7 Simple Tips on How to Start an Essay

How To Start An Essay

If you’re anything like me, you often find you don’t know how to start your essay.

Have you ever sat there and stared at a blank page for 10 minutes straight?

I have.

Getting started is the hardest part of essay writing. This is the stage where procrastination can settle in and you get stuck in a rut.

I can’t tell you how many times I’ve had students email me in distress 6 hours before their essay is due:

“Chris, can I pleaaasse have an extension? I have just been staring at my screen for weeks. I have no idea what to write!!!”

This sort of email does not go down well with your grader. Especially within three days of the due date. You don’t want to get to this stage.

So, here are some of the strategies that you can use when you’re procrastinating and don’t know how to start your essay. These are easy, actionable tips even when you’re totally stuck about what to write!

1. Skip the Introduction

Write the introduction last. Here’s why.

The hardest part is the first few words. Students stare at their computers, procrastinating for days about what to write first. So, skip the intro. It’ll be easier to write those first few words at the end of the process, not the start.

The introduction acts as an engaging orientation and overview of your topic. You will find that it will be so much easier to write the introduction once you know more about the topic. So, write the Introduction (and Conclusion) last.

Often students procrastinate because they treat the first words they write too preciously. Get yourself in the mindset that what you write in your early draft will likely not make the cut for your final submission. This helps to:

  1. Relieve the pressure. If you know what you write now doesn’t entirely matter, you’re more likely to start writing.
  2. Encourage you to put words on the page. Instead of crafting an engaging, perfect opening sentence, you’ll focus on adding important points that you know you want to make somewhere in the piece.

So, skip the introduction. Forget about it entirely. Just start writing something that is relevant to the essay topic with the knowledge that you can either delete it or edit it later on.

Just remember that the introduction and conclusion will take up about 100-150 words each. So, keep an eye on your word count and leave somewhere between 200 and 300 words to write the introduction and conclusion last.

2. Brainstorm Five Key Points you want to Say

Brainstorming helps you to come up with key points to write in your essay.

If you’re totally stuck about anything to write at all, you’ll need to start brainstorming. Get yourself a blank piece of paper out of your printer tray and write the essay question in the middle. Start writing ideas around the edges of the paper.

How to Brainstorm
Get out a blank piece of paper and write any ideas that come to your head – no matter how bad! Just write any ideas or little bits of knowledge you think are relevant to your topic.

Let’s take an example essay – say: “How Climate Change will Impact the Future”.

You’ll want to write that in the middle. Then, around the edges of the page write some points that are relevant to the topic:

  • What is climate change? (definition or explanation?)
  • Temperatures are rising (by how much? – Look this up)
  • Most scientists agree humans are causing temperature rise (What percentage? – Look this up)
  • Some scientists disagree (Why? – look this up)
  • Water levels might rise (Example? – Google this)
  • Some animals might be endangered (Which animals?)
  • More extreme weather conditions (Find a source that says this, eg. IPCC)
  • Humans might need to migrate away from their homes (Florida?)

I wrote those bullet points from my incomplete knowledge of Climate Change.

This information is literally just information I’ve picked up from Facebook, casual TV watching, and conversations with friends. But, it’s enough for me to get started on an essay. If you’ve been attending a class on Climate Change, you’ll probably be able to write even more points than those I’ve come up with above.

You’ll need to find scholarly sources for your brainstormed points

If you’ve read my post on writing perfect paragraphs, you’ll already know how to turn a brainstormed idea into an amazing paragraph.

One point in my paragraph writing post is that you should provide at least two academic references per paragraph. Do you see how I’ve written in brackets what additional information I will need? That’s good practice to help you signpost for yourself what more you might want to find out on your points.

So, for each of these points I’ve brainstormed on Climate Change, I’ll need to find some academic sources to back them up. The next tips outline how you might go about finding sources to add depth to the ideas you’ve brainstormed.

3. Use key points from your Lecture Slides

The lecture slides are a gold mine for getting information for your essay.

You might have had trouble brainstorming key points. Or, you might have already found several good points to write about.

Either way, your next step is to look for additional information on the topic that was provided by your teacher. Here, you’ll be able to add more points to your brainstorming page.

The first place to find more information– which you can add as brainstorming points – is the lecture slides (or your own lecture notes). If your course has weekly lectures, your teacher will have created lecture slides.

Where to find your Lecture Slides
The lecture slides are usually provided on your class’s homepage. Nearly all universities use either the Blackboard, Canvas, or Moodle learning management systems – these are the sites you’ll need to use to find your lecture slides. Have a scan around and try to find all the lecture slides your teacher has provided and download them.

You should add all the lecture slides to one folder on your computer, preferably in weekly order.

If your class has lectures but the teacher hasn’t provided the lecture slides online for you, send the professor an email … and ask for them!

