Improve your essay writing

What’s the secret of writing essays? There isn’t one. Like any other skill, from driving a car to making Sunday lunch, it gets better with practice.

July 6, 2024
Article by:

What’s the secret of writing essays? There isn’t one. Like any other skill, from driving a car to making Sunday lunch, it gets better with practice.

Two myths need debunking: -

‘Some people are born writers.’

Fact: writing is 99% perspiration and 1% inspiration (I bet even William Shakespeare did not always get 10 out of 10 at school for his essays)!

‘Good essay technique can hide a basic lack of knowledge.’

As an examiner and teacher for over 40 years, ranging from secondary to post graduate university, believe me, this can be spotted a mile off.

First step to writing good essays is knowing your stuff. What planned essay technique can do is push those grades up by good presentational skills.    




THINK:  Read the question right through several times. What is it really asking?  See some basic terms at the end. Jot down as many ideas as you can – don’t worry at this stage in what order they come. Are there any terms that need defining? Are there important ideas or concepts that need straightening out? If so, a sentence or so of definition may be a good idea.

PLAN:  Organise your thoughts into logical sequence. What is relevant and what is not? What are you going to use as evidence to back up your claims? Organise material into a logical pattern – either in order of importance or so the main points lead into each other. When revising for an exam, think the whole time in terms of essay plans.

Remember – one paragraph – one idea. Each paragraph must have a theme/idea + some explanation + some evidence. Leave one or two sentence paragraphs to newspapers (occasionally they can be used for effect, e.g. “War then broke out” but these should be very rare). I used to make my students underline the first sentence of each paragraph; it should explain what the rest is about.

You will need a good introduction. This lays out how you see the question. Define those things in the question that need explanation before starting. The introduction provides your reader with guidance through your answer. It should not be a warm-up exercise in which a page is largely wasted while you inch your way towards answering the question. If you are saying to yourself, “I must give a little background before starting;” alarm bells should be going off. Like most things in life, if you start on the right foot, you tend to continue on the right foot.

WRITE:  Have the plan in front of you. Have the essay question in front of you and make a final check to see if you are really answering it.

REVISE:  Read through very carefully. You will need a good conclusion, which should bring things together. This is not repeating what you have already said, but should be bringing your argument together.

Remember that students pass or fail exams, get better or worse grades by often only a few marks (sometimes only a single mark). Check through for errors of fact, spelling, muddled English and grammar (favourite error is single verbs with plural nouns or vice versa). If you are a bad speller, get somebody to read through the essay for you. Make a list of words that you keep getting wrong. Watch out for old howlers, such as the difference between “its” and “it’s” and “a lot” spelt as one word. Never, ever come out of an exam early.

Some essay terms revisited:  

Account for – give reasons for;  Analyse – separate into elements/individual factors;  Assess – how important or successful is…;  Clarify – simplify and make clear;  Comment on – make remarks about, give a point of view, how true is it;  Compare – are the things alike, are there important differences;  Contrast – look for differences between;  Criticise – use evidence to support your opinion/judgement on the value/merit of…;  Define – give the meaning of;  Describe – write in detail about the characteristics of..;  Differentiate – explain the differences between;  Discuss– what are the important aspects of the topic, consider the arguments for and against; Distinguish – explain the differences between;  Evaluate – judge the importance of…;  Examine – investigate, enquire into;   Explain – to make clear and give reasons for;  Illustrate – give examples which make the point clear;  Interpret – explain the meaning in your own words;  Justify – give reasons to support an argument or actions;  Outline – choose/indicate the most important aspects of a topic, ignore minor detail;   Relate – show the connections between things;  State – write briefly the main points of;  Summarise – bring together the main points;  To what extent – how true is it to say that…;  Trace – show how something has developed from beginning to end;  Translate – to express in a different form or language;  How far – evidence for and against needs to be presented.

When you get your essay back – go through it with a fine-tooth comb. If you don’t understand some of the comments – ask. If revising for an exam, look at past papers and examiners’ notes – they are there on the exam board’s website.  

Good luck and happy essay writing!