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Key Points In An Essay

Several weeks ago, a distraught student left this comment on my blog post “How to Write an Essay FAST”:

How are you meant to come up with the 3 main points? Like, that makes no sense; I can't just pull them out of thin air! How is it meant to be done?! And if no one can tell me (which it seems every teacher just says I need to think about the text more), then it can not be something that can be graded! Sorry for the rant - super confused and effed for my essay!

Unfortunately, I don’t think this blog post came out in time to help that student write his/her essay, but hopefully other people struggling with the same issue will be able to benefit from this post in time for their deadlines.

If you too struggle with coming up with main points for your projects, you are NOT alone.  This is the most frequent issue students will come to me for help with.  Once they know what to write, they can generally handle the question of how to write their essay effectively on their own.   Even professionals face this issue! They’ll be given the topic of their presentation, but they have to come up with the main points themselves.

While I can come up with main points for my students, I dislike doing so.  They  will need to find a way to come up with them on your own so they can function on their own, when I’m not there to help.  Luckily for them (and you!), I’ve developed a series of questions that makes finding main points much easier.

I will present the questions first. It may seem English-oriented, but it will work for all subject areas.  See the examples that follow where I  use it for English, history, and science topics to learn how to apply it to different subjects.

Note that these topics reflect the broad ones normally found in high school and early undergraduate classes. Higher-level undergraduate and graduate classes assign much more content-specific essay topics that pull from the material discussed in class. Usually these higher-level prompts include several questions you must answer as you write your paper, and so guide you in that way towards your finished product.

English: Cyberbullying
History: Michael Jackson
Science: Stem cell research

The Questions

Who are the CHARACTERS
What is the SETTING?
What is the PLOT?

Using just these questions will guarantee you three main points, the standard for most high-school essays. If you're in a college preparatory high-school or in college, you may need more, depending on the length of your project. If that's your case, don't worry; in the following examples, I'll show how you can get several main points from one question.


Who are the CHARACTERS?

While the word “characters” calls to mind literature in many people, it can be applied to non-literary people, places, and things.  The character of an essay is whoever (or whatever) will be the main focus of the paper. You can include points about other “characters” as well, of course, but only if they are connected closely to the main character of your essay AND don’t stray from the essay’s thesis statement.

If you’re still confused about what exactly a “character” in an essay is, the following examples should help you understand the idea more clearly. 

English: Cyberbullying

The main “character” would be cyberbullying, the act.  You definitely need to devote at least a paragraph towards defining and describing the act for readers.  Even if most people are familiar with the term nowadays, defining it and including relevant examples clearly tells readers what YOU mean when you use the term.  If your page limit gives you the room, other characters include the bully and the victim. The terms may seem self-explanatory, but these terms  actually become controversial when the Internet is involved. Google legal cases involving cyberbullying to find out just how much explanation these characters need.

History: Michael Jackson

Obviously, the main character of this essay would be Michael Jackson.  A thorough essay will take the time to describe who this man was for readers who aren’t familiar with the details. If your essay’s thesis statement focuses on Michael’s personal life, additional characters that can be elaborated on are his father, Michael Joseph Jackson, and his now ex-wife, Lisa Marie Presley.  However, if your essay deals with the people and events who shaped him into the man he ultimately became, Lisa Marie Presley would NOT be a main point because their 8 year relationship (4 years married and 4 years divorced) took place when he was already an adult. 

Science: Stem cell research

The character for this topic would be stem cell research.  However, that term includes many subtopics that need to be defined.  A more complete list of “characters” would be adult cells, cord cells, and embryonic cells. The type of research also needs to be described. The controversy surrounding this type of research could also be counted as characters (those for stem cell research and those opposed to it), but I will be labeling those as plot elements.

What is the SETTING?

The “setting” of a topic includes not only its physical location, but also its historical context and closely related ideas.

English: Cyberbullying

In the case of cyberbullying, the setting is the Internet. Depending on your thesis statement, you could be writing about how the intangibility of the World Wide Web has created a society in which people can be bullied even within the confines of their home.  If you are looking at the legal angle of cyberbullying, then you could tackle the issue of responsibility (i.e., does the physical location of the computer used to make the attacks determine responsibility).

History: Michael Jackson

The topic of Michael Jackson could cover a number of different settings.  His physical locations, for example (i.e., his birthplace, the schools he attended, the many residences he has called home, and his travels), could be considered a setting, as could the era in which he grew up and lived (i.e., the state of the music industry when he first entered it and how it changed, the evolution of media from vinyl, to compact disc, to mp3). Depending on how biographical your essay is, I would include his contemporaries in this category as well.

