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2020-12-08

10 Top Tips for Writing an Essay in 2021

For a lucky few, essay writing comes naturally. But for the rest of us, understanding how to effectively answer an essay question in a manner that will gain you those precious high grades is something that needs to be learnt and practised frequently. However, once you learn how to write an outstanding essay, you can employ the same methods and practices to pretty much any piece of academic writing. So, whether you’ve never written an academic essay before, or you’re just feeling a bit rusty writing one, here are our top tips to writing a killer essay that’ll boost your grades. 

1. Understand the Question

Sorry for stating the obvious, but it’s one of, if not the most common reason we see students receive lower essay grades than they expected. What is the essay question asking you to do exactly? Highlight the crucial question words - ‘justify’, ‘examine’, ‘analyse’, and so on. These words indicate how your essay should be structured as each of these phrases come with their own set of expectations. 

These are outlined in further detail in another blog post, but as an example, if you are asked to critically analyse a specific academic theory, you need to present a solid understanding not only of this theory but also other related approaches. They then must be considered against each other, calling attention to the respective strengths and weaknesses of each, before reaching a well-justified and assured conclusion. Is the academic theory good? How does it need improving? What are its downfalls?

Contrastingly, if you are asked to assess the usefulness of something, you don’t need to go into such critical depth. Although you should nod to related approaches and some of their strengths and weaknesses, the focus of the essay should be on the theory’s practical usefulness, possibly supported by case studies or evidence, and their outcomes. Does the application of the theory demonstrate any specific strengths and weaknesses?

2. Write the Body First, the Introduction Second, and the Conclusion Last.

We’ve all been there. Staring at a blank Microsoft Word document page waiting for inspiration to hit to write those crucial first few sentences. Rather than starting off with the introduction, we suggest writing the body first; otherwise, you’re trying to summarise your entire essay before you’ve even written it yet. Further, as your conclusion also summarises the essay, it seeks to answer the questions or tie back to the discussion outlines you make in your introduction, so it makes sense to write the conclusion last. 

3. Follow Best Essay Planning Practices 

There’s a lot of work that goes into writing a good essay, so you should plan out the following steps and assign yourself a deadline to get each step completed. You can adapt this for exam conditions as well, as even if time is tight, you should always try and brainstorm a bit before beginning to write. 

  1. Understand the question

  2. Map the essay structure/paragraph content

  3. Collect relevant articles

  4. Read and take notes of articles, highlighting key information

  5. Start writing

  6. Finish the first draft

  7. Proofread

  8. Hand in essay 

4. Read and Reference Widely

As mentioned in step 3 and 4 above, reading is a critical part of writing an essay. So, before you start writing, conduct a broad search for relevant literature. Learning how to sift through large quantities of information is a significant academic skill; you don’t want to waste time reading every word of every article you come across, you need to be able to correctly and quickly identify whether an article might be useful or relevant.

To do so, use a database such as Google Scholar to search for articles using keywords related to your topic. Once you come across an article that sounds encouraging, skim read the abstract or skip down to the article’s conclusion or discussion which will help you determine whether it’s worth reading the article as a whole.

Once you’ve found some suitable articles, check out their bibliographies and take note of who they’ve cited as they’ll likely be of value to you too. You can also check on Google Scholar to see who has cited the relevant articles you’ve found. To do this, type the name of the article in the search and click enter, then click “cited by” to find a list of other articles that have cited the one you’ve searched for.

It is crucial to have a wide range of literature supporting your essays, don’t rely too much on one or a few articles or texts as it sends a strong signal to the reader that you haven’t done enough wider reading or research. Further, look outside of your course’s “suggested reading”, if there are 300 students writing the same essay, how do you make yours stand out and give you a better chance of getting a higher grade? Look for more recent research, a unique piece of information or reference that shows that you’ve gone the extra mile. 

