Any piece of writing of a certain length can aspire to be an essay, but to truly make the grade as a professional essay, a paper needs to meet certain requirements and develop a strong authorial voice that can speak authoritatively on its topic. Since the essay form was perfected by the French author Michel de Montaigne in the seventeenth century, many have tried to match the high standards established early on in the essay’s illustrious history, but few have succeeded. While an essay need not necessarily be one for the ages to meet the standards of academic writing, there are a few key steps to help you develop a professional paper that will show you in a good light.

Let’s take a look at 10 steps that can make a big difference in creating a professional essay:

  1. Read the essay assignment completely and carefully. This might seem like an obvious step, but it’s one that often gets overlooked in the rush to create it. Your first step should always be to read the full assignment and any rubrics that are included to make sure you completely understand every part of the assignment and everything you’ll need to do to fully address the question and complete the topic.
  2. Visit your school’s library. A Google search might be a good place to start, but it can’t replace the resources you’ll find at a well-stocked academic library. A professional essay starts with professional sources, so be sure to use the resources available to you to develop a list of the best possible sources for your paper.
  3. Develop a thesis statement. It can be tempting to start writing right away and generate a thesis statement after you’ve finished, but this gets the process backward and ultimately wastes time. Instead, develop a working thesis based on your research (you can improve it later, if needed) and use that thesis to help you keep your essay focused on the main point you are trying to demonstrate or prove.
  4. Outline your essay before you begin. Once you have your thesis, use it to outline your essay before you start writing. Even a simple outline of main ideas will help you to avoid going off on tangents or writing yourself into a corner. Ultimately, this will save you time and help your essay appear more professional by remaining carefully focused.
  5. Avoid inflated language. Many writers wrongly think that professionally written essays use big words and complicated sentence structure to sound smart. The opposite is true. Simple, clear language sounds more professional than complex language simply for the sake of complexity.
  6. Cite sources carefully and frequently. Professionals know how to give credit to others, and citing your sources shows that you have taken care to make sure that you have given credit to your sources and have followed academic honesty guidelines.
  7. Know how and when to use quotation marks. In addition to citing sources, be sure to avoid plagiarism by using quotation marks around any borrowed language, even if it is only a phrase of a few words. Show your readers which words are yours and which belong to your sources.
  8. End your paper with a memorable final thought. A conclusion should be more than just a summary. Show your readers that you are thinking about their needs by ending your essay with a memorable final thought to give them something to think about after they are done reading. This will make your paper look much more professional than ending with a simple summary.
  9. Proofread your essay carefully. Nothing make a paper look less professional than grammar, spelling, and punctuation errors. Good writing mechanics will produce a professional polish in your essay.
  10. Avoid fancy fonts, colors, and other ornamentation. Professional papers appear clean, use plain black type, and are written in a standard font and font size. Fancy fonts, colored ink, and excessive ornamentation appear unprofessional.

By following these few simple tips, you’ll be on your way to having a professional essay every time!