This is a bit of a cliche, but you really should hold your reader’s hand and guide him through your essay. Avoid reader whiplash at all costs—your grader should never have to pause to wonder how he got to where he is, because you should be there at every juncture, reminding him exactly how he got there. Each sentence should flow neatly from the sentence before, and into the sentence after. Each paragraph should have a topic sentence, and stick to points relevant to that topic sentence.

You accomplish this by being sedulous about organizing your essay. Outline carefully before you write, jotting down the topic (and maybe the topic sentence) of every body paragraph. And then, as best you can, stick to that outline. If you come up with a brilliant idea for your second paragraph while you’re still working on your first one, it’s OK to deviate from the plan, but if you’re making up your argument as you go, your grader will be able to tell, and you’ll pay for it with a less than stellar score.

If you want your essay to have good organization and focus, you need to tell your reader what you’re going to say, say it, and once in a while remind her that you said what you told her you’d say.

Examples


Below you’ll find body paragraphs from the same essays whose introductory paragraphs were in this post. Note how the first writer fails to remain laser-focused on furthering his argument and inserts details that don’t really help his cause. This gives the reader the impression that, at best, the writer is a bit confused, and at worst, the writer is desperately trying to fill space. Contrast that scattershot prose with the output of the second writer, who diligently reminds his reader at the beginning and end of each paragraph that the reason he is writing about lying brothers and dead presidents is that they are germane to the topic of the value of truthfulness, and then inserts enough details to give his examples context, but not so many that his point is muddled.

Bad: After leading the Americans to victory in the Revolutionary War, George Washington became the first President of the United States. Most people have heard the story of when he was a boy and chopped down an important cherry tree. His father was very angry about the tree’s demise, and asked young George who did it. George told his father that he could not tell a lie, and his father forgave him. This story is famous because it shows how it is never OK to lie. George Washington, America’s first and best president, always told the truth.

My brother got in a lot of trouble with my Mom last weekend when he lied about where he was going on Saturday night. He told her he was going to be sleeping at a friend’s house, but really he went to a concert 45 minutes away. She caught him because she opened his duffel bag the next morning and the clothes he was wearing smelled like smoke and there was a ticket stub in his pocket. She does not like rock music (she calls it devil music) and was really mad. She took away his phone, and he had to come right home after school all week and can not leave the house this weekend.

Good: One indicator of the value people place on honesty is that of George Washington. Legend has it that long before his heroism in the Revolutionary War or his inauguration as the first President of the United States, the young George Washington was honored for his adherence to the truth. He had chopped down a cherry tree for sport, the story goes, not realizing that his actions would anger his father. When the elder Washington discovered the downed tree and demanded to know who had perpetrated the crime, young George stepped forward and said “Father, I cannot tell a lie. It was I who chopped down the cherry tree.” That this myth persists, even though these events almost surely did not transpire, speaks to the value our society places on honesty. Teachers and parents, in recounting this story, are making an effort to encourage children to be truthful, even when lying would be easier. Therefore, the child who learns this lesson well and lives by a code of honesty will be more likely to earn society’s respect.

My brother Gerald, unfortunately, could use a refresher on the fable of George Washington and the cherry tree. He recently found himself in hot water as a result of his dishonesty. Although our mother forbade him from attending a rock concert 45 miles from our home, he decided to attend the concert anyway and simply tell our mother that he was sleeping at his friend’s house that night. When my mother discovered his deception, she told him that she was more disappointed than angry (and she was pretty angry). She had trusted him implicitly, and he had betrayed that trust. His immediate punishment was a temporarily restricted social calendar, but my mother made it clear that the lasting impact of his actions would be that he would have to earn back her trust. As it is in the society in which we live, truthfulness is valued in my family. My mother’s disappointment at Gerald’s dishonesty and his appointed task of earning back her trust are further evidence that those who are honest will be better respected.