Honestly, throughout most of high school and college, I was a mediocre essay writer.
Every once in a while, I would write a really good essay, but mostly I skated by with B’s and A-minuses.
I know personally how boring writing an essay can be, and also, how hard it can be to write a good one.
Writing an essay? Don’t pull your hair out. Here are 10 tips to write a great essay. Photo by Stuart Pilbrow (Creative Commons)
However, toward the end of my time as a student, I made a breakthrough. I figured out how to not only write a great essay, I learned how to have fun while doing it.
That’s right. Fun.
Why Writing an Essay Is So Hard?
Here are a few reasons:
- You’d rather be scrolling through Facebook.
- You’re trying to write something your teacher or professor will like.
- You’re trying to get an A instead of writing something that’s actually good.
- You want to do the least amount of work possible.
The biggest reason writing an essay is so hard is because we mostly focus on those external rewards like getting a passing grade or our teacher’s approval. The problem is that when you focus on external approval it not only makes writing much less fun, it also makes it significantly harder.
Because when you focus on external approval, you shut down your subconscious, and the subconscious is the source of your creativity. What this means practically is that when you’re trying to write that perfect, A-plus-worthy sentence, you’re turning off most of your best resources.
Just stop. Stop trying to write a good essay (or even a “good-enough” essay). Instead, write an interesting essay, write an essay you think is fascinating. And when you’re finished, go back and edit it until it’s “good” according to your teacher’s standards.
Yes, you need to follow the guidelines in your assignment. If your teacher tells you to write a five-paragraph essay, then write a five-paragraph essay! However, within those guidelines, find room to express something that is uniquely you.
I can’t guarantee you’ll get a higher grade (although, you almost certainly will), but I can absolutely promise you’ll have a lot more fun writing.
10 Tips to Writing a Great Essay
Ready to get writing? Here are my ten best tips for having fun while writing an essay that earns you the top grade!
1. Your essay is just a story.
Every story is about conflict and change, and the truth is that essays are about conflict and change, too! The difference is that in an essay, the conflict is between different ideas, the change is in the way we should perceive those ideas.
That means that the best essays are about surprise, “You probably think it’s one way, but in reality, you should think of it this other way.” See tip #3 for more on this.
2. Before you start writing, ask yourself, “How can I have the most fun writing this?”
It’s normal to feel unmotivated when writing an essay. I’m a writer, and honestly, I feel unmotivated to write all the time. But I have a super-ninja, judo-mind trick I like to use to help motivate myself.
Here’s the secret trick: One of the interesting things about your subconscious is that it will answer any question you ask yourself. So whenever you feel unmotivated to write your essay, ask yourself the following question:
How much fun can I have writing this?”
Your subconscious will immediately start thinking of strategies to make the writing process more fun. Here’s another sneaky question to ask yourself when you really don’t want to write:
How can I finish this as quickly as possible?
Give it a try!
3. As you research, ask yourself, “What surprises me about this subject?”
The temptation, when you’re writing an essay, is to write what you think your teacher or professor wants to read. Don’t do this. Instead, ask yourself, “What do I find interesting about this subject? What surprises me?”
If you can’t think of anything that surprises you, anything you find interesting, then you’re not searching well enough, because history, science, and literature are all brimmingover with surprises. When you look at how great ideas actually happen, the story is always, “We used to think the world was this way. We found out we were completely wrong, and that the world is actually quite different from what we thought.”
As you research your essay topic, search for this story of surprise, and don’t start writing until you can find it.
(By the way, what sources should you use for research? Check out tip #10 below.)
4. Overwhelmed? Just write five original sentences.
The standard three-point essay is really made up of just five original sentences, surrounded by supporting paragraphs that back up those five sentences. If you’re feeling overwhelmed, just write five sentences. Here’s what they might look like:
- Thesis: While most students consider writing an essay a boring task, with the right mindset, it can actually be an enjoyable experience.
- Body #1: Most students think writing an essay is tedious because they focus on external rewards.
- Body #2: Students should instead focus on internal fulfillment when writing an essay.
- Body #3: Not only will focusing on internal fulfillment allow students to have more fun, they will write better essays.
- Conclusion: Writing an essay doesn’t have to be simply a way to earn a good grade. Instead, it can be a means of finding fulfillment.
After you write your five sentences, it’s easy to fill in the paragraphs they will find themselves in.
Now, you give it a shot!
5. Be “source heavy.”
In college, I discovered a trick that helped me go from a B-average student to an A-student, but before I explain how it works, let me warn you. This technique is powerful, but it might not work for all teachers or professors. Use with caution.
