How to Write a Three-to Four-Page Essay

by Jeff Zuckerman
Director of Writing Services

 Rule 1. Remember your purpose.

 Your task in your essay is twofold: Show you know what you're talking about, and show that it matters. Contribute only information that convinces your graduate-level instructor of your authority on a subject.

 How does that play out? Consider this sentence:

From what I've seen, most young managers who are straight out of an MBA program may know management, but they make lousy leaders. This might be changing, though.

This hyperbolic and opinion-laden sample shows the reader only that someone is in a bad mood or had a bad experience. Your reader wants to see that you've read theory and published research, and wants to know that you've drawn informed conclusion from it.

Try this:
A substantial body of literature (Bachman, 1987; Overdrive, 1991; Turner, 1986) suggested that MBA programs were producing competent managers but poor leaders. More recent research (Garfunkel, 2002; Simon, 2001) has indicated that changes in curricula have led to a new focus in which young graduates learn the distinction between management and leadership.
In the brief second example, a well-informed student has synthesized research from five peer-reviewed articles to show convincingly her understanding of the effects of changes in MBA curricula.  


Rule 2. Take your reader logically from Beginning Point A to End Point Z.

Have you ever heard this advice that professional speakers follow? "Say what you're going to say, say it, say what you've said, and sit down."

How does that translate into academic writing? Much as we did as kids, writing an opening paragraph that introduces the essay is helpful to your reader to give him or a sense of where you will be going in your essay. Moreover, it helps guide you, the writer, through the narrative.

Compare this to taking a cross-country drive. The most disorganized essays read something like this:

We're heading out from New York tomorrow. The first place were going to stop is Atlanta. The reason we're going is to visit Bud's parents, who've told us they're thinking of opening a taco stand. Anyway, from there we're going to Cincinnati and then Texas because they live in California. Once we get there, we'll have to find out exactly where they live. Did I mention they don't even like Tex-Mex? It'll be a real nice trip, though.

While you're not going to be describing long car rides in your essay, the principle is the same: Tell you're reader where you're going, give some hints about how you're going to get there, describe the stops along the way, show you're reader you've reached your destination, and then summarize the trip and say what it all means.

Rule 3. Use an informal outline to keep you organized and focused.

You might see the word outline and get the chills, recalling a miserable experience in grade school. (Grade school! But this is a graduate program!)

Guess what? Outlines really help.

You need not set up the formal kind of outline we learned way back when. As a follow-up to Rule 2, use an outline to sketch out your road trip. Suppose you're writing a paper on the effects of business ethics on the bottom line. Let's say that a couple of influential theorists, Jones (1997) and Smith (2000), suggested that the cost of unethical business decisions can be considered a relevant business cost and that Americans are willing to pay the price of unethical business with lower prices on goods and services. Note that you're using both theorists because of key ways in which they define "business ethics."

Particularly since Enron, other theorists have decried the lack of ethics in American business. Budd and Miller (2002), in particular, wrote an important piece in the Harvard Business Review that lays out a post-Enron plan showing how ethical corporations will indeed be more profitable with socially conscious business practices.

Interestingly, you find three studies that test these lines of thinking by way of case studies: Fine (2003), Howard (2003), and Sternum (2004). You find a couple of them to be bogus, but Sternum (2004) impresses you with its method and rigor.   

And on top of all this, having witnessed the after-effects of trouble in the energy industry, you have some strong sense yourself that the social cost of unethical transactions is dangerous, as a pair of shopping centers that you manage have gone belly-up as the employment base in your town dries up, in good part because of shenanigans in at a nearby power company. 

The outline is staring you in the face:

  • An introduction, in which you describe the scope of your paper and introduce the problem at hand. You may want to include your experience here to set the stage, but only if it helps show the reader you know what you're talking about and it's true. Otherwise, leave it out.
  • Your main topic: Different Views on the Benefits and Costs of Unethical Business Practices.
  • Subtopic 1: Just Another Cost of Doing Business
  • Subtopic 2: Social and Bottom-Line Costs of Unethical Practice
  • Next main topic: Recent Research on the Topic
  • Next main topic: Your analysis of what it all adds up to, including your critical review of the theory and research.
  • A summary, where you restate the problem, what's been said about it, and your conclusion.

