This post considers some tips for writing better essays, relevant to a number of subjects. It considers the benefits of planning, focusing in on what the question is asking for and thinking about your writing style.
How to write a better essay
When it comes to writing exam essays or your coursework during the academic year, these tips should help you to write really good essays, whatever your course. If you only take away one thing from this post, it’s to try and be more mindful in your essay writing: most of the mistakes students make that produce bad essays happen because of a lack of planning or rushing to write when a slower, more thoughtful, approach is better.
People will tell you that practice improves your ability with most things. You should be able to look at past papers for the subject and see the kinds of questions that come up, and use those to write your own practice answers.
But practicing writing is not the same as just writing one essay after another and doing the same thing over and over again. You need to try and focus on the things that will get you higher grades, and try to avoid making the same mistakes over and over.
That also means that before you start thinking about the rest of the tips below, you need to make sure you have done the reading for the course. Writing a nicely structured and clearly written essay won’t be enough to get the grades if you don’t know the course material! You can look at our previous blog post for tips on revising and making sure you’re on top of the course material.
2) Think About the Who
One of the big problems with learning to write really good essays is figuring out who you are writing for. Writing a descriptive essay analysing a text is not the same as an argument or analysis of a philosophical concept, for example, and neither of those is the same as comparing two things critically.
If you’re doing exams or coursework essays, your audience is always at least partly your examiner. That means that the general strategy is the same for most assessments: before you start you need to know what the criteria you are being assessed against are. You may have been given this information by your teacher right on the beginning of the course, when exams probably seemed a long way off. If so, dig out that file. If not, try asking your teacher or looking on the exam board website for your paper. You are looking for the “assessment criteria” or “assessment objectives”.
Let’s look at an example of the assessment criteria for an English Literature A Level essay:
“AO1 essentially requires informed and relevant responses which are accurately written and use appropriate concepts and terminology.
AO2 requires students to analyse ways in which meanings are shaped in literary texts, with particular focus on the structures of texts as a form of shaping.
AO3 relates to the many possible contexts which arise out of the text, the specific task and the period being studied.”
That already gives us lots or useful information about what needs to go into the essay, if we unpack it. We can even reshape it into a checklist, like this.
Does my essay:
- Show I have information related to this topic: does it use facts and/or references to literature I have read on this course
- Show I know how to use any relevant technical concepts or terms
- Show I have considered the question and provided the most relevant information to answer it
- Avoid mistakes: have I said anything I can’t prove is true, or said anything that I haven’t properly explained
- Engage with the meaning of the text I have been asked about for this question specifically
- Think about how the material for this question relates to ideas I have learned about literary techniques and structure
- Think about how the material for this question relates to the rest of this course, including the time and place in which this text was created
- Think about comparing this text with other times and places in order to understand it better
If you look through the list of assessment criteria and things are missing when you think about your answer, you know you probably need to go back and write some more, or change what you have written. But once you know the goals you’re trying to achieve, how do you make sure you achieve them?
3) Read Examiners’ Reports
This was mentioned in the previous blog post, and relates to the point above about making sure you know what you’re being asked to do in each exam. Examiners reports are an incredibly useful resource because they tell you what the person marking your work is looking for. They highlight common mistakes, too, so you know to avoid them. And this information is right there waiting for you: the examiners really want you to read it!
4) Answer the Question
This sounds stupid, and you’re probably thinking ‘yes, I know that part, that’s why I’m here’. But it’s so easy, especially in a timed exam, to forget. Maybe the exam question is phrased in a confusing way, so you’re not quite sure what they want and you guess it’s similar to a question you did before. Or maybe the question is similar to one you practiced, so you just write down what you said last time. Those are both common mistakes and they often lead to low grades. You need to answer the question in front of you, not the question you would like it to be, or the question you have prepared better for. It’s really tough when you don’t get questions that suit you or an unexpected angle comes up in the exam, but you have to stick with what you’re given.
If the question says ‘explain’, make sure you explain. If it says ‘do X and Y’, make sure you do both parts! If it says ‘analyse’, you need to make sure that you don’t just describe the thing, but also evaluate it. If you’re supposed to be comparing something, make sure you do some comparison! These are easy ways to make a big difference to your grade in any essay.