As I was writing a paper for a literature class, I realized that the articles and books I was reading said what I was trying to say much better than I ever could. So what did I do? I just quoted them liberally throughout my paper. When I wasn’t quoting, I re-phrased what they said in my own words, giving proper credit, of course. I found that not only did this formula create a well-written essay, it took about half the time to write.
When I used this technique, my professors sometimes mentioned that my papers were very “source” heavy. However, at the same time, they always gave me A’s. Like the five sentence trick, this technique makes the writing process simpler. Instead of putting the main focus on writing well, it instead forces you to research well, which some students find easier.
6. Write the body first, the introduction second, and the conclusion last.
Introductions are often the hardest part to write because you’re trying to summarize your entire essay before you’ve even written it yet. Instead, try writing your introduction last, giving yourself the body of the paper to figure out the main point of your essay.
7. Most essays answer the question, “What?” Good essays answer the “Why?” The best essays answer the “How?”
If you get stuck trying to make your argument, or you’re struggling to reach the required word count, try focusing on the question, “How?” For example:
- How did J.D. Salinger convey the theme of inauthenticity in The Catcher In the Rye?
- How did Napoleon restore stability in France after the French Revolution?
- How does the research prove girls really do rule and boys really do drool?
If you focus on how, you’ll always have enough to write about.
8. Don’t be afraid to jump around.
Essay writing can be a dance. You don’t have to stay in one place and write from beginning to end. Give yourself the freedom to write as if you’re circling around your topic rather than making a single, straightforward argument. Then, when you edit, you can make sure everything lines up correctly.
9. Here are some words and phrases you don’t want to use.
- You (You’ll notice I use a lot of you’s, which is great for a blog post. However, in an essay, it’s better to omit the second-person.)
- To Be verbs
Don’t have time to edit? Here’s a lightning-quick editing technique.
A note about “I”: Some teachers say you shouldn’t use “I” statements in your writing, but the truth is that professional, academic papers often use phrases like “I believe” and “in my opinion,” especially in their introductions.
10. It’s okay to use Wikipedia, if…
Wikipedia isn’t just one of the top 5 websites in the world, it can be a great tool for research. However, most teachers and professors don’t consider Wikipedia a valid source for use in essays. However, here are two ways you can use Wikipedia in your essay writing:
- Background research. If you don’t know enough about your topic, Wikipedia can be a great resource to quickly learn everything you need to know to get started.
- Find sources. Check the reference section of Wikipedia’s articles on your topic. While you may not be able to cite Wikipedia itself, you can often find those original sources and site them.
The thing I regret most about high school and college is that I treated it like something I had to do rather than something I wanted to do.
The truth is, education is an opportunity many people in the world don’t have access to. It’s a gift, not just something that makes your life more difficult. I don’t want you to make the mistake of just “getting by” through school, waiting desperately for summer breaks and, eventually, graduation.
How would your life be better if you actively enjoyed writing an essay? What would school look like if you wanted to suck it dry of all the gifts it has to give you?
All I’m saying is, don’t miss out!
How about you? Do you have any tips for writing an essay?
Use tip #4 and write five original sentences that could be turned into an essay.
When you’re finished, share your five sentences in the comments section.
And remember, have fun!
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Hey there guys! This week’s article is a guest post by Ransom Patterson.
Ransom is a sophomore at the College of Wooster majoring in English and has been an incredibly active CIG reader – leaving well thought-out comments on articles, listening to the podcast, submitting listener tips and questions for Q&A episodes, and more – all things that I’ve been incredibly happy and grateful to see.
Not only that, but Ransom has also taken the time to create his own website, portfolio, and blog using the personal website guide – and he did it when he was a freshman! I can safely say that Ransom’s got his sh*t together.
On his blog, Ransom’s been writing about grammar usage and other English tips – things that are definitely useful to students. Based on this work, I’m happy to bring you a guest post from him – enjoy his writing tips, and start crafting kick-ass papers!
I don’t know about the rest of you, but here at my school midterms are right around the corner.
For lots of you I’m sure that means a bunch of papers will soon be due. With that in mind, here are six tips to help your writing stand apart (note that 300% is merely an estimate of your improvement. YMMV).
1. Don’t Trust Spell Check!
We’re quite lucky that we have software that can catch our spelling mistakes.
Despite all its sophistication, though, it’s still no substitute for knowing proper usage. Computers are stupid; they can’t distinguish such subtleties as the difference between:
- “your” and “you’re”
- “its” and “it’s”
- “their,” “they’re” and “there.”
