Composing outside the classroom
Take out a clean sheet of paper and write, one hundred times, "I will not begin an essay the night before it is due." Then read the rest of this section.
Good writers rarely know exactly what they want to argue before they've done some writing. If you try to put your thesis in final form before you compose the rest of your essay, you will not only cause yourself needless frustration; you will likely dig in your heels against any evidence that requires you to rethink the thesis.
As you write, question, and write some more, you should find yourself gradually moving toward a perspective that you can state as a thesis. Though it may sound like odd advice coming from a couple of English professors, at this point you should write with little if any regard for considerations of style or usage. Remember, you are writing a draft - if it sounds awful, who cares? If you haven't put the assignment off till the night before, you'll have a chance to get away from your draft and come back to it, and you'll be amazed at how much better it reads a day, or even a few hours, later. What still doesn't work is fixable. Your worst enemy at this point is the little voice in your head that says, "I can't write."
It is still not time to compose your opening paragraph.
Put your tentative thesis in writing and set it aside. Computers have made this kind of maneuver incalculably easier than it used to be. If you're composing at the keyboard, you can put your thesis in a file named "Tentative Thesis" and leave the window open while you continue typing in a file called "Ideas." You can open a window titled "Bits and Pieces" and fill it with sentences, phrases, and fragments of paragraphs that might find a home in the essay later on. If you have a sudden inspiration, quickly page down to the bottom of your "Ideas" file and type it out, then page up and continue where you left off. When the time comes to bring everything together in one place, you can cut and paste rather than retype or rewrite.
With a tentative thesis, you can begin to put your ideas in organized form. You might want to head up a piece of paper (or name a file) "Outline," and sketch your ideas with I's and II's and A's and B's. Outlines are particularly helpful for longer papers. If your professor requires you to submit an outline as part of an assignment, be sure to follow instructions. Some professors may require you to write in complete sentences, others may require fragments. If the outline is for your eyes only, use any format that helps you get a handle on how your ideas are related.
Whether you outline or not, you should think at this stage about the most effective way to order your ideas and deploy your evidence. Consider how and where you will address possible objections to your thesis, to your supporting arguments, to your methods for collecting data, etc.
Keep an open mind about your thesis at this stage. If you find that you need to add a few nuances, return to your "Tentative Thesis" window, or page, and tinker. If you discover that you now believe the exact opposite of what you believed at the outset, rotate your thesis 180 degrees--and thank yourself that you didn't waste hours perfecting that opening paragraph. In an extreme case like this, it was probably the hard thought you gave to possible objections that made you change your mind. Those possible objections should supply a large part of the evidence supporting your new thesis. The old evidence, of course, will represent the new objections, to which you should by now have a ready response.
You've almost written a paper. Review your arguments and your evidence, reordering and beefing up as necessary.
The time has come to write your introduction, which will include your thesis.
Drafting a conclusion
Think about why your thesis matters. Without looking at the words you have written, but fully informed by the examples you have provided in the body of the essay, write a draft of a concluding paragraph. Start a few sentences this way: "This approach to this novel is important because _______." "I now understand ______ about this topic, because _______." "After spending time with this philosopher I can see that he ________." Now edit out these introductory phrases and keep the assertions in the blanks. The draft sentence, "After spending time with this philosopher I can see that he is not really religious but he includes many biblical quotations in his essay to make himself sound more credible" becomes in a final edited version, "John Locke infuses the Second Treatise with biblical quotations to gain rhetorical credibility rather than to demonstrate religious faith." You remind your reader of your discussion, and you conclude with a well-founded claim. Expand in a few more thoughtful sentences, and you have your conclusion.
Thinking about words
The voice that says, "I can't write" has been silenced. You have written. But even if you've written well, you can write better.
You should now consider the lucidity, simplicity, and directness of your prose. Can you cut lard and clear up ambiguities? Revise your sentences with care and imagination, considering such matters as sentence lengths and rhythms.
Check your writing for errors in usage, spelling, and punctuation, and consider whether you've written with a proper awareness of audience. Change language that may offend your audience, such as sexist language.
If you can stand it, let a fellow student read your essay. We all have blind spots. Another difficult but worthwhile way to get some perspective on your writing is to read it out loud to yourself. Your ears will catch problems that your eyes have missed.
Make sure that you've followed appropriate conventions for documentation in your discipline, and that you've followed all your instructor's directions carefully.
You've put a lot of work into your essay. Why risk distracting your reader, losing credit, and perhaps even looking foolish by leaving typos uncorrected? A history paper that consistently refers to "Napolean" will annoy your history professor. Reading a paper on Gulliver's Travels by "Johnathan" Swift, an English professor will ask, reasonably enough, whether the student who couldn't reproduce the book's cover accurately could have read its contents carefully. Spelling the professor's name properly on your title page is not only a good idea; it's common courtesy.
No essay is complete without a title. This is another place to exercise care and imagination. "Essay #1" will not provoke your reader's interest. Light wit can work; broad humor will not. Your title should capture, in as few words as possible, the main thrust of your essay.
Now that your essay is entitled, so are you. Get some sleep. If you don't have time to sleep, you began the assignment too late. Take out a clean sheet of paper and write, one hundred times, "I will not begin an essay the night before it is due."