Essay Writing Tips
With just one week of school left, summer break is so close you can almost taste it. But chances are there are a still a few assignments and projects in between you and your two and a half months of freedom…and perhaps even a few dreaded essays. Maybe it’s hard to even imagine summer break right now because you’re so overwhelmed by your papers. They’re the worst, right? Maybe not. There are several strategies and habits you can develop that can make essay writing easier, more painless, and maybe even fun! Here are some tips to get you started.
- Start ahead of time
I know, I know. You have a lot going on, it’s too hard to start things early…basically you always hear this advice and never follow it. But just this once, make time and try it out. Prioritizing your essay writing will severely reduce your stress, make the writing process more enjoyable, and give you a better paper in the end. This is because you’ll have plenty of time to brainstorm, research, try out new ideas, get feedback, edit and revise, and take breaks. You’ll be calmer and less anxious as you write, and perhaps you’ll find that essays aren’t that bad after all!
- Follow the prompt/ answer the question
This may seem like common sense, but it’s very important. There are many types of essays, and teachers often have specific guidelines for you to follow and questions for you to answer. You could turn in a well-crafted, organized, and informative essay but still get a bad grade if you didn’t pay attention to the prompt. If your teacher wants you to use quotes from a text, use quotes from the text. If you’re supposed to have five sources, make sure you use five sources. If you’re asked to answer a specific question, make sure you answer all parts of the question directly, completely, and thoroughly. Your teacher will almost always notice if you tweak the prompt, so don’t even try.
- Plan ahead
Brainstorm what you want to write about before you start writing. Do all your research ahead of time, and make a rough outline of your paper. You can change this outline as you go if necessary, but it’s much easier to get started if you have at least a rough plan and a good amount of data. This helps with writer’s block, and it ensures that you actually have ideas and examples to include in your essay.
- Get rid of distractions
When you’re ready to begin writing, it’s important to find a good working environment. Find a place where you feel relaxed and comfortable, but not so relaxed that you won’t be able to buckle down and write. Also make sure there aren’t too many distractions around you. Can you hear the TV? Can you smell your sister’s snack? Can you see your neighbors having a water fight outside? These are all distractions that will make writing harder. Try working at a desk in your room with the door shut, at a table in the library, or in another quiet space.
- Develop a working thesis
Your thesis statement tells your reader about your interpretation of the significance of the subject matter of your paper. It is usually one sentence (but is occasionally two or three) somewhere in your introduction that presents your argument and tells your reader what to expect from the rest of the paper. It directly answers the question or prompt, making a clear claim that others could dispute. Clearly your thesis is central to your paper, so in order to help you write well, it is important to develop a working thesis early on. This simply means you can change your thesis as you go; often after you’ve written some or most of your paper you’ll gain a clearer understanding of what precisely you want your main argument to be.
- Just write!
Often people have trouble writing essays because they don’t know where to start. They stare at a blank computer screen, wondering what to write first, and then get stressed and frustrated. If this happens to you, try starting somewhere other than the introduction. Sometimes it’s best to actually end with the intro, once you know what the rest of your paper is like. Often you even end up tweaking your thesis some. So the main point is: just write. Start wherever you want, jump around some, relax, and let your first draft flow. Don’t worry if parts don’t sound good; since you started early you’ll have plenty of time to reword, add, delete, and move phrases around. You’ll also have time to fix grammar and punctuation, so don’t worry about that yet either. The important thing is to get something written and get your mind working.
- Take breaks
Studies show that you are actually more productive if you take breaks every fifty minutes or so. Depending on your attention span, sometimes as often as thirty minutes is desirable. So don’t stare at your screen for hours on end! Get up and eat a snack, walk around outside, or chat with your family. This will keep you from getting discouraged and help you focus while you are writing, and you’ll be thankful that you started early enough to allow time for breaks. It may even be best to set a timer to remind yourself when to start and stop working.
