The MuchSmarter Blog

The Secret To “Perfect” High School Essay Writing

Tom Schecter
July 18, 2014

Writing is the one skill that seems to bother almost everybody I talk to. A lot, and I mean a LOT, of students seem completely at a loss when it comes to putting their ideas down on paper, and teachers wring their hands and wonder if writing is turning into a “lost art.”

And it’s difficult, because, like reading, if you don’t learn the fundamentals of essay writing at an early age, it’s hard to catch up in high school when the material you’re covering for English or History classes gets denser and more complex, and the assignments get longer, and the standards for excellence get higher.

There’s good news, though. No matter how tough a class is, and no matter how intense the subject matter gets, there’s a step-by-step process to writing high school essays that, if a student follows it, will make it easier to complete the assignment, and make them better writers in the long run.

(But Tom, you said “perfect” in the title…)

I sure did. Let’s define “perfect,” shall we?

Perfect, in the case of an essay, simply means complete. That means:

  • Everything that the assignment asks for is in the paper.
  • The grammar and usage is free of glaring errors
  • The organization has a clear beginning, middle, and end, makes one argument, and backs it up.

That’s a perfect paper. If a student doesn’t have a natural feel for writing, but gets these three elements down, that’s still more than enough for a very good grade. MSTYT is not in the business of making magic. We’re here to help students make themselves better.

So how do you write this perfect paper?


At the beginning of writing every essay you have two things: a blank piece of paper (or, you know, Word document), and a topic. Seems like very little to work with, right? But in every single essay topic, there is a question that needs to be answered. Figure out what that question is, and answer it.


Once you’ve made your argument, the next step is to explain why you’re right. This is where the preparation you do BEFORE you have to write plays a big part. Go through the text you’ve read, and through the notes you’ve made in class discussions (you DID take notes, right?), and start gathering the evidence you need to back up your answer.

Make a note of everything that can help you, so when you get to step three, you can mix it around and use the very best examples and evidence in the right places.

It’s also a very good idea, at this point, to start thinking about what each piece of evidence means. If you’ve got, for instance, several quotes a from a novel’s protagonist talking about how the other characters ‘don’t understand’ what he’s thinking, or what he’s trying to accomplish, you can make the argument that the protagonist feels isolated. Look for patterns; they’ll help in the long run.


So, you’ve got your argument, and you’ve got all that information that you’re going to use to back it up. What do you do with it?

Come up with the three strongest statements you can make to support your argument. How do you know if they’re strong? Simple: the strongest statements are the ones you can back up with the most evidence. Combine the statements and the evidence, and those are your three body paragraphs.

Now, decide what order you want to present your body paragraphs in. You have a few options, here: for a history paper, you might want to use chronological order (earliest example first); for an English paper, you’ll probably want to go by order of importance. Decide which of your body paragraphs packs the most punch, and save it for last.

Now you’ve got what you need to write the paper. Keep your paragraphs simple: statement, evidence, commentary (what the evidence means), repeat.


If you’re doing it right, there are three levels of revision:

  • Essay level, where you read your whole paper through and make sure you’ve said what you wanted to say, and haven’t wandered off-topic or left anything important out.
  • Paragraph level, where you read each paragraph and make sure that you’ve organized it properly, used your evidence to its full effect, and that your statements are all in line with your thesis
  • Sentence level, where you focus on grammar, spelling, and usage. Here are the big things to focus on in sentence-level revision

Yeah, that’s a lot of stuff to cover. But you’ve got all night, and as you get more used to revising your work, you’ll get better at it and it will get easier.

Now get to work.

- TS

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