By Mikael Fevang.
Often neglected and delayed until the last minute, the essay is a part of higher education that is dreaded by many. Few things are more idiosyncratic of the student experience than having to pull an all-nighter to meet an essay deadline the following day, or stress over the inertia of your word count. You, like me, have probably sought aid in various online guides to speed up the process and improve your writing. The following is a collection of the best tips I have stumbled across over the years. I owe much to these nifty tricks and ideas, and I hope you can benefit from them too. Sharing is caring.
Argue something. Many, especially from the continent, were taught in school that a good essay is one that displays both sides of the case. “On one side this, on the other side that”. Not only are they thoroughly dull to write, but they are also horribly boring to read. Neutrality is neither a virtue nor a signifier of intellectual ability. Thus, the first tip is this: argue something. Take a stance. Anticipate counterarguments and show your reader why they are irrelevant or plainly wrong. Be bold in your writing. The best essays—academic or not—are those that convey a clear, intellectually provoking idea that pre-empts criticisms. By arguing something, you will appreciate the process more, and markers will appreciate the engaging read – regardless of whether they agree or not.
Be transparent and repeat yourself. Do not save your argument for the conclusion. Say exactly what you are going to argue in your introduction, as well as how you are going to argue it. Repeat your core argument throughout the essay and both introduce and summarise what you are saying in at least each section. Tie everything you say back to the core argument. You are not writing a mystery novel, and your argument should be as clear and unequivocal as possible.
Ensure that it flows. A good essay reads like a steady stream of consciousness. It appears to have been written in a single go, regardless of meticulous wording and referencing. An impossibility for most of us, editing is the tool of choice most capable of ensuring the same effect. Adjacent sentences should be connected in topic; new paragraphs should feel as the natural extension of the prior one, and loose threads should always be sewed back in. If your essay does not flow, your argument will be muddled and opaque.
Contextualise it. Perhaps, the essay can be linked to current events, or maybe analogies can be drawn to much older debates. In however you choose to frame it, contextualising your argument in the essay’s opening lines is a good way to demonstrate its relevance, engage your reader, and parade your wider knowledge. It also offers a pleasing transition of the mind from the outside world to the essay.
Vary your sentence length. This is by far the best tip I ever received on how to improve my writing. Not only does it increase readability—it also gives your text flair. It prevents your essay from having a monotonous, repetitive tone and eases capturing the attention of your reader. You should try it.
Do not overcomplicate your language. I understand the temptation of using exotic words and phrases in your writing. While they can certainly add panache, overuse carries the risk of occluding your argument. Stick to the ones that are either necessary or more accurate than their vernacular counterparts. Discard the rest. Sentences should be as short as possible. Limit your use of thesauruses to rediscovering words you are already familiar with.
Save time for editing. This requires more time and planning than what was alluded to in the introduction, but it is worth its weight in gold. Simply taking another look at your finished essay after a good night’s sleep can reveal glaring errors and opportunities for elegant rephrasing. Asking friends for feedback is similarly invaluable. Furthermore, proper typesetting is a low-effort and high-reward undertaking. Find a good Serif font, create a cover page, and ensure everything looks nice and tidy. It requires only a couple of minutes, and it can bump you up a grade. Even a turd can be polished.