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How To Write Better Essays

Jewel Enrile
March 17, 2021
Illustrations by Yuxuan Wu

No matter how much you love to write, essays are still daunting. It is intimidating when you have to give your thoughts and opinions on a topic and then have it graded. But low grades on your essays never measure your actual opinions -- just how well you articulate them.  

Luckily, a few tweaks can make your essays shine better. Keep the following steps in mind, and you can write better right away. 

1. Be Concise, But Effective 

Don't ever use those "words to make your essays longer" tips online. You know what I'm talking about. If you don't, we have a visual right here.

Look, I get it. I side-eye essay instructions that tell me to write 8 pages and breathe a sigh of relief when I see that it should be double-spaced. Teachers and professors sometimes assign ridiculously high word counts, so writing feels like a race to achieve that specific number. 

Longer never means better. When you use these longer transitional phrases, you're populating your essay with fluff instead of research. 

I don't mean that you should never use long sentences and keep everything short and sweet. When you use long sentences and paragraphs, it should come naturally with the structure of the essay. 

There's no other way around high word counts other than adding more content. Read and research well instead. You’ll have a much stronger piece. 

2. Start and End Strong 

Begin with your thesis statement right away. Your thesis statement is your argument, and you want every paragraph after to support the thesis well. 

When introducing your argument, catch the reader's attention. Honestly, that first paragraph is where I fail most of my essays in high school. Instead of crafting a hook for a movie review, for example, I mostly just describe it. This movie was made by this director during this date. Today I'll discuss the plot and how I analyzed it.

Sound bland? It was. Hook in your readers with facts, your opinion, or a question for them to prod. Then, take them on the journey to discover answers. 

Having the argument in the introduction helps you, too. The essay's flow should prove your argument right up to the conclusion. There, it's just as crucial to end strong. Keep your readers engaged before leaving a lasting impression.

Need a visual? Imagine that you're on a stage delivering your essay. The last sentence of your essay should warrant a mic drop. Imagine the words that will astound your audience. 

3. Go Beyond Conventional Research

I try to chase writer's block away by diving deep into more academic articles to find more to write, but sometimes, it's better to take a step back. Let the pressure go and focus on absorbing ideas instead. 

When I started one essay a year ago, I had one topic in mind: mental health in the Philippines. I had the facts, figures, and stress-inducing citations, but I knew that I was still lacking something. 

A YouTube video helped narrow down my argument. Seriously. I watched a video essay about "The Dark Side of Harajuku" where menhera kei or yami kawaii fashion was discussed. Menhera kei has pastel colors juxtaposed with nooses, syringes, and messages that read, “I want to die!”

Menhera kei and yami kawaii fashion pioneer, Bisuko Ezaki, appearing in the interview by Refinery29.

My essay became an investigation on "breaking the stigma" in Japan and the Philippines. Both are a.) collectivist countries, b.) vulnerable to natural disasters (a large contributor to trauma and PTSD rates), and c.) with overworked populations. How are the two countries handling mental health issues?

Yup. All that from a YouTube video. The takeaway is not going to TikTok and YouTube and excuse your never-ending scrolling as research. Whatever you consume must still be remotely relevant. The world around you is teeming with inspiration and things you can write about. Take notes, make outlines and brainstorm. 

4. Read and Reread Instructions 

Let's rewind back to 2019, where I was a freshman in college. I was sitting in my room, feeling proud of my paper. It was 8 pages of meticulous research and documentation, and I had just proofread and formatted everything. I made a separate references page and pasted all the sources I used there. 

All that was left was printing. 

I'll just check the guidelines, I thought. Upon printing, some professors wanted their papers loose or stapled in a specific manner. You never know. 

After I found the paragraph that said it should be double-stapled on the upper left-hand corner, I saw another note: 

All papers must strictly follow the MLA style. Failure to do so will result in a grade of 0. 

Guess who had no idea how to do the MLA style. 

Tips: Do read up on style guides before starting an essay that requires it! APA, MLA, and Chicago styles are the most common ones. 

It was nearly 11 PM, and the paper, worth 50% of my grade, was due at 8 AM. I muffled the terror thinking it wouldn't take longer than a couple of hours. 

And then I spent 7 hours reformatting everything. I don't think I even slept. I was tempted to ghost my professor, but I did end up dragging myself to my 8 AM class. 

I got a 100. But God, the price it had to come with. 

Read the instructions. Whether it's formatting, word count, or other guidelines. During lectures, see what your professor emphasizes they like to see in written work. It goes further than you think. 

Tools:
For style guides, I rely on Purdue Owl! It was just that owl, me, and my suffering that entire night. 

5. Use Strong Vocabulary 

Think of the sentence as an ax. You want it sharp enough to cut a head clean.

Gruesome quote, and I no longer remember where my 14-year-old self first read it. But it does get the point across. 

We talked about conciseness and effectiveness. One of the best ways to do this is using a strong vocabulary. You don't have to use "very pretty" when you can use "beautiful"; or "very serious" when you mean solemn. 

Increasing your English vocabulary requires a lot of exposure. Read books, watch movies - you can pick up flow and pronunciation with the latter, too. Use online dictionaries and take notes. 

Tools: You can get something traditional like Merriam Webster or something more modern and learning-focused, like Lockcard. With Lockcard, you can increase your English skills through interactive notifications, automatic flashcards, and consistent reminders. 

After you learn a new word, try it out in a diary, in conversation, or within the essay itself. 

6. Kill Your Darlings - and Weed Out Errors 

A part of writing is deleting all those paragraphs and sentences you hold dear - essentially, killing your darlings. If it no longer works with the logical flow of the essay, it needs to get cut. Aim for cohesiveness and conciseness. 

Get rid of all errors. Use built-in proofreading in Microsoft Word and Google Docs. Keep in mind that sometimes, tenses and spelling mistakes are the only things they manage to change.

For a more in-depth revision, Grammarly is a good pick. Clarify your tone and keep the content engaging. Just discern proper suggestions, as well! Sometimes, I still catch Grammarly correcting something it shouldn't. Report it to make your usage better. 

Mastery comes with practice. Examine sources, review your flow, and evaluate your points. Keep these tips and processes in mind, and you can write a better essay in no time. I love to write both personal and school essays now. It isn’t just because I like writing in general. It allows you to express what you know and learned more freely than any other test. I was a shy student who had struggles with memorization. Learn your way around essays, and who knows? They could grow on you. 

Charlotte Chen, Designer @Duolingo

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