Every so often, instructors ask students to write either a very short essay or a long paragraph (say roughly 250-500 words). For convenience’s sake we’ll call this a mini-essay.

The purpose of such an assignment is not merely to shorten the pain of marking student papers. A mini-essay is like a miniature painting or an intricate sketch–it forces you to concentrate on a few select details that capture a single impression.

Obviously most of the rules of essay writing will apply to a mini-essay. Nevertheless, mini-essays have a few unique features worth emphasizing.

Key Features

A Snappy Introduction

Don’t waste time introducing your thesis. If you’re writing a longer paragraph (of say 250 words), use just a sentence or two to state your argument. Even if you’ve got a bit more space, keep it short. The art of a mini-essay is to let the details do the talking.

Compare the following two sentences:

Many of us don’t like to be told how to behave, and Friedrich Nietzsche was no exception.

The son of a Lutheran minister, Friedrich Nietzsche came to despise Christian moralism.

The second is much more specific. So make sure you zoom in as quickly as possible.

A Nuanced Argument

Just because your essay is super short, it doesn’t mean that you should settle for a simple thesis. Although mini-essays often require you to take one side of an argument, it’s important to avoid generalizations or black and white arguments. Try at least to recognize the existence of other perspectives:

Weak: It would be too dangerous to allow robots to develop their own code of ethics.

Better: While we might like to treat robots with respect–and even grant them some level of autonomy–it would be too dangerous to give robots the right to develop their own code of ethics.

Your teacher will be pleased to know that you’ve thought about the issue from all sides.

Variable Paragraph Structure

In a mini-essay you’re not restricted to the classic essay format (introduction–body–conclusion). You can write one long paragraph (if your word count is quite low), or you can blend in your intro and conclusion with your first and last paragraph. You can also use very short paragraphs–say if your intro or conclusion consists of just one or two sentences.

While paragraph breaks are still useful, don’t waste too much time with elaborate topic sentences, summary statements, or transitions. Let your ideas flow naturally so that the reader gets as much quality content as possible.

Short Quotations

As a rule of thumb, three to four short quotations are better than one long block quotation. Choose your quotations carefully and make sure each one makes a unique and essential point.


To add depth to your mini-essay, try list a number of other details or examples that further prove your point.

Other fairy tales that use a “restoration” plot are “Snow White” and “The Frog Prince.”

After revolutionizing the vacuum cleaner, James Dyson invented (among other things) the Airblade hand dryer and a fan without blades. He is now working on creating an electric car.

Garth Williams’ illustration of the stereotypical schoolhouse is part of a larger attempt to depict a kind of American identity. The schooner Stuart Little sails on has an American flag, there’s a Cornell flag on George’s bedroom wall, and the little town of Ames’ Crossing represents the laid back attitude of rural America.

Do make sure, though, that these details illustrate your main point, and are not just a meaningless digression.

Concise Conclusions

In a short essay, your reader really does not need an elaborate reminder of what you’ve argued. If you do want to repeat your main point, at least try to vary your word choice. Your final sentence or two should create closure, but in a way that remains detailed and specific.