Essay writing is an obligatory academic assignment, regardless of course of study and institution.
However, few students find the essay writing process easy. Of course, practice makes perfect and by the time students hit their senior year in college, most of them can write an essay in their sleep.
However, no one wants to learn from their own mistakes so knowing the most important dos and don'ts of essay writing will help make this experience less stressful and more productive.
There is no universal template that can solve every college essay trouble.
However, the following rules of writing are standard and applicable to all types of academic essay, no matter what the course and topic:
The Do's of Essay Writing
Do Make your Essay Easy to Read
Because of the large number of essays that have to be graded, many instructors admit that they skim read essays to get an idea if a student is competent in the topic and how well they have adhered to the style guidelines. Therefore, it is a good idea to structure your essay so the key points are visible when skim reading and are clear enough to get the message across.
Get rid of extra words and phrases, use clear constructions and stick to the point.
Do Include a Thesis Statement in the Introduction
A thesis statement is an important part of introduction and the essay in general, so it should never be neglected. The thesis statement should reveal the main idea of the essay in a concise format.
Although it is an obligatory part of the introduction, never make your thesis statement the opening sentence of your essay. It is a good idea to place it at the end of the introductory paragraph so it serves as a transition to the main body of the essay.
Do Use Transitions Between Paragraphs
Sometimes paragraphs sound like separate pieces of text put together. This is the wrong approach to writing.
Your essay should be smooth and coherent, leading the reader from one point to another. This is why you should use transitions – the phrases that help to connect each idea with the previous one, serving like bridges between paragraphs.
Examples of phrases you can use for transitions include:
- Despite the previous arguments…
- Speaking about this…
- Regarding this…
- With regards to this…
- As has been noted…
- To put it briefly…
Do Cite Examples
Any example you use – from literature, scientific work, etc. - should be cited.
Only examples from your own experience do not have to be cited. If you want to include mention of something that you have read, even if you are not using a direct quotation, it is best to reference the source of the information. This way, your examples will be more convincing and form more reliable evidence of the points you wish to prove.
Do Discuss Literature in the Present Tense
When writing literary reviews or essays based on literary works it is advisable to use present tense – historical present or narrative present, as it is called. It makes the storytelling more engaging and real, increasing the feeling of presence.
‘Romeo and Juliet experience true love the moment they see each other. Love makes them forget everything else. From the very beginning they are somehow aware that they are doomed to die – they have given up their lives to love. Not only love, but every emotion in the play is heightened and leads to terrible consequences.’
Book Reviewed by Amrita Dutta, Source: http://www.book-review-circle.com/Romeo-And-Juliet-William-Shakespeare.html
Do Use Advanced Vocabulary
The aim of an essay is to not only to reveal your knowledge of the topic, but to show your ability to choose appropriate vocabulary and show your language expertise.
You should show that your vocabulary has progressed since high school. That means using advanced vocabulary and replacing ‘good’ and ‘nice’ with more appropriate synonyms to reflect the shades of meaning.
Do Respond to the Prompt of the Essay
The prompt of the essay is intentional.
No matter how much you want to ‘go with the flow’ and write whatever your inspiration dictates, you should remember you are writing an academic assignment and, as long as it has a prompt, you should stick to it.
If the prompt is complicated and consists of several parts, analyze your final draft and check if you covered every point of the essay prompt.
Do Use Simple Sentences
Complicated sentences may be confusing, not only for the person reading and grading your essay but for the students themselves.
Writing complicated sentences doesn’t indicate elaborate writing style. Rather it may show your inability to convey information in a simple and readable format, or to break the sentences in a logical way. What’s more, complicated sentences increase the risk of grammar errors and stylistic mistakes. Famous writers, like Hemingway or Fitzgerald, wrote simply and that didn’t make their writing any worse.
Do Choose Proper Type, Style and Format
A good essay is not about style and formatting, of course, but style influences the first impression your paper makes.
First and foremost, professors want to see the correct essay style and structure depending on the topic and essay type students have to tackle. In many cases, the style meant to be used in the essay is laid out in the directions or has been established beforehand. You may easily figure out the style based on the type of essay.
Do Choose the Right Language
The language you use in the paper indicates your ability to research and analyze the topic, prove your opinion, and explain your points clearly and vividly.
