Essay Writing Tips: The I.D.E.A. Guide for Essay Haters

I have to write an essay -- time to panic!

Does the idea of writing a term paper freak you out?

If you hate writing term papers, or do poorly writing them, and are looking for some essay writing tips, you’re reading in the right place. This guide can help you get on track to getting your paper written and getting a better grade. Using the I.D.E.A. model to outline your work before you write, you can start strong and finish stronger if you nail your thesis.

Before we get into models and your thesis, let’s get some obvious stuff out-of-the-way. First, put aside the thought that the paper will write itself. Truly— not happening. Start early and get the pain over as fast as possible. Getting a first draft done early gives you time to polish or get a draft review by your instructor. (Some instructors have required draft reviews to force procrastinators to do what they should.)

It should be obvious, but give yourself time.  If you are always trying to blast out a paper at the last moment, that’s one of the reasons you are not getting full marks.  If you are under the delusion that you do your best work under pressure. I will counter that notion with the fact that in thirty plus years I’ve never seen it to actually be true.  People make mistakes, to catch all of them requires the necessary time to carefully review and fix them.  Going fast means making more errors, not less.


The Prompt / Assignment

Before a single word is typed or even one thought cogitated, know exactly what it is you are being asked to write. This is the absolutely most crucial part of writing an essay. The most carefully crafted words in the universe won’t make the grade if you write something that isn’t what the instructor asked for.  When it comes to the specifics of the assignment, do not be shy if you have even the tiniest doubt. Ask the instructor to clarify. Keep asking, persist until there is absolutely no doubt as to what he / she is looking for. This is the worst time to guess, or get some other student’s interpretation. An inaccurate understanding of the instructions will have you wasting time on what will likely be a terrible result. Do this as early as is feasible, preferably when the instructor is already talking about the work to be done. Be brave, have them clarify anything that is the least bit ambiguous.  Not just for yourself but for every other classmate too shy to speak up and grill the instructor. Be persistent until you are certain that you and the instructor understand one another.

While you are digging for the specifics, make sure you understand all the requirements of the prompt. Ninety percent of bad grades is simple failure to follow instructions. The prompt will usually contain a minimum length, and often a maximum page count. Sometimes the type of essay will be designated. Common types are: analysis essays (research), argumentative (pros/cons), persuasive, cause and effect, comparison and contrast, and narrative/descriptive. If one of these types is called for, be sure to familiarize yourself with that structure first. Writing in one of these formats is beyond the scope of this tips guide. If the paper is a research paper, you may be required to use a particular style. The most common styles are MLA and APA, but Turabian, Chicago, and AMA (medical) also exist. The style designates the cosmetic qualities of what you write, headers, margins, footers, and citations. For most research papers, doing the style wrong is a significant chunk of the grade, do not overlook the style requirements.  It may be pedantic and stupid, but failure to get even one space right will often cost you a full letter grade.  This is not a joke.  Especially nowadays when there are online format tools that will lay out the bibliography or foot notes per the style guide specifications.

I’ve had you grilling the instructor for specifics, while you are doing that make sure to get them to give you examples of the topics that they feel are appropriate.  Aside from doing the prompt wrong, the next biggest point of failure is a poor choice of topic.  If all you have is three pages, starting a dissertation on the events of the civil war probably isn’t going to work out so well. However, picking a single battle in the war, might. If you are at all unsure whether a topic might be too broad or narrow for the assignment, run it past the instructor.  Again, I will emphasize, do this early.

With assignment details completely and unambiguously clear, it’s time to plan your paper.  Note, I say plan your paper, not write it.  Planning first alleviates some points of failure  in your execution.


Planning Your Paper

People make out writing to be hard. All those damn words. Let me dramatically over simplify the whole idea of an essay for you. At its core, an essay has an introduction, a discussion, and a conclusion. That’s it. Another way to describe it: tell us what you’re going to talk about, talk about it, then tell us what we talked about. Seems childishly simple, right? Yes! If you keep it minimized in your mind, negative psychology won’t get in your way!

So, with my encouragements complete, let’s talk planning. Even if all you have to write is five paragraphs, the method I will outline for you will always help. Each chunk of your essay should follow a model, and the name should help you remember, the I.D.E.A model; introduction, description, emphasis, and assertion:


I.D.E.A. Essay Model
  • Introduction—Opening thoughts / topic sentence
  • Description—Add detail, describing and focusing on the points of the current section.
  • Elaborate—Concentrate on the key details, and connect them to the thesis (assertion) or transition sentence.
  • Assertion—Assertion (thesis) or summating idea / transition sentence.

The model above will be used to write a kind of outline. I used this method when writing essays during exams. You set down the skeleton. The introductory sentence. Your thesis and points. You can write this out by hand or simply do it as single lines in a document.

The first and most important thing for you to craft is your thesis statement (or primary assertion). A well thought out thesis will also contain your “talking points”. Think of the thesis and points as the spine of your essay, it supports and holds everything else together.


Your Thesis

A good thesis has three traits: it is specific, favors a position, and it either makes claims or provides support. The simplest way to create one is to pose it as a formula.  The most generic formula is: [statement][supporting point 1] [supporting point 2] [supporting point 3]. Example thesis: Will Greenway’s articles are great because they are informative, easy to understand, and humorous.

