Writing an essay is not the hardest thing you’ll ever do.
Churning out a few-hundred-word piece shouldn’t take you more than 1,5 hours.
But what if you want to take it to the next level? What if you want to write better essays? Ones that will change your reader’s minds or get you accepted to a top college?
In this article, I’ll share some of my best ideas on how you can accomplish exactly that.
1. Start with WHY. Why do you want to write better?
Let’s do some quick introspection. Why do you want to write awesome essays? You want to shine during your English class? You want to get into one of the top colleges in your country? You want to crush your academic assignments? Or maybe you’re preparing for a major exam like ACT or SAT?
Reasons why give you motivation, and there’s no real improvement without a strong, burning desire. I suggest you list a couple of reasons why you want to improve and the benefits you’ll get as a result.
- Clear communication
- Better persuasive skills
- Good grades and education
- Admiration of others
- Changing the world one essay at a time
- Sharing your innermost feelings and convictions
“He who has a why to live can bear almost any how” – Friedrich Nietzsche
2. Read the best essays to write the best essays
It’s difficult to improve at any skill if you don’t know what the benchmark is. You may think your essays are amazing, but try to read some of the best essays of all time or the best college essays, and you will quickly change your mind.
I’m not saying that I’ve mastered this subtle art either. Humility is what keeps my desire to improve burning slowly. I know I have to pay my dues, learn from those who came before me and try to do better with every essay I produce.
You should do the same. When checking out houses of famous writers, you’ll notice they all have huge libraries. Maybe there’s some correlation there?
“If you don’t have time to read, you don’t have the time (or the tools) to write. Simple as that.” – Stephen King
3. Know exactly which type of essay you’re writing
Analytical, argumentative, descriptive, reflective, or personal. They come in many different forms and shades.
An essay you would write as a part of your college application process is much different than the one about your childhood dreams.
You may need to write from the first person’s perspective, or the third person’s. The language may be formal or informal. The style argumentative or calm and objective. It could be 500 words long or 5000 words long.
It all depends, you see. Learn about different conventions when it comes to essays. If you’re in doubt, just ask your professor or simply Google it.
You may also want to check one of my articles with 20 best essay-writing tips.
4. Know how to start an essay properly
The beginning of your essay is like sending an invitation for a virtual meetup with the reader. You’re basically asking them to leave whatever they were doing and spend five, ten or twenty minutes on reading your piece.
In the world of constant digital distraction, that’s a big ask. Your readers have plenty of other things vying for their attention. So your essay intro better be good.
In the world of journalism, it’s called “the lead” because leads the reader into reading the whole thing (or at least 50% of it). Spend some good time thinking how can you make the introduction interesting, enticing, and tantalizing.
You can start by shocking your readers, inspiring them, or arising curiosity. Whatever you do, don’t let them thinking “so what?” after going through your lead.
Feel free to check out my collection of essay introductions to get some inspiration.
5. Use acceptable essay formats and present ideas in a logical order
When you read famous, well-written essays, you’ll notice that they don’t follow a strict format. You don’t feel like, “ok, that was the introduction and now I’m moving to the first body paragraph”. It’s much more fluid and beautiful than that.
Yet if you’re just getting started and want to improve your skills, it’s good to know and follow the basics.
You start with an introduction which contains your thesis and hooks the reader. Then you continue with three body paragraphs where you lay out your argument and provide supporting evidence. Finally, you draw your piece to a conclusion and bid your readers farewell.
This is a great place to get started and I even wrote a whole article about how to format a college essay. But once you master the basics, it’s time to break the rules and develop your own distinctive style.
6. Use great sources and references to write your essay
If you’re simply writing down your memories and experiences, you don’t need to “stand on the shoulders of giants” and support yourself with other people’s knowledge.
But if you’re writing an argumentative, analytical or descriptive essay, you better make damn sure you cite great sources.
In the words of Alonzo Harris:
It’s not what you know, it’s what you can prove.
And don’t just copy stuff from other people’s work. That’s called plagiarism. Give credit where credit is due, and always put your work through a plagiarism checker before you submit it.
When collecting sources for your essay, make sure they’re:
- Unbiased – this is especially important – make sure you consult different sources and then make up your own mind.
- Relevant – they should directly relate to the topic you’re writing about.
- Authoritative – written by authors with good credentials – not a random author from a little-known website.
- Up to date – some sources (especially historical or literary) are timeless, but if you’re writing about science or technology, make sure you’re info is still relevant today.
- Useful – the source will bring additional insight to your argument.
Just in case you need it, here’s a good guide on how to cite other works in your essay.
7. Check the best books on essay writing (as well as books on writing in general)
Great authors spent their lifetime on mastering the art of writing. They saw (and perhaps even edited) thousands of essays and other written works. Don’t you think it would be a good idea to learn from them?
