Introduction

The Goal

Writing a proper essay is quite the challenge, and it may be difficult to know where to start. That’s why it’s best to learn to write essays in easy stages. If you follow these steps and do the various activities, you will quickly develop the skills to write a complete essay.

It’s good to remember though that there are all kinds of essays. Some are personal. Others are formal and abstract. Still others are comparative, argumentative, or descriptive. So don’t think there is just one kind of essay you should write. There are lots of ways to communicate. After all, an essay is simply an attempt to share some ideas in a way that makes it easy for the reader to follow. And how you structure your ideas depends on your topic and what you want to say.

So we’ll start by picking a topic and doing some research, and then we’ll figure out how you might best organize the information.

Your assignment will be to write an essay about a natural disaster. You’ll be able to choose which disaster you want to write about. How you want to approach your topic is also up to you. You can provide a scientific explanation of what causes the disaster. You can talk about the deadliest disasters in history. You can even talk about your own experience dealing with a disaster. The main goal is to write an essay that’s engaging, educational, and interesting.

Essay Analysis

Before you start writing your own essay, you may want to study other people’s essays. To that end, here is a question sheet you can use. Writing down your answers will help you formulate your thoughts, and will make it easier to contribute to class discussion.


Read more: Introduction to Essay Writing
 

Pick Your Topic


(“Devonian Light Show,” by John Vanveen, with permission)

Introduction

It’s time to pick an essay topic! You’ll need to pick one of the natural disasters listed below. Once you’ve picked your topic you can of course adjust your focus and make it more specific.

As you pick your topic, it’s good to be a bit strategic. Do you already know something about your topic? How hard will it be to find relevant information? Do you have some books and materials on your topic at home? Have you had any experience with the natural disaster you’re interested in? The more you know ahead of time, the easier it is to plan and write your essay.

Topics

Please pick one of the following topics:

  • Hurricanes
  • Tsunamis
  • Earthquakes
  • Tornadoes
  • Droughts
  • Wildfires
  • Landslides
  • Blizzards
  • Sinkholes
  • Avalanches
  • Ice Storms
  • Sand Storms

You can also focus on a specific disaster such as Hurricane Irma or the 2004 Indian Ocean Tsunami. Here are some more examples:

  • Hurricane Katrina (2005)
  • Hurricane Harvey (2017)
  • Tohoku Earthquake and Tsunami (2011)
  • Christchurch Earthquake (2011)
  • Haiti Earthquake (2010)
  • Tri-State Tornado (1925)
  • Yellow River Flood (1887)
  • North Sea Flood (1953)
  • California Wildfires (2017)
  • Great Fire (1910)
  • Ethiopia Drought (2017)

Another option is to choose a natural disaster that has struck close to your home. For instance, if you’re living in Edmonton, Alberta, you might research one of the following disasters:

  • Edmonton Tornado (1987)
  • Fort McMurray Fire (2016)
  • Alberta Floods (2013)
  • Frank Slide (1903)

If you’re interested in another historical disaster, just pass it by your teacher first.

Activity

Divide into groups and have each group pick a different natural disaster. Then write down on a large sheet of paper ideas about how you might write an essay on the topic. For example, you can write down questions you have, key terms you might need to look up, or specific subject areas you can explore. After each group is done you may repeat the activity for a different natural disaster. Finally, come together as a class and take a look at what ideas other groups came up with.

Tip: Try not to google your topic as you brainstorm. First see how much you already know.
 

Brainstorming


(Geothermal activity, near Lake Taupo, New Zealand)

Introduction

Before you start writing it’s a great idea to do some brainstorming. What can you write about? What kinds of emotions, thoughts, and feelings does your topic evoke? What would be a good angle for investigating your topic further?

You might be surprised by how much you know already. You may be able to come up with a good list of subjects to research.

On the other hand, if you find it difficult to come up with anything, you can try one of the following solutions: talk to a classmate, skim through a few books and web pages, or pick a different topic.

Activities

There are many possible brainstorming activities you can do. Here we provide a few examples for natural disasters. For more activities, see our page on Brainstorming Strategies.

