An Essay is like a Krabby Patty
If you are a student whose heart sinks when you hear the word essay, take heart. The key to writing a strong essay is to remember that it is like a krabby patty. You have the top of the bun (introduction), the bottom bun (conclusion) and the patty, secret sauce, lettuce and tomato are your main points. You are essentially building that krabby patty sandwich but always start with the main ingredients.
Start in the middle. Simply put, don't write an introduction or a conclusion until you've created the main points of the essay or paper. Those will write themselves because they emerge naturally once you know the bulk of the content you are presenting. It's intimidating to stare at a blank page thinking you need to write an introduction, so wait.
The first step is to just stop and think. Don't panic. Read the topic or question slowly. Then see what pops into your mind. Trust yourself. Too many students go straight to Google, looking for an answer without realizing they already have the answers in their own minds. If you are really stuck, re-read your notes or your textbook to see if that jogs your memory or gives you some ideas. The jump to Google often interrupts your own thinking, leads you to doubt yourself so you rely on the internet, and ultimately risk plagiarizing. I remember assigning a paper on the movie Good Will Hunting that was basically an opinion paper where students could talk about what they thought about the film. Sadly, by the time I got done grading, I had six essays that started with the exact same paragraph from Wikipedia about the film. Completely unnecessary and a pretty serious breach of conduct.
Once you think a bit and review material, jot down the facts and ideas that will support your response. Write these by hand on scrap paper. The act of writing is slower than tapping or typing, and it activates the thinking part of your brain. It slows you down just enough to really pay attention to the idea you want to express. Typically an essay question requires 3 to 5 main points. On a sheet of paper, do an outline. The outline is the skeleton of the paper and if you spend time on it, that is half the battle.
I. Introduction (don't write it yet)
A. Main point (write it down)
1. details about the main point
2. details about the main point
B. Main point (write it down)
1. details about the main point
2. details about the main point...
C. Main point (write it down)
III. Conclusion (don't write it yet)
Starting with that good old topic sentence you learned so many years ago, write well developed paragraphs for each of your main points and make sure that everything in that paragraph "goes together" and relates to the same idea. Don't mix your main points together., Think of your ideas like silverware in one of those drawer dividers, spoons with spoons, knives with knives, forks with forks.
When you have completed the main points, the introduction and conclusion will reflect those main points, so they are easier to write. The introduction should rephrase the question and preview your main points. The conclusion should refer back to your main points (but don't start making those points again, lol) and end with a closing sentence.
There's a phrase we use for speech writing that you can also use for any kind of academic writing.
Tell them what you are going to say. (Intro)
SAY IT. (Body)
Tell them what you just said. (Conclusion)
Writing can be intimidating but the key is to be yourself and write it the way you would say it to another person. Too many students think they have to get formal and fancy and it trips them up. Pretend to yourself that you are answering the question out loud, leave out the slang, and say what you mean.
Most important, good writing is rewriting. Never submit the first draft if you can avoid it. Take a step back from what you wrote and read it as if you were someone who knew nothing about the topic. If it would make sense to someone from outside the class, then you've done well because you have shown your knowledge clearly. Don't every assume the teacher "knows what you mean." Your job is to show what you learned.
All these same tips apply to longer papers, too. It's just a very big krabby patty with lots of layers (more main points). You are assembling it by creating all the separate ingredients, stacking them up in order and tucking them between the top and bottom bun.