Smarthinking Writer's Handbook

Writing a Cause and Effect Essay

Chapter 1: Section 2, Lesson 5

Understanding causes and effects is essential in nearly all aspects of life. People analyze causes and effects without even realizing it as they make important decisions or solve everyday problems like “Why am I grumpy on Thursdays?” Writing cause and effect essays helps you develop good decision-making skills to use in many circumstances life brings your way.

Cause and effect essays describe the underlying causes and/or the major effects of a situation or event. You may run across these essays in writing courses, but they’re popular in history and science courses as well. A cause and effect essay usually follows one of three possible approaches:

Causes: Describe the factors that cause a certain situation, event, or problem to happen
Effects: Describe the effects that are caused by a certain situation, event, or problem
Both: Describe the causes and effects of a situation

The purpose of these essays varies with each assignment. In some cases, the purpose is only to inform or to demonstrate knowledge about a chain of events or an underlying process. You’d meet this purpose if you needed to describe the causes of the Great Depression. In other cases, the purpose is to persuade an audience to avoid certain causes that lead to negative effects, such as “effects of smoking.” Some topics can be approached with various purposes; for example, “effects of social media” can be neutral or persuasive depending on the instructor’s requirements.

Essay Structure
Each body paragraph in a cause and effect essay usually focuses on a cause, an effect, or a link in the cause and effect chain. Noting or listing the causes or effects before writing a first draft can make the drafting process simpler. For example, one way to prepare for an assignment on the effects of social media or the causes of low voter turnout is to complete an outline like one of these.


Effects of Social Media

Causes of Low Voter Turnout

  1. Introduction paragraph
  2. First effect of social media: ____________
  3. Second effect: __________
  4. Third effect: ____________
  5. Fourth effect: ____________
  6. Conclusion paragraph
  1. Introduction paragraph
  2. First cause of low turnout: _____________
  3. Second cause: __________
  4. Third cause: ____________
  5. Fourth cause: ____________
  6. Conclusion paragraph

Before making an outline, verify whether the body paragraphs should focus on causes, effects, or both, and check the required length to help you decide how many body paragraphs are necessary. There is no magic rule insisting that every cause and effect essay should discuss three or four causes or effects, so you’ll need to use your own discretion. You may want to share an outline with a tutor or instructor for feedback about the overall plan before writing the first draft.

Introduction Paragraph
Most cause and effect essays begin with an introduction paragraph that establishes a clear topic and a clear purpose for exploring the causes and/or effects. The introduction should convince readers that the underlying causes or major effects are worth reading about. It also usually gives enough background information about the topic to prepare readers for the thesis. The following questions can help you decide what information readers need to find in your introduction:

  • Why is this topic significant?
  • Who or what does it usually involve?
  • Where, when, or how often does the situation occur?

Each type of topic requires slightly different background information.

Thesis Statement
In most cause and effect essays, the introduction includes a thesis statement that helps readers understand the main idea of the essay and whether the essay will discuss causes, effects, or both. For some essays, you may need to explain to readers why they should be concerned about causes or effects, while for other essays, you may need to convince readers that there is a cause and effect connection between events. Consider these examples:

  • Informative cause and effect thesis: The Great Depression was caused by several factors, including a stock market crash, bank failures, and a drought.
  • Persuasive cause and effect thesis: Teens should avoid using alcohol because it can lead to several harmful effects.

The first example focuses on three causes of the Great Depression, and the second example focuses on effects. The assignment instructions will usually give clues about what type of thesis is appropriate.

Topic Sentences
Each body paragraph in a cause and effect essay usually begins with a topic sentence that indicates which cause or effect the paragraph will describe. Topic sentences usually include some form of the words “cause” or “effect” as well. For example, the first topic sentence in a paper about the Great Depression might begin as follows:

One of the main factors that caused the Great Depression was the stock market crash of 1929.

The word choices make it obvious that the paragraph will focus on a particular event that caused the Great Depression.

Supporting Details
After each topic sentence, a cause and effect body paragraph should link the cause and its effect. You can do this by providing two types of information:

  • Evidence that proves the cause or effect happened or will happen
  • Explanations about why the cause or effect has a causal relationship to the main topic

Readers need to see facts and details to convince them that certain causes or effects are plausible. For example, if you wanted to show that social media hurt academic performance, you would need to include statistics or examples that prove teens actually get worse grades or test scores when they use social media too often. You would also need to explain exactly how and why social media affects academic performance, perhaps by citing outside sources as evidence of each cause or effect or by using your own experiences and personal knowledge for support. No matter what kind of details you use, your supporting sentences will show cause and effect with words such as because, as a result, due to, therefore, consequently, stems from, causes, affects, leads to, results in, and effects.

Conclusion Paragraph
Most cause and effect papers end with a conclusion paragraph that achieves three goals:

  • Summarizes the most significant causes or effects from the body paragraphs
  • Reminds readers of why the topic is worth understanding
  • Explains the outcomes that can be achieved or avoided by understanding the causes or effects

As with most papers, the conclusion should avoid introducing new causes or effects.

Think About It

  • Of all the possible causes and/or effects of your topic, which ones will be the most useful, interesting, or surprising for your readers?
  • How do you know that these causes or effects are accurate?
  • How will your readers benefit from knowing about these causes or effects?

Answering these questions will help you brainstorm ideas for body paragraph topics and supporting details as well as your introduction and conclusion as you write a cause and effect essay.


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