Writing academic essays can be a daunting task at first; reference systems, primary sources, footnotes, reading lists, thesis statements – it’s a lot to take in.
That said, you can make the writing process easier by establishing certain patterns and rules which will eventually allow you to find your flow.
These 12 tips will help you write better essays and take your writing to the next level.
1. Do your research first
Before you put pen to paper, make sure you’ve done your research. This will allow you to gain a solid grasp on the topic you’re writing about and to devise a more ruminative thesis.
Instead of diving into the deep end and hoping for the best, spend some time reading about the subject your essay is about. Be it criticisms, counterarguments, new findings or complementary studies, familiarise yourself with the existing literature around the topic while also compiling your primary notes and references.
This won’t only help you build a strong and well-informed case but also make the writing process a lot smoother, as you’ll be able to create a detailed plan beforehand which incorporates your research and ties it in with your overall argument.
2. Don’t stick to the reading list
I know you’re tempted to stick to your professor’s suggested reading list but hear me out: independent research is what sets apart a good essay from a great essay.
Of course, reading lists are a great way to get the intellectual ball rolling, but if you want your essay to stand out, you’ll need to find your own academic sources.
A great way to do this is by using another source’s bibliography to discover new material. You may also want to browse the shelves of your university’s library or its online database to find relevant books and studies regarding your thesis.
Academic research is perhaps the most important step of the essay-writing process. The information and material you come across could greatly influence your own approach to the topic – therefore, it’s essential to explore different intellectual avenues.
3. Use mind maps
Mind maps organise your thoughts in a radiant way instead of a linear one, which is how our brains are programmed to process thoughts. This is a great way to break down a complex subject and visualise information.
Your essay topic should be the epicentre of your mind map, and from there on, you can create different branches based on themes and ideas which you can then break into sub-branches which include different information.
This is a great way to organise your research and create the sections and subsections that will go into your essay before you start writing.
4. Create smooth transitions
A great essay flows from one paragraph to the next, moving through different concepts and ideas effortlessly.
In order to achieve this, you not only need to employ conjunctive adverbs but also break down your argument into clear sections.
Each section should address a different facet, theme or ideas. Your sections should then be broken down into paragraphs, each one addressing a different aspect of the theme.
While planning your essay, tie in your sections with one another by drawing up connections between your ideas. As you write, make sure to create these cues, which will allow you to move through different sections effortlessly. Using a mind map will definitely help here!
5. Always return to your thesis
When you’re writing a 5,000-word essay, it’s normal to lose sight of your main argument. That said, it’s crucial to always keep coming back to it, from the planning and research stages all the way to the end.
With every section and paragraph, you should always ask yourself: ‘How does this support my thesis?’ and ‘How does this affect my main argument?’.
While you may be making a great point, you may be failing to tie it in with the overall essay. In other words, make sure every piece of information you include in your work strengthens your argument.
6. Allow your argument to evolve organically
This might be more applicable to theoretical subjects where an argument isn’t necessarily based on hard evidence, statistics and numbers and so the final thesis may deviate from the original idea.
As you dive into the writing process, you’re bound to come across readings, theories and opinions that could result in you changing your own position and argument. It might seem daunting, but you shouldn’t force your argument towards its original course if you have a ‘Eureka!’ moment while writing.
What you can do, instead, is adapt your approach and feed this new point of view into your overall argument. This is particularly true if you’re writing a research-based paper, as it’s easy to come across new information that can affect your perspective.
7. Focus on critical thought and analysis
A mistake often made while writing essays is reiterating facts and figures without making any real points. So, while quoting Michel Foucault may seem like a great way to embellish your essay, that is simply not enough – you also need to engage with the material, break it down and offer critical perspective on what is being said or quoted.
You may not have any revolutionary arguments, but you should still apply critical thought on material and offer your own take on the subject that’s discussed by your sources.
Critical analysis is often the missing ingredient from what are otherwise well-researched and grammatically sound essays. These are also known as walk-through essays, which tend to follow a descriptive rather than an argumentative structure.
8. Create a messy first draft
To me, essays have always felt like puzzles. Writing the essay was the process of fitting puzzle pieces together – combining external sources with my own thoughts to create the final image.
Sometimes, however, it can feel like the pieces don’t fit, despite the extensive research and the thoroughly planned outline.
A teacher once described writing first drafts to me as the process of getting all the ‘bad’ writing out. It’s where you allow your ideas and thoughts to be typed out, without considering the grammar, punctuation and overall structure of your sentences.
From there on, you can start refining the content, sharpening your points and allowing your intellect to shine, but before you can get there, you may need to accept the messiness that comes with first drafts.
9. Consider the other side, too
A well-balanced essay needs to acknowledge differing arguments and findings.
Regardless of which side you’re on, acknowledging other critical works, evidence and studies on the topic allows you to build a well-rounded argument that considers different intellectual sides. Ignoring material that challenges your thesis could weaken your essay, leaving you open to criticism.
Being selective with your sources and merely featuring those which are in your favour simply won’t do. Instead, present these counterarguments and build a case against them, taking your own critical stance towards them.
10. Get someone’s else point of view
After working on your essay for days on end, you might think your argument makes sense, but to others, some of your points might be unclear. Conducting in-depth research is great, but one of the setbacks is that you might be blindsided to some areas that, without context, are incomprehensive.
In other words, you need to consider the knowledge gaps between yourself and the reader, as they haven’t spent an entire week reading up on the subject like yourself. The best way to identify these parts is to get another person’s opinion.
Before submitting your essay, get a coursemate, friend or a family member to proofread your essay. It’s always better to get different opinions, but especially from those who are in the same course or module as you since they’ll be able to offer more constructive feedback.
It’s also wise to employ tools such as Grammarly to run checks through your final draft and make sure you haven’t missed any typos or grammatical errors.
11. Use the correct referencing system
You may not be a stickler for details, but referencing is all about them. One missing full stop from your footnotes or a wrongly italicised sentence, and your coursework could be penalised. Such errors can easily be avoided, however.
First things first, make sure you’re using the referencing system required by your faculty or department for your academic work. For example, arts and humanities often employ the MHRA style, while social sciences tend to use the Harvard system.
From there on, pay close attention to the style guide of the specific referencing system, and ensure your citations and bibliography follow the requirements of this style.
Pro tip: use referencing tools such as Cite This For Me and MyBib to generate your references in the reference system of your choice.
12. Leave the intro for last
To this day, my most dreaded essay part to write is the introduction. Why? Well, introductions need to perfectly encapsulate the contents of an essay and give context on your topic, thesis, research method as well as an overview of your argument. So, while it’s only a small part of your essay, it plays a major role in enticing the reader.
For that reason, introductions can act as a barrier when writing an essay – perfectly summarising something that isn’t written yet can be a challenge. Therefore, leaving the introduction for last eliminates a certain strain from the writing process.
Your essay should not match the contents of the introductions, but vice versa. So, it only makes sense that you write it last, as you will only then have a precise idea of what your essay is about.
You’ll come to find that essay writing becomes much easier with time and experience. Personally, it took me nearly two years before I had established a certain writing routine that worked for me as a college student, so don’t be disheartened if you haven’t yet found your writing groove!
While a lot of it comes with your own intuition and learning style, following certain regimens such as the ones above will help you improve your essay writing and eventually master the craft!
Have you got any other writing tips? Share them with us in the comments section below!
This article is an updated version of an earlier article originally published on 30 November 2017.