Science: Stem cell research

There are quite a few different settings for stem cell research. You could approach the topic by identifying the physical location of research (i.e., where the laboratories are located that pursue this type of research, the equipment and media used in the laboratories for research).  The historical context of stem cell research is also an important setting as an understanding of this research requires knowledge of what technologies were available in the past and are currently at our disposal.

What Is the PLOT?

Traditionally, the plot is a literary term that describes the series of events that make up a story and how they relate to each other.  I like to think of a topic’s plot as what has happened in the past concerning the topic, what is currently happening, and what may happen.  The plot is NOT historical context, however.  Historical context is more descriptive and passive whereas the plot of a topic is active and definitive.  Hopefully the following examples will explain what “plot” is and isn’t better than I have here.

English: Cyberbullying

In the case of cyberbullying, the plot would include the first recorded instance of bullying via the Internet.  It would also include any legal cases that have set legal precedent and case law regarding online bullying.  Most importantly, the plot is made up of the conversation surrounding the topic. Are there contrasting viewpoints over important issues pertinent to this topic? What about proposed laws or practices that have not yet been enacted? If you can figure out what people are arguing over, then you’ll find the meat of this main point.

History: Michael Jackson

Seeing what makes up the plot for an essay on Michael Jackson is a little easier because there are so many significant events that drive this celebrity’s “story.” If you have not yet discussed his childhood as part of the characters or setting points, you can certainly include it under this point. Likewise, his marriage and the birth of his children could have been included under characters or the plot point.  The allegations made against him, his creation of Neverland Ranch, his fame, and ultimately, his death, all fall under this category. The slant you will put on your paper all depends on what your thesis statement says.

Science: Stem cell research

Stem cell research may not be a celebrity like Michael Jackson, but it too had a childhood.  Important milestones in this research would be featured in the plot point, as well as the controversy surrounding it.  Those who are for this research and those who are against it will need to be included here (or at least their views, in the absence of well-known proponents or opponents).  Alternative research paths that show the same promise of stem cell research could be introduced here as well.


As you are coming up with the main points of your essay, keep in mind the prompt you were assigned and your thesis statement.  Using the three questions I introduced in this blog post, you could come up with many main points, but they’ll be worthless if they are irrelevant to the aim of your paper.

My technique is certainly not foolproof, but it’s what I use to help students generate main points for essays. Hopefully you’ll find it of use, too!

Photo credit: Peter Kaminski

Posted in: ideas, organization, writing tips

General Essay Writing Tips

Despite the fact that, as Shakespeare said, "the pen is mightier than the sword," the pen itself is not enough to make an effective writer. In fact, though we may all like to think of ourselves as the next Shakespeare, inspiration alone is not the key to effective essay writing. You see, the conventions of English essays are more formulaic than you might think – and, in many ways, it can be as simple as counting to five.

The Five Paragraph Essay

Though more advanced academic papers are a category all their own, the basic high school or college essay has the following standardized, five paragraph structure:

Paragraph 1: Introduction
Paragraph 2: Body 1
Paragraph 3: Body 2
Paragraph 4: Body 3
Paragraph 5: Conclusion

Though it may seem formulaic – and, well, it is - the idea behind this structure is to make it easier for the reader to navigate the ideas put forth in an essay. You see, if your essay has the same structure as every other one, any reader should be able to quickly and easily find the information most relevant to them.

The Introduction

Want to see sample essays?
Check out our Sample Essay section where you can see scholarship essays, admissions essays, and more!

The principle purpose of the introduction is to present your position (this is also known as the "thesis" or "argument") on the issue at hand but effective introductory paragraphs are so much more than that. Before you even get to this thesis statement, for example, the essay should begin with a "hook" that grabs the reader’s attention and makes them want to read on. Examples of effective hooks include relevant quotations ("no man is an island") or surprising statistics ("three out of four doctors report that…").

Only then, with the reader’s attention "hooked," should you move on to the thesis. The thesis should be a clear, one-sentence explanation of your position that leaves no doubt in the reader’s mind about which side you are on from the beginning of your essay.

Following the thesis, you should provide a mini-outline which previews the examples you will use to support your thesis in the rest of the essay. Not only does this tell the reader what to expect in the paragraphs to come but it also gives them a clearer understanding of what the essay is about.