Clustering

(Skip this activity if you’ve already done brainstorming when you picked your topic).

You can do this activity by yourself or in a group. Grab a big sheet of paper and write your topic in the middle. Then draw arrows in different directions and write down any key terms you associate with your topic. It’s okay if you’re a little fuzzy on the details. The main thing is to get an idea of how you might break up your topic into manageable chunks.

Here’s an example of how you might get started:

Senses

In this brainstorming exercise you will need to use all your senses to give a vivid description of a natural disaster in its various stages. You can start by writing down some adjectives, or you can use full sentences. When you write your essay, you can use some of this description to make your writing more dramatic and evocative.

As an example, here is how a firefighter describes what it sounded like to fight the blaze in Fort McMurray in 2017:

[I]t’s too hard to describe what this all sounds like. It is constantly loud. For hours. Essentially, you have large diesel engines or gasoline engines on high idle all over the place. The pumps themselves have a way of screaming when they’re working hard. People’s houses were collapsing, barbecue propane tanks were blowing up, and people were running around yelling things at each other. (48)

Source: Hawley, Jerron, Graham Hurley, and Steve Sackett. Into the Fire: A First-Hand Account of Battling the Beast. McClelland & Stewart, 2017.

Want to try this yourself? Use our Senses Brainstorming Handout.

Definition

As a brainstorming exercise you might make a list of key terms that relate to your topic and then find suitable definitions. You can use a good dictionary or reference work, or you can see what a specific book or webpage has to say. Here, for instance, is an in-depth classification of different types of volcanoes.

Volcanoes were once categorized as either active, dormant, or extinct, according to the frequency of their eruptions, but volcanologists no longer use this classification. Some volcanoes are still categorized as extinct if they clearly no longer have a magma supply. All other volcanoes are considered active, though a distinction is made between volcanoes that have erupted at least once in recorded history (called historically active), and those for which there is evidence only of an eruption in the past 10,000 years (Holocene active). There are about 1,550 holocene active volcanoes in the world of which 573 have historical eruptions. (89)

Source: Dinwiddie, Robert, Simon Lamb, and Ross Reynolds. Violent Earth. DK Publishing, 2011. DK Smithsonian.

Don’t forget to also write down definitions when you do research and have to keep notes.

Journalistic W’s

The Journalistic W’s are particularly useful for specific disasters. Here is just one example:

What? North Sea Flood of 1953

When? Jan. 31, 1953

Where? Holland, Belgium, England, Scotland. The most devastating impact was in the Dutch province of Zeeland.

Who? Over 2,500 people were killed, most of those in the Netherlands.

Why? The tide was unusually high when a powerful wind storm created higher than normal sea levels. The system of dykes and defensive barriers was not sufficient to withstand the waves.

Notice that you can apply some of the questions in multiple ways. For instance, instead of asking why did it happen? you could also ask why is it important? In this case you might note that the 1953 flood led to the construction of both the Delta Works (one of the engineering wonders of the modern world), as well as the storm surge barriers on the Thames.

Can you apply the Journalistic W’s to your chosen topic?

 

 

Doing Research


(In Bruges, living with water is a daily reality. Photo by John Vanveen, with permission)

Introduction

Research is an important part of writing an essay. The reader is not going to be satisfied with generalities, so we need specific and accurate information. On this page you will find a variety of activities and resources to make your research into natural disasters as effective as possible.

Finding Sources

For your essay you will need a minimum of three sources, of which at least one has to be a book and one a webpage.

To help you get started, here is a list of the kinds of books on natural disasters that you may find in your local library (click to open):


If you are doing your topic on a Canadian natural disaster, here are some possible resources for you (click to open):


Note that we haven’t provided full bibliographic information, or else you wouldn’t have anything to do!

Next, you will also need to find some reliable online sources. Don’t rely on Wikipedia for your topic. Watch out also for sources that are mostly pictures (such as this photo essay). Find a quality web page with detailed and scientific information.

Here are some further resources to help you do online research:

What is Research?