5. Demonstrate Critical Thinking

Academic theories, studies and approaches are pretty much guaranteed not to be perfect; they all have their limitations. To get a higher grade, you need to demonstrate critical thinking and reasoning skills - highlight the drawbacks and flaws on the academic research you reference. How have these been managed in the literature? How do they affect the quality of the arguments or evidence presented? To what extent do they restrict our understanding of the subject? What other interpretations might provide greater depth?

A good way to get started is to look at how an article is discussed or referenced in other articles. Often, authors do not just summarise other studies, but also present a critique that validates the gap for their own research. Further, academic papers should list their own limitations in their articles, for example, a piece of research will typically have a section dedicated to recognising the study limitations such as a small sample size, degree of generalisability, resource limitations etc. 

6. Best Practice Essay Structure and Flow 

Your essay’s argument must follow a coherent, logical presentation and structure. A great piece of advice is to “tell them what you are going to tell them, then tell them, and tell them what you told them”. Obviously, this is the basic summary of an introduction, main body and conclusion structure. Throughout your work, check that each paragraph and sentence adds value to the argument you’re presenting. Does it relate to your overall argument? If the answer to those questions is no, then it’s likely that you’ve digressed from your main argument. 

Another key consideration is that each section of your essay flows fluidly and they all fit together as a cohesive whole. We’ve seen a lot of students who have regarded their essays as a list of arguments, reciting arguments one after the other with little thought for how they fit together, which, unfortunately, results in a lower grade. To counteract this, tell your reader why you are transitioning from one argument to another, why it is in this order, and how each argument assists in shedding light on a specific part of what you are discussing. 

7. Backing Up Your Argument with Citations

There’s a delicate balancing act when it comes to essay citing; you don’t want to create an entirely novel essay without drawing upon any sources, but you also don’t want to cite someone for every single point you make in your essay. So, as a guideline, you should provide a credible citation (acting as “evidence”) every time you make a statement of fact, or draw on an argument, framework or theory presented by other academics. This then supports your overall novel argument that you yourself are presenting.

8. Paraphrasing vs Quoting

When you’re writing an essay, you should paraphrase wherever possible, and quote only when essential, or if it helps to illuminate the point you are making. If you’re unsure of the difference between paraphrasing and quoting, we’ve included an example below. 

Quote: “In the case of Facebook, it has changed its format multiple times, and merged other literacy practices – email, instant messaging, games – into its structure in an attempt to keep users on the site” (Keller 2014, 74).

Paraphrase: Facebook has tried to hold on to its users by including new features such as games and email (Keller 2014).

9. Write Academically 

It might feel unnatural or stiff to be writing in the formal language you’ll likely have to use in an essay, but it’s imperative for your strong grade. Unfortunately, using non-academic language is a common downfall for students in their first year of university, but it becomes easier the more practice you get! So, ensure that your writing is formal, clear, concise and unbiased.

 10. Check, Check and Check Again!

Your essay isn’t finished the moment you’ve finished your conclusion. You might’ve been sat for hours writing the bulk of your essay at this point, so take a well-earned break or, if you can, leave it until tomorrow to review again with fresh eyes. Re-read it a couple of times to ensure the essay makes sense, that you’ve answered the question correctly (re-read the essay brief/instructions as well here), the sentences flow smoothly and of course, check for grammar and spelling mistakes. If grammar and spelling aren’t a strong suit of yours, check out Grammarly, it’s a great resource for this very purpose, and there’s a free package.

A neglected part of checking a finished essay is often the bibliography, print it out if you need to, but go through it with a very fine-tooth comb to ensure it’s presented in the correct format according to the required referencing style. It would be a shame to lose marks in your essay for a poorly presented bibliography!

Congratulations on writing a great essay! By following our top tips, hopefully, you’ve been able to draft a successful essay. This is only a brief dive into the components of a successful essay so, if you want to find out more about achieving killer essay grades, check out the book, The Ultimate Essay Guide .

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© 2020 Sam Loyd. All rights reserved.