It also shows the level of your language proficiency, knowledge of grammar and syntax, and ability to develop rich vocabulary. It is important to remember the academic style of writing and use the appropriate language. The following phrases work well to introduce and support your points:
- There seems to be no compelling reason to argue that …
- The argument can be made …
- Current research on [your topic] shows …
- The most common argument in favor of (or against) is …
- There is a growing body of evidence to support …
Do Revise your Writing Thoroughly
Before you hit ‘Save’ and print the final version, check your essay thoroughly to avoid spelling mistakes, typos and incorrect sentence constructions. Apart from language mistakes, check if you followed all the requirements: number of words/pages, text formatting, essay structure, etc.
See our page: Assignment Finishing Touches for more information.
The Don'ts of Essay Writing
Now that you’ve learnt the major Dos, let’s move to some Don’ts – the things you’d better avoid in essay writing.
Don't Overwhelm your Essay with Information and Facts
Though essays should be meaningful and detailed, learn to filter the information and choose only important points.
There is a temptation to include every single detail of your research to make the essay holistic and complete. However, your aim is to narrow the topic, show that you are able to analyze and structure information, and choose only the most relevant facts to prove your points.
Don't Neglect Formatting Details
No matter what your style and formatting requirements are, you should not forget to pay attention to the following points: paper size, spaces, font size, margins, and page numbers.
Also do not forget about narration types. For example, narrative essays tell stories from first person while persuasive or argumentative essays require that you leave emotions out and base your views on the solid facts, so no first person narration is appropriate.
Don't Use Too Many Clichés
While using set phrases, avoid overwhelming your essay with clichés.
Remember that not all clichés are good for every type of essay. What's more, professors expect your work to be original and truly value students with fresh ideas and views. Also, beware of using informal language. This doesn't mean that your writing should be reminiscent of a scientific thesaurus rather than real speech, but academic writing requires a certain level of formality.
See our page: Avoiding Clichés for more.
Don't Let Typos Ruin your Essay
Although typos do not indicate your language proficiency or grammar knowledge, they may show your professor that you are not attentive enough or do not care enough to proof read your essay.
Submitting a paper that looks like a draft can be interpreted by a professor as disrespectful.
Don’t Rely Only on Spell Checkers
Though spell checkers are good way to automatically proof read your writing, don’t rely on software alone.
These programs may miss a lot of spelling errors that that human eye will definitely notice. So, take time to proof read your essay. It is better to print out the final version on paper as spelling mistakes can be missed when reading from the screen. It is a good idea to ask someone else to have a fresh look at your essay and to proofread it for spelling mistakes.
Do Not Plagiarize
This rule should be clear for every student.
Plagiarism is a form of cheating, and when detected it is always punished.
Do not risk your reputation and your place in higher education. Plagiarism is easily detected today with the help of software and Google, so be honest with yourself and your educators and write on your own.
Reference every source to make sure you are not committing plagiarism, even unintentionally. It is a good idea to ‘know your enemy’ and read about the kinds of plagiarism possible and best ways to avoid it.
See our page: Academic Referencing for more information.
Do Not Address the Reader
No matter what type of essay you are writing, academic writing rarely reveals the author nor engages in the conversation with the reader. Addressing the reader is more a mark of fiction than an academic essay. While writing a college essay you should be detached, objective and analytical rather than appeal to the reader’s emotions and personality.
Don’t Start an Essay with “in this/my essay” Phrase
The introduction has to present the main idea of the essay and reveal what you are going to talk about.
Writing an effective introduction and including a thesis statement is enough to lead the reader into the context of your essay topic without using this meaningless high school phrase ‘In my essay I’m going to focus on…’
Don’t Use Negative Language
Negative language doesn’t mean vulgarisms. It means words with negative suffixes, phrases with negation, etc.
For example, painless is not a negative word in its meaning. However, using it makes the reader focus on pain instead of its absence. So it is better to replace so called negative language with more positive, synonymous expressions, like using economical instead of inexpensive, or comfortable/pleasant instead of painless.
When writing an essay you should walk a fine line between presenting a clear idea of the established knowledge and proving that you understand it well enough to make an independent assessment.
Show your professor your ability to format an essay correctly, choose the right style, express your point of view and prove it with facts. Learn to balance the form and meaning and essays will no longer be challenging for you.
About the Author
Tracy Collins is a writing instructor, education enthusiast and the author of the academic essay writing site EssayUniverse.org.
You can find her on Google+ and Facebook
As the government begins its crackdown on essay mill websites, it’s easy to see just how much pressure students are under to get top grades for their coursework these days. But writing a high-scoring paper doesn’t need to be complicated. We spoke to experts to get some simple techniques that will raise your writing game.
