Guidelines for the Common Essay
by Johnie H. Scott, Assistant Professor
Pan African Studies Department - California State University, Northridge


Following the first version of this document prepared by the author in 1987, students and instructors alike have reported considerable gains in writing performance by students with respect to expository essays done out-of-class, research papers, and one-hour essay examinations. This revised document reflects further thinking and refinement by the author with the note that instructors quite naturally will choose to emphasize certain strategies and approaches over others, but even more important the fact that nothing improves writing more than consistency and practice.


Very little has changed in the development of the essay, no matter whether one is writing a research paper, a film review or an argumentative essay. All share three common factors -- an Introduction, Body and Conclusion. Where there are advocates of process writing (i.e., the Creating Stage where ideas are developed, the First Draft or Shaping Stage where those ideas are placed into rough form, and a Completing Stage where all revisions and rewriting is done), the author here speaks of specific strategies centered around gaining and holding the attention of the audience. In addition, the author tries to point out the importance of formulating a clear thesis statement and adequate development of that thesis in the paragraph and actual essay.

The Model

  1. Start with a broad general statement of your topic and narrow this down to your thesis statement;
  2. Start with an idea or situation that is the opposite of the one you plan to actually develop;
  3. Explain the importance of your topic to the audience;
  4. Use an incident or brief story (anecdote);
  5. Ask one or more questions (but remember that questions deserve to be answered sooner or later); and/or
  6. Use a quotation (something familiar to the targeted audience).

Then, you present the Thesis Statement (i.e., the main idea of the entire essay). There are four (4) errors to avoid here:

  1. Make no announcements;
  2. Do not make it too broad;
  3. Do not make it too narrow or specific; and
  4. Do not make it too vague.

Further, the Thesis Statement calls for a Plan of Development -- at least three ways by which you will develop the thesis.

II.The Body of the Essay

Consists of at least three (3) supporting paragraphs that follow the thesis.

  1. Primary Support Paragraph (1st level of support)

    a.The Topic Sentence for this paragraph comes from the 1st pattern of development in your thesis statement.
    b.The Primary Support Sentence expands upon the controlling idea found in the Topic Sentence;
    c.The Secondary Support Sentence provides additional detail to the primary support sentence;
    d.The Tertiary Support Sentence provides the third level of support to the topic sentence with additional examples, a quote or illustration; and
    e.The Concluding Sentence which will restate the main idea in the topic sentence and provide a transitional phrase for the following paragraph.

  2. The Secondary Support Paragraph provides the next level of support to the Thesis Statement. It is developed just as the Primary Support Paragraph except that the Topic Sentence is built upon the second pattern of development.
  3. The Tertiary Support Paragraph of the essay provides the third level of support to the thesis statement and is developed like the Primary and Secondary Paragraphs except that the main idea for the Topic Sentence of this paragraph comes from the third (3rd) pattern of development.

III. The Concluding Paragraph(s)

This leads your reader to the Conclusion of the Essay. I always say to the student writer that this is just as important as one's opening, that you want to finish the essay strong. To do so, one has at least eight (8) different strategies to select from. The good writer, in fact, having mastered the opening and closing strategies, will be able to use a combination of opening and closing strategies when writing. When you can do this, then the writing no longer is stiff and mechanical. This final section deals with those closing essay strategies in writing.

  1. End with a summary and leave the reader with a final thought;
  2. Include a thought-provoking question or series of questions;
  3. End with a prediction (statement of what may happen in the future) or recommendation (suggestion as to what should be done about the situation or problem described in the essay);
  4. A final quotation (Remember that quotes may come from popular songs, poems, speeches like Dr. King's "I Have A Dream" or Rev. Jessie Jackson's "I Am Somebody")
  5. A final anecdote that reinforces the main point of the essay;
  6. A call for the reader(s) to take action;
  7. A summary of what has been presented, highlighting the major points you've attemped to develop; and/or
  8. Presentation of proof for the proposition you have argued to your reader(s).

Final Comments

Hopefully, you have learned that writing can be much more than putting together words to meet an assignment or fill up a page. Writing is deliberate, disciplined and focused. Mastery of the opening and closing strategies allows you to be creative where others are pedestrian; allows you an edge when it comes to making certain that the essay you've attempted to develop will hold and sustain the audience's attention.

Following that plan of development outlined earlier assures that you never stray away from your thesis statement, that you stay on the subject and develop it adequately. And in concluding your essay, you are able to do so effectively and with confidence.

That is the key to successful and effective writing -- the ability to communicate with confidence. These guidelines provide you with steps in that direction.

Good luck.

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