Finally, designing the last sentence in this way has the added benefit of seamlessly moving the reader to the first paragraph of the body of the paper. In this way we can see that the basic introduction does not need to be much more than three or four sentences in length. If yours is much longer you might want to consider editing it down a bit!

Here, by way of example, is an introductory paragraph to an essay in response to the following question:

"Do we learn more from finding out that we have made mistakes or from our successful actions?"

"No man is an island" and, as such, he is constantly shaped and influenced by his experiences. People learn by doing and, accordingly, learn considerably more from their mistakes than their success. For proof of this, consider examples from both science and everyday experience.

DO – Pay Attention to Your Introductory Paragraph

Because this is the first paragraph of your essay it is your opportunity to give the reader the best first impression possible. The introductory paragraph not only gives the reader an idea of what you will talk about but also shows them how you will talk about it. Put a disproportionate amount of effort into this – more than the 20% a simple calculation would suggest – and you will be rewarded accordingly.

DO NOT – Use Passive Voice or I/My

Active voice, wherein the subjects direct actions rather than let the actions "happen to" them – "he scored a 97%" instead of "he was given a 97%" – is a much more powerful and attention-grabbing way to write. At the same time, unless it is a personal narrative, avoid personal pronouns like I, My, or Me. Try instead to be more general and you will have your reader hooked.

The Body Paragraphs

The middle paragraphs of the essay are collectively known as the body paragraphs and, as alluded to above, the main purpose of a body paragraph is to spell out in detail the examples that support your thesis.

For the first body paragraph you should use your strongest argument or most significant example unless some other more obvious beginning point (as in the case of chronological explanations) is required. The first sentence of this paragraph should be the topic sentence of the paragraph that directly relates to the examples listed in the mini-outline of introductory paragraph.

A one sentence body paragraph that simply cites the example of "George Washington" or "LeBron James" is not enough, however. No, following this an effective essay will follow up on this topic sentence by explaining to the reader, in detail, who or what an example is and, more importantly, why that example is relevant.

Even the most famous examples need context. For example, George Washington’s life was extremely complex – by using him as an example, do you intend to refer to his honesty, bravery, or maybe even his wooden teeth? The reader needs to know this and it is your job as the writer to paint the appropriate picture for them. To do this, it is a good idea to provide the reader with five or six relevant facts about the life (in general) or event (in particular) you believe most clearly illustrates your point.

Having done that, you then need to explain exactly why this example proves your thesis. The importance of this step cannot be understated (although it clearly can be underlined); this is, after all, the whole reason you are providing the example in the first place. Seal the deal by directly stating why this example is relevant.

Here is an example of a body paragraph to continue the essay begun above:

Take, by way of example, Thomas Edison. The famed American inventor rose to prominence in the late 19th century because of his successes, yes, but even he felt that these successes were the result of his many failures. He did not succeed in his work on one of his most famous inventions, the lightbulb, on his first try nor even on his hundred and first try. In fact, it took him more than 1,000 attempts to make the first incandescent bulb but, along the way, he learned quite a deal. As he himself said, "I did not fail a thousand times but instead succeeded in finding a thousand ways it would not work." Thus Edison demonstrated both in thought and action how instructive mistakes can be.

DO – Tie Things Together

The first sentence – the topic sentence - of your body paragraphs needs to have a lot individual pieces to be truly effective. Not only should it open with a transition that signals the change from one idea to the next but also it should (ideally) also have a common thread which ties all of the body paragraphs together. For example, if you used "first" in the first body paragraph then you should used "secondly" in the second or "on the one hand" and "on the other hand" accordingly.

DO NOT – Be Too General

Examples should be relevant to the thesis and so should the explanatory details you provide for them. It can be hard to summarize the full richness of a given example in just a few lines so make them count. If you are trying to explain why George Washington is a great example of a strong leader, for instance, his childhood adventure with the cherry tree (though interesting in another essay) should probably be skipped over.

A Word on Transitions

You may have noticed that, though the above paragraph aligns pretty closely with the provided outline, there is one large exception: the first few words. These words are example of a transitional phrase – others include "furthermore," "moreover," but also "by contrast" and "on the other hand" – and are the hallmark of good writing.

Transitional phrases are useful for showing the reader where one section ends and another begins. It may be helpful to see them as the written equivalent of the kinds of spoken cues used in formal speeches that signal the end of one set of ideas and the beginning of another. In essence, they lead the reader from one section of the paragraph of another.