- Intro: Grab the reader
Although the order you write your paper in doesn’t matter, eventually you’ll need an introduction, some body paragraphs, and a conclusion. The introduction is the first paragraph(s) of your essay, and although introductions vary based on the type of essay you’re writing, most follow a general format. Your essay should begin in a creative way that grabs the reader; thus the very first sentence of an essay is sometimes called the “hook.” Your introduction should also contain a brief overview of what you’re going to talk about in your paper. Most importantly, it should contain your thesis sentence(s), often toward the end of the first paragraph.
- Body: Be specific!
The body of your paper should contain the bulk of your research, arguments, examples, and quotes. Again, papers will vary greatly, but there are general guidelines to make the body of your paper stronger. Here are a few:
-After you state an argument, use specific examples and explain them thoroughly. Explain both the examples and how they relate to your argument.
-Make sure your transitions from topic to topic are smooth. New main ideas usually need new paragraphs, and you need to make sure your sentences and paragraphs connect to previous sentences and paragraphs. Sometimes using words and phrases like “also,” “next,” “in addition,” and “along with” are helpful, but don’t overuse these words and phrases.
-If you’re using quotes in your essay, utilize the “quote sandwich.” This means that before you state the quote you should introduce what you’re going to say (the bread). Then you should say the actual quote (the filling), making sure never to begin a sentence with a quote. In other words, start each sentence with your own words. Finally, after you end the quote you shouldn’t move on until you explain what the quote is talking about and how it connects to your essay (the bread). Another general rule of thumb is you should almost never include a quote in your essay that is more than two lines long.
- Conclusion: Don’t copy the intro!
The conclusion of your essay should wrap everything up. Often people overlook the conclusion, but it is very important and makes your paper much stronger overall. The conclusion should connect back to your introduction, thesis, and body paragraphs, but don’t bore your readers by essentially copying your intro. Changing the phrasing of the introduction isn’t good enough; instead try adding at least one compelling idea as an intriguing thought to end on. Again, conclusions will vary from paper to paper.
Often people write one draft of an essay and then turn it in. But revising and editing are just as important as the initial writing phase, especially since you shouldn’t have aimed for perfection on your first draft. Revising and editing are two different things, and revising refers to making organizational and content changes in your paper. When you revise you should look at your paper as a whole, considering voice, strengths, weaknesses, and more. Often you’ll end up making extensive changes, so give yourself plenty of time to change things, move things, delete things, add things, and try new ideas. Here are a few tips to keep in mind as you revise:
-Use VARIETY! This one is so key. Make sure your sentences vary in length, structure, and type. Use a variety of words as well.
-Use an active rather than a passive voice. When you use an active voice the sentence subject performs the action, but when you use a passive voice the action is performed upon the sentence subject. This sounds confusing, but hopefully an example should help: instead of saying, “The sandwich was eaten by the girl,” you should say, “The girl ate the sandwich.”
-Avoid clichés. You know, like “in the nick of time” or “without a care in the world”. Find original and descriptive ways to present your ideas.
- Edit: Grammar matters!
Editing refers to making changes in grammar, punctuation, spelling, and more. Sometimes editing isn’t the most fun, but it’s important! You could have great ideas, examples, and quotes, but your paper won’t be strong unless you pay attention to grammar and punctuation. You can also look at your word choice, and get rid of unnecessary words. For example, instead of saying “due to the fact that,” you can just say “because” or “since.”
- Read your paper out loud
If you’ve never done this before, test it out! You’ll be amazed at how many mistakes you didn’t catch when you just read your paper in your head.
- Get feedback from others
Having others look over your essay can be really helpful. You already know what you’re trying to say, but a fresh set of eyes can find mistakes you overlooked, parts that aren’t as clear as you thought they were, places where the paper seems choppy, and more.
- Format your final copy correctly
Teachers have different guidelines for papers, so make sure you know exactly what your teacher wants. In general teachers will expect 12-point Times New Roman font, one inch margins, and double spacing. A reference list, works cited, or bibliography is also often necessary. Perhaps your teacher wants you to follow a certain format like MLA, APA, or Chicago-Turabian. If so, Purdue Owl is a website that helps with formatting and more. Check it out at https://owl.english.purdue.edu/owl/.
Now that you have some guidelines, essay writing will hopefully be more fun! Get started today so that by this time next week you can be enjoying summer break!