Honestly, throughout most of high school and college, I was a mediocre essay writer.
Every once in a while, I would write a really good essay, but mostly I skated by with B’s and A-minuses.
I know personally how boring writing an essay can be, and also, how hard it can be to write a good one.
Writing an essay? Don’t pull your hair out. Here are 10 tips to write a great essay. Photo by Stuart Pilbrow (Creative Commons)
However, toward the end of my time as a student, I made a breakthrough. I figured out how to not only write a great essay, I learned how to have fun while doing it.
That’s right. Fun.
Why Writing an Essay Is So Hard?
Here are a few reasons:
- You’d rather be scrolling through Facebook.
- You’re trying to write something your teacher or professor will like.
- You’re trying to get an A instead of writing something that’s actually good.
- You want to do the least amount of work possible.
The biggest reason writing an essay is so hard is because we mostly focus on those external rewards like getting a passing grade or our teacher’s approval. The problem is that when you focus on external approval it not only makes writing much less fun, it also makes it significantly harder.
Because when you focus on external approval, you shut down your subconscious, and the subconscious is the source of your creativity. What this means practically is that when you’re trying to write that perfect, A-plus-worthy sentence, you’re turning off most of your best resources.
Just stop. Stop trying to write a good essay (or even a “good-enough” essay). Instead, write an interesting essay, write an essay you think is fascinating. And when you’re finished, go back and edit it until it’s “good” according to your teacher’s standards.
Yes, you need to follow the guidelines in your assignment. If your teacher tells you to write a five-paragraph essay, then write a five-paragraph essay! However, within those guidelines, find room to express something that is uniquely you.
I can’t guarantee you’ll get a higher grade (although, you almost certainly will), but I can absolutely promise you’ll have a lot more fun writing.
10 Tips to Writing a Great Essay
Ready to get writing? Here are my ten best tips for having fun while writing an essay that earns you the top grade!
1. Your essay is just a story.
Every story is about conflict and change, and the truth is that essays are about conflict and change, too! The difference is that in an essay, the conflict is between different ideas, the change is in the way we should perceive those ideas.
That means that the best essays are about surprise, “You probably think it’s one way, but in reality, you should think of it this other way.” See tip #3 for more on this.
2. Before you start writing, ask yourself, “How can I have the most fun writing this?”
It’s normal to feel unmotivated when writing an essay. I’m a writer, and honestly, I feel unmotivated to write all the time. But I have a super-ninja, judo-mind trick I like to use to help motivate myself.
Here’s the secret trick: One of the interesting things about your subconscious is that it will answer any question you ask yourself. So whenever you feel unmotivated to write your essay, ask yourself the following question:
How much fun can I have writing this?”
Your subconscious will immediately start thinking of strategies to make the writing process more fun. Here’s another sneaky question to ask yourself when you really don’t want to write:
How can I finish this as quickly as possible?
Give it a try!
3. As you research, ask yourself, “What surprises me about this subject?”
The temptation, when you’re writing an essay, is to write what you think your teacher or professor wants to read. Don’t do this. Instead, ask yourself, “What do I find interesting about this subject? What surprises me?”
If you can’t think of anything that surprises you, anything you find interesting, then you’re not searching well enough, because history, science, and literature are all brimmingover with surprises. When you look at how great ideas actually happen, the story is always, “We used to think the world was this way. We found out we were completely wrong, and that the world is actually quite different from what we thought.”
As you research your essay topic, search for this story of surprise, and don’t start writing until you can find it.
(By the way, what sources should you use for research? Check out tip #10 below.)
4. Overwhelmed? Just write five original sentences.
The standard three-point essay is really made up of just five original sentences, surrounded by supporting paragraphs that back up those five sentences. If you’re feeling overwhelmed, just write five sentences. Here’s what they might look like:
- Thesis: While most students consider writing an essay a boring task, with the right mindset, it can actually be an enjoyable experience.
- Body #1: Most students think writing an essay is tedious because they focus on external rewards.
- Body #2: Students should instead focus on internal fulfillment when writing an essay.
- Body #3: Not only will focusing on internal fulfillment allow students to have more fun, they will write better essays.
- Conclusion: Writing an essay doesn’t have to be simply a way to earn a good grade. Instead, it can be a means of finding fulfillment.
After you write your five sentences, it’s easy to fill in the paragraphs they will find themselves in.
Now, you give it a shot!
5. Be “source heavy.”
In college, I discovered a trick that helped me go from a B-average student to an A-student, but before I explain how it works, let me warn you. This technique is powerful, but it might not work for all teachers or professors. Use with caution.
As I was writing a paper for a literature class, I realized that the articles and books I was reading said what I was trying to say much better than I ever could. So what did I do? I just quoted them liberally throughout my paper. When I wasn’t quoting, I re-phrased what they said in my own words, giving proper credit, of course. I found that not only did this formula create a well-written essay, it took about half the time to write.
When I used this technique, my professors sometimes mentioned that my papers were very “source” heavy. However, at the same time, they always gave me A’s. Like the five sentence trick, this technique makes the writing process simpler. Instead of putting the main focus on writing well, it instead forces you to research well, which some students find easier.
6. Write the body first, the introduction second, and the conclusion last.
Introductions are often the hardest part to write because you’re trying to summarize your entire essay before you’ve even written it yet. Instead, try writing your introduction last, giving yourself the body of the paper to figure out the main point of your essay.
7. Most essays answer the question, “What?” Good essays answer the “Why?” The best essays answer the “How?”
If you get stuck trying to make your argument, or you’re struggling to reach the required word count, try focusing on the question, “How?” For example:
- How did J.D. Salinger convey the theme of inauthenticity in The Catcher In the Rye?
- How did Napoleon restore stability in France after the French Revolution?
- How does the research prove girls really do rule and boys really do drool?
If you focus on how, you’ll always have enough to write about.
8. Don’t be afraid to jump around.
Essay writing can be a dance. You don’t have to stay in one place and write from beginning to end. Give yourself the freedom to write as if you’re circling around your topic rather than making a single, straightforward argument. Then, when you edit, you can make sure everything lines up correctly.
9. Here are some words and phrases you don’t want to use.
- You (You’ll notice I use a lot of you’s, which is great for a blog post. However, in an essay, it’s better to omit the second-person.)
- To Be verbs
Don’t have time to edit? Here’s a lightning-quick editing technique.
A note about “I”: Some teachers say you shouldn’t use “I” statements in your writing, but the truth is that professional, academic papers often use phrases like “I believe” and “in my opinion,” especially in their introductions.
10. It’s okay to use Wikipedia, if…
Wikipedia isn’t just one of the top 5 websites in the world, it can be a great tool for research. However, most teachers and professors don’t consider Wikipedia a valid source for use in essays. However, here are two ways you can use Wikipedia in your essay writing:
- Background research. If you don’t know enough about your topic, Wikipedia can be a great resource to quickly learn everything you need to know to get started.
- Find sources. Check the reference section of Wikipedia’s articles on your topic. While you may not be able to cite Wikipedia itself, you can often find those original sources and site them.
The thing I regret most about high school and college is that I treated it like something I had to do rather than something I wanted to do.
The truth is, education is an opportunity many people in the world don’t have access to. It’s a gift, not just something that makes your life more difficult. I don’t want you to make the mistake of just “getting by” through school, waiting desperately for summer breaks and, eventually, graduation.
How would your life be better if you actively enjoyed writing an essay? What would school look like if you wanted to suck it dry of all the gifts it has to give you?
All I’m saying is, don’t miss out!
How about you? Do you have any tips for writing an essay?
Use tip #4 and write five original sentences that could be turned into an essay.
When you’re finished, share your five sentences in the comments section.
And remember, have fun!
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There is an assumption in the world that an essay is something literary you write for school about a topic that no one but your teacher will ever care about. At first glance, the dictionary does nothing to allay that sense. The very first definition is of “a short literary composition on a particular theme or subject, usually in prose and generally analytic, speculative, or interpretative.”
The reality, if any of you have read a blog recently, is that essays can be much more than that. They can be anything really. And here, the dictionary comes to our aid. The second definition of an essay is “anything resembling such a composition.” So really, essays are written compositions about anything.
Unfortunately, they can also be annoying, tedious and obnoxious. Whether it’s a high school essay, a college research paper or even an important office memo at your new job, at any given moment chances are you’d probably rather not be doing it. And the fact that you HAVE to do it just adds to the misery.
The stress of it all has twenty different things going on in your head at once: Where to start? What do I write about? How do I keep the momentum? What about pacing? I need a good grade, or a promotion, WITH A RAISE, a lot is riding on this!
Calm yourself. Writing the perfect paper, the kickass memo, the stellar essay — about ANYTHING — is not only possible, it’s easy.
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What Is My Secret?
An essay is a lot like a military operation. It takes discipline, foresight, research, strategy, and, if done right, ends in total victory. That’s why I stole my formula from an ancient military tactic, invented by the Spartans (the guys in the movie 300). This tactic was a favorite of great generals like Brasidas and Xenophon (an actual student of Socrates) and was deployed successfully in combat countless times. I figure: if this one trick can protect a ten thousand-man march through hostile territory, country after country, it can probably work for something as silly and temporary as a paper or an essay.
We’re going to use this tactic as a metaphor — also a great term to use in our essays — for the structural elements of our essay. It will allow us to forget your teacher’s boring prompt. Forget “Commentary/Concrete Detail/Commentary/Concrete Detail” and all that nonsense.
Here’s Xenophon talking about this tactic in his Anabasis:
It would be safer for us to march with the hoplites forming a hollow square, so that the baggage and the general crowd would be more secure inside. If, then, we are told now who should be in the front of the square and who organize the leading detachments, and who should be on the two flanks, and who should be responsible for the rear.