Plagiarism

Reading Sources Effectively

Tips for Doing Research With Google

Evaluating Online Sources

Activities


(Photo by John Vanveen, with permission)

Finding Sources

For this assignment, you should find at least one book and one web page on your chosen natural disaster. Then you should cite them following the MLA guidelines. Use our handout (Finding Sources Assignment) to help with citation, and check our guide to MLA citation (especially the page on citing books). Your teacher may also provide you with a general lesson on citation first.

Evaluating Online Sources

Use our handout (Evaluating Online Sources) to determine the merits of one or more online sources! To understand the criteria used in evaluating web pages, see our page on evaluating online sources.

Annotated Bibliography

Before you take detailed notes, your teacher may want you to create an annotated bibliography. This is a list of some or all of your sources, with a short summary of what each one is about. Annotated bibliographies help you understand the overall layout and content of a source, so that you don’t lose sight of the bigger picture.

For each source, start by providing a proper citation (using your teacher’s favourite style guide). Here’s an example:

Friedman, Lisa, and John Schwartz. “How Hurricane Harvey Became So Destructive.” New York Times, https://www.nytimes.com/2017/08/28/climate/how-hurricane-harvey-became-so-destructive.html.

Next, you may want to list some key words (topics and subjects covered), though this is optional. Doing so can help you focus on what’s important:

Hurricane Harvey
Houston
Impact
Causes
Climate Change

Finally, you’ll have to provide a short summary. You can use some short quotations, but most of the summary should be in your own words:

Friedman and Schwartz argue that Hurricane Harvey was so catastrophic because a number of weather events happened at the same time. First, the water in the Gulf of Mexico was warmer than normal, leading to more evaporation and rain fall. Once the rain fell, there was little wind to steer the system away from the Houston area. Finally, the flood waters could not recede easily because “the storm surge elevated Galveston Bay, blocking drainage of the rain.” The authors suggest that although some of these factors could be blamed on climate change, the immediate causes are not fully understood, and that Houston will remain prone to flooding in the future.

Notice that the summary is not just a list of topics. It ties together all the ideas so that we get a clear picture of the main argument.

Use our handout (Annotated Bibliography) to start creating your own annotated bibliography.

Further Reading: Annotated Bibliographies.

Conducting an Interview

When you’re writing an essay about a natural disaster, it’s great if you can quote someone who has either experienced a disaster or knows a lot about it.

If you’re interviewing a stranger, you’ll have to contact them first. Not sure how to email a stranger? Here’s a template you can use:

Dear ________,

I am a grade _____ student at _________ school. My class is doing a project on natural disasters, and for one of our sources we get to interview someone. I am hoping you could help me out and answer a few questions about __________. I would love to learn more about your experiences.

If you’re willing to be interviewed, please let me know.

Sincerely,

___________

Once you fill in the blanks and add a few more details, your email will look something like this:

Dear Timothy Allen,

I am a grade 7 student at Mountain View High School. My class is doing a project on natural disasters, and for one of our sources we get to interview someone. I right away thought of you. I watched a documentary you were in. I am hoping you could help me out and answer a few questions about what it’s like to survive a wildfire. I would love to learn more about your experience.

If you’re willing to be interviewed, please let me know.

Sincerely,

Tabitha Jones.

You might be surprised. People are often very willing to share their stories.

More Interview Tips:

  • Plan a few questions beforehand
  • Avoid questions that can be answered with just a “yes” or a “no”
  • First record the interview and then write out the answers
  • Ask follow-up questions if you don’t understand something or would like more detail
  • Ask questions that address both the head (what you know) and the heart (how you feel)

Taking Notes

There are two main ways to take notes. You can either take comprehensive notes of everything you read, or you can be selective and just write down things you want to use for your essay. Either way, it’s good to take detailed notes. Doing so will help you master the material and will make it easier to write your own essay.

As you take notes, keep track of where the information came from. Write down the title or author, and note down page numbers (or web pages) for anything important. If you’re copying anything word for word, use quotation marks to avoid plagiarism.

Here’s an example from a set of notes that uses a mixture of quotations, listing, paraphrasing, and illustrations:

So here’s your assignment. Make a detailed set of notes for each of your sources, and hand it in to your teacher. Your notes don’t have to cover everything. Don’t take notes for information you’re not at all likely to use in your essay.

