How to

How to Write the First Draft


By this stage, you will have a final essay plan and a research document that presents your findings from the research stage in an organised and easy-to-use way. Together, these documents provide a clear map and all the information you need to write a well-structured essay, in a fraction of the time it would otherwise take.

This timesaving comes from the fact that you have already made all the big decisions about your essay during the research phase:

  • You have a clear idea of your answer to the essay question.
  • You know the main topics you will discuss to support your answer.
  • You know the best order in which to discuss these topics.
  • You know how many words should be spent on these topics, based on their importance to supporting your answer.
  • You know what points you will make under each topic and will discuss each of these in a new paragraph.
  • You know exactly what information each paragraph of your essay should contain.
  • You have already compiled your list of references or bibliography, and have easy access to all the details you need to correctly cite and reference your work.

Formal academic language

Before starting to write your essay, you must understand that using formal academic language is essential when writing at university. Formal academic language is clear and concise. You should never use 20 words when 10 will do; and your writing should leave no room for misunderstanding or confusion.

First person should almost always be avoided when writing an essay; however, it is recommended that you check with your tutor or lecturer about their attitude towards the first person and when it should be used, if ever. Conversely, contractions (e.g. shouldn’t, could’ve, he’s and hasn’t) are always inappropriate in academic writing. The only time you should see a contraction in academic text is in a direct quotation, usually taken from informal or spoken text.

Care should be taken to craft grammatically correct sentences, with no errors of spelling or punctuation. Colloquialisms and idiomatic language should be avoided. (These are characteristics of informal or spoken language.) It is also important to avoid racist, sexist and gender-specific language in your writing. Instead, use inclusive and gender-neutral vocabulary. For more information, please see our blog article ‘Simplicity in Academic Writing’.


As you already have a clear idea of what your essay will include, you can write your introduction first. Of course, you should always come back to your introduction at the end of writing your essay to make sure that it definitely introduces all the topics you discussed. (You should not discuss any topics in the body of your essay that you have not mentioned in the introduction.)

Some other points to remember when writing your introduction are that you need to clearly state your answer to the essay question (your thesis statement), not just introduce the question. Also, your introduction should include no information that is not directly relevant to your topic. Including irrelevant background information in the introduction is a common mistake made by novice academic writers.

See the following example of a poor introduction. Then, compare it with the example of a good introduction below that. These example introductions are for the same 1,000-word essay used for the examples given in earlier stages of this guide, ‘How to Begin’ and ‘How to Organise Your Research’.

This is an example of a poor introduction:

In 1492, Columbus set sail from Spain on a quest to find a new trade route to Asia. Despite the fact that he believed he had landed in the East Indies, Columbus had found another continent entirely. This essay will examine the issue of whether or not indigenous culture was completely decimated in the Americas as a result of Spain’s colonisation in the 16th century. It will look at the areas of family, religion and language.

This is an example of a good introduction:

Beginning in the sixteenth century, Spanish colonisation of the Americas had a significantly negative effect on the cultural practices of the indigenous population. In particular, the introduction of new diseases and the consequent demographic collapse dramatically weakened indigenous culture and their ability to resist Spanish domination. However, aspects of the culture of some indigenous groups survived and even thrived—it was not completely decimated. Through an examination of the evidence related to religion, family and language, including the effects of colonisation on these areas of society, this essay will demonstrate aspects of indigenous beliefs, customs and practices that managed to endure.

In the example of a poor introduction, background information is included that is not directly relevant to the topic. Also, it does not answer the question, it only introduces it. Finally, it does not introduce all the topics to be discussed (as outlined in the final essay plan), and for those it does introduce, it does not mention them in the order they will be discussed in the essay (as outlined in the final essay plan).

By contrast, the good introduction provides a clear thesis statement; introduces, in order, all the topics to be discussed; and only includes information that is directly relevant to the essay question.

Topic sentences

As explained in ‘How to Begin’, every paragraph needs a topic sentence. The topic sentence introduces the new topic about to be discussed. It also links the topic back to the essay question, to make it clear why it is relevant and how it advances your argument.