Some books even give you ready formats, step by step instructions, and wonderful examples to draw from. In the beginning, it’s good to emulate and learn from others so that in the future you can develop your own style.
If you need resources for better writing and want to learn from the best, I recommend my two lists:
8. Watch your grammar, punctuation, syntax, and spelling
This comes as no surprise. You should familiarize yourself with the basic rules of grammar, punctuation, syntax, and spelling. Fortunately, these days you can use technology to help you out.
With tools like Grammarly or the other ones I listed in this article, you’ll be fully covered.
But still, make an effort to follow the rules of the English language. If you fail your instructors or the college admissions committee by using bad grammar, your grades and the assessment of your essay will suffer as well.
9. Improve your style of writing
It’s mighty difficult to shed light on writing style. It’s not something you can get from others. Rather, it’s something you develop with time and effort. And it makes all the difference for you and your readers.
You could probably identify the style of your favorite writer even if you were not permitted to look at the cover of the book.
Some of them are precise and logical. Others are direct and confident. Yet others are brilliant and erudite. Or crass and iconoclastic. Or highly intellectual, mystical, warm, friendly, personable, cold, or mysterious.
These are all qualities which come out with time. Writing thousands of words is like an alchemical process which will sublimate your style. They say it takes 10.000 hours of practice to achieve mastery in any skill. So go for it because the time will pass anyway.
Some basic essay-writing style tips:
- Use short, punchy sentences
- Strive to be clear in your communication
- Follow the conventional formats
- Break your essay down into paragraphs
- Check your Flesch–Kincaid readability score and make sure your prose is understandable
- Omit needless words
- Be hard on yourself during the editing stage
- Avoid too much of the passive voice
- Get rid of as many adverbs as you can. They make the prose weak.
And if you need a good primer on writing style, you should check Steven Pinker’s “The Sense of Style”.
You can also take a look at my article: How To Write Well – 15 Writing Tips From Great Authors
“Brevity is the soul of wit.” – William Shakespeare
10. Make sure your thesis is clear and strong
You thesis sits at the core of your essay. It’s the one idea that binds the whole thing together. It’s something you wish to put across, explain and prove.
You put it in the introduction and then use your supportive paragraphs to expand on it and prove it beyond a shadow of a doubt.
Are you worried about the lack of freedom of speech in the USA?
Your thesis could state:
“It’s harder than ever to speak your mind on a college campus in the USA without getting ridiculed, deplatformed or having your character assassinated”.
If that’s the case you want to fight for, you would give specific examples and share well-documented stories of how these things come to pass. You would compare today’s situation with similar instances from the past, and show a growing trend.
Your essays are best when you fight for something, and you seriously want other people to understand it and care about it.
11. Use a wide variety of vocabulary in your essays
When you read a piece by a master essayist like Christopher Hitchens or Susan Sontag, you’ll often have to check your dictionary along the way. You’ll also realize that the advanced words aren’t there just to bolster the writer’s ego.
They’re there because they convey meaning better than the simpler alternatives. They also add beauty, and flavor to the prose. They make you feel like you’re among literati.
But there must be a purpose behind using them. In their classic, The Elements of Style, Strunk and White claimed that you should:
“Never call a stomach a tummy without good reason.”
12. Use technology and writing tools to improve your writing
In the distant past of essay pioneers like Voltaire, Francis Bacon, or John Locke, the only tool available was your mind, your books, and the muse who occasionally bestowed her graces upon you.
But the game has changed. Writing evolves, and in the fast-paced world, we hardly have time to write in longhand by the candlelight (although it’s not such a bad idea).
Now we have tools and technology, which can transform a mediocre essay into something more readable, but not into a masterpiece.
Here’s a quick rundown of the top tools you can use to write better and organize your materials:
- Grammarly – to seamlessly take care of grammar and syntax.
- The Hemingway App – to keep your sentences clear and concise.
- Feedly – to gather the best information from the web in one place.
- Anymemo – to learn new vocabulary.
- One Look Dictionary – the best online dictionary I’ve found.
- Evernote – to gather your materials in an easy way.
- Google Keep – good for writing and keeping notes.
- Coach.me – if you need motivation and support as a writer.
- Pomodoro Tracker – for productivity and writer’s block.
- Basecamp 3 – for project management.
- Freshbooks – to manage invoices if you’re a freelancer.
And above all, never stop living. Live to the fullest, my friend. Do all you can do. Be all you can be. Take risks and plunge into life with love and energy. And it will reward you with the best essay material you could ever ask for.
“There is no greater agony than bearing an untold story inside you.” – Maya Angelou