Here are some other things your teacher will be looking for:

  • Information about your source (author, title, etc.)
  • Some organization of the information (headings, topics, etc.)
  • Mixture of quotes and summary
  • Some sense of where in the source the information was found (e.g., page numbers)

Integrating Quotations

When you add quotations to your writing, it’s important to introduce them properly. Normally every quotation is introduced by a signal phrase (your words that signal a quotation is coming). That way the reader can easily make sense of what follows.

For this Integrating Quotations Assignment you will be practicing integrating your quotations properly. Use our Integrating Quotations page to help you understand the main types of signal phrases (scroll to the bottom of the  page if you want a printable version).

Paraphrasing

Skillful writers are able to put other people’s ideas in their own words without slavishly copying or plagiarizing. Print out our Paraphrasing Assignment and practice rewording some passages about natural disasters.

For more information about paraphrasing, check out the rules here.

Paragraph Writing


(“Wrecked,” by John Vanveen, with permission)

Introduction

A paragraph is the expression of a single idea. All the information in a paragraph should connect to that central idea. When a paragraph is unified it is said to be coherent. When it’s not, it’s choppy or incoherent.

As you work on your final essay it may be easiest to start not with your intro and conclusion, but with some of your main body paragraphs. It’s easier to make some specific points than to know exactly how you will tie everything together. Even if you have an outline prepared (as you should!), starting in the middle will help you to focus on the particulars before you worry about the final argument. In fact, as you work on your paragraphs, your thesis will slowly lose its fuzzy outline and come into focus.

On this page you will find some general instruction in paragraph writing, as well as some activities for developing your own writing skill set.

Paragraph Structure

Most paragraphs start with what’s called a topic sentence. Your first sentence introduces the main point of the paragraph. The rest of the paragraph consists of facts, quotations, and other forms of proof. Some paragraphs end with a brief conclusion, whereas others assume that the reader will have understood what the paragraph was about.

Here is a sample paragraph from a critical source:

It was the worst natural disaster in the history of the Western Hemisphere. On May 31, 1970, at 3:23 in the afternoon, a massive earthquake struck Peru. With a magnitude of 7.8, it was felt throughout the country–but it was in the department of Ancash, along the coast in central Peru, that the quake was most catastrophic. Entire cities, towns, and villages were destroyed, and some 76,000 people died. Another 140,000 were injured, and as many as 800,000 were left without homes. It has been estimated that 160,000 buildings were ruined. The cataclysm destroyed roads, railroads, bridges, businesses, schools, and government facilities. Water, sewerage, telephone, and electrical systems were put out of operation. All this because of an earthquake that lasted less than a minute. (194)

Source: de Boer, Jelle Zeilinga, and Donald Theodore Sanders. Earthquakes in Human History: The Far-Reaching Effects of Seismic Disruptions. Princeton: Princeton UP, 2005.

Notice how the first and last sentence are more general, and how everything in the paragraph backs up the central idea, namely that this was a devastating earthquake.

Let’s look at another example. The following paragraph uses quotations to strengthen its claims. In this case, the author’s main point is that firefighters in British Columbia face a unique challenge. Not every forest is the same, and some forests need regular forest fires for revitalization. When this does not occur (because of successful fire fighting), then those fires that do break out are unusually destructive:

In the Interior’s forests of Douglas fir and ponderosa pine, fire is a natural cleansing force that sweeps away undergrowth, renews grasses, releases seeds and generally revitalizes the forest. The cycle is so regular that fires are seldom severe enough to burn the trees themselves. But as John Betts, a forester with the Western Silvercultural Contractors Association, explains, decades of successfully fighting forest fires has created an unnatural forest, one thick with undergrowth and carpeted with generations of dead pine needles. The result is kindling, and when a fire does take hold, it does so with an unnatural ferocity, consuming trees it might otherwise have left unscathed and destroying healthy bacteria in the soils of the forest floor that nourish life. “The forest systems are out of whack due to our well-intentioned conservation practices, which dictate not letting the forests go up in smoke,” says Betts. “The true root of the problem is the long-term denial of fire’s rightful place in the forest.” (17)

Source: Anderson, Charles, and Lori Culbert. Wildfire: British Columbia Burns. Edited by Shelley Fralic, Greystone Books, 2004.

