As a full-time teaching professor, I estimate I mark close to 900 essays a year across nine intensive marking periods. In every marking period, the same essay writing issues recur.
This indicates to me that there are some systemic issues in the ways we teach essay writing. Educators haven’t successfully communicated some very important points about essay writing to their students. So, in this article, I want to share with you the 7 biggest things I wish my students knew before they turned up in my college classes.
1. Use Your Teacher’s Advice
As a rule of thumb, I write about five in-text comments per page. In an eight-page essay, that’s 40 pieces of advice. I then write three key takeaway points at the end of an essay.
I try to frame my feedback as ‘feed forward’. Feed forward comments are tips specifically for how to improve for next time. However, too often I’ll mark a student’s follow-up paper and it’s got the same errors in it!
The first and most important piece of advice on how to write effective essays is this: pay attention to the advice your teacher provides. If you’re not open to learning from feedback, you’re not going to improve.
Teachers don’t only give advice in essay feedback. We also constantly drop hints about what we want to see in your essays in class. The handouts we give and the lectures we prepare are all designed to point you towards the information we want you to know.
So, pay attention to information provided both in class and in your essay feedback.
2. Plan the Essay Thoroughly
There is a flow to any written piece, and essays are no different. Essays tell a story. While you likely understand the basics of essay structure (introduction, body, conclusion), there is much more to it than that.
The body of an essay also has a flow. Some information will logically precede other information. A good student can line up their essay paragraphs so they build on one another to formulate a solid argument and show the reader your depth of knowledge.
A well-planned essay starts with the foundational content. This might include providing definitions or explanations that prove to your marker you have core knowledge about a topic. As the essay progresses, develop a narrative that becomes increasingly analytical. By the time you reach your final paragraphs, you will be able to make claims and value judgements you would not have been able to make at the outset. Your significant claims will appear more convincing at the end of the piece because you will have laid the foundations and show you know what you’re talking about toward the beginning.
To plan your essay, I recommend listing all the points you would like to make. Each point in an undergraduate essay should usually represent about one paragraph. Once you have listed the points you want to make, sort them into a logical storyline. Start with your definitions and end with your most compelling analytical points. Each paragraph in between should build toward that final paragraph.
3. Use Clear Topic Sentences
Essay markers are business-like in our marking. We do not read essays for entertainment. We read them to get an understanding of how deep your knowledge and analysis are. That’s it.
Once you understand this, you should write essays with one thing in mind: to make it easy for your marker to give you a good grade.
The best way to make it easy for us to give you a good grade is to put your key points in the most salient real estate in your essay: the first sentence of each paragraph. This will mean your marker will not have to dig around to find the key pieces of information. They will be able to identify the key points through a quick skim of the first sentences of each paragraph.
The first sentence is the paragraph’s most important sentence.
Don’t make us read five sentences into a paragraph before revealing what the paragraph is about. Instead, show us exactly what the paragraph is about immediately. Then, fill in the rest of the paragraph with explanations and examples that back up your key point and show your depth of knowledge.
4. A Good Paragraph Length is 4 to 7 Sentences
Short paragraphs are excellent for blog posts. They can also work very well in creative fiction writing.
However, in formal academic writing, paragraph conventions are very different. An academic paragraph should not be too short because it will not contain enough depth. You need to be able to show your marker that you have detailed understanding of your topic.
A paragraph should not be too long for two reasons. Firstly, a paragraph should only have one key point in it. The longer your paragraph goes, the more likely it is that you will diverge too far from the point you made in your topic sentence. Secondly, markers are only human. They, like you, look at a full-page paragraph with trepidation and, sometimes, despair. When they’re marking 40,000 to 60,000 words per day, the last thing your marker wants is to wade through a convoluted and rambling block of unbroken text.
I recommend to my students that they write a paragraph that is somewhere between 4 and 7 sentences long. This will give you sufficient time to make your point, add explanations, and include quality examples. However, it will also force you to be succinct in your analysis before moving on to your next point.
5. Provide Scholarly Citations in Every Paragraph
Each paragraph makes a point. Therefore, each paragraph in an academic essay should back that point up with a scholarly citation.
Scholarly citations are not blog post or websites. They are, generally, journal articles from peer reviewed academic journals and textbooks backed by scientific data. To find good scholarly sources, try using Google Scholar or your university’s library website.
Many of my undergraduate students find it hard to understand scholarly journal articles. These articles are often written in complex academic language. While I recommend that you continue to engage with journal articles, keep in mind that textbooks are generally easier to read. So, if you are struggling to find a readable scholarly source, I recommend spending some time in your university library surrounded by a selection of textbooks from the shelves.
There are two paragraphs that many teachers claim should not have citations. These are the introduction and conclusion. This often depends upon the scholarly traditions of the field and college in which you are studying. Consult your teacher for advice on whether to use citations in the introduction and conclusion of your essay.
6. Finish Early and Consult your Teacher
Students who finish their assignments early are off to an enormous advantage.
Finishing early has three major benefits. Firstly, you can absorb challenges in your life. The number of students who ask for extensions due to last-minute personal issues would amaze many people. I am bombarded with emails asking for extensions the night before every due date. If a student is leaving an essay so late, the smallest last-minute personal challenge becomes unmanageable.
Secondly, if you finish early, you can edit your work thoroughly. Finish your draft early, then take some time to clear your mind. Come back to the essay in three or four days’ time to look over it with fresh eyes. You’ll identify many errors that you can work on to improve your writing.
Thirdly, try to get your teacher to run their eyes over your draft. With spare time at the end, you can bring your draft to them to get a feel for what the teacher wants to see in a piece that would get top grades.
7. Use ProWritingAid to Edit your Work
You need to develop procedures for editing your work. Your editing procedures should include printing the work and editing it on paper, getting peers to read over your work, and using the power of technology to automate the editing process.
ProWritingAid can generate 20 writing reports that you could put to good use for editing your work. To get started with editing using ProWritingAid, set the writing style to ‘Academic’ in the top-right corner of the web editor. This will let ProWritingAid make recommendations on how to write in a scholarly style.
Next, make use of the core grammar and spelling reports to ensure your writing has no significant glaring mistakes that will cost you marks. While you’re there, check for super-long sentences using the sentence length report. Long sentences harm readability. This is a common issue in student writing, so it’s worth checking when editing your work.
I would also recommend making use of the pronoun report. Most academic writing requires that you write in formal third-person writing. The pronoun report can help you scan for accidental use of first-person pronouns.
Finally, consider purchasing credits for the plagiarism checker. Most university teachers have access to plagiarism checker tools these days which makes your risk of being pulled up for accidental plagiarism higher than ever.
I always recommend checking with your teacher about their preferences for how you should write an academic paper. However, these core strategies can set the foundations for good writing.
Over time, you will develop your own strategies and preferences for academic writing. Your new strategies should build upon the seven fundamentals outlined in this article so you can achieve quality writing at a university level.