 Rule 4. Use headings and subheadings to organize the paper.

 Here's how I would set up those topics and subtopics using heading levels formatted in APA style. (See Section 3.30 in the manual for more on this.)

The Effects of Business Ethics on the Bottom Line [the title of my essay]

Introduction to the Problem [No heading necessary, though; the intro implied]

Conflicting Views on the Price of Poor Ethics

 Cost of Doing Business

 The Social and Financial Cost of Unethical Decisions

Three Case Studies

Case 1: Howard (2003) on Airline Safety.

Case 2: Fine (2003) on Union Corruption.

Case 3: Sternum (2004) on a Small Utility Company in Nevada

Analysis in a Post-Enron Economy


Rule 5. Go back to basics in your paragraphs.

Start your paragraph with a topic sentence, in which you state a thesis, or main idea, for that paragraph. Support that statement with solid evidence throughout the paragraph. If it's irrelevant, leave it out. End the paragraph with a transition to the next paragraph.

Start the next paragraph with a topic sentence that logically follows what came before it. Support that statement with solid evidence throughout the paragraph. If it's irrelevant, leave it out. End the paragraph with a transition to the next paragraph.

And so on.

Rule 6. Don't try to impress your reader with a lot of big words you barely understand.

George Orwell (1946/1994) translated this verse from Ecclesiastes into a style I see too often:

I returned, and saw under the sun, that the race is not to the swift, nor the battle the strong, neither yet bread to the wise, nor yet riches to men of understanding, nor yet favour to men of skill; but time and chance happeneth to them all.

This, Orwell, wrote, is the modern English version:

Objective consideration of contemporary phenomena compels the conclusion that success or failure in competitive activities exhibits no tendency to be commensurate with innate capacity, but that a considerable element of the unpredictable must invariably be taken into account.

If you instructor assigns you a 1,000-word essay, that means 1,000 words maximum. No one will be snowed by a lot of mumbo-jumbo or 12-syllable words when a two-syllable word will do just fine. If you don't like how some authors you are assigned write, then don't write that way! Remember: Figure out what you want to say and just say it.

Rule 7. Use good grammar, don't plagiarize, and follow APA style.

That's more than I can cover here, but check the Walden Writing Center's website and your APA manual for help. Contact me if you have writing style questions--and if you want a quick critique of your paper, contact the writing tutors at

Rule 8. Pay attention to something you're reading that you like. Analyze how the author is succeeding.

Donald Hall (1985), a poet, is also a terrific sportswriter. I pulled this passage almost at random from one of his books.

Baseball connects American males with each other, not only through bleacher friendships and neighbor loyalties, not only through barroom fights but, most importantly, though generations. When you are small, you may not discuss politics or union dues or profit margins with your father's cigar-smoking friend when your father has gone out for a six-pack, but you may discuss baseball. It is all you have in common because your father's friend does not wish to discuss the assistant principal or Alice Bisbee Morgan. About the season's moment you know as much as he does; both of you may shake your heads over Lefty's wildness or the rookie who was called out last Saturday when he tried to steal home with two out in the ninth inning and his team down by one.

What does Hall do in this paragraph? He introduces it with a topic sentence (that you might find sexist)--a thesis sentence. He then shows what he means with an example, interweaving adult images with a child's image, which he conjoins in a mutual image (one that I, as a student of writing, enjoy, for its rhythm, but I'll save that for another day).

Rule 9. There are a lot of good resources out there to help you.


Hall, D. (1985). Baseball and the meaning of life. New York, NY: North Point Press.

Orwell, G. (1994). Politics and the English language. In G. H. Muller (Ed.), The McGraw-Hill reader: Themes in the disciplines (pp. 398-409). New York, NY: McGraw-Hill. (Originally published in 1946)