Writing an essay is one of the most common academic assignments students are expected to complete during their schooling.
However, not all essays are created equal. Some essays come out messy with no clear structure or thesis statement, with misspelled words and incorrect punctuation.
So how can you improve your essay writing?
Step 1: Know your purpose (and thesis)
If you don’t know what your essay is supposed to be about, then it is hard for you to write about it. Often times students are presented with an “open ended” prompt, which leaves them confused as of where they should begin. The best thing you can do is determine the key points/topics of the essay, and come up with a thesis statement that encompasses all those ideas. A positive or negative position on the topic might help too – this helps guide your writing process and structure.
Should I just follow the prompt? Some instructors may ask their students to simply answer the question posed in their assignment. These types of essays tend to be pretty straightforward and may be easier to write (since you only need to talk about the topic on the prompt), but they’re also usually less interesting and engaging, since it’s difficult to come up with a good argument for something that is essentially neutral.
This is not an open-ended essay: This type of essay has a clear question and answer. The essay will first try to answer the question and then finish by saying what we can take away from what we’ve read/discovered.
Sample thesis statement: “After examining how J.D Salinger uses symbolism in “A Perfect Day for Bananafish,” I argue that he implies that adults must shoulder some of the responsibility for children’s behavior.”
This essay is going to explore the role of adults in society and how they influence children. It will first examine a story by Salinger, and then discuss research on possible parental influences on child development.
Step 2: Know where you are headed (structure)
Once you’ve determined your main purpose, it becomes much easier to break your paper up into several paragraphs. Each paragraph can focus on one part/idea related to your topic. These paragraphs all work together to build towards the conclusion – where everything comes together. Your introduction should state what you’re talking about (help people who skim read know’s coming), and it should end with a strong thesis statement that previews what you’ll talk about in the paper. The conclusion should reestablish what your main arguments are, and tie everything together into a nice bow.
Here’s an example of how the introduction might look like: “In today’s world, children are exposed to more things than ever before – both good and bad. While adults may be tempted to shield their kids away from all potentially harmful stimuli (like Salinger does for his son), it is important to realize that there are beneficial things out there too. This concept is illustrated in J.D Salinger’s famous short story “A Perfect Day for Bananafish”.”
This essay will explore the way J. D. Salinger presents the naivety of youth and how it contrasts with a more mature reality. It will first look at a short story by Salinger, and then talk about research on child development to support its argument.
Step 3: Support your claims
No matter what kind of essay you’re writing, facts and evidence must always be included- as well as properly cited. Without facts and statistics, many people may question the validity of your argument. This can be challenging if you’re unfamiliar with the topic (or don’t have enough information on it). A great way to conduct research is to think critically about different viewpoints – this helps narrow down what points actually contribute to your paper’s main ideas and which ones are irrelevant.
That being said, it’s important to avoid writing an information dump in your paper- you want to be as concise as possible. Some ideas/points are just too trivial or time consuming to discuss in detail. You can always come back and talk about them in your conclusion if you need more room. And if something is really important, make sure it shows up multiple times throughout the essay (in different contexts/ways). This way people know you’re not trying to sneak anything by them!
Sample thesis statement: “The fear of growing older leads many adults who read “A Perfect Day for Bananafish” to retreat into their own worlds – but Salinger implies that there may be some benefits to growing up.”
Thesis: Adults are encouraged to take advantage of the benefits of childhoodness.
Step 4: Make it accessible (style)
Your writing style will also affect how much people enjoy your paper. If you sound very formal and stuffy, people might not want to read it. This doesn’t mean you have to have a casual tone, but if you use more complex words/sentences than necessary, your writing can become hard to understand. On the other hand, if you’re too informal and conversational in a paper about psychology for example…it might seem out of place! It is always best when one’s writing style matches the subject matter.
Sample of good/formal voice vs. bad/informal voice: Formal: “Adults are greatly affected by the events in Salinger’s work, but children often fail to realize their gravity.” Informal: “Salinger shows that adults are get all wrapped up in the deep stuff, while kids just wanna have fun!”
Step 5: Writing an outline for your essay
Most essays will follow a basic format – Introduction, Body Paragraphs 1-3, Conclusion. This way people can see what you’re saying at any time – which is very useful when they want to review something without reading the whole paper again. Remember that an outline is there to help you organize your thoughts, not to write the paper for you! You still need to flesh it out with details.
Step 6: Write a good intro and conclusion
Depending on what kind of essay you’re writing, your introduction should contain different types of information. If you are writing a comparison/contrast paper – make sure to explain what each topic is about in detail. If you are doing an argumentative/persuasive piece – your intro should have some background information that establishes “why this topic is important” (and why people should care). The more interesting or surprising your hook is, the better- but don’t exaggerate for the sake of being exciting. Remember that you’re not writing a cliff notes version of your paper for someone who doesn’t care, you’re summarizing the main points – so it should be as long as needed to cover those ideas efficiently.
Sample hook: “In his short story, A Perfect Day for Bananafish , J.D. Salinger explores how people’s lives can turn into shambles when they refuse to grow up and face reality. Critics have argued that the story is about Seymour committing suicide after he realizes that all his fantasies and desires will never become a reality- but I believe he actually shoots himself because he cannot handle the thought of growing up and feeling empty.”
Conclusion: The conclusion is where you restate your thesis and main points – but you should also include a final comment or “dig” at the opposing side. It is always best to conclude by emphasizing why this topic matters/how it relates to the real world. This will be useful for people who are reading your essay because they are interested in the subject matter, not necessarily your opinion on it!
Sample conclusion: “I believe that Salinger implies that there may be some benefits to growing up – but children lack the maturity necessary to really take advantage of them.”
Here, I used an argumentative tone by focusing on what Salinger believes about adulthood, rather than what someone else might think. I also added a last statement that it might be nice to be a child sometimes, but you can’t stay there forever!
Final step: Proofreading and revising your work
This is the last chance to catch mistakes in grammar/spelling/sentence structure before someone else looks at your paper. The best way to begin proofreading is by reading your essay out loud – you will naturally hear things that don’t sound right! If you only read the text on the page, sometimes those silly errors can slip past you.
Remember: Once you’ve written your paper, you probably won’t be able to read it like a reader would. You’re too familiar with your work, and can see what you meant to say (not necessarily what you actually did say). Hence the need for proofreading!
Also, make sure to check your citations! If you used a quote from someone else’s work, make sure the words are still in quotations and you have included enough information about them (author, title, page number) so that someone can find it easily in your list of works cited.
“When writing an essay, always remember that most people will read your work because they’re interested in the subject matter – not necessarily because they care about how cleverly you write.”