As a professional editor, I’ve edited all kinds of documents, not the least of which are essays. I’ve seen it all—the good, the bad, and the ugly.
Look, it’s easy to write a bad essay when it’s due in less than 24 hours (we’ve all been there), but that doesn’t mean it’s difficult to write a good essay. To write a good essay, you just have to know what to look for to make weak writing stronger.
Simply looking is the number one job of a professional editor (outside of drinking coffee) because looking leads to discovering—and once you find your errors, improvement is just around the corner.
After editing over a million words, I’ve come to understand what makes a good essay and what makes a bad essay, and I have a few practical tips—essay hacks, if you will—for improving your own essay-writing skills.
1. Befriend your argument.
Make sure you know everything there is to know about your argument. That means you should understand exactly what it is you’re arguing and why. If your argument was an elevator pitch and you had to explain it to someone in just a minute or two, could you? If the answer is “No,” revisit the main point of your essay. Do more research to make sure you know the topic inside and out.
The reason you need to be prepared is that, if there’s any proof that can shoot your argument down, you not only need to shield those bullets but also to ricochet them back. Don’t just know your argument—befriend it. Find out its strengths and its weaknesses.
2. Challenge every idea.
If you have any questions about your topic, subject, or field, ask them as soon as you can. Hitting a snag later can stall progress on your essay, so if you can hit all the major weak points early on, you can avoid finding major flaws in your argument later.
Challenge anything that causes questions to sprout and play the devil’s advocate for your own argument. If you’ve identified these weaknesses before, now is the time to investigate further and begin to clarify anything that might still be fuzzy.
3. Select your sources carefully.
When selecting your sources, be picky. Don’t resort to using online sources just because they’re easily accessible. Try to use all kinds of different sources, but only if they’re current. Don’t pick a dusty old book from the library just to have a print source in your references list.
Choose current and relevant sources from trustworthy or notable scholars in the field. If your proof is questionable, your whole argument will fall apart, so choose your sources like you would an all-star team if you want to knock your essay out of the park.
4. Start writing early.
This is important: make sure you start writing early. Don’t put your essay off until the last minute. Do you know what’s waiting for you at the last minute? Regret and sadness.
Kickstart yourself now so you don’t kick yourself later. If you need to set an early deadline for yourself or split the essay writing into manageable chunks, do it. Just make sure you start early so you have time to solve any problems you run into later.
5. Organize for clarity.
The structure of your essay is every bit as important as the argument itself. If you have a flimsy structure, there’s no firm foundation to build the essay on; if there’s no firm foundation, your essay could collapse at any moment.
Focus on structuring your essay before you start writing. How will you arrange your argument and provide evidence in a cohesive and logical way? It’s better to answer that question earlier rather than later. Use transitions to ensure your argument flows logically from one point to the next.
6. Watch your tense and voice.
First, use the active voice when you write your essay (unless otherwise instructed). Second, avoid personal pronouns to maintain objectivity if need be (e.g., in scientific and other formal writing).
Third, you should write in the literary present, meaning that all actions performed in the text should be explained in the present tense rather than the past.
Finally, avoid using clichés. Since you want to present original thoughts, overused phrases need to be cut.
7. Explain everything clearly.
Any time you make a point, explain it clearly—even if you think it’s obvious. Your argument will be obvious to you (since you’ve befriended it), but it’s brand new to the reader. Your argument is meeting your reader for the first time, and like any new friends, they need introducing. If you fail to introduce them properly, things will get very confusing and awkward.
8. Be succinct.
Sentences should be straightforward, communicating one point at a time; cut all unnecessary words. You’ll also want to eliminate any repetition. It’s easy to say the same things over and over again in an essay, but doing so won’t strengthen your argument.
Cut unnecessary phrases and anything wordy or redundant, including phrases that don’t add information, such as “it should be pointed out that” or “due to the fact that.” Similarly, don’t ramble on about the same topic or go off on a tangent in the middle of your essay.
9. Avoid academese at all costs.
Try to keep things simple. While you shouldn’t talk down to your audience or explain every technical term, you should always be concise. Most importantly, don’t ever use words or phrases that you think will make you sound smarter.
It’s always best to be straightforward, so use the right vocabulary to say exactly what you want to say. It’s embarrassing if you try to use a fancy word only to find it doesn’t mean what you thought it meant.
10. Be aware of your word count.
Don’t go over your word count. Most markers will stop marking at the last word within the word count, so it’s crucial that you stay within it if you want to do well.
However, you also don’t want to stay severely lower than the word count provided. While you shouldn’t pad the essay by adding information that isn’t necessary to your argument or relevant to the topic at hand, you should get as close to the word count as possible by thoroughly exploring your topic and elaborating on your argument.
11. Carefully cite everything.
Unless you want to face a failing grade, academic probation, or even expulsion, you need to cite all of your sources. There are many types of plagiarism, but as long as you take good notes during your research and credit your sources, it’s easy to avoid plagiarism.
Your academic integrity is at stake here, so ensure that you are overly cautious in recording the necessary material. Be vigilant in confirming that you’ve documented everything fully and correctly.
12. Revise extensively.
Every good essay has been revised at least once, which means you, too, should tighten your writing. Comb through and ensure that everything is clear, consistent, and flows well. Once you’re happy with the content of your essay, you can sweat the small stuff, like grammar and spelling errors.
Even brilliant essays receive lower grades if simple mistakes are left in the document, so consider getting a second opinion and having an expert look over your writing for both form and content. At the very least, run a spell and grammar check. You’ll be so happy you did.
Essay writing doesn’t have to be hard. Anyone can write a good essay with the proper tools. These essay hacks are part of your toolkit, which you can use to improve your essay writing. Go from good to great by considering these tips and implementing them when writing your next essay.
If you would prefer a step-by-step guide for essay writing and want to improve your skills once and for all, you might want to think about taking a course to organize and write good essays every time.