As every student is aware, succeeding at university often involves a number of tiresome things: lectures, exams, and, worst of all, how to write a good essay. Frequent, boring essays. Last minute, all-nighter essays. Extended, marked, assessed essays. Sometimes undergraduate life can seem like a blur of word counts, deadlines and ProPlus – and sometimes undergraduates need a little help.
We’re going to explain how to write a good essay, and, in doing so, the importance of essay proofreading.
The first tip is perhaps the most obvious: do good research. This seems like it would be so obvious that it isn’t really worth saying, but you would be surprised. There are some fairly programmatic ways to improve the quality of your research, or at least to improve how good the research you’ve done looks when you hand in your essay. It’s important to try to find multiple different sources and references. If you’re basing large sections of your essay on a single source, try to find a new one. If a lot of your sources say largely the same thing, try to find a few that dissent. If your sources quote from something, go to the original and find that quotation. If they discuss a concept – the Turing Test, or Marxism, or Darwinism, or Luther’s 95 theses – go back to the original source of that concept before citing it. Especially in the arts, demonstrating historical awareness by discussing historical sources is highly valued by many tutors. Modern sources are just as necessary, however, and finding recent and therefore up-to-date books and articles can give the impression that you’re engaged with modern academic trends. Professors love this; it makes what they do seem more exciting.
The key word here is ‘impression’. At the undergraduate level especially, essays are at least in part about ticking a number of boxes to demonstrate understanding and knowledge. You are not expected to have conducted original research, but you are expected to look as if you might have done, had you had more time. Using a range of sources – historical and contemporary, for and against a proposition – in your essay gives the impression that you have the basic research skills that academics are looking for.
Once you’ve done your research, the next step in how to write a good essay to take is to plan your essay. The plan doesn’t have to be particularly in depth, but it will help give your work structure. It is important to construct an argument for your essay; the importance of this can’t be emphasised enough. Without being too polemic, you want your writing to have something to say, and to reach a conclusion. Unless the assignment is just to summarise previous work, your essay will always be strengthened by including some kind of argument. Failing to argue is a mistake made all too frequently by undergraduates, and it can reduce your work to an inchoate, insubstantial mess.
The simplest way to structure an argument is to introduce a proposition in the introduction, to discuss the evidence for and against this proposition in the body of the essay, and then to reach a conclusion about the proposition at the end. Doing so, however, can risk seeming programmatic. More sophisticated writers will adopt a similar structure, but will seem to be moving purposefully and inevitably from the proposition to the conclusion. The difference is best demonstrated by example. The first strategy would look something like:
‘This essay will discuss whether the UN is good or bad.
Here is a good thing the UN did.
Here is another good thing.
Here is a bad thing.
But, in conclusion, on balance the UN was more good than bad.’
This kind of structure includes the necessary information, but doesn’t present it in a way that is interesting or engaging or really demonstrates that the writer has processed it to come to their own conclusion. With the same content, a more argumentative structure can be adopted:
‘This essay will argue that the UN is good, although some have said it is bad.
The first reason is this. Example.
The second reason is this. Example.
The third reason is this, even though this bad thing happened.
In conclusion, for the above reasons, the UN is good.’
This structure makes the argument appear more sophisticated: it is one that has been considered and then evidenced, and one that is capable of incorporating its own counter arguments. Furthermore, presenting your ideas in this way makes it seem as if you have engaged with the topic, and engagement is the kind of thing that educators love to see.
Having researched and structured your essay, all that’s left as part of how to write a good essay is writing it. I say ‘all that’s left’, but writing is often the hardest part – although it is made a lot easier by researching and planning properly in advance. Style is important, but being understood is more important. It is essential that you express your ideas, following your plan, clearly and without repetition. This is where planning is particularly useful, because it can prevent you from repeating yourself.
Style is harder to give advice about, because it is so subjective, but for academic work there are few rules of thumb that you can follow. The tone should be formal (so don’t use phrases like ‘rules of thumb’ or contractions like ‘don’t’), and the writing should be clear and dispassionate. Avoid using intensifiers like ‘very’ or making personal remarks, and avoid using constructions that you are uncertain of. In general it is better to use more simple syntax if it will help you to be understood.
Editing your essay is the easiest way to achieve a good style. It is always worth going over your own work, because reading it again will allow you to spot obvious errors. It is more valuable to get someone else – especially a specialist – to look it over, because they can identify areas where your language struggles to express your ideas. The best way to write good prose is to rewrite and edit it, and the best way to edit it is to send it to an editor. This phase of the essay writing process is often described as polishing, and, as with precious stones, the polishing will be more effective the higher the quality of the jewel. Essay editing is at its most effective when the essay has been well researched, planned and written before it has been sent to the editor, because the better it is to start with, the better it will be after it has been polished. Research and planning give an essay good content and structure, and it is within this structure that an editor can do their best work to improve the style on a sentence by sentence and word by word basis. The unfortunate truth about style is that it matters. Few things in undergraduate level academia give the impression of intelligence and sophistication better than good writing, and, conversely, few things give a worse impression to markers and examiners than incoherent, difficult to follow or grammatically incorrect prose. Good academic style is often the decisive factor in giving an impression of quality, and it is far easier to produce well-researched or well-structured essays than it is to produce well-written, stylish ones.
So there you have it: how to write a good essay. The most important things are coherence and cogency, because these give a good impression to markers. Working towards coherence starts during the research phase, and is aided by the scaffold of a well-structured plan. Coherence is the essence of good writing, and is best achieved by aspiring to clarity on the first draft, and editing your essay to redraft and redraft again. With coherence comes style, and with style, hopefully, come good marks.
If, having written your essay, you are still struggling to express your thoughts in a clear and concise manner – Oxbridge Proofreading’s Stylistic Proofreading service is perfectly suited to this task.
Our Essay Proofreaders
All our proofreaders have achieved their qualifications from either the University of Oxford or the University of Cambridge, with a minimum of a Master’s degree and the majority also holding a PhD. All are native English speakers and we have subject specialists in almost every discipline — this range of knowledge – knowing precisely how to write a good essay, combined with our exacting standards, makes us the perfect choice for your proofreading needs.
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