Top tips for writing better essays
An essay is a short piece of non-fiction about a particular topic. It’s a common assignment in school and university, so you’ve probably already written a few. Essays can take many different forms. Narrative essays tell a story, while persuasive essays make an argument. Exploratory essays pursue an idea. No matter what kind of essay you’re writing, the principles below will help you connect with your readers.
1 Know your purpose
If you’re writing in response to an assignment, make sure you understand what you are being asked to write about. If you’re writing for another reason, it’s just as important to understand your goals. Whether you want to share information or an experience or get readers to change their minds, your purpose will determine the choices you make in your essay.
2 Understand your audience
The more you know about who will be reading your essay, the better. Readers who are experts on your topic will already have some background knowledge. Readers who are your age will be familiar with the same films and songs you’re likely to mention. The less you know about your audience, the more you’ll need to define your terms and provide context for your examples.
3 Brainstorm about your topic
Jot down everything you can think of related to the subject you’re going to write about. Some people make lists, while others draw diagrams or maps. The point is to quickly note lots of ideas in order to get started. If you don’t have any ideas, open a newspaper, turn on the television, or just look around. Chances are you’ll see something that suggests a topic.
4 Decide on a thesis
Your thesis is the claim you’re going to make about your topic. Consult the notes you made when you brainstormed to figure out what you want to say. Turn that idea into a complete sentence that makes a claim and includes your explanation or reason for that claim. Be prepared to change your thesis a bit as you work out your reasons and ideas.
5 Develop your essay
Now that you have a thesis, you need evidence to support your claim. Start by listing your reasons for believing what you do. Research what you need to; statistics and quotations will help you make your point. Personal stories also make good, unique examples that no one else could provide.
6 Create an essay structure
Organize your essay according to your purpose. If you’re writing a narrative, you’ll probably arrange your material in chronological order. Consider using flashbacks to create tension. For an argument, you might list your reasons in order of importance. Every essay has a beginning, middle, and end, but not every essay requires a formal introduction or conclusion.
Read more about structuring your writing.
7 Connect your ideas
Readers need a road map through your essay. Employ transitions to help them move from one idea to the next. Transitions are often individual words such as ‘then’, ‘but’, or ‘therefore’. Also, consider headings and repetition, devices that can also create good transitions.
Read more about cohesion in writing.
8 Choose memorable language
Use concrete, specific words. Write about a ‘bird’ and your reader won’t know whether it’s large, small, friendly, mean, or if it can even fly. Write about a ‘red tailed hawk’ and your reader will have a clear picture. Concrete words help the reader better understand what you want to communicate.
Read more about word choice.
9 Invent a strong title
People are busy and nobody has to read your essay. Write a title that makes them want to read it. You can get readers’ attention with an intriguing question or clever phrase, but make sure your title clearly conveys your essay topic. A simple subtitle will help you do this. Your title should also be searchable, since so many publications now appear online.
10 Edit and proofread your essay
Carefully check your work for errors. First, read your essay aloud. If anything sounds awkward, revise until you like the way it sounds. Second, make sure your grammar, punctuation, and spelling are all correct. When you think your essay is perfect, have a friend check it again.
Read more aboutwriting essays.
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This section draws on wide experience of writing difficulties encountered by mature students.
Check out the following links for tips and quizzes to get yourself off to a good start. For more advice, see the Writing skills section.
Survival skills for essay writing
Good practice will help you get things right from the word Go.
- Pay detailed attention to the question: underline key words and phrases, then address each systematically. As you work, keep checking that you are still on track.
- Treat your essay as a work in progress: don't expect blinding flashes of insight. Work on one job at a time - researching, making notes, planning, drafting a specific section, and so on. Build it up gradually.
- Foreground your argument: decide what your 'take' on the question is, and at the beginning of each paragraph use a phrase like 'In addition', 'Despite this, 'As a result', and so on. This will show how what you're going to say next relates to what you've just said.
- Base your argument on facts and the work of specialists: your personal view won't score marks without hard evidence.
Well-constructed paragraphsA paragraph is a box containing the items necessary to explain one idea. Clear paragraphs are essential in order to:
- help demonstrate your points
- make your essay easy to read
Planning an essay:
- a paragraph for your introduction
- at least one paragraph for each topic covered
- a paragraph for your conclusion
Planning a paragraph:
- a key statement
- explanation, evidence and/or analysis
- a link to the previous paragraph
- relevance to the essay question
- too short (4 to 5 lines or less): add more evidence and analysis OR include this section within another paragraph OR cut it out altogether
- too long (nearly a page): find a point at which to split it, add a link, and so make your essay easier to read.