You’ll want to be very respectful in this email. Before you send the email, you might want to check our page on Seven Emails that University Teachers Hate. In this post, you will learn how to write the ideal email to your teacher to get from them what you want.

Here’s a template you might want to use to send an email to your teacher:

Hi [Name],

I’m just working on my essay plan for our next assignment now. I really want to do well on this essay because I really need a [Insert Grade Here] in order to keep up my average grade. It’s really important to me.

I’ve looked through the class homepage but can’t find the lecture slides anywhere. They’re probably right under my nose but I just cannot find them!

I remember you made some really good points in the [Week XX] lecture and I wrote in my lecture notes to “refer to lecture slides”. But now I can’t find the slides!

I was wondering if you could please give me some guidance on where to find the lecture slides, or if they’re not online, email the relevant lecture slides for the assignment through to me so I can check what I meant when I wrote my notes?

Thank you for your help, I really appreciate it.

[Your full name]
[The Class you’re in]

A few quick points about this email to keep in mind:

  • Let your teacher know what grade you’re aiming for. It will be a psychological signpost to them when they’re grading your work. If they are equivocating about your grade, it will make a big difference if you’ve told them what you’re aiming for.
  • Let your teacher know that you’ve done everything you can to help yourself. Nothing annoys a teacher more than a student who emails them every five minutes rather than putting in the effort themselves. Show that you’ve taken initiative.
  • Let your teacher know that you’ve taken lecture notes. You don’t want them to think you want the lecture slides because you missed that week’s lecture. This also dissuades the teacher from emailing back a snarky comment about how you should have taken notes.
  • Always start and end your email with a greeting and a thank you. Also, indicate what class you’re in – your teacher has several classes, and they probably don’t know your name. Make their life easy. Remind them.

Once you’ve got your lecture slides, read through them and add any new points that are relevant to your essay topic to the brainstorming page.

If your teacher has provided references to back up their slides, add them to your brainstorming points as well. You might need them when referencing the points.

4. Use the Articles your Teacher Provided

The readings are a must-use source to read when you’re stuck for ideas.

Teachers spend weeks finding readings that are relevant to their classes. I always make sure my readings are the ones that provide the clearest and most accurate information on the topics I’m teaching.

If you can’t think of anything else to say in your essay, you need to go back and find additional details from the assigned readings.

Set readings are therefore a key place to find information for your essay. Jump onto your class’s homepage to find these set or ‘recommended’ readings.

Once you’ve found the provided readings, save them onto your computer – all of them!

Just like the lecture slides, you want them saved on your computer to use at your leisure. Once you’ve downloaded them you should have a whole stack of readings to use as the foundation to fill out your essay ideas.

I mark students down who don’t reference the set readings. It gives the impression that they haven’t put the effort in. So, use them – a lot.

The set readings should add additional points to your essay. You should:

  • Take notes on any specific examples used that are relevant to your essay
  • Take down any facts and figures used that are relevant to your essay
  • List the three or four main points that the essay makes. These should be clearly accessible in any journal article’s Abstract

The set readings will help add depth to your paragraphs by giving new information and details about an idea.

The difference between the top student and the average student in the class is engagement with readings. The top student has used the readings to add details. The average student skipped this step, and their essay is clearly nowhere near as good.

If you’re struggling with engaging with readings, finding them too hard to understand, or finding you’re spending over 30 minutes on one journal article, you might want to quickly have a look at our page on How to read Journal Articles to get some tips on how to extract key information from your set readings.

5. Find Additional Articles from Google Scholar

Once you’ve used your lecture slides and assigned readings to get ideas, head over to google scholar to get more ideas.

Google Scholar has improved enormously in recent years. About 2015 the rules changed about how journal articles could be stored and accessed, making it easier to bypass journals’ paywalls. Now, authors store their articles on their institution’s research bank or sites like academia.edu and researchgate.net. Google Scholar scours these sites and finds academic articles that everyone can access – for free!

Nowadays, you’ll be able to find tons of academic articles through Google Scholar.

What is Google Scholar?
Google Scholar and Google are different search engines. Google Scholar will provide academic sources. Google will provide un-academic webpages that you should not reference. helpfulprofessor.com provides some great advice on what sources to use and not use in our series on finding quality sources.

In the google scholar search site, try out keywords related to your essay topic. Open up ten relevant pdf or Html links to relevant sources.

You’ll find that after reading the abstracts of the articles you’ll want to delete at least half of these sources, leaving 5 or so sources that you can reference in your essay.

Referencing additional readings is a great strategy for getting extra grades. It shows you’ve done your own independent research and pushes you to the top of the class.

Additional readings will also give you more information and details to add to your article. Find two or three key points from each additional reading and weave them into your essay in full, paraphrased paragraphs. To learn how to write full paraphrased paragraphs, you might want to take a look at our page on how to paraphrase like a pro or, better yet, take our Get Ahead in Essay Writing Masterclass course.