This paragraph has a rather complex argument, and it takes the author a few sentences to connect the dots.

As you read your sources, you will find that popular books and articles are quite relaxed about paragraph structure. Often there’s no clear topic sentence and the argument simply carries on from the previous paragraph.

In your own essay you will want to be a bit more formal. Begin by stating your main idea and by connecting it (if necessary) to what came before.

For more information, please visit our separate pages on paragraph writing and paragraph transitions.

Activities

Paragraph Writing

Print out our Paragraph Writing Assignment to practice creating a paragraph from scratch.

Transitional Expressions

When we write we usually know in our own mind how our sentences relate to each other. Yet to a stranger the connections between them may not be immediately obvious. So, to get better at connecting your sentences, try our Transitional Expressions Assignment.

For more information, check out also the pages on conjunctive adverbs and connecting sentences.

Writing the Essay


(A geyser erupting in Yellowstone National Park)

Introduction

Once you’ve done some research, made an outline, and practiced composing paragraphs, you’re in a great position to write your whole essay. This page provides some resources to help you assemble the various parts into a unified whole.

Resources

Use the following resources whenever you need some specific advice:

Advice

Writing a complete essay is not an easy task. Use your outline to keep you on track, but don’t be afraid to make changes if you come up with a better way to structure your material.

Always remember to tie everything back to your main argument. Remind your readers where you’re going, yet don’t bore them with endless repetition.

Ask yourself if you would want to read the essay. Is it interesting and exciting? Do you present the information in a way that’s both clear and compelling?

For this assignment you are allowed to use illustrations. Just make sure you provide a caption with a proper citation.

Finally, and most importantly, remember that this is your essay. Nobody wants to read a long string of quotations or a tedious series of facts. Add your own perspective. Interpret the evidence. Explain why the information is important and relevant. This is your essay, so make sure you have the final word.

Editing


(Cliffs with clearly exposed strata, or layers of rock or soil)

Introduction

Experienced writers think of editing as a way to add polish to their paper. Spending time fixing mistakes adds some extra shine to your writing.

Our top two suggestions for editing are to print out your paper and to read through it aloud. By looking at a printed version you will be able to see text in a new light, and you won’t gloss over mistakes as quickly. Similarly, reading aloud makes you realize when something just doesn’t sound quite right. If you would never say it to someone, then you probably shouldn’t write it either.

Peer Editing

By the time you get around to editing you might be sick of your paper. So find someone else to read it over.

You can give them this sheet to check for errors: Editing Checklist

When you edit someone’s essay, don’t just criticize the little things. Make sure you think about the big picture, about how everything connects. What is the main point? Are you eager to read on? Are you left with any questions?

Give feedback that is positive and up-building. Focus on how the essay can be improved.

Reverse Outlining

Another great activity you can do is what we like to call “reverse outlining.” This is where someone who is totally new to your essay goes through it and tries to make an outline. You start by reading each paragraph and circling all the key words. Then you try to write a short sentence that captures what the paragraph seems to be saying. When you’re done, check if all the paragraphs relate back to the main argument. Is there any information missing? Could something be added or changed? Reverse outlining helps you understand how others might interpret your essay.

Resources

Check out the following resources to help you develop your editorial skills:

Conclusion

You can’t go on editing your paper for ever. When you feel you’ve done your best, hand in your essay and relax.

And if you’re a perfectionist, and you have a hard time letting go, just remember that an essay does not have to be a masterpiece for the ages. If it were, your teacher wouldn’t have anything to do. So clean up your desk, thank your editors, and go have some fun!

Sample Essays


(New growth. Photo courtesy of John Vanveen)

Introduction

Guess what? We don’t have any sample essays yet, but we would love to see student essays. So if you’re a teacher and you’ve used our module, please be in contact, and we will sample some of the great writing your students have produced. Thanks!