How to write an essay

Seriously? Do you really want to know that? Or do you really mean How to make writing an essay EASY?  Or make it happen by MAGIC? Cos I’m not your Fairy God Mother.

If you found this blog post by googling How to write an essay,  I feel ya. It’s a scary thing.

But I got you, boo.

There’s no one way to write an essay

Anyone who says there is, is lying or selling something.

Major factors:

  1. What your tutor/professor/lecturer/teacher wants
  2. What your tutor/professor/lecturer/teacher wants

So if you don’t know that, this is gonna be a bit of an exercise in faith.  Ultimately, the person marking your essay has their own expectations. You need to find out what those are.

If this thing is due tomorrow, make sure you’ve read all the resources that have been provided to you, on paper, online, by email, whatever. If there is ANYWHERE your marker might have made their expectations of you clear, you need to find it, NOW.

If you’ve got time, ask your class mates or the tutor themselves.

Good essays take time, work, and planning

If your essay is due tomorrow, you’re in the shit (are you wearing your brown pants?).

I’ll give you the best advice I can but you gotta know, it’s gonna take some time.

Here’s what you need to do:

Must-Do #1 – Break it down

You need to break down the essay or assignment question.


Use a highlighter. Read it out loud. Draw a diagram. Talk it through with someone.

Make sure you know:

  • How long does it need to be?
  • What’s the general topic?
  • What’s the bottom line – at the highest level, what are they asking you to do? Summarise? Paint a picture? Argue? Critique? Reflect?
  • What boxes are they specifically asking you to tick? (Like, provide 3 case studies. Or use evidence to support your argument. Or compare 2 models.)

Must-Do #2 – Create a plan (or an outline)

From that exercise, you now need to make a plan.

A plan is just a list of chunks of your essay, in order, with a word count attached. To make the elephant edible.

An essay is like an elephant because it seems huge if you look at it all at once. But if you slice it up into bite-sized chunks, before you know it, you’re burping and patting your stomach and apologising to an elephant’s mummy.

Ultimately, you need an intro, body, and conclusion.

Intro – here’s what I’m going to tell you

Body – make chunks here from your exercise of breaking down the assignment question

Conclusion – here’s what I’ve told you – see how clear it is now?

Your plan might look something like this:

  1. Intro to the theory of unicorn training (500 words)
  2. Chunk A – Theorist A – Longbottom (800 words)
  3. Chunk B – Theorist B – Potter (800 words)
  4. Chunk C – Comparing and contrasting the theories of Longbottom and Potter (1000 words)
  5. Conclusion – Longbottom’s theory is most appropriate for contemporary times (300 words)

Within each of those sections you can now bullet some details, and assign word counts to those, too, if you like.

It is that simple.

It’s a plan.

And now you can write the bits you feel most confident in first. You don’t have to write an essay in order.

Must-Do #3 – Formulas help

We’ve already looked at the formula for a basic essay:

  1. Intro – here’s what I’m going to tell you
  2. Body – here’s me telling you
  3. Conclusion – here’s what I’ve told you

It’s a super-simple way to start planning an essay.

If you plan in enough detail, you can plan on writing about 100 words for each paragraph, and follow the formula for an academic paragraph.

That means if you have to write 1000 words, you should plan 10 paragraphs.


Here’s your formula for an academic paragraph:

SEX (Statement, Example, eXplanation)

Statement – Tell me what you’re thinking about

Example – Show me your evidence

eXplanation – Explain to me why that’s valid with your examples.

Here’s a resource.

And here’s an example.

And here’s a resource with an example.

(You’re welcome.)

And that, my friends, is the best advice I can give you.

If your essay is due in 5 hours, you better freaking move!

How to write faster

Time is money and all that. It’s true. I wish I knew how to calculate the value of the lost productivity that can be traced back to bad writing.  It would be HUGE.

So in my trainings that’s one objective lots of people have:

Here’s my advice.

1 – Think first, write second

It’s the thinking that slows us down. We get an idea, start to write it, get stuck on a word, forget what we were going to write next.

So we should REALLY separate the thinking part from the writing part. Think first, write second.

2 – Plan

The thinking part needs to result in an Actual. Written. Plan.

Your world is literally full of distractions. They’re internal and external.

Don’t forget to buy milk. Did I lock the car? Heeeeeey, Shelly, how about that All Blacks game last night? An email notification. A text message. A phone call.

Every time one of those things distracts you mid-sentence, mid-paragraph, mid-chapter, it takes you anywhere from 17 seconds to 17 minutes to get back on track (depending which study you believe).

Writing out a very simple plan means you get back on track faster, every time.

3 – Write the easiest bits first

A plan also means you can pick and choose which bits of an email or document to write first. You know the thing about eating an elephant one bite at a time?

It’s the same with documents. People procrastinate writing a report because they’re thinking about writing the WHOLE THING. ALL AT ONCE. It feels big, daunting, and that puts us off.