If you want to learn to master Google Scholar, read my long-form detailed post on Google Scholar here.

6. Write an Essay Plan

This is where the rubber hits the road.

If you’ve done points 1 to 4 above, you should have tons of points jotted down and ready to write your essay. To get started, you’ll want to quickly write an essay plan to help you structure your work. For students who really struggle with starting to write, essay plans are a great help.

The good news is that your essay plan is already half done. Those key brainstorming points you did in points 1 to 4 basically are your essay plan! All you need to do is list them in order of which one you want to say first.

Let’s look back at our key points on Climate Change:

  • What is climate change? (definition or explanation?)
  • Temperatures are rising (by how much? – Look this up)
  • Most scientists agree humans are causing temperature rise (What percentage? – Look this up)
  • Some scientists disagree (Why? – look this up)
  • Water levels might rise (Example? – Google this)
  • Some animals might be endangered (Which animals?)
  • More extreme weather conditions (Find a source that says this, eg. IPCC)
  • Humans might need to migrate away from their homes (Florida?)

The average paragraph is 150 words. If we include an introduction and conclusion and turn each key point into a paragraph, the essay plan will be:

  • Introduction (150 words)
  • What is climate change? (150 words)
  • Temperatures are rising (150 words)
  • Most scientists agree humans are causing temperature rise (150 words)
  • Some scientists disagree (150 words)
  • Water levels might rise (150 words)
  • Some animals might be endangered (150 words)
  • More extreme weather conditions (150 words)
  • Humans might need to migrate away from their homes (150 words)
  • Conclusion (150 words)

If your teacher wants you to write a 1500-word essay, then you’re bang on target to hit your planned word count. If not, don’t worry too much at this point. You might find that when you start writing you might end up going over or under the word count. That can be fixed later on.

Once the essay plan is done, all you need to do is start turning these key ideas into full paragraphs. The first sentence of the paragraph is easy: it’s your topic sentence. All you need to do is explain what the paragraph is about.

For example, your first sentence for your point on ‘Temperatures are rising’ will simply be: “Scientists have discovered that climate change is causing the global sea and air temperatures to rise.” Then, you’ll need to finish off that paragraph with 3 to 5 more sentences to create a full 4 to 6-sentence paragraph.

Fore advice on how to turn an idea into an amazing paragraph, check my formula for perfect paragraphs or my list of the best words to start a paragraph.

7. Email your Teacher with your Ideas

This one tip separates average students from top students.

Not sure if your ideas are correct? Email your instructor to get support.
Not to worry. You can always email your teacher to get support. No matter how much teachers like to grumble about their students nagging them, it’s their job and they’re paid for it.

Furthermore, if your teacher knows your name, they’re more likely to grade your work kindly. So, it’s a good idea to send the occasional polite, constructive email letting your teacher know you are an engaged and enthusiastic student. You’ll get bonus points for the effort.

As I’ve mentioned already, the key to a good email to your teacher is to:

  1. Show Initiative. Show them you’ve taken the initiative and thought about the topic before contacting them;
  2. Show You Care. Show them that you’re contacting them because you care about getting great grades on their assignment;
  3. Be Professional. Being professional and respectful (‘Hello’, ‘Thankyou’ and ‘Regards’ are three must-use terms)

So, when you email your teacher your ideas, let them know you’ve already come up with some ideas and that you want their advice on how good your ideas are. Ask them what they think of your ideas, and whether they might have any tips on how to improve upon them.

You’ll find that most teachers have a clear idea about what they expect in your essay. They’ll tell you whether you’ve done well, and they should give a quick tip on what additional points our sources might want to use to gain extra grades.

Summing Up

how to write an essay

You need to start your essay early. Aim to finish up a full draft with at least a week to go before submission. This is because:

  1. You want to edit your work. You want to have time to leave your essay aside and come back to your essay with eyes to edit it. See our page on Five ways Top Students Edit their Work for more advice on this;
  2. Something might come up. You want to make sure you have some grace in case something comes up – work might call you in to work double shifts, your car might break down, or you might get sick. Asking for extensions looks really bad, so give yourself time so you don’t ever have to do this.

So, let’s sum up our seven steps for starting an essay when you’ve got no idea what to write:

Seven easy steps for starting an essay when you don't know what to write.

I hope this post has been useful for all the procrastinators out there who are struggling with their essays! If you found it helpful, please share the infographic on your social media account, university website, or blog. Just remember to please include a link straight back to this page.

 | Website

Dr. Chris Drew is the founder of the Helpful Professor. He holds a PhD in education and has published over 20 articles in scholarly journals. He is the former editor of the Journal of Learning Development in Higher Education. [Image Descriptor: Photo of Chris]

1 thought on “7 Simple Tips on How to Start an Essay”

  1. Dear Chris, I really loved and appreciate your work/site.
    Very informative and friendly way to understand the concepts.
    Thanks Again – Nak

Leave a Comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *