8 Tips for Writing Better Essays
It’s the end of week eight of fall classes at Oklahoma State University. The leaves are turning various shades of brown on the trees. There’s a crisp chill to the morning air. Students are planning Halloween parties and eagerly anticipating fall break next weekend. Homecoming is around the corner. And midterm season is upon us.
This time of the academic year can be overwhelming, with tests, essays, and projects due in every class (and seemingly all at the same time). So whether you’re preparing to write an essay, or have just gotten your grade back on one and would like to do better next time, check out these eight tips for writing better essays!
1. Know the assignment requirements
The week before you begin writing your essay, review your assignment sheet and make sure you understand the essay prompt and requirements. Leave yourself plenty of time to address any questions or concerns with your professor in class or over email. Clarify anything that could become a snag while writing. Formatting and citation requirements, essay length, and even the topic itself may not always be clear from the assignment sheet alone.
2. Plan your essay
Finalize your writing topic and the main idea of your essay before you start writing. Write a thesis statement and use it to create an outline for your essay. Plan to have at least three supporting points for your thesis argument and to write a paragraph for each main point. Having, and following, an outline helps add logical structure to the argument you present with your thesis and helps organize your thoughts. It’s okay if your thesis or your outline change while writing, but having a direction will help the writing process go faster and more smoothly.
3. Make time to write
In addition to planning what you’re going to write, it’s a good idea to plan WHEN you’re going to write. Check your schedule for free time in the evenings, mornings, or between classes and block out time to write your essay. Plan to start the week before your essay is due so that you have time to proof-read and edit your writing, or to ask your professor questions. At the very least, try to start a few days before your essay is due, not the night before. You’ll focus better and be less stressed about getting something (anything) down on the page and your sleep schedule will thank you. While blocking out time, plan to spend about an hour to an hour and a half per page (i.e. for a 2 page paper, plan to spend 2 to 3 hours writing, for a 5 page paper, plan to spend 5 to 7.5 hours writing). Planning time to write will help ensure that you have plenty of time to finish your essay.
4. Pick a good place to write
When picking a place to write, you should choose a place where you can focus without distractions from noise or people. At the same time, you’re probably going to be there awhile, so pick somewhere comfortable. Being comfortable in your environment can also help settle any nerves or anxiety you may have about your essay. Know yourself well enough to know whether you write best on a couch (don’t write in bed), at a desk, with complete silence, or with headphones in. Find what works for you and make it a habit. Get everything you need before you sit down to write: plug in your laptop, plug in your phone and place it out of reach, gather all of your source materials, get a cup of water or your caffeinated drink of choice, grab a snack, put in your headphones, set the thermostat, and wrap yourself up in a comfy blanket. Good, now you have no excuse to get up from the computer. Finding (or creating) the right environment for you to write in can help you focus and improve the quality of your essays.
5. Take a break
While you should have everything you need within reach when you sit down to write, thereby minimizing distractions, you aren’t a writing machine and no one expects you to write an essay in one sitting. Even if you’re on a time-crunch, if you find yourself staring at the computer wondering what to write next, it will help you to take a quick break. Move around, get up, and when you come back to write, you’ll be a little less frustrated and think a little more clearly. A 10 to 15 minute break is good. During this time, go to the bathroom, refill your cup of water, heat up some dinner, brush your teeth, or set out cloths for tomorrow. DO NOT play on your phone! Keeping up some kind of productivity and continuing to avoid distractions is crucial. You can also use breaks as rewards to encourage yourself to write (i.e. ‘I can have a break when I finish this page/paragraph’).
6. Pay attention to the details
Once you’ve finished writing the actual body of your essay, you might feel finished, but it’s not time to celebrate yet. Now it’s time to make the citation page, check formatting, and review in-text citation. You’re probably not a citation expert (and for that matter neither am I), so visit Purdue OWL online and find the style guide for the writing style you’re working in (MLA, APA, etc.). Use the style guide to create a citation page that includes any outside sources you used in your essay. Double check that you’ve cited all of your sources in-text (in your essay) with the correct in-text citation form for the writing style. Finally, review your formatting. Most essays will require Times New Roman, 12 point font, double spaced on a page with one-inch margins. Other formatting requirements, like what goes in the header or a cover page, will vary depending on the writing style you are using (MLA, APA, etc.).
By now, you’re probably tired of staring at your essay. Unfortunately, you’re probably also missing things like misspelling “the” as “he” and “their” as “there,” while skimming what you’ve written on a computer screen. We both know you’re not actually reading every word. To proof read, try reading your essay out loud, either to yourself or someone else. Focusing on the individual words as your read them aloud, you will catch spelling and grammar mistakes your eyes would skim over. Alternatively, print your essay and read it in a new format. You can also ask friends, roommates or coworkers to proofread your essay for you. A new set of eyes may catch things that your tired ones are not.
8. Go to the Writing Center
Finally to get better essays, go to the Writing Center! Whether you’re brainstorming your essay or have a final draft, Writing Center consultants can work with you to help create outlines, write a thesis, or correct grammar. The Writing Center can work on any piece of writing for any subject, from engineering research to creative writing and everything in between. Best of all, Writing Center services are FREE to all OSU students. For help improving your essays, schedule an appointment at https://okstate.mywconline.com/.