To further illustrate this, consider the second body paragraph of our example essay:

In a similar way, we are all like Edison in our own way. Whenever we learn a new skill - be it riding a bike, driving a car, or cooking a cake - we learn from our mistakes. Few, if any, are ready to go from training wheels to a marathon in a single day but these early experiences (these so-called mistakes) can help us improve our performance over time. You cannot make a cake without breaking a few eggs and, likewise, we learn by doing and doing inevitably means making mistakes.

Hopefully this example not only provides another example of an effective body paragraph but also illustrates how transitional phrases can be used to distinguish between them.

The Conclusion

Although the conclusion paragraph comes at the end of your essay it should not be seen as an afterthought. As the final paragraph is represents your last chance to make your case and, as such, should follow an extremely rigid format.

One way to think of the conclusion is, paradoxically, as a second introduction because it does in fact contain many of the same features. While it does not need to be too long – four well-crafted sentence should be enough – it can make or break and essay.

Effective conclusions open with a concluding transition ("in conclusion," "in the end," etc.) and an allusion to the "hook" used in the introductory paragraph. After that you should immediately provide a restatement of your thesis statement.

This should be the fourth or fifth time you have repeated your thesis so while you should use a variety of word choice in the body paragraphs it is a acceptable idea to use some (but not all) of the original language you used in the introduction. This echoing effect not only reinforces your argument but also ties it nicely to the second key element of the conclusion: a brief (two or three words is enough) review of the three main points from the body of the paper.

Having done all of that, the final element – and final sentence in your essay – should be a "global statement" or "call to action" that gives the reader signals that the discussion has come to an end.

In the end, then, one thing is clear: mistakes do far more to help us learn and improve than successes. As examples from both science and everyday experience can attest, if we treat each mistake not as a misstep but as a learning experience the possibilities for self-improvement are limitless.

DO – Be Powerful

The conclusion paragraph can be a difficult paragraph to write effectively but, as it is your last chance to convince or otherwise impress the reader, it is worth investing some time in. Take this opportunity to restate your thesis with confidence; if you present your argument as "obvious" then the reader might just do the same.

DO NOT – Copy the First Paragraph

Although you can reuse the same key words in the conclusion as you did in the introduction, try not to copy whole phrases word for word. Instead, try to use this last paragraph to really show your skills as a writer by being as artful in your rephrasing as possible.

Taken together, then, the overall structure of a five paragraph essay should look something like this:

Introduction Paragraph

  • An attention-grabbing "hook"
  • A thesis statement
  • A preview of the three subtopics you will discuss in the body paragraphs.

First Body Paragraph

  • Topic sentence which states the first subtopic and opens with a transition
  • Supporting details or examples
  • An explanation of how this example proves your thesis

Second Body Paragraph

  • Topic sentence which states the second subtopic and opens with a transition
  • Supporting details or examples
  • An explanation of how this example proves your thesis

Third Body Paragraph

  • Topic sentence which states the third subtopic and opens with a transition
  • Supporting details or examples
  • An explanation of how this example proves your thesis

Concluding Paragraph

  • Concluding Transition, Reverse "hook," and restatement of thesis.
  • Rephrasing main topic and subtopics.
  • Global statement or call to action.

More tips to make your essay shine

Planning Pays

Although it may seem like a waste of time – especially during exams where time is tight – it is almost always better to brainstorm a bit before beginning your essay. This should enable you to find the best supporting ideas – rather than simply the first ones that come to mind – and position them in your essay accordingly.

Your best supporting idea – the one that most strongly makes your case and, simultaneously, about which you have the most knowledge – should go first. Even the best-written essays can fail because of ineffectively placed arguments.

Aim for Variety

Sentences and vocabulary of varying complexity are one of the hallmarks of effective writing. When you are writing, try to avoid using the same words and phrases over and over again. You don’t have to be a walking thesaurus but a little variance can make the same idea sparkle.

If you are asked about "money," you could try "wealth" or "riches." At the same time, avoid beginning sentences the dull pattern of "subject + verb + direct object." Although examples of this are harder to give, consider our writing throughout this article as one big example of sentence structure variety.

Practice! Practice! Practice!

In the end, though, remember that good writing does not happen by accident. Although we have endeavored to explain everything that goes into effective essay writing in as clear and concise a way as possible, it is much easier in theory than it is in practice.

As a result, we recommend that you practice writing sample essays on various topics. Even if they are not masterpieces at first, a bit of regular practice will soon change that – and make you better prepared when it comes to the real thing.

Now that you’ve learned how to write an effective essay, check out our Sample Essays so you can see how they are done in practice.

Essay Writing Center

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