. 

You have “sacrificed” a lot of time thinking and planning, above, so you won’t need as much time to actually write your essay.



This step is about writing according to your plan in Step 1. Stick to your plan. Get your ideas down clearly. Use baby words to get clear idea. If you do have to change something, it will be easier because your focus is on ideas, not big, fancy words.


Simplifying Writing for Enhanced Expression: Use "baby" words

You will save more time writing if you understand this other point: good IDEAS are more important than the good WORDS. 

In Step 2, you write your ideas down and just use “baby” words. Don’t worry about the exact word, big words, and fancy words; worry about the exact idea and making the idea clear with good support!

Actually, at this point, use a baby word like “but,” and not a fancy, juicy word like, “however” or “nevertheless,” even though “however” or “nevertheless” are better, juicier words. The reason is that your idea maybe be wrong and it’s not a “but” that you need, but you really need a “therefore” or a “consequently” and you will be wasting your time looking for a juicy word for nothing. The other reason is that you might change your idea and then you will have wasted all that time again deciding between “but” and “however” and “nevertheless” and now you don’t need either because you changed your idea. So don’t waste time. At this step, Step 2, get your ideas down and don’t worry about the right words, yet.

last step: EDIT

Here you must stop writing and sacrifice the class time that you have left and start editing. 


You cannot hand in your essay before you edit it. I promise you an extra 10 to 15% in your mark if you edit your paper before handing it in.

When you edit your essay, check for the following items.
  • did you read the question and did you answer the question. 
  • Use “literary present” 
     (talk about Hamlet or Willy [in Death of a Salesman] in the “present tense”, don’t use past tense
  • Do not use contractions. 
  • Recycle the words from the question in your introductory paragraph so that your essay is on topic (ignore this rule if your teacher said, “Don’t recycle the question words”.)
  • Check your idea and replace the baby words
  • Get rid of simple, baby words and use the fancy, juicy words.
  • Vary word choice and vary the length of sentences
  • Triple-check the introductory paragraph and the first body paragraphs, to be sure that they–in particular–are clear and faultless. 
  • Did you constantly refer back to your “thesis” and the essay question?

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