The following are examples of topic sentences for Topic 1 ‘Disease and demographic impact’, Topic 2 ‘Religion’ and Topic 4 ‘Language’, as outlined in the final essay plan in ‘How to Finalise Your Essay Plan’. Notice how they link back to the thesis statement: ‘Spain’s colonisation had a significantly negative effect on the indigenous population of the Americas but some aspects of the culture of some indigenous groups survived and even thrived—it was not completely decimated’.

  • Topic 1: One of the most obvious negative effects of colonisation was the introduction of diseases that caused rapid demographic collapse among the indigenous population.
  • Topic 2: Missionaries arrived to preach Catholicism to the Native Americans, but they allowed the Native Americans to keep parts of their culture and religion that did not clash with Catholic value and traditions.
  • Topic 4: The Spanish did not force their language on the Native Americans, but there were nonetheless cases of indigenous languages fading out of use and being replaced with Spanish.

A common misconception is that your paragraphs need a concluding sentence for each topic. This is not true, and in fact results in unnecessary repetition, especially in a short essay.


If you have carefully followed the steps outlined in the articles on organising your research and finalising your essay plan, your final essay plan should clearly indicate what information will go in each paragraph of your essay. Each paragraph should contain only one main idea. Care should also be taken to only spend as many words as planned on each paragraph. If you decided in your research and planning stages that 150 words were enough to discuss a certain topic, then stick as closely to that plan as possible. Likewise, unless you have a very good reason for doing otherwise, follow your planned order of paragraphs, as that order should reflect the most logical arrangement and help your essay to flow well.

When writing your paragraphs, you want to choose the best supporting evidence and examples from your research to use. You must also ensure that you are inserting the necessary in-text citations and compiling your final reference list as you are writing, rather than leaving this until the end. This should be easy to do, as all these details are readily available in your research document (see ‘How to Organise Your Research’).


As explained in ‘How to Begin’, a conclusion should restate the thesis statement and summarise the points that were made in the body of the essay in the order in which they were made. The conclusion offers an important opportunity to synthesise the points you have made to support your argument and to reinforce how these points prove that your argument is correct. In many ways, the conclusion is a reflection of the introduction, but it is important that it is not an exact repeat of it. A key point of difference is that you have already provided ample evidence and support for your answer to the essay question, so the purpose of your conclusion is not to introduce what you will say, but rather to reiterate what you have said. Further, your conclusion absolutely must not contain any new material not already discussed in detail in the body of your text.


It is important that you acknowledge your sources of information in your academic writing. This allows you to clearly show how the ideas of others have influenced your own work. You should provide a citation (and matching reference) in your essay every time you use words, ideas or information from other sources. In this way, you can avoid accidental plagiarism.

Referencing also serves other purposes. It allows you to demonstrate the depth and breadth of your research, to show that you have read and engaged with the ideas of experts in your field. It also allows you to give credit to the writers from whom you have borrowed words or ideas. For your reader, referencing allows them to trace the sources of information you have used, to verify the validity of your work. Your referencing must be accurate and provide all necessary details to allow your reader to locate the source.

Whether you have been provided referencing guidelines to follow, or have selected guidelines that you consider appropriate for your field, these must be followed closely, correctly and consistently. All work that is not 100% your own should be referenced, including page numbers where necessary (see ‘How, When and Why to Reference’). Your referencing should be checked carefully at the end of writing to ensure that everything that should have been referenced has been referenced, all in-text citations have corresponding reference list entries and the reference list or bibliography is correctly ordered.


Your document should be neatly and consistently formatted, following any guidelines provided by your tutor or lecturer. Neat formatting shows that you have taken pride in your work and that you understand the importance of following convention.

If no guidelines have been provided to you, we recommend you use the following formatting guidelines:

  • normal page margins
  • 12 pt Times New Roman or Arial font for the body (10 pt for footnotes)
  • bold for headings
  • 1.5 or double line spacing for the body (single spacing for footnotes)
  • a line between each paragraph (or a first line indent of 1.27 cm for each paragraph).

These are the guidelines most commonly preferred by Australian and New Zealand universities.

Learning how to write your first draft can feel overwhelming. To solidify your knowledge, you might like to watch Dr Lisa Lines’ video on the topic on our YouTube channel.

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