CoverObjectivesThe Writing ProcessPrewritingWritingRevisingOriginalityIntroduction to Academic EssaysStyleShapeOrganizationIntroduction ParagraphsBody ParagraphsConclusion ParagraphsExample EssayUsing SourcesFinding SourcesCitationsQuotingSummarizingParaphrasingDescriptive EssaysExample EssayPrewritingWritingRevisingRevise: Descriptive EssayComparison EssaysExample EssayPrewritingWritingRevisingRevise: Comparison EssayCause-Effect EssaysExample EssayPrewritingWritingRevisingRevise: Cause-Effect EssayRefining WritingDevelopmentUnityCohesionWriting for the TOEFLIntegrated Writing TaskIndependent Writing TaskNuts and BoltsPunctuationUsing Academic VocabularyAnswer KeyThe Writing Process AKIntroduction to Academic Essays AKUsing Sources AKDescriptive Essays AKComparison Essays AKCause-Effect Essays AKRefining Writing AKWriting for the TOEFL AKNuts and Bolts AK


Anything you do before you start writing is prewriting. You should always start by making sure you understand the assignment. Other activities that are frequently completed in this stage are re- searching, brainstorming, choosing a focus, and outlining.

Understand the assignment

Make sure that you understand the requirements of the task. If there is a specific prompt you are supposed to use, make sure your writing addresses the prompt.


Doing research can be the hardest part about academic writing. Up until this point, a majority of the writing you have done shows what you know or think about a topic. Researched academic essays are more about what you learn. You should not choose topics you know a lot about for researched essays. Instead, choose topics you want to learn about.

You will find the other steps of the prewriting phase to be very difficult if you have not done some basic preliminary research, but you will also probably need to do research all along the way.

After you know about your assignment (e.g., write a classification essay), you may start searching online to find a topic (e.g., types of clouds). With the topic in mind, you will need to do more research (unless you are an expert on your topic) to know what to focus on (e.g., cirrus clouds, cumulonimbus clouds, stratus clouds, etc.). After you have your focus, you may need to do more research to create a good outline.

Keep track of the sources you use when you are researching. Save links to the websites you find or print sources. Saving information about these sources makes it easier to find quotes for your essay later.

You should not try to write the entire essay from your own experience and knowledge and then try to find research that agrees with your points. Research should be the starting point.


Sometimes you are given a specific prompt (e.g., Research and describe a famous psychologist), but sometimes you can choose your topic. If you can choose your topic, then brainstorming can help you generate ideas to write about. There are many methods you can use for brainstorming. You can discuss the topic with a partner, do a free write, make a list of ideas, make an idea map, do a search on Google, etc.

Choose your focus

If your topic is really broad, you should narrow the topic down to have a more specific focus. For example, if you choose to write about the benefits of exercise, you will probably need to narrow down that topic to a few benefits of exercise (e.g., physical and mental benefits of exercise). Researching online or repeating a brainstorming activity may help you choose your focus.


Making an outline is a prewriting activity you should do for everything you write. An outline is a plan that will ensure your essay is easier to write and understand.

Not all outlines are the same. The amount of detail required in the outline depends on the pur- pose of the essay as well as the purpose of your outline. If you are writing a timed essay without research, your outline will be very simple. If you are writing a researched essay, your outline will probably be more detailed and may include some of your sources.

When you write an outline for a class, your teacher may ask you for a very detailed outline of your essay so that you can show your whole plan. When you need to make an outline, be sure to ask how much detail your teacher expects you to use in your outline.

At a minimum, every outline will at least state your thesis and topic sentences. To create your outline, think about the question that your essay answers (e.g., what is essential to have in every relationship?). Answer the question (e.g., trust and communication). The supporting points in your answer will become your topic sentences (abbreviated TS). Write the main idea of your essay, your thesis (abbreviated TH), by summarizing your supporting points into one sentence.

Look at the example outline below. This basic outline is the type of outline you could create when you are writing an essay without research that is based on what you know (the type of essay you write on the TOEFL). Notice how directly the topic sentences support the thesis.

