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What’s your first thought when a professor asks you to write an essay?

With reactions of all kinds possible, only two perfectly reflect a student’s state at this moment: it’s either “Kill me, please!” or “Great! I’m gonna write my best essay ever!”

Academic writing often promotes anxiety in students. Some hate such tasks and stop at nothing to avoid them, while others consider essays a strong chance to get high grades and rise in their professors’ opinions. The latter are sure they know all ins and outs of college writing; however, a few pitfalls exist that can sink your essay ship regardless what an excellent student you are.

What are they?

1) You Don’t Have a Hook

Do not confuse hooks with introductions! An essay hook opens your introduction rather than substitutes it. It’s 1-2 opening sentences of your paper, and they serve to capture your reader’s attention and help them decide if they want to continue reading your text. Once you’ve hooked them, introduce your essay topic and thesis.

There are many types of hooks. You are welcome to use questions, common misconceptions, quotes, statistics, or even anecdotes if your essay type and instructions from your professor allow. Not sure what hook is the right one for a particular paper? Write it along with your introduction after you’ve finished the whole essay.

2) You Quote Instead of Paraphrasing

Sure, you can quote others in essays. But do it only if you couldn’t say it better or if it helps convey the tone of the story. Don’t turn your writing into a list of quotes from famous people: your professor wants to read your thoughts and arguments, not others’.

A stellar alternative to quotes in your essay – if they merely supplement your words – is paraphrasing. One of the most popular types of accidental plagiarism, it’s not evil when used right. Don’t copy, but understand the sense of information, formulate it in your own words, use synonyms, split sentences, change the structure of paragraphs and word order when appropriate – and you’ll avoid the issue forever.

3) You Summarize Instead of Analyzing

Leave summaries for your essay’s conclusion. When writing a paper on books, movies, or any other work with a plot, make sure not to retell it. Your professors know what happens there, and they want to read your analysis of the work, not its plot’s summary.

Yes, sometimes it’s necessary to recount some part to make a point, but you should always make analytical statements about passages. Show what you, not others, think on the assigned topics.

4) You Don’t Proofread and Edit an Essay

Once you’ve finished writing an essay, don’t hurry to submit it for review. It’s time to proofread and edit it to avoid the most common types of mistakes that students are making. That’s not about spelling and grammar mistakes only: re-read your essay, check if the structure is clear and the arguments are strong, improve the introduction and think on a stronger hook if necessary, and make sure your conclusion drives the main points of your essay and answers the question “So what?”

The best strategy to edit your work is to leave it for a day or two after writing: it allows you to check it with a fresh perspective, see weak points, and change them. Also, you might ask someone to read the essay before submission and suggest if any more revisions are needed.

Consider proofreading and editing an integral part of writing, and that will help you avoid embarrassing mistakes in essays.

5) You Plagiarize (Even If Accidentally)

For most students, academic writing is hard because it requires following certain rules of structure, style, and references. Proper formatting is a must; otherwise, they consider your work cliched or plagiarized. That’s a serious offense with unpleasant consequences such as broken trust, poor grades, reputation loss, or even expulsion.

To avoid the issue, make sure to include proper references and format them accordingly: don’t paraphrase the direct quotes, use double quotation marks for them, and follow the prescribed style (APA, Chicago, MLA, etc.) when formatting your list of references.

Your professors weren’t born yesterday, and a mere look at your writing is enough for them to understand if it’s original and worth reading. Moreover, they use tools such as PlagiarismCheck.org, Turnitin.com, Copyscape.com, and others to make sure your essay is not a poor mimicry of other authors. So you might want to try the above tools as well to prove the uniqueness of your work, and avoid accidental duplications able to ruin your essay.

This article was contributed by guest author Lesley Vos.

Image by Tim Riley on Flickr

Image by Tim Riley on Flickr

We all get it. You begin to write an essay, and you start panicking. Will I have enough time to do this? Will I get a good grade? You may even procrastinate because you’re bored. In reality, it’s not that hard to write an essay. The next time you start an essay, remember the following:

1) Make it fun. Listen to music. Drink coffee or Pepsi to keep you awake. Take a break to watch YouTube videos every now and then. Keep yourself motivated.

2) Do your research. One huge contributor to essay anxiety is lack of research. When you complete the researching process, you have practically written your whole essay. You’ll know what you want to say and how you need to say it. Follow guidelines and review your notes to make sure you’re on track.