The word ‘because’ is the key word in the example thesis. When you make a statement or an assertion, you have to justify your statement with the logic (or persuasive) elements you deem to be convincing. This simple format works for most of the paper types, with small variations for the topic being explored:


Simple Thesis Prototypes
  • Fords are better than Chevys because 1, 2, 3.
  • Germany makes the best beer in the world as evidenced by A, B, C.
  • Irrefutable evidence of global warming is proven by X, Y, Z.
  • Comparing an apple to an orange you see they are similar/different in trait 1, trait 2, trait 3.
  • Further study of the Mozeltoff reaction is merited based on fact 1, fact 2, fact 3.


Simple types will work for a large number of shorter papers. There are times when the discussion requires a bit more elaboration or sophistication (nuances). In that case, the thesis may have the points up front, or in the middle, with the primary assertion or “claim” at the end. Sometimes you have too many points to stuff into the thesis and have to make more “generalized” support. The examples below have the support filled in to give you a better feel for how they are worded.


Elaborate Thesis Prototypes
  • NASA should be given larger funding to support their research in humans, energy, and materials because of their history of beneficial discoveries.
  • Because of the prevalence of media technologies like television, radio, and the internet, the art of writing is dying.
  • Politics, religion, and international jurisdictions prevent technological advancements from being more effective against terrorism.
  • Given that the predominance of large scale shipping is powered by diesel engines, governmental control of fuel pricing can have dramatic benefits to the economy.


Obviously, this is not an exhaustive list of thesis models. I find if you search for that one simple assertion, the rest of paper becomes far easier to write. The big part is deciding what it is you want to say. Keep it simple. Three points is a magic number. If you have to write a larger essay you generally end up breaking it into sections, each with its own thesis and points.

Once you have your thesis constructed you can build an outline like this. I did one on my favorite drink (I made up stuff for this article). You will note that outline is almost an essay by itself.


I.D.E.A Outline
  • Intro Section
    • Introduction : There are many diet drinks in the world but some are better than others.
    • Description: These drinks can be divided in low glycemic types, light versions, and zero calorie beverages.
    • Elaborate: Practically speaking, if it still has calories, there’s no “diet” in the drink.
    • Assertion: Of cola-type low-calorie drinks Diet Coke is the best due to its flavor, price, and availability
  • Point 1 Section (flavor)
    • Introduction : Cola drinks are largely similar in flavor, but the bitter after-taste is what sets each apart.
    • Description: Diet Coke uses a specific artificial sweetener not employed by other brands resulting in different overall taste experience.
    • Elaborate: The drink’s well-calibrated sweetness is popular, and the beverage wins in most taste-test surveys.
    • Summation / Transition: Diet Coke wins on more than just popularity, it wins on price as well.
  • Point 2 Section (price)
    • Introduction : The american food industry generally charges a premium for “healthy” food alternatives.
    • Description: In the case of Diet Coke, the beverage is sometimes sold at prices below that of its full sugar counterpart.
    • Elaborate: In a nationwide price survey, Diet Coke was on sale an average of 10% more often than its competitors.
    • Summation / Transition: In a tight economy, price is an important factor.
  • Point 3 Section (availability)
    • Introduction : Being the “best” product is of no value to consumers if they can’t get it.
    • Description: Diet Coke receives world-wide distribution and is available in over 70 countries.
    • Elaborate: Every major grocery market and club store in the United States carries Diet Coke.
    • Summation / Transition: Consumers everywhere can get this product.
  • Conclusion Section
    • Introduction : We’ve discussed what makes Diet Coke the best cola-type low-calorie drink.
    • Description: Considering taste, cost, and where it can be found, Coca-Cola’s product is arguably the strongest contender.
    • Elaborate: Pegging the popularity meter, and with zero calories there’s simply nothing to dislike.
    • Assertion: Everyone should try Diet Coke if they haven’t already. It’s an excellent product at a great price.

As a reminder, everything in that essay was completely made up!  However, as you can see just by writing one sentence for each line of the model gives you a great starting point.  To make a more balanced essay you would probably provide details of competing products, comparing and contrasting, or using additional factual arguments.

The main thing here is to start with a skeleton like this one.  It can even be smaller, just your thesis, points and topic sentences.  Typically, it’s getting started that blocks most people.  With this method, if you come up with a strong thesis and points, the rest of the paper is a lot easier.  It takes a little practice to write introduction sentences that flow well into the description and elaboration.  My technique is start with some kind of general statement that I can bring around to the topic at hand. If that’s not your style, just back up a bit from the topic and start with its history or things related to the subject material.

Like any other task of size or complexity, breaking it down into parts makes it easier to manage. This is especially true of writing of all kinds. In the case of essays, it’s first knowing the topic and developing a thesis and points. While the rest isn’t necessarily easy, it does make what you have to do easier to focus on and complete. By creating an I.D.E.A outline your essay is near to complete before you’ve even started writing. Getting from that skeleton to a fleshed out great scoring essay is just a matter of execution, drafts, and practice. Give it a try.

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