Example: Basic Outline

1. Introduction

    1. TH: Communication and trust are essential parts of every relationship.

2. Body Paragraph 1

    1. TS: Relationships must be built on communication.

3. Body Paragraph 2

    1. TS: Trust is foundational in our relationships.

4. Conclusion

    1. TH: Relationships require both communication and trust.

You can finish one of these basic outlines very quickly. In fact, for timed essays, you need to be able to write an outline like this in about two or three minutes.

1 Exercise: Complete outlines

The following outlines are incomplete. After you read the prompt, take 1-2 minutes to brainstorm, then finish the outlines.

1. Prompt: Why do cities contract public art?

  • TH: Cities contract public art because it inspires unity in the community and draws visitors to the city.
  • TS:
  • TS:
  • TH: In order to encourage visitors and more unity, many cities install public art into parks and other public spaces.

2. Prompt: Which is more important: talent or skill?

  • TH:
  • TS:
  • TS:
  • TH:

On the other hand, planning a researched essay will take more time. A simple method for planning a researched essay starts with a basic outline. Then add questions to the outline for each topic sen- tence. Then find quotations in sources that answer each of your questions.

One of the reasons that this method is helpful is because it gives you direction in your research. You can research more quickly because instead of reading everything you can find out about your topic, you are reading to find the answers to a few questions.

Write a basic outline after you have done some preliminary research.

TH: Learning a language as a child and learning a language as an adult are distinct processes.

TS: Learning vocabulary in a second language is faster than learning vocabulary as a child.

TS: Whether learning a language as a child or as an adult, the grammar is learned differently.

Ask questions about each of your topic statements.

TS: Learning vocabulary in a second language is faster than learning vocabulary as a child.

Q1: How long does it take to learn vocabulary in a second language?

Q2: How long does it take to learn vocabulary as a child?

Q3: Why is it faster to learn as an adult?

TS: Whether learning a language as a child or as an adult, the grammar is learned differently.

Q1: How do adults learn grammar?

Q2: How do children learn grammar?

Q3: What does that mean for grammar learning?

Find sources that answer your questions. Copy the quotes and put them in the outline.

TS: Learning vocabulary in a second language is faster than learning vocabulary as a child.

Q1: How long does it take to learn vocabulary in a second language? (Couldn't find anything definitive to answer this question).

Q2: How long does it take to learn vocabulary as a child?

"During the second year of life, children start learning approximately one word per week, and then one word per day" (Gleason, 2014, p. 112).

"Children do not acquire a language more quickly than adults and with lots of time to devote to language acquisition, adults can learn a second language to a high level of proficiency in the same amount of time it takes a baby to learn its first 20 words." (Larson, 2015, p. 15).

Q3: Why is it faster to learn as an adult?

"Adults have greater cognitive abilities that enable them to learn new words faster. They are also able to use strategies to help them learn." (Larson, 2015, p. 15)

2 Exercise: Write Questions

For each topic sentence, write questions that could help guide the researcher.


  • TS: Business etiquette differs greatly between the United States and many Asian countries.
  • What is typical business etiquette in the US?
  • What is typical business etiquette in Asian countries?
  • What characteristics of business etiquette are the most unique to each place?


  1. TS: Rome and Greece were influential societies because of their architecture.
  2. TS: Governments need to regulate burning fossil fuels because the health effects of air pollution on humans are severe.
  3. TS: The Great Depression was a time of economic uncertainty that led to innovation.

Sometimes your questions may be difficult to find answers for. Asking questions is a good strategy to focus your research, but don't hesitate to ask additional questions (or adjust your original questions) if you can't find sources to answer all of them. It may be that there are no sources to answer some of your questions, and that is okay. Let the research guide you.

Oftentimes as you research and become more familiar with your subject, you will ask better questions based off of things you read. It's also okay to adjust your outline based on the research that you conduct.

Consider the following topic sentence and developing questions:

TS: A restaurant is one of the most risky businesses to start for entrepreneurs.

All of these questions support and develop the topic sentence. However, if after doing research you can't find a source to answer one of these questions, don't be afraid to throw out or adjust a good question.