How to Improve Your Essay Writing

The composition studies scholar David Bartholomae once wrote, “Every time a student sits down to write for us, (s)he has to invent the university. . .The student has to learn to speak our language, to speak as we do, to try on the peculiar ways of knowing, selecting, evaluating. . . and arguing.” Being a successful essay writer in college doesn’t happen overnight, and it isn’t the same as other types of writing (the way you write an email wouldn’t be the way you would approach writing an essay in college). In order to become a skilled writer, you have to learn the rules of academic writing and hit the right tone.

Here are some simple tips to help you hit the right stride:

Write a strong, “controversial” claim or thesis

The heart of your paper will be your claim or thesis (a statement that draws out the main argument of your paper). Your claim/thesis should not only be clear and coherent, but it should also be provocative and interesting. It should be something that you yourself would want to read. Your claim/thesis should not be a fact nor should it be a repetition of the assignment itself (if the assignment asks you to “Discuss the logical structure of the Constitution, particularly the assumptions that the founders of the country made when writing it,” you should not start with something like, “When writing the Constitution, the founders based their argument on assumptions that they deemed logical.”). Rather, your thesis should be wholly arguable, as an interesting claim is one that can also be challenged.

Make an outline:

This might seem like extra work, but in the long run, by giving your argument a clear framework and pathway, you’ll be saving time. Your outline should include: claim/thesis; three sub-arguments that prove your claim (and for each sub-argument, the titles of well-respected texts that you’ll use to “prove” each sub-argument); and a one-sentence summary for your conclusion (which will help keep you on track).

Polished introduction

Remember that an introduction is just a brief statement about the question that you’re trying to answer and address in the paper. The main intention of the introduction is to present an intriguing problem that is often under-addressed when it comes to the paper topic you’re writing on. Keep it concise, and draw your reader in by writing an introduction that suggests and yes, seduces.

Write multiple drafts

It can’t be emphasized enough, but revision is key for writing in college. Professors will often tell me that B- or C+ paper could have easily been an A paper had the student taken the time to finesse a few points and/or strengthen their thesis. After you receive your assignment, take five minutes to map out a schedule for the paper writing. For most assignments, you’ll have the time to go through at least one major revision before submitting your paper. This can make all the difference.

Show a draft to your professor

Professors are frequently under-utilized by students. Most will be happy (and impressed) to review a draft of your paper, and you’ll receive invaluable comments on how to strengthen your paper before having to submit a final draft.

Utilize your writing center

Most, if not all, colleges provide a writing center for their students. Graduate students studying composition, creative writing or English are often the tutors. Make an appointment with a writing tutor at any stage of your paper writing process. If you’re having trouble creating a coherent outline, talking your paper out with a writing tutor will be helpful. After you’ve received comments from your professor regarding your draft is also a good time to visiting the writing center.