Top 10 essay writing tips
Essays can be a bit of a challenge sometimes. OU lecturer Nigel Warburton offers his top 10 tips for improving your essay writing.
1. Get started
Don’t procrastinate. Get down to it now. If you have an essay to write, it is amazing how easy it is to find other things to do. If you find yourself lapsing into an avoidance strategy, trick yourself by just writing the first paragraph, or committing to a focused ten minutes of writing.
2. Answer your question
The worst mistake you can make is failing to answer your question. No matter how brilliant your writing is, if it is an answer to a different question it won’t get you any marks. So read your question very carefully and make sure you understand it.
3. Research your answer
Pay particular attention to lists of recommended reading and any advice your tutor gives. Don’t think of your research as something that you complete before you begin writing. Often it is only when you try to explain a concept or defend a position that you realise that you need to research some facts.
4. Make the case
In almost any subject, when you write a essay you need to make and defend a case for your conclusion. This typically involves using argument, evidence, quotations and so on, to back up generalisations. It also involves considering counter-arguments and evidence that seems to challenge your reasoning or conclusion. Many students fail to make a case for their conclusions, and some fail to draw any conclusion whatsoever. The easiest way to avoid this pitfall is to plan your answer carefully so that it builds to the conclusion and doesn’t simply assert it.
5. Structure your answer
The structure of your essay is the logical framework of the case you make. One useful three-part structure that works for most paragraphs is this: 1. make a general point, 2. back it up with some evidence, quotation or argument, and 3. show the significance of this point to the question you were asked.
6. Aim for clarity
Here are some suggestions for achieving greater clarity in your writing. Be economical with adjectives. Be concise. Avoid using adverbs wherever possible. Avoid complex syntax. Explain any technical terms. Don’t show off your knowledge of obscure jargon. Use the active voice rather than passive constructions. Use shorter rather than longer sentences.
7. Get the right tone
An easy way to irritate your readers is to use colloquial language in an academic essay or to make over-familiar asides. Getting the tone right requires sensitivity to the genre within which you are writing. A peppering of exclamation marks in an academic essay is a sure sign that the writer doesn’t appreciate this point.
8. Avoid plagiarism
Don’t try to pass someone else’s work off as your own. It’s immoral and you may well get caught, not least because many institutions are now using software that detects plagiarism. Resist the temptation to cut and paste unattributed paragraphs from weblogs and webpages. Always be sure to distinguish your own notes from copied sentences and longer quotations: when you come to write your essay there should be no risk of including someone else’s writing without acknowledging its source.
9. Edit your essay
If you have the luxury of re-writing or at least revising your essay, use it. Obviously this won’t usually be an option in an examination, but in other circumstances you should leave yourself enough time to edit and amend your first draft. Try reading what you have written out loud – poor phrasing and bad grammar will be more obvious, as should any weaknesses in argument. Make sure keywords and the names of people you discuss are correctly spelt. Although you may not lose marks for poor spelling, it is likely to colour any reader’s view of your writing ability.
10. Learn from feedback
Many students are more concerned with the mark they get than with the other feedback their tutors give them. This is a mistake. Try to find patterns in the feedback you get and remind yourself of the criticisms of your previous essay before you start the next one.
Nigel Warburton chairs the Start writing courses A171 – A176. He is author of a number of books including The Basics of Essay Writing. (Routledge, 2006).