Don’t be the student who turns in a paper with these basic errors – always proofread your papers! Or visit your school’s writing center (see tip 5).
2. “Its” Does Not Equal “It’s”
Since spell check doesn’t know the difference, this rule bears repeating. It’s bad enough to make this error in an informal social media situation, but it’s a truly capital offense in formal writing (this mistake irks every English professor or teacher I’ve had).
So what’s the difference?
“Its” is the possessive form of “it,” as in,
“The corgi loved its lobster costume.”
Only use “its” when referring to something that you could safely call “it.” People generally do not fit this category, particularly in formal writing.
“It’s,” on the other hand, is the contracted (which is just a fancy way of saying shortened) form of “it is.”
Just as “you’re” is short for “you are” or “they’re” is short for “they are,” so “it’s” is short for “it is.” Only use “it’s” where you could also use “it is,” as in,
“Look at the corgi–it’s so cute!”
If you remember the difference between its and it’s, you’re certain to impress your professors.
3. When in Doubt, Stick to Third Person (Usually)
When you’re writing a formal paper, it’s generally best to stick to the third person.
Avoid phrases such as “I believe,” “I think,” or “you know.” Not only are these phrases inappropriately informal, but they also make your writing seem weak and wishy-washy. If you really think or believe something, show it with concrete evidence.
Writing Commons has a more nuanced view on this topic, but this observation is a good one for writers who are unsure:
“Why do teachers often counsel against using the first person in an academic paper? Used too frequently or without care, it can make a writer seem self-centered, even self-obsessed. A paper filled with “I,” “me,” and “mine” can be distracting to a reader, as it creates the impression that the writer is more interested in him- or herself than the subject matter.
Additionally, the first person is often a more casual mode, and if used carelessly, it can make a writer seem insufficiently serious for an academic project.”
Once important exception to this rule is if you are writing a personal reflection paper. The essays you wrote as part of your college application probably fit this category.
Knowing how to write about yourself is essential when applying to graduate school or filling out job applications, especially on those pesky cover letters. Talking about yourself can be uncomfortable and difficult, but it’s a skill you neglect at your peril.
4. Be F*cking Specific!
Compare the following two sentences and tell me which is more descriptive:
- The corgi liked her new ball.
- The corgi chased her new ball with relish.
Hopefully you would agree the second example is more descriptive and interesting than the first. This is because the second example is specific! Instead of vaguely stating that the corgi “liked” her new ball, the second example demonstrates that by describing a concrete action the corgi took.
Apply this principle to your papers, and you will be lightyears ahead of most students. As one of my current professors, Dr. Prendergast, puts it,
“If you’re having trouble meeting the minimum word count for a paper, it’s probably because you’re not being specific enough.”
Just remember: Show the reader, don’t tell them.
5. Don’t Fear Your School’s Writing Center
I imagine your school has some sort of writing center, a place where you can get knowledgeable people to help you make your writing assignments awesome.
Use this resource! (you’re paying for it regardless) There’s no shame in getting help, and it’s always good to have someone look over your work before publishing/submitting it. Even super famous authors have editors.
If you’re not sure if your school has one, just Google “Name of your school” + “writing center.”
6. Have a Point!
Ever get halfway through watching a movie and wonder, “What was the point of this film again?”
There’s plenty of action, the special effects are spectacular, but you’re unsure why you’re watching it (think Transformers 4).
Don’t let this happen to your paper. Don’t write just to fill space – begin with a point in mind and follow it through to a strong conclusion. This isn’t always easy, particularly if the paper is long, but it’s essential that you keep your point (or “thesis” in academic terms) at the forefront of your paper at all times. Every word you write should, to some degree, further this point.
This is why the stereotypical “Five Paragraph Essay” with the introduction, three body paragraphs, and conclusion is such a popular way of teaching students to write – it makes sure you establish your point from the outset, state three pieces of evidence in support of it, and then bring it to a (hopefully) strong conclusion. Don’t be a slave to this formula, but feel free to use it if you’re not sure where to begin.
Just remember, your professors hate reading pointless, meandering papers just as much as you hate watching Michael Bay’s pointless crap (was that too harsh?). Editor’s note: I love watching Michael Bay’s pointless crap because I am secretly a 5-year-old and ROBOT DINOSAURS
These are just a few tips to get you started. If you want more in-depth advice, I recommend the following blogs/sites:
These books are also excellent:
Good luck, and may the grammar gods smile on you in all your writing endeavors.
Images: Startup stock photos, corgi, transformers