What Is a Formal Essay?

David Bishop

A formal essay is a piece of non-fiction writing that states a thesis and provides evidence to back it up. This type of essay is commonly assigned to high school and college students in language arts classes as part of their writing education. Formal essays can range in length from a few paragraphs to many typed pages, depending on the complexity of the argument and, in many students' cases, the particular assignment's requirements. These essays typically contain an introductory paragraph that acquaints the reader with the thesis statement, followed by several paragraphs of evidence that support the writer’s argument. The essay typically ends with a conclusion that restates the thesis and reiterates the main points of the paper.

Writing and revising a formal essay can take a significant amount of time.
Writing and revising a formal essay can take a significant amount of time.

The process of writing a formal essay begins with the composition of the thesis statement on which the rest of the paper will be built. Students must usually find an essay topic within the confines of a certain subject area. Writers should take their time in finding a unique, compelling subject they are interested in researching and writing about. The essay writer also will need to think about the desired length of the final essay and determine if the topic is too long or too short for a given assignment. Typically, both professional and student writers are limited by a word count when asked to compose a formal essay.

Brainstorming with pen and paper may be helpful for writers preparing to create a formal essay.
Brainstorming with pen and paper may be helpful for writers preparing to create a formal essay.

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Once the writer has found an appropriate thesis statement, he will need to find persuasive evidence to back up the claim he is making. Some essays make multiple claims that will need to be supported through the course of the paper. Formal essays usually require evidence from reputable sources such as peer-reviewed books and periodicals. In the past, much of this research was performed in a library, but the introduction of the Internet has meant that many of the scholarly resources necessary for researching a paper can now be found online. Professional writers may have access to special information databases to help them find reliable evidence to back up their claims.

The goal of research is that the writer will uncover enough evidence to back up his initial thesis, although he may need to modify it or even find a new thesis, depending on what his research reveals. He should now be able to begin arranging his evidence and composing a rough draft of his formal essay. Writers must provide citations for any work in the essay that is not their own. These citations can take the form of end-notes or footnotes, depending on which style guide the writer is using. Failure to properly cite another writer's work is considered plagiarism and can result in serious consequences in both the academic and professional worlds.

Writing and revising a formal essay can take a significant amount of time, even for a relatively short paper, so it is important for the writer to plan accordingly. After the essay is completed, a student should have someone else look over the essay for mistakes in grammar or structure. Professional writers may have an editor who oversees this process. While formal essay writing can be a laborious process, it is a necessary part of learning to develop ideas and prove their validity to readers. This type of essay writing makes up a large part of academic and policy development in many areas around the world.

Errors in basic grammar, spelling and sentence structure will detract from the quality and credibility of formal essays.
Errors in basic grammar, spelling and sentence structure will detract from the quality and credibility of formal essays.

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