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SPARK: Where to Begin

A resource for students wanting to improve their academic and research skills.

Where to Begin

A popular assumption is that writing should take place in a series of distinct steps: make an outline, write an introduction, write several body paragraphs based on the outline, and write a conclusion.

“Stage models” of this sort focus on the structure of the final product rather than on the thinking process that lies behind the creation of a well-structured essay. These models give the mistaken impression that essay writing requires a structure before one can write.

Most experienced writers, however, allow the structure of the essay to emerge later in the writing process. They see writing as an act of thinking, a way to understand a topic, a way to “try” and “test” what can be said about it. They try out many different ideas, and make decisions about what to include and where to include it as they proceed. Where they begin varies from writer to writer and assignment to assignment and may be focused on any aspect of the writing.

Review the common questions below regarding how and where to begin.

Should I prepare an outline before starting an essay?

Generating the structure of the final essay first does work for some people, but not for everyone, and not all the time. If you already know a great deal about your topic, this approach is more likely to succeed; but if you are in the process of learning about your subject, then outlining and structuring your ideas can be much more difficult or even impossible as a way to begin writing.

Should I write the introduction of the essay first?

Stage models often encourage one to do so. However, experienced writers are more likely to wait and write the introduction last, when they know exactly what they are introducing. And if they do begin with the introduction, they do not labour over it, because they know it is just a way to get started and that it will be revised later in light of the essay’s body and conclusion.

Should I write a thesis statement first?

It is important to develop a clear understanding of the purpose of your essay and a clear focus, but this development usually takes place and changes throughout the process of writing the paper. Many writers draft a tentative working thesis as they begin writing, but review and modify it as they continue.