The same thing happens when you’re faced with a section of a document that’s hard: I have to write the introduction. I don’t know how to write that. Kill me now.

Imagine if your document has 6 sections, and 4 of them are super easy to write. You know exactly what needs to be said for those 4. You have all the info. You can copy and paste some stuff. If you write those 4 bits first, then you feel like you’re almost done.

You sit back and the bulk of the document is finished.

Suddenly accomplishing this thing (eating this elephant) feels possible.

4 – Less wordsmithing

In my estimate, anywhere from 30 – 100% of the wordsmithing (editing, polishing, sculpting, fine-tuning) we do has a negligible effect on the outcome. If we’re focused on our readers, those tiny changes that can take so much time and effort, make very little difference. We’re usually making those changes for our own benefit.

Language is too subjective for lots of those small things to have much impact. You start to make changes at a level that has so much subtlety the likelihood your reader will infer the same things as you is diminished.

So there you go.  Write faster, write smarter, write purposefully.

Then go have a coffee. You’ve earned it.

How to proofread – quickly and efficiently

Read out loud.

I’m not talking editing here. Your re-writing stage has to be finished. Proofreading is the final step. It’s the polishing – the cleaning up any rough edges.

Reading out loud

Reading out loud is the thing no one wants to do. It’s slower than reading in our heads, so it takes longer. AND THAT’S THE POINT.

To have a strong lens for correctness and quality, we need to slow it down.

Reading out loud sets multiple senses and brain processes into motion simultaneously, and that’s what makes it so efficient for proofreading.

We see the words on the page, and to a point, we know how words are supposed to look.

We send those to our brain to process for our mouths to articulate. Our ears hear the flow of the language – and that’s where most of the magic happens.

You’ll find: 

So next time, before you hit send or hand that document over to a reviewer, print it out, take it to another room away from your desk, and read it out loud.

(This is also true for non-native speakers of English who are immersed in English speaking environments, by the way. You’re used to the natural flow of the language around you. Let your ears tell you what sounds right.)

Sounds too simple?

Try it!

Getting clarity – how do I write more clearly?

In all my trainings, with hundreds of professionals each year, this is the thing people ask for above all else:  How do I write more clearly?

The answer is so simple it’s almost embarrassing:  Write the way you speak.

Yes, really.

Write the way you speak.  In every document.

I don’t care whether the audience is a CEO or board or minister in government or guys on the street or a scientist.  I don’t care whether you’re writing a technical specification or a standard or a policy or an email or a website.  Just write the way you speak. 

Here’s why.

You’ll increase your credibility

Research shows that writing more like the way we speak gives us more credibility.  It makes us sound smarter.  That’s good for our career development, for our brand, for our business outcomes.


  • write using everyday words – use instead of utilise, today instead of on today’s date, we recommend instead of it is recommended
  • write the kind of sentence patterns we use for speech – in a nutshell, that’s the active voice over the passive voice (and that’s a whole other article – check out this one while I write mine)

You’ll appear more confident

Confidence sells.  It reassures.  It stands out.  It gets remembered and responded to.  Studies support that expressing things confidently gets better outcomes.


  • own your statements – say we think, I recommend, you should, not some have observed, it is recommended, should be considered…
  • use fewer words – the more words we use, the weaker the message. Think of an EXIT sign.  It doesn’t say Consider removing yourself from the building through this orifice in the event of an untimely or unexpected occurrence.  It just says EXIT.

You’ll revert to what comes naturally

Imagine how much simpler business communications would be if they were more like conversations?  It’s faster to write that way, it’s faster to read that way, and we can all get on with our to-do lists.  We know this for a fact.  So,

  • trust your instincts about how to express an idea – we’re all actually pretty great at communicating verbally
  • read what you’ve written out loud – does it sound like you’re actually having a conversation?

You’ll get rid of confusion and misinterpretation

When we write the way we speak we’re more direct.  The academic, legal, and traditionally formal corporate voice is a minefield of ambiguity.  It’s learned and affected and therefore not natural.  That means it’s harder for us to get right.  It’s commonly recognised that the active voice is strong from a legal standpoint.


  • start your sentences with a whothe client damaged the car, not the car was damaged
  • break up long sentences – the more ideas and words in a sentence, the more opportunity for misinterpretation

As I always say in my trainings – just test it out.  Just give it a try and see what kind of response you get.  If no one mentions anything about the change, that’s a win!  It means your writing is working.  Even better, people might comment on how easy something was to read, or how quickly you’ve been plowing through the emails.  Again, a definite win.

The only caution I have is about expectations.

If you want to dramatically change the way you’re writing documents that others have to approve, give managers/reviewers/end users a heads up.

Get buy-in.  A disconnect in expectations is guaranteed to bring out the red pen – and resistance to change.

Other than that, go!

Be free!

And write the way you speak.

How do I live my best life?

