This page is very in-depth. Feel free to skim and jump to relevant sections:

Getting Started

Starting any writing task can be daunting. Here are a few tips for helping students get a handle on their assignment:

  • Read and reread the exact wording of your prompt or assignment.  Underline key words and verbs that tell you the specific details of what you are supposed to do and the focus of your assignment. Ask questions if you have any, but you must have a clear idea about the assignment. Keep these goals in mind as you research and organize your writing.
  • Notate your readings. If your essay is in response to a class reading, you need to carefully underline, highlight, use asterisks and notes to mark where you have found interesting ideas that can be included in your writing. Usually you will need to read it through twice—once to understand it, and once to study it and notice important ideas. When you notate your readings, you can quickly locate the ideas and quotes that were interesting and help you prepare for writing.
  • Start thinking about and researching your topic right away. By getting familiar with the subject and its possibilities, you do a great deal of evaluating how you will approach the assignment long before you begin to write. You will find that much of what you want to do you will have already worked out before the writing begins.
  • Keep a time schedule in mind and stick to it. Complex assignments can sneak up on us if we don’t plan a realistic timeframe for each stage: from generating ideas, to researching, to note taking, writing your rough draft, then allowing time to step away and return to revise your final draft.
  • Have something to say. The point of the assignment is not to fill space or to parrot someone else’s thoughts and words, but to show how you are thinking about and interacting with the complex ideas you are learning. You will have a much easier time and enjoy the assignment if you find an approach that fits your interests, and is interesting to tell to others. When you actually have something to say, your writing comes alive, and almost writes itself.
  • RESEARCH. Begin with some terms that are specific and related to your topic. You may need to Brainstorm or Freewrite a little on your topic to generate ideas and find a direction you want to focus on (See Basic Essay Guide Horizon U document). If you need some books, you can use the key terms to search the titles and subjects in your local public library’s catalog.  If you need articles, first see if The William E. Nix Electronic Library (TWENEL)offers helpful information. Next you might want to see if our resources links have helpful information: Other Research Quick Links. Another helpful resource search engine can be Google Scholar.
  • Search key terms. Use some of the terms you came up with that might locate articles on your topic. Think of synonyms of these terms if your first try does not yield enough information you can use. Many search engines like Google Scholar have the Boolean system, which means you can specify that your articles contain one term AND another term AND another term, so that your results will be more specific and fruitful. If there is a key phrase that is important to your research use “quotes” around it, and only articles with those phrases will result.  For more search tips, go to Horizon University’s Finding and Using Sources.
  • Use appropriate sources. Your research should reflect the level of academic expectation of your assignment. Try to find books, journal articles and web sources that meet the appropriate level of expertise. Wikipedia and other non-peer reviewed websites may help in filling in basic information on your topic, but instructors generally prefer you get your quotable information from known scholars—depending on the topic. However, very often at the end of Wikipedia articles there is a list of scholarly resources with hyperlinks that might be considered appropriate for your research.  But be discerning about who the author and the organization is when you use information, and make sure they don’t have a bias viewpoint you did not intend to use in your essay. For excellent quick tutorials on research, view the Horizon University Finding and Using Sources.
  • Don’t copy and paste information. To be sure you are understanding the information you will use, and to avoid plagiarism, open a blank Word document so you can hide the web source behind it.  Read what you want to use, then switch to the blank document and write it in your own words. This will help you avoid plagiarizing, and you will understand how to incorporate it into your essay better. Only copy and paste the rare exact quotes you will use, and then cite it.  Paraphrasing and summarizing should be more frequent in your essay, and shows that you have mastered the concepts, but you must still cite the resource, so always accurately copy all the bibliographic information you will need from every source you consult.
  • Keep records of all your sources. Be sure you know what citation style you are supposed to use for the assignment (likely Turabian/ Chicago).  You will need detailed information of the websites, books, and other sources you use for your citations and reference page.  For specific details and full text samples of using Turabian/Chicago manual of Style, visit Purdue OWL/ Chicago Manual or The Writing Center (University of Wisconsin) or Horizon University’s Turabian Quick Guide document.
  • Jot yourself notes. Have a word document open for jotting your ideas, notes, citations, quotes. . . Using bullet points is helpful for keeping thoughts separate, and for arranging at any time under headings to help you organize.

Finding Sources

Make a plan:

  • Decide what the focus of your writing assignment will be
  • What specific information will help support your thesis?
  • What type of information will be best? Primary (original text) or secondary (about the text or person)
    • News
    • current academic articles by experts in the field
    • academic articles from any time period (try JETS and Bibliotheca Sacra)
    • reference materials: updated
    • reference materials of any time (encyclopedias . . .)
    • books by experts or respected figures in the field (search Horizon Library’s Catalog)
    • current/ past opinion (laypeople, journalists, related field. . .?)
    • Where to go for this information (visit Horizon University’s Library webpage for these and other links)
      • Respected national news sources (through google news, SDP Library database, but not blogs)
      • Respected scholarly articles (try TWENEL, Google Scholar, LOGOS, local library databases)
      • Use catalogs for your local libraries to access recognized reference material (encyclopedias . . .)
      • Who might have a free database? (Local Library, check Horizon University’s Library site for other links)
      • Search for topics through the library catalogs at your local library to find suitable books
      • See if free books online help your thesis (ex: google books, Project Guttenberg . . .)

One of the biggest challenges will be finding an appropriate resource that will be free.  Here are some important tips for narrowing your search that will save time and produce more frequent successes:

  • Ask the librarian for help!
    • Librarians, wherever you go, live to help students with their needs.  Often a librarian has a good idea how to narrow and search for a topic, or where the best section or materials are to begin.
    • Online searches should be limited to a known appropriate website or scholarly search engine
      • Ex: for the history of the Wesleyan Church, it is appropriate to search their website along with other sources
      • Scrutinize sources through an academic lens: Wikipedia is best for initial familiarization with a topic, and for links to primary sources at the bottom, but not quotable information.  There are numerous free encyclopedias online through the San Diego Public Library. Use your keycard.
      • Use search engines like google scholar
      • Databases through your local library offer articles already grouped by subject, and are quickly searched

Once you narrow your search to appropriate sources, you must search efficiently:

  • Try to include keywords in your search that are vital for narrowing down the options
    • Use “quotation” marks around indispensible words or phrases
    • Use similes in the same search when the field is too narrow:  theology  doctrine “Grace”
    • If there is a particular area you need to specify, don’t leave it to chance: theology doctrine “Grace” “early church”
    • Narrow your search by date if it is time-sensitive, or likely to be affected by new discoveries
    • Some databases permit for “full text” searches, such as the SDP Library
    • Once you have found and article, in addition to visually scanning it, you can perform a word search for additional keywords to see if the article will help your thesis.

It is important to evaluate a resource for the kind of information it will offer:

  • Will there be bias?
    • Is it a bias you agree with?  Even so does it go too far?
    • Will the bias affect the information given?
    • Can you use the source for your academic purpose in spite of the bias?
    • Evaluate the context that the article is written in
      • Do the circumstances affect the accuracy of the information?
      • Does the piece support the dominant or deviant view, and can it be corroborated?

Once you find appropriate resources, the best option is to print it if you are able:

  • Frequently students use copy and paste to transfer information into their papers, but this is a dangerous practice.  Printing a page for reference is a simple way to avoid plagiarism, and generally the bibliographic information is printed on the page.  You can also annotate the paper for easy use.
  • Any word phrases that are not yours need to be quoted.  The best practice is
    • to read the information
    • formulate a synopsis of what it is discussing
    • Write your understanding of what you read without looking at it as you write
    • Go back and enter specifics and a selected quote or quotes if appropriate
    • All ideas you get from a source need to be credited even if they are not in the original language

Be sure to collect all the necessary bibliographic information regardless of where the information is obtained (look at Turabian handout).  You will need title (of both website and the article), the author’s name if credited or evident, the time and date of access, section title if applicable, the host of the site (government, school, online encyclopedia etc if not apparent from the web address), and for books, include all the publisher information (inside front flap): publisher, location, date and edition, volume, and be sure to note the page numbers and applicable section titles (Reference books often have section titles).

  • It’s good to copy and paste any electronic information right onto a blank page where you can collect your bibliographies until your paper is finished.  Later you can simply plug this information into a citation generator online or into your own Word Processing program if you have Word 2007 or later under the “References” tab.  You can select “Chicago.”  Visit Horizon University’s Library webpage for links to Research and Writing & citation tips.

Using Prewriting

Prewriting is an essential step in planning for effective writing.  It includes: THINKING!

Brainstorming = Thinking
Locating main topics = Thinking
Freewriting = Thinking
Organizing = Thinking
Creating a thesis = Thinking
Writing a rough Draft = Thinking

Notice that compared to all the other steps, THINKING comprises the majority of the planning and the work! Think about it all the time!  By turning it over in your mind, you will work out most of the ideas before you even begin to write.  Here are the other simple steps, though crucial, that take less time than you think.

  1. Be sure you clearly understand the specific goal and scope of your assignment.  Look it over and ask questions before you leave the room.  You can’t write about something you are confused about. NOW THINK ABOUT IT.
  2. Brainstorming: the process of getting on paper every conceivable topic associated with your assignment.  This should be a disorderly, unconscious process that permits you to write even the remotest association, if not just to get it out of the way.  Take about 3 minutes to write words, phrases, lists, cartoon bubbles. . . Once you let go of the editor in your head, you will produce a plethora of topics and support concepts.
    Now look at the mess on your page, and start locating the main topics that interest you, and their associated subtopics.  If you did this on paper, circle them and draw lines.  If on the computer, start cutting and pasting them together, and add headings.  THINK ABOUT WHAT YOU HAVE.
  3. Take each topic and Freewrite for a few minutes everything you can about them.  It takes some practice to let go, but don’t edit before it gets on the page—that comes later.  Just get it out and see what you have.
  4. Based on your freewriting, start evaluating the strengths of each topic and what you feel you have to say about them.  Even if you still have research to do, this process can give you a framework for where you want to go. Organize your essay based on the most natural progression for that assignment.
  5. Create your thesis statement to most effectively encapsulate the scope of your main topics, making your intent clear.  You can always shift the scope of your thesis based on research or new ideas.
  6. Once you have enough information, begin your rough draft.  The benefit of writing your rough on the computer is that you can organize a list of goal topics and concepts on the page for your reference.  Just write your essay ABOVE the list of notes and as you incorporate the concepts, highlight them or delete them until all your ideas have been incorporated.  You can even scroll down and quickly add thoughts as they occur to the list, and return to what you were writing, knowing it is safely recorded.

Nothing is permanent. Cut. Paste. Reorganize. Save drafts and come back later. Write and don’t hold back. Jot notes on your rough and don’t be afraid.

Tackling the Writing

Many students struggle just to begin writing their assignment. Here are some tips for getting on track:

  • Don’t start from the beginning. Students who are still learning to write generally think that good writers start their essay with the first sentence of the introduction. But good writers rarely do. When they do, it is typically a placeholder so they can move on, and will go back and revise it later.
  • Take notes in a Word document. Again, when you are doing research, or planning your essay, open a Word document and begin jotting bullet points on what you find or ideas you have. Don’t be concerned about the order, just get them down.  These random notes will start to fill out and you will see connections between them as you go along.  Later, when you start your paper, begin writing above your notes, then you can scroll down for reminders, ideas, details that you jotted and incorporate them one by one.
  • Look for connections. Once you have jotted some notes and have done your research, see how they can be grouped together. Take a minute to see if this process generates new ideas about what you might want to say and jot them with those that are on the same topic. Ask yourself what is the interesting focus of the assignment and research, and give yourself a chance to just note whatever options or directions or main points that come to mind.
  • Find the argument. Every essay makes some kind of claim. Out of what you have researched, and what you have been thinking about, can you find one main argument (thesis) that states what your paper will assert? Will your essay explain something? Try to argue something? Observe something? Describe something?
  • Support your claim. What ideas help you establish and demonstrate your main assertion or focal point? Often these answer the How, What, and Why questions the reader will have about your assertion. You need to explain to your reader the specifics of what you found.  Essays commonly have three or so main supporting ideas that they use to fill in the details of their main assertion, but you must decide what supporting ideas and evidence is appropriate for your essay.
  • Organize. Look at your notes and think about what might be the most effective order for organizing the supporting information into paragraphs that have one main idea each. You might cut and paste your notes in that order to make it easier for writing.  This order can be changed if your writing leads in another direction—that is what cut and paste is for.
  • Who is your audience? Of course it is your instructor, and you must always have your instructor’s expectations in mind. However, you need to imagine an appropriate audience other than your instructor so your writing will have a purpose. Above all, you should imagine that your reader does not already know what you will explain. Imagine your peers, who have a similar background knowledge as you, but have not done the research you have, or have not heard your specific idea before. Keep this target audience in mind, and your writing will be more clear and effective.
  • Can I say “I”? You must ask your instructor. While we grew up in schools that told us not to use “I” most scholars and academic journals use “I” quite frequently. It is important to know when it is appropriate to use it, and most essays use it only in explaining the author’s process or assertions. In general an essay full of personal opinion is weak. Ask your instructor, and then use it discretely.
  • Start writing what you know you want to write. Don’t start where you have no strong direction—like the beginning. In most essays writers have a least one strong ready-to-go concept where they can start writing.  Once you get going on that, you might find that new ideas about what to say for the other points will begin to come to mind. Just write what comes, including quotes as needed, and if you think of an idea, scroll down and jot it before you forget.

Finishing the Paper

After you have your essay draft written, you will need to refine your essay. Go to Purdue OWL or the University of Wisconsin Writing Center for tips.

  • Focus on a strong intro. Now that you know what you wrote about, take some time to craft an introduction that will prepare the reader for your main assertion. You must have a sense of what will set the tone for your paper, but your intro should demonstrate a level of interest that reflects your topic. Try to write something that you would like to read in an introduction that would get you interested to read more on the topic. If you sound bored, the reader will be bored. If you are confused about what to say, the reader will be confused about what you are saying. Remember, find something interesting about the topic, and say it.
  • Craft a reflective conclusion. You want to give a sense of summarizing your claims from the essay, but not as a format you follow. Remind the reader of the richness of the information just presented in the essay, and how it combined to support the main assertion and ideas. The last sentence should generally be memorable—a final grand statement about what it all means, or how significant what you have explained is in a broader sense.
  • Citations. It is easier to note citations as you reference them in your essay, but if you haven’t, then do it now. You will want to follow one of the many Turabian/ Chicago quick guides available (some listed in the links below). Most Word programs (Word for Mac too) have done the hard work for you.
    • Simply click on the “References” tab, and you will see options for selecting
      • a style type (Turabian)
      • Insert Citation drop down menu
      • New Citation
      • Bibliography/References (will create your References or Works Cited page)
      • Insert footnote (if used)
      • Insert Endnote (if used)
      • You can even insert the bibliographic information into the footnote/ endnote
      • Find out from your instructor if you must use in-text citations (parenthetical, author/date) and reference list or bibliographic footnotes/endnotes (NB in Purdue OWL) and bibliography. The program will format it for you, but you want to know which options are preferred, if any.  Also consult Purdue OWL/ Chicago Manual or The Writing Center (University of Wisconsin) or Georgetown University for details and full length samples, or Horizon University’s Turabian Quick Guide document.
        • Do you need a cover page and header? Most instructors want Turabian style cover page and a header with page numbers (possibly name also). See full samples at Purdue OWL/ Chicago Manual
        • Save your essay and walk away. But you are not finished. You must take a break from it and come back at another time. Allow enough time so that you can re-read your essay and make changes. YOU WILL MAKE CHANGES. You must. It is only your first run through it.
        • Read your essay out loud. The best way to catch errors and awkward sentences is to read it out loud—every word. Your eyes will get lazy and your mind will tell you that the words are right if you only look it over, and reading out loud helps avoid this. You will have a better essay if you take this time to improve it.
        • You’re using a computer – cut and paste and move whatever you need to make it better.
          • Intro and thesis. Is it as clear as it can be?
          • Topic sentences. Do the first sentences of your paragraphs transition from the ideas of the last paragraph, and cover only one main idea for the current paragraph? If your paragraph contains more than one main idea, then you might have two paragraphs, or something might need to be moved to another more suitable paragraph.
          • Could the order be changed to make it stronger? Sometimes when we write we discover ideas that we did not expect to, but they are not always in the best order. Evaluate how your ideas are connected to help the reader understand and get the most out of your assertions.
          • Are your ideas clearly explained? Smooth them out. Sometimes our sentences are too long and complex and they just need to be two. Sometimes we miss a step in connecting thoughts for the reader. Sometimes something just doesn’t fit or help explain our argument.
          • Little word changes. They can make a big difference. Don’t get complacent. Keep searching for clarity.
          • One last time. Read it through again and tweak it as needed. Save and upload it.
          • CONGRATULATIONS! You did it!

Online Writing Resources

San Diego Public Library – general research and database access (a San Diego Public Library card is required to access and search the database.)

CLIP—Cooperative Library Instruction Project – For excellent quick video tutorials on research and writing

Purdue OWL—Online Writing Lab and Resources – For extensive guidance on a wide range of writing tasks including Turabian/ Chicago Manual of style

Turabian Quick Guide – Horizon University document. A brief overview of Turabian citation style with examples

Georgetown University – For Help with Turabian Style

The Writing Center (University of Wisconsin) – For Help with Turabian Style, general grammar and other writing suggestions

University of North Carolina – Guidelines for writing a persuasive essay

Free Turabian Style Citation Generator – plug in your bibliographic information to generate citations and reference/ works cited page

Merriam-Webster – Dictionary/Thesaurus

Grammarbook – quick grammar and writing rules

APPENDIX A: General Essay Parts

Introduction: a paragraph of about 4-5 sentences: General to specific.

  • First Sentence: Introduces the reader to the general topic of your essay.  It should have a hook (interesting opening statement, question, fact) that gets the reader’s attention, and naturally leads to the topic of the essay.
  • Three or so sentences: These bring the reader into your essay by shaping their perspective toward the direction you are going in.  Topics can be very general, and you want to funnel the reader in a natural transition from the general topic to your specific target concept, or THESIS.
  • Thesis Statement: It is generally the last sentence or two of your introductory paragraph (more seasoned writer with complex papers don’t always put their thesis statement here).  This sentence tells the reader exactly what you will attempt to accomplish in the essay.  This promise to the reader is so important that the rest of the essay will be measured up to it.  If you make a promise that you do not keep, you will lose your reader.  The THESIS STATEMENT is what your entire essay will point to, so it should be clear, specific, and most of all, take a stand.  Make that intriguing promise to your reader, and they will want to go with you.

Body paragraphs: Each paragraph should contain a topic sentence that signals the reader of the scope of that paragraph. Use language that transitions your reader from one paragraph to the next and one idea to the next so they can follow a natural progression. Each topic sentence should be followed by pertinent evidence to support specifically the scope of paragraph as it supports the overall thesis.

Conclusion: The first sentence of the conclusion should essentially take the opposite form of the introductory paragraph.  While the introduction started on the general topic and narrowed down to the specific thesis, the first sentence of the conclusion should re-affirm the validity of the thesis statement, and move to a broader application through the concluding paragraph, so that the last, poignant statement leaves the reader with the sense that this specific idea has important broader significance.

