‘I promise that by the end of this paper, I will have convinced you that…’
First, there is no such thing as a “perfect” essay. If you’re looking for perfection, you’ll still be looking when the deadlines pass. The arguments you make can always be criticised, so you shouldn’t be striving for perfection.
What should you aim for instead? Persuasion. Think of your essay as a contract you make between yourself and the reader — ‘I promise that by the end of this paper, I will have convinced you that…’ Your paper will be judged based on how successfully you hold up that bargain. If, at the end, your reader isn’t convinced of your key point (your thesis), then no matter how well you do everything else, your paper won’t reach the highest levels.
Direct everything you do in your essay towards achieving that persuasiveness. What does this mean you need to do? There are many components to persuasion. Most obviously, the reader needs to know what you want them to believe! That’s your thesis, and it should be the clearest and most significant thing in your essay. I advise leading with your thesis. If you’re facing a blank document and a blinking cursor, open with “In this paper, I will argue that…” It may not be flashy, but it tells the reader exactly what they need.
Since persuading your reader of your thesis is key, choosing a good thesis to defend is paramount. Don’t try to convince them of something huge and complex. You won’t have time or space to do it well. Instead, pick a specific, modest point and focus on arguing for it thoroughly and well.
That thesis should be obvious throughout the essay, too. Every argument you offer should link together to form a coherent whole, ultimately demonstrating the truth of your thesis. To help your reader understand that argument and how it fits together, tell them at every stage exactly how what you’re saying supports your overall thesis. Link back to it at least at the end of every paragraph.
Most importantly, to persuade someone, you need to overcome their doubts.
Everything else is guided by making your essay persuasive. You need to define any terms that your reader needs to understand in order to be persuaded. To convince someone, you need to demonstrate you know what you’re talking about, and that you’ve read the relevant material. So citing relevant literature and showing you understand the key ideas is vital. Following academic conventions like proper referencing will also back up your appearance of professionalism and expertise. Laying out your entire argument in clear, logical steps will help your reader to follow your reasoning and ultimately be persuaded. And most importantly, to persuade someone, you need to overcome their doubts. If they’ll have any objections to your argument or your thesis, you need to anticipate those and deal with them in your paper. If you don’t engage with, and refute, the central criticisms of your position, then you won’t convince a critical audience.