Writing essays can be a pain. Being able to decipher what your professor wants and figuring out how to give it to them while maintaining an echo of originality is an adventure. As an English major, I tend to feel extra pressure to perform well on essays for any class, and I’ve compiled a list of five tips that I’ve found useful for all my essays.
1. Start early
Everyone tells you this, but it’s true. The more time you put into your essay, the better it will be, so read over your prompt as soon as possible so your brain can start percolating on possible concepts. Something as simple as reading the guidelines before bed can put your subconscious to work and allow you to process new ideas before you’re ready to start writing.
Starting early is especially helpful if you’re writing a research essay. Finding reliable sources and quotes takes time, and if you wait until the day before, you don’t have any to spare. I always create a Google Doc to copy and paste quotes from different articles that I might use. Just remember to record which articles you use before you get to your bibliography!
I always hear my classmates say they don’t know how to start their essays, and they end up rushing to write them the night before because they were too afraid to start. No one will read your rough draft besides you, so don’t be embarrassed to write something you have to clean up later. You can’t edit something that doesn’t exist.
2. Annotate your prompt
I hated when my teachers forced me to circle and underline writing prompts in high school, but it pays off in college. High school prompts are often short and to the point, but college professors will sometimes give you three pages of specific instructions for your essays, so you don’t want to miss anything important. Highlighting the most essential pieces keeps your brain organized and lets you break down how you might want to organize your essay to address the prompt.
Aside from the prompt, the formatting guidelines are super important. If your professor wants a word count at the end of your essay, give them one. If they want a reference sheet but no cover page, do that. If they want APA-style citations, do not give them MLA.
Most importantly, annotating the prompt helps you figure out what your professor wants. I hope you’ll be interested in the material, but always remember that it’s for a grade. Every piece of writing has an audience that you as a writer are obligated to serve. If you don’t give your professors what they ask for, even if it’s well written, it will reflect poorly on your writing.
3. Make an outline
Ensuring you stay on track and know what to write before you write it will decrease your stress and make for a better essay. Start with your thesis statement. Define what point you want to make, craft it into a one sentence argument. Make bullet points of your reasons for believing this argument. Those are your topics for each body paragraph.
This is especially useful for longer essays. If your paper is only a couple pages long, you might be able to get away with just jumping in, but longer papers will drown you. This also allows you to plan to answer every aspect of your prompt (that you annotated) so you don’t forget to include any important paragraphs. Giving your essay a skeleton before you flesh it out gives your writing stability and cohesion, both of which are essential to a well-written paper.
4. Edit and revise
This may seem intuitive, but many students only give their essays a cursory glance before turning them in. That isn’t enough. Frequently revise your essay to check for spelling errors, grammar mistakes, and organization issues. If you started early, this is more than feasible. Leaving your essay for a day and coming back allows you to look at your writing with a different perspective and notice inconsistencies that your caffeine-addled mind glossed over the night before.
One trick that I use all the time is reading the essay out loud. While your brain might fill in the gaps, your tongue and ears will let you know when something is wrong. Listen for rough patches and words that sound awkward together. Smoothing your words into a flow will show your professor that you took the time to polish your work.
5. If you have questions, ask
If your question is specific to that particular essay, ask a friend in your class what they think, or shoot your professor an email. Getting other people’s feedback on potential issues is a quick and easy fix. Don’t get something wrong because you were too embarrassed to ask for help.
If you want to know what other people think of your draft, have a friend look it over. Another pair of eyes can point you toward rough or confusing passages. You know what you mean, so some things might make sense to you and confuse everyone else. Taking a trip to your college’s writing center is also a good option. Those students are trained to help you write—let them help!
Related: The Writing Center 101
College essays can seem overwhelming at first, but once they’re broken down, they quickly lose their intimidation factor. Write one piece at a time, and don’t stress if your inner author takes a vacation. Just start.
For more advice on essays and anything else related to acing classes, check out our Majors and Academics page!