APPENDIX B: Common Writing Concepts

BIAS: when a writer holds a point of view on the subject being written on.  Every writer has a set of bias, and every reader must be cognizant of this.  Every reading should be approached with an eye out for clues to the writer’s bias.  Since everyone has them, they are not necessarily bad, unless the writer is misleading about them.  A writer who is presenting the piece as objectively informational, when it is the product of selective information is disingenuous, and the information given should be scrutinized.  As a writer, it is better to be forthright about your bias, which will likely gain the trust of your reader, especially if you handle the opposing position honestly.  A good, well-expressed position will stand up to opposing arguments.

Evidence: What the writer offers in support of an assertion.  Evidence can be facts, rationale, or examples.  Even when an essay is expository, such as a biography, certain claims will be made that need supporting evidence.  EX: “Benjamin Franklin was one of the greatest innovators in American History.”  Now you can’t just move on to another concept.  You have to support this with clear, documented examples, and sometimes even their significance.  As a writer, it is not enough to say what someone else said.  You are the writer of your essay, and you are the one deciding what to include and not include.  Every point you include should have evidence so that YOUR reader will understand or believe.  Everyone may say that using credit cards is a wasteful debt, but if you say it, you need to support the claim with evidence, and not just a quote: Dave Ramsey said “Credit cards are a wasteful debt” (Ramsey 2002, 78).  That will not be enough for your reader, and it is your responsibility to explain to them exactly why this is so well recognized—a statistic, or a study, a rationale, or an example.

Thesis Topic:  The specific scope and aim of an essay.

EX:  Expositional essay: How I came to faith, or Benjamin Franklin, American innovator, or How trees convert light into energy.

Analytical essay: Implications of state-run surveillance cameras in every city, or the validity of theory developed by experiment on jellyfish, or evaluating Bradbury’s earlier work versus later.

Argument/Persuasive: Elvis is not dead, or Women are more physically resilient than men, or Hunger Games the movie fell short of the bar set by the book, or Christians need to be politically active.

Thesis Statement (main claim):  The specific sentence (sometimes two) that tells the reader exactly what the essay will explain, explore, examine or assert (and why, if applicable).

EX:  Expositional: Trees demonstrate the complexity of God’s design by their photosynthetic processes.

Analytical: There appears to be a substantial change from Ray Bradbury’s earliest works to the work produced near the last 20 years of his life.

Argument: In an argument essay, the thesis statement MUST take an arguable stand.  This means that there should be a significant number of people who will not agree with you, or will not want to do what you assert—otherwise there is no clear rationale for writing the essay.

Topic Sentence:  The first sentence in a paragraph that tells the reader the scope of that paragraph.  It should be a natural transition from the previous paragraph, with the momentum that swings the reader into the next area of topic.  Your Topic sentence should act like an umbrella that covers that paragraph, and anything that does not directly reflect that topic sentence should be in another paragraph.

EX: Topic Sentence: “People who pray a lot experience a sense of God’s active presence in their lives.”  With this, the reader can imagine what types of examples and evidence the writer might give.  The reader would be surprised to find this sentence in this paragraph: “People who sing a lot experience joy.”   This may fit under your paper’s thesis, but the topic is new, and either it belongs in its own paragraph, or the topic sentence needs to be broadened to include it, like “Christians have many ways they experience the intimate blessings of God.”

Organization: Every essay must be organized into its most effective form so that the reader does not have to do the hard work of making connections the writer has failed to provide.  Important organization features include: planning how wide and how narrow the thesis should be for the essay; deciding what the main supporting topics will be; ordering the topics for effectiveness and comprehension, and keeping the main topics clear and within separate paragraphs.  Generally an essay is ordered based on the purpose of the essay.

EX: Expository, or explanatory essays take the most natural progression: chronological order, process order, historical order or some other fitting structure.

EX: Analytical essays generally order the topics in the most effective way to evaluate the subject of the essay: either one view point, then the other, or each view presented point by point, or progressively through the work being analyzed.

EX: Argument/persuasive essays generally order the topics to make the most powerful, profound or memorable argument last.  The only exception to this may be in a timed essay, when the writer may run out of time to fully develop the final point.  If this is the best point, its impact will be less effective than as an earlier point that is fully developed.