Basically, their tactic was this: to successfully march or retreat, the general brings his troops together in an outward facing square with their supplies and wounded in the middle and the strongest troops at the front and back. As they moved away from unfavorable ground, the men would defend their side, stepping out only slightly to meet their attackers and then retreating immediately back to the safety of the shape. And thus they were completely impenetrable, able to travel fluidly as well as slowly demoralize the attacking army. As Xenophon wrote, the idea was that having prepared a hollow square in advance, “we should not have to plan [everything defense related] when the enemy is approaching but could immediately make use of those who have been specially detailed for the job.”
My method works the same. Consider your introduction as the creator of the shape, and then the following paragraphs making up each side. They venture outwards when called to, but never abandon the safety of the formation entirely. It is a process of constant realignment, maintaining the square at all cost. In terms of “writing,” you need only to create a handful of original sentences for the entire essay: a thesis, a theme, a mini-thesis that begins each paragraph and a concluding sentence that says what it all means. Everything else is a variation of these four sentences in some way. Together they create the square, and this serves as the point of return — much like Chuck Palahniuk’s concept of “chorus lines” (see Fight Club, where, whenever the plot gets off track, he immediately comes back to something like, “I am Jack’s sense of rejection”). The idea is to keep the reader protected, just the troops flowing in and out of the square kept the hollow middle, and thus the whole square, safe.
Let’s say you’re a high school student taking English or a college student stuck in a writing-intensive core class. You’re going to have to write a paper. It’s just a fact of life. So instead of fighting it, let’s just make it as easy as possible.
The outline I’m about to give you is simple. Essentially, the format requires just six original sentences and the rest is nothing more than reiteration and support of the ideas in those original sentences. Just like the tactics of Brasidas, you forge the rudimentary shape with the introduction and then all that’s left is defense — everyone (every word) knows their job.
No longer is the professor grading you in terms of the prompt, because you have redefined the dynamic on your terms. You have taken the prompt and made it your own. By emphatically laying out your own rules and track, excellence is achieved simply by following them. You place the reader in the middle of the square, protected by all sides, and methodically move them forward, defending doubts and objections as they arise.
I’ll go into specific examples soon, but here’s a hypothetical outline for a five-page paper:
1. Begin with a broad, conclusive hook. This will be the meta-theme of the paper. Example from a paper on The Great Gatsby: “When citizens exhibit a flagrant disregard of morality and law, societies quickly crumble.”
2. Thesis. This needs to specify and codify the hook in relation to the prompt/subject. Ex: “This atmosphere as shown in F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby — with blatant corruption and illegal activity — eventually seems to become all but incompatible with a meaningful incarnation of the American Dream.”
3. One sentence laying foundation for first body paragraph. (These are mini-theses for each point you will argue.) Ex: Though Gatsby was a bootlegger, he was driven by hope and love, rather than the greed that motivated his status-obsessed guests.
4. One Sentence for second body paragraph. (Just like the sentence you just did)
5. One sentence for third body paragraph.
6. Restate the hook and thesis into a single transition sentence into the first paragraph. “The 1920s as the epitome of excess and reactionism symbolized a sharp break in the American tradition; one that no one seemed to mind.”
Notes/Advice: Some say the thesis should go at the bottom of the intro instead of the top, which I think is a huge mistake. The point of a paper is to make an assertion and then support it. You can’t support it until you’ve made it.
1. Rewrite first body paragraph thesis.
2. Support the mini-thesis with evidence and analysis.
3. Restate body paragraph thesis in the context of thesis as a whole.
-Begin with your strongest piece of evidence
-Introduce quotes/points like this: Broad->Specific->Analysis/Conclusion
-Always integrate the quote, and try to incorporate analysis into the same sentence. As a general rule never use more than 5-7 of the author’s words. Normally you can use even less: “It was Jay, who despite the corruption around him, looked forward to what was described as an ‘orgiastic future.'”
1. Rewrite second body paragraph thesis.
2. Support mini-thesis.
3. Restate body paragraph thesis in context of the paragraph above and thesis as whole.
1. Rewrite third body paragraph thesis.
2. Support mini-thesis.
3. Restate body paragraph thesis in context of the paragraph above and thesis as whole.
1. Restate hook/meta-theme.
2. Specify this with restatement of thesis once more.
3. One sentence for each body paragraph, surmising its assertion.
4. One sentence for each body paragraph, surmising its assertion.
5. One sentence for each body paragraph, surmising its assertion.
6. Rewrite hook and thesis into a conclusion sentence.
7. Last sentence must transition to a general statement about human nature. “The American Dream — and any higher aspiration — requires a society that both looks forward and onwards as well as holds itself to corrective standards.”
That’s it. Seriously. It works for a paper of 300 words just as much as it does for one of 300 pages. It’s self-generating, self-reinforcing, and self-fulfilling. Could you ask for anything better?
Just like the tactics of the great generals, by laying out the square in advance with clear, orderly lines, you insulate yourself from the chaos of improvisation. You mark the boundaries now so you don’t have to later, and excellence is achieved simply by filling them in with your sentences. Each paragraph is given a singular purpose and its only duty is fulfillment. Like I said earlier, with this structure you place the reader in the middle of the square, protected by all sides, and methodically move them forward, defending doubts and objections as they arise. And that is a great essay.
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