How to Write Better Essays: A Step-by-Step Guide

Become the master of essay-writing and get the grade you deserve.

Reviewed by Hayley Ramsey

Illustration of a woman sitting in an armchair working on her laptop

Essay writing is likely to be a big part of your college life and studies, no matter which subject you are studying. How well you do on your coursework, or the essay questions in an exam, has a big impact on your grade, so it’s important to take it seriously and learn how to do it properly. Being a good writer will give you a solid start, but the real skill is understanding the point of the essay and what an assessor is looking for, so you can address the points and make sure you score as high as possible.

We’ve put together some top tips for you to follow to make sure you structure your essay in a way that is easy to follow and hits all the points, supports your argument throughout, and so that your finished document is styled and presented effectively.

Improving your essay writing will (obviously) improve your overall grade, so it’s worth getting right! So, here are 10 writing tips to help you write good essays and get the grade you deserve.

Step 1: Think critically

Your essay will be scored on how well you prove the point you are trying to make. You need to show that you can take a subject or argument and present evidence to support or negate it by using critical thinking and constructing an argument backed up by facts. You can be the best writer in the world, but if you are regurgitating information and arguments that already exist, without adding anything new, or without critically analyzing what we already know, you will not score highly on your essay.

Step 2: Read and research

In order for you to present a good argument, or critically evaluate the research of others, you need to be prepared with your own extensive reading and research. This is what will give you the ammunition to come up with your own arguments, backed by facts. Reading the work of others will not only give you more to say, but it will help you to think about options from all angles.

Before you start writing, consider a range of sources, from journal entries to large-scale studies, to websites and books. Make sure you are consulting reliable sources. There are many websites that are not credible, so it’s important to stick to websites that are trusted and respected in your field.

Use the reading list provided by your course, but don’t stick to this exclusively. Reading wider will help you form a better thesis statement and better arguments. Also, there is no need to read full texts if only part of it is relevant. Take what you need and move on rather than trying to memorize large volumes.

Step 3: Collate your reading

Reading and research is essential to your essay, but it’s pretty pointless if you can’t remember what you’ve read. It’s helpful to keep a note of important research and arguments so you can easily include it in your essay and so that you can properly reference it. Note cards are a simple, effective way of keeping track of the useful points you’ve read. You can even group them or colour code them. A more modern approach is a note card app, or a project management app where you can save quotes and passages in ‘boxes’ or on spreadsheets for easy storage and access.

Step 4: Challenge existing points

You’ve done your reading and research and you know the point you are trying to prove. Critically evaluate and challenge supported points that back up what you’re proposing. Don’t just write about what is already out there, you need to offer a new perspective. Now, it’s important that you challenge everything, and that includes your own points. For an argument to be tight, you need to make sure there are no loopholes. Think about your own arguments and make sure they will stand up against a challenge. Make them watertight.

Step 5: Start with an outline

Now you’re ready to write. It’s important that you don’t just launch in without a plan. Starting with an outline is an effective way to make sure your argument is coherent and that you’ve included everything relevant. Your outline will be your step-by-step guide as you write.

San José State University Writing Center says: “An outline is a direct and clear map of your essay. It shows what each paragraph will contain, in what order paragraphs will appear, and how all the points fit together as a whole.” Create your map before you move onto the next step. That way, your essay won’t feel aimless.

Step 6: Think about structure

Your outline will define your structure, so when writing it, think about how you want your essay to progress. It will need a clear start, and a clear end, with the middle devoted to proving your argument with facts and evidence. Following an introduction, your next paragraph or section will be the strongest point you have to provide evidence to back up your claim. The body of your essay will add support to your argument, but you should start with your most impactful points.

The end of your essay is a conclusion, summing up the main points in your essay and your overall discovery. Finish by reiterating how you have proved your theory, or answered the question posed in the essay.

Step 7: Think about your voice and style

The way your essay sounds is important, so it’s important to think about your writing process before you start. You are aiming for professional but engaging. Your sentence structure, words and paragraphs must flow logically and your tone must be formal, without using colloquial language or abbreviated terms, so have some effective writing strategies in place to ensure you follow these guidelines.

Make sure you write in the passive voice to keep the article engaging, along with varying the length of your sentences to ensure that the essay is interesting to read and not robotic. Grammar and spelling are important, so don’t overlook this.

Step 8: Spend time on an introduction

You may be wondering why I’ve made a point about the introduction so late into the article, well it is actually good practice to write your introductory paragraphs last. This is so you can really summarize for the reader what the article is about, having already got all the points down.

Your summary should be simple to write, but it doesn’t always feel that way. Essentially, you need to state the argument you are making and say how you’re going to do it. Summarize the points you are going to make, backed by what evidence you have and your overall findings. This is like a snapshot of what the reader will learn if they read your essay.

Step 9: Reference correctly

With all the reading and research you’ve done, you want to make sure it’s credited. You also need to make it clear to the reader that your arguments are solid and backed up by credible sources. For this, you need to make sure that everything you read is referenced within the text and in a reference section. Make it clear when something is a direct quote, a study, or a general point from your reading.

The style of referencing used will be made clear by your college or university, as different referencing styles and style guides are used depending on where you are and who you are studying with. A common referencing system is the Harvard referencing system, but others are used too, like the MLA and APA referencing systems.

Step 10: Proofread it all

Don’t underestimate the power of proofreading your essay. When you’re writing for long periods of time, or you’re focused on how to make a point, it’s easy to make mistakes, so it’s important that you check your work through. Proofread and edit your own work several times before submitting, and you may also want to get the help of someone else to proofread your final draft to make sure you haven’t missed glaring errors (obviously this isn’t possible in an exam scenario).

Proofreading straight after you’ve finished isn’t always the best way to go, so if you have the time, do your proofread the next day with a fresh pair of eyes. If you need some extra help, consider proofreading and editing programs and software to help you.

Check out the infographic below to get a good idea for creating a solid layout and strucuture for your academic essay:

Academic essay outline and structure - Infographic

Final thoughts

Writing academic essays need not be daunting. With some solid preparation and research into your subject area, you will be off to an excellent start. The essential part of essay writing is making sure you have effectively formed your argument by starting with an initial structure, considering the points you want to make and evidencing them clearly.

An introduction outlines what you are arguing or proving and clearly states the steps you will go to prove your argument. What follows is a logical progression of that argument unfolding and concluding with your point proven.

In an exam situation there is less time to prepare, but you will have a good idea of what might come up before the day, so plan for scenarios ahead of time. Think about arguments that you might need to make, read and research as much as you can and have some simple structures prepared.

Finally, create an environment that you feel comfortable working in. If you work better in silence, find a quiet spot, or if you find studying with music beneficial, do that to make you feel relaxed and focused, which, ultimately, will improve your writing skills. Before an exam with an essay element, take some time to breathe and focus on what makes you feel calm and collected.

Do you struggle to write essays? Did you find this helpful? If you did, share it with your friends and help them out, too!

Originally published on December 6, 2020.