An essay is a work of expository prose whose purpose is to make a point, to prove something; to present a contention or a position on its topic (otherwise known as a thesis or controlling idea), and then prove that contention or support that position with specific, relevant, and accurate information from a text, a series of texts, or other sources.
Keep in mind that, when writing an academic essay, whether for a class or for the Regents exam, simply summarizing or recapping a set of information is seldom adequate to the assigned task. For example, on a literary essay, you will never be asked to simply summarize the text or explain what it's about. You need to establish a thesis, which again is a contention or a position that you have developed or determined based on the objective source information. You then must use the source(s) as support, or proof, that your thesis is valid, that your contention is true, that your position is the right one.
However, you should be aware that a thesis is NOT a personal opinion or evaluative judgment of the text or material. You are not being asked if you "like" it or not, or to tell the reader if it's "good" or "bad." The trouble with opinions and judgments is that they are very limiting; they're also practically unsupportable. An opinion is different from a contention or a position, in that an opinion generally relies on personal taste (dogs are better than cats) and can't really be "proven." Contentions (dogs are easier to train than cats) and positions (dogs should be allowed in the building) can be supported with empirical facts and evidence.
The structure of an essay is very much like that of a courtroom trial. First, the lawyer will present to the jury his opening statement, where he explains what he intends to prove but does not go into any specific detail. He is not permitted to introduce evidence on opening arguments. Then he will call his witnesses, one by one, each of which will testify in turn about one specific aspect of the case. The lawyer gets the information he needs from each witness, anticipating his opponent's counter-arguments. Then, when all the witnesses have testified, it's time for the summation, or closing argument, where the attorney sums up his case based on the evidence admitted during the trial.
The introduction of your essay is similar to the opening argument; each discussion paragraph represents one witness, and the conclusion is your summation.
Now, there are some things you must never, ever, EVER do when you write an essay.
NEVER begin an essay with anything resembling: "In this essay, I'm going to write about..." This is the absolute worst way imaginable to begin any piece of writing, not to mention utterly needless. JUST DO IT!!!
NEVER call attention to yourself in an essay. Never use expressions like: "I think..." "I believe..." "In my opinion..." "I intend to show..." etc. You must present an authoritative tone when you write an essay; you must at least give the impression that you know what you are writing about. Presenting your thesis as an opinion weakens it considerably. Every statement should be phrased in the affirmative; don't qualify it by phrasing it as a personal opinion.
NEVER address the reader directly. This is similar to the previous point; don't write "As you can see..." "You will find..." "You now understand..."
Remember, also, that you are not writing a speech, so don't begin a sentence with "Well," or "Anyway," or "You see," or any other expressions that resemble everyday speech. The language needs to be as formal as possible (Click here for more examples of expressions you should avoid when you write.)
NEVER use repetitive phrasing to pad the length of your essay. For example: " 'Citizen Kane' is considered the greatest film of all time. 'Citizen Kane' is considered the greatest film of all time because…" Whatever comes after "because" in that second sentence can stand on its own and is not only sufficient, but considerably more effective.
Also, don't restate the task: "Both authors use specific literary techniques to convey ideas." Padding the length of your essay with repetitive or unnecessary phrases and sentences will NOT improve your score.
Paragraph structure and organization may be the most important elements to a successful essay. Each paragraph should have ONE, and only one, purpose. It is absolutely essential that you think of writing an essay as a step-by-step process, and that you don't try to do everything at once.
Introduce the topic, discuss it in broad, general terms, leading to your thesis statement.
A. EXAMPLE #1 - State and explain ONE piece of evidence, and show how it supports
your thesis. Focus and discuss this example thoroughly before moving on to the next.
B. EXAMPLE #2 - State and explain another piece of evidence, and show how it
supports your thesis.
C. EXAMPLE #3 - State and explain a third piece of evidence, and show how it supports
your thesis. (A Regents essay may require only two discussion paragraphs.)
Sum up your arguments, and explain the larger, real-world significance of your thesis.
DO NOT introduce any new information or ideas.
Of course, when writing essays, as with writing stories, you should try to use verbs-of-doing as much as possible. Click here for a demonstration of how to use verbs-of-doing in literary essays.