Getting Started

Learning Objectives

  • Explain strategies to help begin your essay


At this point in the writing process, you’ll have accomplished quite a lot of work. It may feel pretty scattered across notes you’ve made, sources you’ve pulled together, and different trains of thought in your head. That’s fine!

You’ll likely have some sort of outline at this point: some plan for what sections you’ll need, and an idea of their order. This may be a very formal Roman numeral outline, a more informal list of ideas, a mind map, a PowerPoint outline—whatever is comfortable for you.

The next step is a big one: starting to flesh out those pieces of an outline into a substantial essay draft. Drafting includes prewriting, editing, and reviewing. Once your general ideas are down on paper, writing out specific ideas and quotations can make the final writing process much easier. Each step of drafting brings the process a little closer to the final product.

Always write down any ideas you have in the drafting process—it is much easier to cut content from your paper than it is to work on adding content. If you collect all your resources, quotations, facts, ideas, and come up with a thesis during the drafting process, your paper will show it. The idea is to provide yourself with as much information as possible in order to create a solid and well-thought-out piece. Do less worrying and more writing. Get started as soon as you possibly can! The first draft can be ugly and messy—the key is to get something out on paper (or screen) that you can enhance later on.

You may want to start by writing a “fast draft,” which involves writing quickly, or “blurting” to get your thoughts out on the page. When you write a fast draft, you can use brackets to leave notes to yourself about areas where you’ll want to come back and add more detail or find research, etc.

Slow drafts, in which you worry more about details and sentence structure, are more time consuming but may work well if you prefer to dive in deep from the beginning. Even with a slow draft, you should still expect to work through many revisions of the paper.[1]

They Say, I Say

Sometimes looking at the template and organization of other types of papers can help you get started on your own. Gerald Graff and Cathy Birkenstein published a helpful book, They Say/I Say[2] that provides templates of actual language you could use in written arguments. The title of the book comes from the idea that writing is a form of joining an existing conversation—you find out what others are talking about, you add in your own two cents, and the conversation continues in various forms even after you leave. When writing, you are entering into a conversation with other scholars and other authors who have considered your same topic, so you can approach your paper by first considering what, “They say,” and then adding in your own, “I say.” For example, in starting your argument, you could say something like:

  • X argues that…
  • X claims that…
  • X demonstrates that…

Then you could support or contradict those ideas with your own beliefs. Templates for joining in an ongoing discussion may look something like this:

  • In discussions of __________, one controversial issue has been ____________. On the one hand, ______________ argues __________________. On the other hand, ______________ opposes _____________. Others even believe ______________. My own view is ______________.
  • When it comes to the topic of ________, most of us will readily agree that __________. Where this agreement usually ends, however, is on the question of _____________. While some are convinced that _____________, others believe that _____________.[3]

You can help readers follow your argument by inserting phrases that signal why you’re doing what you’re doing. Here are some examples:

  • To state that what you’re saying in your thesis (answer to your research question) is in opposition to what others have said: 
    • “Many people have believed …, but I have a different opinion.”

  • To move from a reason to a summary of a research study that supports it (evidence):
    • “Now let’s take a look at the supporting research.”
  • To introduce a summary of a resource you’ve just mentioned:
    • “The point they make is…”
  • To acknowledge an objection you believe a reader could have:
    • “At this point I should turn to an objection some are likely to be raising…”

Phrases like these can grease the skids of your argument in your readers’ minds, making it a lot easier for them to quickly get it instead of getting stuck on figuring out why you’re bringing something up at a particular point. You will have pulled them into an argument conversation.

Using templates such as this takes some of the mystery out of what to say and when to say it. To see more of these templates, purchase the book, or check it out from your library.

They SAy, I Say

The blog that accompanies the book They Say/I Say with Readings, by Gerald Graff, Cathy Birkenstein, and Russel Durst, contains short, elegantly constructed contemporary arguments from a variety of publications. Take a look at the They Say/I Say blog for a moment and read part of at least one of the readings to see how it can be helpful to you the next time you have to make a written argument.

Try It


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  1. University of Maryland, Baltimore. Writing Resources.
  2. Gerald Graff and Cathy Birkenstein. They Say, I Say: The Moves That Matter in Academic Writing, 3rd edition. New York: Norton, 2014.
  3. Gerald Graff and Cathy Birkenstein. They Say, I Say: The Moves That Matter in Academic Writing, 3rd edition. New York: Norton, 2014.