3) Ask for help beforehand. If you typically have difficulty writing essays, ask a professor for help before you begin. Complete an essay outline before asking for help so you can cover any questions you need to ask. The longer you wait, the more you may be pressed for time afterwards. You don’t want to get a bad grade because you submitted your paper late.

Never get frustrated when writing an essay. Remember to breathe. There are many ways to ace your essay, so don’t fret. You can be a good essay writer if you just try.

Image by Erin Kohlenberg, Flickr

Image by Erin Kohlenberg, Flickr

There’s more to writing a proper English essay than throwing together an introduction, body and conclusion. Here are some tips on how to knock your essays out of the park:

  1. Write the Introduction Last
  2. The first thing to do is figure out what you want to say. Once you have a clear idea and you have supported it with scholarly sources and examples, then start by introducing the topic, what you intend to say about it, and how you are going to explain it to the reader. It is safe to assume he or she has no previous knowledge of the topic.

    This is the lead for the rest of the essay. Make sure it grabs your readers’ attention. Don’t be afraid to use something unconventional or an interesting fact. You want to keep the reader interested enough to continue reading.

    Remember, the thesis statement is the last sentence in the introduction.

  3. Writing a Thesis
  4. The thesis should answer a few questions. How does your essay relate to the topic? Most importantly, what are you arguing? Does it focus on an idea for which you have ample information to write about?

    The thesis is the intention of the paper. What is the point of reading the paper? It should be original and answer the “so what?” question. Given the topic, what are you trying to say and why is it important?

    Remember to include the author, the issues with the text, and your approach in proving your point – i.e. compare and contrast, a methodical or theoretical approach?

  5. Essay Outline
  6. The outline of the essay is an introduction, body paragraphs and your conclusion. Do not follow the five paragraph or “hamburger”-style essay. These formats need to be expanded and more analytical in post-secondary education.

  7. Paragraph Format
  8. You should start your paragraph with a topic sentence that introduces the intent of the paragraph. Follow it with your supporting point and the evidence. Each argument often has three points, and each point should have its own paragraph. Each paragraph should contain a conclusion that directly relates to the thesis. Your points must always relate to the thesis, the topic and what you’re proving in the essay.

    Make sure you indent and it is double spaced.

  9. Citation
  10. Spend time making sure you have properly understood the citation. Should you write “bibliography” or “works cited”? Is everything spelled correctly? Properly formatted? Know the difference between writing a quotation and paraphrasing.

    Do you need to include the author, title of the book, year or page number? What form is the professor asking for?

  11. Organization
    • If possible, use multiple screens – it helps you to sort information, and there is a lot that needs to be written and properly structured in the essay.
    • Colour-coordinate – highlight, change the font, and alternate between first and following drafts. This allows you to create your own legend. It keeps track of when you’ve written certain information, and you can pick and choose if you still want to use it or rewrite it.
    • Create its own folder – any information on your computer associated with your essay is in this folder. This is another organization technique that makes it easier to access your work.

  12. What Type of Essay is this?
    • Compare & Contrast
    • Argumentative

    This will help you structure your essay in terms of organization, word choice and even research. After you’ve figured out what you’re going to say, how are you going to say it? It’s safe to say you’re going to argue something or bring an obscure fact to light, but what’s the best way to explain it in five-plus pages?

  13. Take Time to Read Over the Entire Essay
  14. After you’ve written the essay, leave it for a day and come back, so you can read it with fresh eyes. It will be easier to catch mistakes, improper spelling, organization issues, and identify what doesn’t make sense.

  15. Peer Editing
  16. One useful technique is to have someone who hasn’t read your essay, or who has little to no knowledge of the topic, read it out loud to you. While they’re reading it, take notes. How does it sound to you? Is this the way you wanted the writing to come across? Does it make sense?

    Finally, ask them questions. Was it clear and easy to read? Could they understand the point you were trying to make? Most importantly, did they enjoy reading your essay? Bias not included.

Regardless of the type of essay you’re writing:

  • Avoid general statements
  • Refrain from using clichés
  • Present new ideas
  • Use your own words only – or cited otherwise
  • Make sure it relates to course material
  • Save everything, constantly!
  • Keep track of what you’re writing
  • Does it make sense?
  • Do you like it?
  • Have you done what’s required?
  • Ask questions for clarifications

These essay-writing tips should help you get on your way to submitting a thorough, properly structured essay. Tweet us @StudentsDotOrg and let us know if these tips helped you!

Before you start writing, be sure to check out this article on how to avoid getting an “F” on your academic paper.

Are you writing your supplementary essay? These tips might help you too.