And by the way, coursework essays can make these mistakes, too. You would think that if you have more time to work on a piece of writing over a few days or weeks, you would make sure it stays on topic. But people often get distracted by a tangent, or panic because the deadline is getting close, and start talking about things that are not answering the question. A good tip for this is to have the question written down or printed out and have it near your writing space – a sticky note can work well. Then you will keep looking at it every time you sit down, or when you reach for a cup of tea.
5) Make a Plan Every Time
It’s tempting to just launch into writing, especially if you’re typing the essay.
Don’t do that!
One of the main reasons people don’t plan essays is worrying about time during an exam: it feels like you’re wasting time to scribble down things that will never end up in the answer that actually gets marked. But this time is really important because it helps you to write clearly and do what you need to do: it’s not time wasted, it’s just a separate phase of the writing. That said, you don’t want to spend too long planning, either, before you start writing. So give yourself 5-10 minutes to scribble down/type out as bullet points all the ideas you have, identify the best/strongest ones, and then get writing. You will never be able to say everything you can think of to say, and that’s ok. The plan helps you filter ‘all the thoughts’ down to ‘the best thoughts’.
Writing a plan also helps you to stay focused on the question you’re being asked. Write that at the top of the plan, or in the middle if you’re more of a mindmaps person. Keep coming back to that question: you’re not just trying to write down everything you know about a topic: that’s not going to get you a very high grade. You’re trying to think about the best information you have to answer that particular question.
So, for example, here is a GCSE History-style essay question:
‘Explain the problems with the German economy after the First World War.’ [12 marks]
To answer that question, there are a lot of things you could say: you could write a whole PhD (or several) on answering that question, but in an exam you have a limited amount of time and space. This question is only worth 12 marks, so it’s not a good idea to spend the whole exam writing that one answer, either.
Ask yourself, what is the most useful/important information? Germany had strikes amongst its workers across the country at the end of the First World War, which seems like an important piece of economic information, but is it the most relevant fact? Similarly, some of the ports in Germany were blockaded by the British – that’s an economic fact, too, but another quite small one. The most obvious thing to talk about here is going to be the Treaty of Versailles and Germany’s war debts. Those other facts might help you get the full range of marks if you can talk about them briefly too, but if there’s a big, key, fact that relates to the question asked, always start there and see how much time and space you have left once you’ve addressed that.
This works for many essay questions for GCSE, A Level, and even for university essays: ask yourself, what’s the one thing I need the reader/examiner to know I know in answering this question, to prove I know what I’m talking about?
6) Don’t Write Like You Speak
A common problem in essay writing all the way up to university level is writing with too much ‘rhetoric’ for the kinds of writing where that isn’t appropriate. The way we talk to each other out loud, even in a learning environment or professional context, is not the same as how we write. You shouldn’t exaggerate or make grand claims in most essays. Avoid phrases like ‘You might be wondering why…’ or the use of exclamation marks except for in writing which is specifically meant to be persuasive. Generally, it’s better to avoid abbreviations like ‘won’t’ and ‘don’t’ – spell out ‘would not’ and ‘do not’ in full, instead.
You shouldn’t write essays in the style of this blog, either! Essays, even at school, are basically practice for writing like an adult expert on the topic. So try to write like that – even if you don’t feel very expert right now.
7) Structure Helps the Examiner
Introductions can be a big, inefficient, waste of time and space at the start of an essay, especially if it’s quite a short answer. Avoid that by writing your introduction at the end of the writing process – don’t forget to leave a space for it, or to go back and do it, though! Once you’ve already written the body of the answer, it’s much easier to go back and write a couple of sentences summarising what you’re going to say.