OK, I hate that title. But it’s all about SEO – did you know if you title your blogs with questions people type into google, your content is more likely to be found? True story.

And this post IS about living your best life. I just hate those words because I can hear idiots saying them and using them as a bullshit excuse for why they can’t won’t do stuff. “I’m living my best life.” (Read that in a high pitched, whiny voice.)

What I wanted to title this post is: What’s over your cognitive horizon?

Pretty much my favourite TED talk of all time is by Shawn Achor.  It’s about happiness. And in it, Shawn says that most of us live with happiness over the cognitive horizon, because we tell ourselves once we achieve X, we’ll be happy.

When I get that promotion/pay rise/ideal job, I’ll be happy. When I lose weight, I’ll be happy. When I find the right man/woman, I’ll be happy.

The problem is, he says, once we achieve that thing, it’s in our natures to immediately set the next milestone. You find the right partner, and then it’s suddenly, when I have kids, I’ll be happy. You get the promotion, and then you set your sights to the next one, or to starting your own business.

It never ends. We never reach the happy place – so it’s over our cognitive horizon. Happiness is always in the distance, just out of reach or out of sight, and we never get there.

What the research shows, instead, is that if we can be happy here and now, those other achievements are more likely to follow. Find happiness every day, and you become more successful. You’re more likely to attract the right partner, achieve the promotion or the pay rise, find success in what you do. But the happiness has to come first.

So it’s not step 1: be successful, step 2: be happy.  It’s the exact reverse.

I’ve known this for years now.

I AM happy on a daily basis. I know I need to find joy in each day (in amongst all my mess, cos I truly believe life is messy, full stop. I used to wait for the mess to be tidy so I could be happy. Then I discovered Shawn Achor).

So I understood that.

But late 2018, I woke up one day and a whole bunch of things fell into place. No, I wasn’t keeping happiness over my cognitive horizon, but you know what I was keeping there?  Wellness.

I’ve had, for quite some time now, a clear vision of the life I want to live (my best life – uggh).

It involves some balance – between work and downtime, between taking care of my needs and the needs of others – it involves time outside and eating in a way that makes me feel well.


WTF! That realisation pisses me off! It makes me feel like such a slow learner!

And what’s worse is that the horizon wasn’t even clear. It was just, I can’t have those things YET. I have to keep working my ass off for a while yet, before I can change my lifestyle. I have to work more, do the next stage of business development, make more money yet, before I can start prioritising myself and my own needs.

So on that morning, I woke up. The sun rose over the cognitive horizon and the light fell on the simple, simple truth.  I have to LIVE my ideal life if I ever want to HAVE my ideal life.  I have to just get up each day and LIVE IT.

Want quiet time in the fresh air each morning, Shelly? Fucking get up and do it. Because the emails can wait. That piece of writing for a client can wait. Those questions your staff are waiting for answers to, can wait. Go for a fucking walk and breathe and drink a bottle of water while you’re at it.

And strangely enough? No one died. And I came back from my walk refreshed and clear-headed and energised and sat down at my computer and got shit done.

As I write this, my inner mean girl is saying, People are going to think you’re SO DUMB, Shelly. But I’m not. *insert tongue poking out here*  Yes, some of you will be giving up reading about now cos #ThankYouCaptainObvious. But at least SOME of you are going, holy shit! That’s what I’ve been doing! OMG, I can’t believe I never thought about it like this!

And then others of you might be saying, well that’s just lovely but I’ve got a 6-month-old or 3 kids under 5, or 3 jobs, so fuck you and your best life, Shelly.

And you’re not wrong – being a mother of babies and toddlers was a nightmarish time in my life. It was the exact opposite of my best life.

So I hear you, sister – AND I have 2 questions for you:

  1. What’s your best life WITHIN that reality?
  2. Is your reality TRUTH, or are you lying to yourself about what things are in and out of your control?

Because here are some of the lies I was telling myself about my reality:

  1. If I don’t start work the second my eyes open, when my brain is clear and I’m motivated, I’ll have lost my chance to be productive that day. So I can’t risk it.
  2. I have too many people who need too many things from me and something’s gotta give, and the only thing I can see that CAN give, is me looking after me.
  3. To let someone down or say no to potential work is to fail.
  4. Living the life I want to live is simply a luxury that I don’t yet have time for. I haven’t earned it yet.

I was at a conference in Montreal last year and I was talking to a friend about how I’d know when I’d achieved balance because I’d be taking better care of myself. I honestly believed that – that balance and self-care would be the result. It would be the evidence I’d arrived at that destination over the horizon.

And she called me out on it! So thank you, Cheryl Stephens, for being wise and simply saying, you just have to start NOW.  You told me to book myself a regular massage. And I thought to myself, no, you’re missing the point.

But I sat with it for a good couple of months. And then came that morning when I woke up and knew what I needed to do. Those words landed right where they needed to: in that place inside of us that knows truth.

Start now.