How to Write a Good TOK Essay

The TOK essay is typically mandatory for an International Baccalaureate (IB) diploma.
... Jack Hollingsworth/Photodisc/Getty Images

There are some things that you can't fake. You either have the skills or you don't. Writing a Theory of Knowledge (TOK) essay is one of those. To produce a good TOK essay you need to have paid attention during your TOK course work, taken an active part in TOK discussions and learned the basics of writing. But that doesn't mean there are no helpful hints to make a positive outcome more certain. Learning how to write the TOK essay well can be a make-it or break-it issue for IB students.

1 How to Write a Good TOK Essay, The First Draft

2 Review the Ways of Knowing

Review the Ways of Knowing. A TOK essay revolves around the question of what people know, how they know, how they test what they know, and the parts that experience, study, analysis and sensation play in human knowledge systems. Before doing anything else, review your understanding of this material, for it will form the basis on which your entire essay will be judged.

3 Review the grading criteria

Review the grading criteria. Many students think of the criteria as a barrier to overcome. The smart ones, however, think of grading criteria as a clear road map guiding them to the variety of form, substance and style of essay desired. Your school should provide a clear statement of grading criteria. Request a copy, take it home and study it. Discuss it with parents, teachers and fellow students to be sure that you understand what that road map actually says.

4 Give yourself time for planning

Give yourself time for planning. Starting your essay plan a week before the due date can work for some students, but most students will do better if they select a topic and begin their plan several weeks ahead. That allows time for outlines, discussions with others, and the exploration of alternate lines of reasoning.

5 Choose a topic with clear boundaries

Choose a topic with clear boundaries, a focus on knowledge in the title, and a question that can be kept in sight at all times. A TOK essay offers you only 1,600 words to work with to do a reasonable job of examining the various approaches to the topic under discussion. The more ambiguous, broad and poorly detailed the topic, the harder the work of providing a good essay.

6 When you have chosen your topic

When you have chosen your topic, create an outline. There are many choices of structure, but use the Ways of Knowing as a checklist to ensure that you are covering the subject fully. That and the grading criteria can keep your outline on track.

7 Is to work

Your goal is to work with basic essay structure, rather than against it. A good essay will first present the topic and define the major terms. It will then lay out the basic approaches to evaluating the topic. It will present a brief overview examining these approaches. Pro and con splits should be made easier to follow by keeping competing approaches and views near each other structurally: one approach should receive a paragraph followed immediately by the opposing approach, saving you time and presenting the conflict in a clear relationship. Having examined the basic views, you must summarize the whole in relation to the original topic question, draw any conclusions you wish to make, and end with a look back over the essay. That is a lot to cover, so realize that using the structure also means keeping each section lean and tight. Again, 1,600 words is a very small space in which to cover some very big topics.

8 Use the outline

Use the outline. Don't ramble off your structure, or wander into side topics. Use the outline to give you discipline and to give your essay form.

9 Second Draft, the Neglected Tool

10 Give yourself

Give yourself a minimum of one day to step away from your first draft. Then take the time to reread what you have written. The first time you reread, consider sense and flow. Repair obvious places where you have left out details, failed to clarify what a paragraph will cover or otherwise need to clarify. A second draft is one of the most powerful ways you have to improve your work.

11 Look for logical holes and poor connections

Look for logical holes and poor connections within the essay. If one paragraph covers one perspective and the next covers another, is the shift clear? Is the reason for the comparison or contrast clear? Your essay should not only be smooth to read, it should provide a clear current of reasoning.

12 Have someone

Have someone else whose reading and intelligence you trust read the essay and discuss it with you. Never forget that what makes sense to you can fall apart when presented to a new mind. The overview presented by an outsider can provide more useful insight than a dozen rounds on your own.

13 Finalize your revision

Finalize your revision. The last revision should be made, once again, using the topic, the grading criteria, and the Ways of Knowing as your benchmarks. Each paragraph should address the topic material and never drift from it. Each paragraph should address at least one way of knowing, or be an introductory or summary paragraph. Each paragraph should flow clearly from the one before. The entire essay should have covered the basic elements of your topic as a focus for examination.

14 Have done each

If you have done each of these things, and have done so from the position of having participated fully in your Theory of Knowing class, you will have produced a clear, tight and well focused TOK essay. It may not be the best you will ever write: indeed, if you are lucky you will write many more in years to come, learning more as you go. But this time you will have produced a craftsman-like piece of work that you can be proud of and depend on to support your academic goals.

15 Ensure that the copy

Ensure that the copy you turn in is printed well or typed on fresh paper with no spelling or grammatical errors. Use an unremarkable typeface such as Times New Roman or Courier in a minumum 12-point font. Check your format choices. If you have been required to use a particular formatting style, check against a stylebook to ensure that you are in accord. Include all vital information: name, class, professor, date. These may seem like trivial issues after all the work you have put in, but failing to take care in the last stages can do damage -- like wearing a handsome tux or a beautiful dress to a prom only to forget to shower and use deodorant. The fine touches matter.

Peg Robinson's first sale was in Pocket Books' 1999 "Strange New Worlds." Her credits include award-winning "Helixsf," and "Cicada Magazine." Her novela, "Tonino and the Incubus," qualified for the 2007 Nebulas. She graduated with honors in religious studies from UCSB. She's currently in an M.A./Ph.D. program in mythological studies at Pacifica Graduate Institute.