Students often don’t realise how valuable a good introduction can be: your examiner is tired, they’re reading a lot of essays on the same subject, and they’re probably seeing the same mistakes over and over again. So make their job easier: tell them right at the top, very clearly, what you are going to say and what your overall conclusion is going to be. Don’t leave them hanging or guessing – that’s a rhetorical device that works in some places, but doesn’t belong in most essays. If you can give the reader that information quickly and clearly at the start, they’re going to be filled with confidence that you know what you’re doing as they go into reading the rest of the answer. And repeat it at the end, too: a conclusion should summarise what you have said clearly and briefly, and never introduce new information. It seems repetitive, but it’s about emphasising what you’re saying so the reader knows what’s really important.
Similarly, use paragraphs and, if they’re allowed, sub-headings to break up your text and signpost your arguments. A new paragraph or heading can help to make it clear that you’re done with one point and you’re moving onto a new one. And for a good structure, each paragraph should make a point, with evidence, and explain/analyse that point. A good structure is another thing which helps the examiner to see that you have thought about your answer, you know what you’re talking about, and you are going to help them to give you a nice, high, grade.
That brings us to the classic ‘Point, Evidence, Explanation’ structure. It works, use it!
For example, in this Philosophy A Level question:
‘Explain what Aristotle means by ‘virtue’ and whether his definition is circular.’
You could say:
‘Aristotle says that virtue is a thing that a virtuous person does, and that is circular.’
But that’s not very clear. With the PEE structure, it’s better:
‘Aristotle’s definition of ‘virtue’ is circular. [Point] Aristotle says that a virtuous act is an act which a virtuous person would commit in the circumstances. [Evidence] This is circular because the definition of ‘virtue’ depends on knowing who a virtuous person is, and a person can only be virtuous if they do virtuous things. [Explanation].’
This works for a range of subjects, but especially English, Philosophy, and History style essays.
8) Read Other People
Becoming a good writer doesn’t happen overnight, and a good way to naturally improve is to read good writing by other people. If English isn’t your first language, or you have been told that your writing is awkward or needs to be more ‘mature’, reading ordinary literature can be very valuable in helping you see how natural writing in English might look.
That doesn’t mean that you have to be reading Jane Austen at the weekend (unless you’re doing an exam on it!), but it does mean that you should try to read a range of writing styles and see how people who get paid to do it as their day job use language. Often, that can mean reading best-selling non-fiction: those people know how to plot, and they know how to keep you interested. Popular non-fiction can also be very useful: writers who take facts and make them clear for non-expert audiences are doing exactly the thing you’re probably going to be doing in your essays. If you like reading academic literature around your school subjects, that’s great, but any wider reading of good-quality work is likely to help.
You might have seen advice in preparing for university in particular which says to read newspapers. This is a trickier one. Different newspapers have different audiences, and sometimes focus more on persuasive or emotional language to get people interested – that’s not what you’re trying to do in essay writing. So when reading newspapers, use your critical analysis skills: ask yourself what the writer is trying to achieve with the piece of writing, just like you would with an exam question, and be aware of what kinds of writing devices and styles suit those purposes.
9) Read You
Before you finish an exam or send off a coursework essay, if there’s time, take one more opportunity to proofread it. If it’s coursework, try reading it out loud. Hearing the words very quickly shows you bits that are badly structured, awkward, or which don’t make sense in a faster and easier way than just reading writing on a page. If you can, printing work to proofread it with an old-fashioned pen means you’re more likely to spot typos, too. In a timed, hand written, exam, proofreading is harder and you might not have time. That’s ok – but if you can find the time to read your work through again, it will always be worth that extra check.
10) Plagiarism is Bad
This should go without saying. You will often be caught when deliberately plagiarising, because the combination of software tools and the readers’ own sense of what a person like you is probably going to say will pick up on plagiarism very quickly. It’s not worth it.
Plagiarism is also not just deliberately trying to pretend someone else’s work is yours, but accidental plagiarism: you wrote something down in your notes, but then you forgot to say in your answer that it was someone else’s idea. Taking clear notes that always mention where an idea came from is important in preventing this – and it’s often more common than deliberate plagiarism.
Hopefully these tips help you improve your essays, whatever your current level. Remember: a thoughtful and structured essay is always better than a rushed or poorly prepared one, and always it’s worth taking the time to plan and think about your audience.
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