For more advice, see Putting pen to paper.
What do you know about verbs?
1) Which of these statements are true?
a) Verbs are about doing, being or having.
b) All sentences must have a verb in them.
c) An infinitive is acceptable as the sole verb in a sentence.
2) Would you know what to do about the following comments on an essay?
a) Keep to the same tense.
b) This sentence has no main verb.
c) You make too much use of the passive.
For more advice, see Chapter 13 in The Mature Student's Guide to Writing by Jean Rose
3) What's wrong with the following?
a) Ken had been at the football ground all afternoon. Watching the match.
b) Brad ran down the road with the cheque. Laughing all the way to the bank.
Help! They want me to write about my life!
If you've been asked to do some autobiographical writing, it's not because anybody wants to pry. You can leave out any nasty bits if you want to.
Your tutors are likely to be especially interested in your educational experiences. So if you always got bad grades, or upset the Head, you can still write fully about the school itself without giving the whole game away.
The value of autobiographical work is in getting you to:
- develop your language skills
- improve your ability to structure a piece of work
- develop the use of your imaginative faculties through visualising and describing the past
- practise being objective
- evaluate personal experience against a wider background
- look at your own experience of history in the making
1) Which sentence is correct - A or B?
a) Mrs Thatcher led Britain's Conservative Party, she was in power during the Falklands War.
b) Mrs Thatcher led Britain's Conservative Party. She was in power during the Falklands War.
2) Which sentence is correct - A or B?
a) The dog licked its paw. It's clean now.
b) The dog licked it's paw. Its clean now.
3) Which sentence is correct - A or B?
a) 'Here is the news,' said the announcer.
b) 'Here is the news.' Said the announcer.
4) Which sentence is correct - A or B?
a) We could see the elephant's trunk's waving over the wall.
b) We could see the elephants' trunks waving over the wall.
5) Which sentence is correct - A or B?
a) Environmental issues are in the forefront of public interest; large corporations find it pays to consider public concern.
b) Many more companies are starting to conserve the environment; for example, producing biodegradable items and using cleaner fuel.
For more advice, see Chapter 15 in The Mature Student's Guide to Writing by Jean Rose.
Summaries and style
You've been asked to summarise an article, giving the main points. If you're pushed for time, you'll probably make a quick list and write out your points with a bit of explanation. This may well keep you out of trouble. If you've time to do things properly, however, follow the guide below.
There are 5 steps:
- Read the article through once quickly.
- Read once, slowly, making notes on key issues in your own words as far as possible (omitting any examples).
- Write a draft summary from your notes without looking back at the article.
- Check your word-count and facts, and cut or expand accordingly.
- Copy out your final draft.
Chapters 4 and 5 in The Mature Student's Guide to Writing explain this in detail, together with information on tone, simplicity and clarity, and on adjusting your language for different types of writing that are suitable for different purposes.
Writing a report
1) The abstract of a report is:
a) an appendix to the report
b) a summary of what the report contains
c) a section copied from a report
2) The terms of reference are:
a) an explanation of why and how the report was written
b) a list of documents consulted during preparation of the report
c) a list of people interviewed, plus their signed agreement to use their information
3) The conclusions of a report set out:
a) a summing-up and analysis
b) recommendations for future change
c) the writer's considered opinion on the topics covered
4) Which sentence uses the correct language for a report?
a) Several employees said, 'We're not given the right tools.'
b) Several employees said that they had not been given the right tools.
For more advice, see chapter 8 in The Mature Student's Guide to Writing by Jean Rose.
Test your letter-writing technique in the following quiz. This page follows the conventions used by UK examination boards.
Are the following statements true or false?
1. Always print your name above your address.
2. Put your address in the top right-hand corner.
3. If you don't know the name of the person you are addressing, write 'Dear Sir'.
4. Put the date in the top left-hand corner.
5. Always use capitals for the words 'Yours Faithfully'.
6. A letter beginning 'Dear Ms Smith', should end with the words 'Yours faithfully'.
For more advice, see Chapter 6 of The Mature Student's Guide to Writing by Jean Rose.