Tim Squirrell is a PhD student at the University of Edinburgh, and is teaching for the first time this year. When he was asked to deliver sessions on the art of essay-writing, he decided to publish a comprehensive (and brilliant) blog on the topic, offering wisdom gleaned from turning out two or three essays a week for his own undergraduate degree.
“There is a knack to it,” he says. “It took me until my second or third year at Cambridge to work it out. No one tells you how to put together an argument and push yourself from a 60 to a 70, but once you to get grips with how you’re meant to construct them, it’s simple.”
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The goal of writing any essay is to show that you can think critically about the material at hand (whatever it may be). This means going beyond regurgitating what you’ve read; if you’re just repeating other people’s arguments, you’re never going to trouble the upper end of the marking scale.
“You need to be using your higher cognitive abilities,” says Bryan Greetham, author of the bestselling How to Write Better Essays. “You’re not just showing understanding and recall, but analysing and synthesising ideas from different sources, then critically evaluating them. That’s where the marks lie.”
But what does critical evaluation actually look like? According to Squirrell, it’s simple: you need to “poke holes” in the texts you’re exploring and work out the ways in which “the authors aren’t perfect”.
“That can be an intimidating idea,” he says. “You’re reading something that someone has probably spent their career studying, so how can you, as an undergraduate, critique it?
“The answer is that you’re not going to discover some gaping flaw in Foucault’s History of Sexuality Volume 3, but you are going to be able to say: ‘There are issues with these certain accounts, here is how you might resolve those’. That’s the difference between a 60-something essay and a 70-something essay.”
Critique your own arguments
Once you’ve cast a critical eye over the texts, you should turn it back on your own arguments. This may feel like going against the grain of what you’ve learned about writing academic essays, but it’s the key to drawing out developed points.
“We’re taught at an early age to present both sides of the argument,” Squirrell continues. “Then you get to university and you’re told to present one side of the argument and sustain it throughout the piece. But that’s not quite it: you need to figure out what the strongest objections to your own argument would be. Write them and try to respond to them, so you become aware of flaws in your reasoning. Every argument has its limits and if you can try and explore those, the markers will often reward that.”
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Fine, use Wikipedia then
The use of Wikipedia for research is a controversial topic among academics, with many advising their students to stay away from the site altogether.
“I genuinely disagree,” says Squirrell. “Those on the other side say that you can’t know who has written it, what they had in mind, what their biases are. But if you’re just trying to get a handle on a subject, or you want to find a scattering of secondary sources, it can be quite useful. I would only recommend it as either a primer or a last resort, but it does have its place.”
Focus your reading
Reading lists can be a hindrance as well as a help. They should be your first port of call for guidance, but they aren’t to-do lists. A book may be listed, but that doesn’t mean you need to absorb the whole thing.
Squirrell advises reading the introduction and conclusion and a relevant chapter but no more. “Otherwise you won’t actually get anything out of it because you’re trying to plough your way through a 300-page monograph,” he says.
You also need to store the information you’re gathering in a helpful, systematic way. Bryan Greetham recommends a digital update of his old-school “project box” approach.
“I have a box to catch all of those small things – a figure, a quotation, something interesting someone says – I’ll write them down and put them in the box so I don’t lose them. Then when I come to write, I have all of my material.”
There are a plenty of online offerings to help with this, such as the project management app Scrivener and referencing tool Zotero, and, for the procrastinators, there are productivity programmes like Self Control, which allow users to block certain websites from their computers for a set period.
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Look beyond the reading list
“This is comparatively easy to do,” says Squirrell. “Look at the citations used in the text, put them in Google Scholar, read the abstracts and decide whether they’re worth reading. Then you can look on Google Scholar at other papers that have cited the work you’re writing about – some of those will be useful. But quality matters more than quantity.”
And finally, the introduction
The old trick of dealing with your introduction last is common knowledge, but it seems few have really mastered the art of writing an effective opener.
“Introductions are the easiest things in the world to get right and nobody does it properly,” Squirrel says. “It should be ‘Here is the argument I am going to make, I am going to substantiate this with three or four strands of argumentation, drawing upon these theorists, who say these things, and I will conclude with some thoughts on this area and how it might clarify our understanding of this phenomenon.’ You should be able to encapsulate it in 100 words or so. That’s literally it.”
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