How to Write an Essay

This post uses a sample essay on To Kill a Mockingbird to guide you step by step through the process of writing an essay. Follow the 8 steps below and essays will become a walk in the park.

 

1. Write the essay title at the top of the page (2 minutes)
(This sounds obvious, but you wouldn’t believe how many people forget to do it.) Why not underline it with a ruler, just for good measure? It’s always good to start off on the right foot.

What do you learn about the character of Calpurnia in chapter 12?

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2. Plan your answer (10-15 minutes)
Quotations can be very helpful when it comes to planning. Collect quotations from chapter 12 relating to Calpurnia. You can use them to get ideas about what to put in your essay. But don’t just go through them one by one in the order they happen to be in. Think about it. You want to put them into different groups, so that your essay isn’t jumping around all over the place. It will make it much easier if you spend some time doing this before you start writing. So spend 10 – 15 minutes putting them into groups. Use the headings below. They will be the different sections of your essay.
• Quotations about Calpurnia’s life in the past.
• Quotations about Calpurnia’s life now.
• Quotations that show Calpurnia’s relationship with Scout and Jem.
• Quotations that show Calpurnia’s personality.
(You can’t do this quickly. Once you start thinking about it, you’ll realise that there are lots of different ways of grouping the quotations. Don’t worry – just spend a bit of time on it.)

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3. Write an introduction (5-10 minutes)
In your introduction, it’s a good idea to give the reader an idea of what the essay is going to be about. The problem is, you don’t want to give too much away. So keep it short, and explain very simply what happens in chapter 12, and whereabouts in the novel it is. You could also write a sentence about who Calpurnia is, but you should keep this very general for the moment.

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4. Make a point (2 minutes)
This is going to much easier because of your plan. Look at the first heading– Calpurnia’s life in the past. You could just copy it out, a bit like a subheading:

Calpurnia’s life in the past.

But it’s much better if you can turn it into a sentence. Something like this:

One of the things we learn about in chapter 12 is Calpurnia’s life before she came to Maycomb.

You should always start the different sections of your essay like this. It helps the reader keep track of where you are. (It helps you, too.)

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5. Use a quotation (or reference) to back up your point (3 minutes)
Now then. You could just whack it in, like this:

One of the things we learn about in chapter 12 is Calpurnia’s life before she came to Maycomb: ‘”I’ve spent all my days working for the Finches or the Bufords, an’ I moved to Maycomb when your daddy and your mamma married.” (p. 138)

But it’s much better if you can introduce it. Something like this:

One of the things we learn about in chapter 12 is Calpurnia’s life before she came to Maycomb. On the way home from church, she tells Jem and Scout: ‘”I’ve spent all my days working for the Finches or the Bufords, an’ I moved to Maycomb when your daddy and your mamma married.” (p. 138)

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6. Pick out words or phrases from the quotation and say something about them (5 minutes)
This is the bit that most people find the most difficult. Don’t worry – it’ll get easier the more you do it. If you’re not sure which words to pick out, try some out and see if you can think of anything to say. Something like this:

One of the things we learn about in chapter 12 is Calpurnia’s life before she came to Maycomb. On the way home from church, she tells Jem and Scout: ‘”I’ve spent all my days working for the Finches or the Bufords, an’ I moved to Maycomb when your daddy and your mamma married.” (p. 138) The phrase ‘all my days’ tells us that Calpurnia has spent her whole life working for Atticus and his ancestors – perhaps she even grew up working for them. It would not have been uncommon for servants to spend their whole lives working for the same family. Calpurnia must have grown up with Atticus, and probably knows him better than anyone. She would also have known Scout’s mother. We realise just how much a part of the family she is.

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7. Repeat numbers 4 – 6 until you have reached the end of your plan (30 – 40 minutes)

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8. Write a conclusion (10 minutes)

A bit like the introduction, there is no need for this to be very long. Don’t include any quotations. Don’t just repeat everything you’ve said. You want to answer the question, as plainly and simply as you can, with one big answer. Using the words from the title will help. Something like this:

In chapter 12, we learn a number of things about Calpurnia that we didn’t know previously. All of these give us a greater sense of who she is as a person – her personality, her past and her present. It is interesting that Harper Lee waits this long (almost half the novel). Perhaps it is because Scout is the narrator – and it is not until she begins to grow up that she really begins to see Calpurnia for who she is. Until now, she has viewed Calpurnia as the cook, and little more. But now she begins to realise that she has a history – a unique personality, and so do we.

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