How to Write Better Essays
By Percival L on June 13, 2023
I don’t think many people like writing assignments. And, to be honest, I totally understand why students are turned off at the prospect of composing a big essay when so much of the English language feels subjective and messy. I, for one, am terrible at gauging how “good” and insightful my submissions are until my teacher passes them back—more often than not, composing academic papers feels like a mix of guesswork and dumb luck.
However, despite its difficulty, I do believe that there is a bit of science behind the seemingly inscrutable art of writing. In this article, I hope to introduce a few little tricks to improve your essays, convey your arguments lucidly, and (maybe) make English assignments just a little more fun in the future.
Writing a good essay begins with writing a good sentence. And a good sentence, at its core, is a combination of good words and punctuation arrayed in a pleasing (and grammatically correct) sequence. As such, as the first step to writing better stuff, I humbly offer some guidelines for choosing and organizing words into phrases.
Lastly, before we get started, I want to emphasize that these pointers are based on my own experiences as a writer; feel free to ignore anything written here if it doesn’t suit you! Writing is an art after all, and no artist can’t be a good artist without some personal flair.
- Pick words that most closely approximate what you want to say.
The thesaurus is your best friend—don’t make do with simple words and boring adjectives! For example, “cacoethes” sounds a lot more interesting than “an inadvisable yet irresistible urge to do something stupid.” That’s not to say you should restrict yourself to arcane vocabulary; just be advised that you can often replace lengthy phrases with one well-chosen word.
- Use em dashes because they are awesome.
For those who don’t know, em dashes are dashes a little longer than a hyphen—roughly the width of a capital M, so to speak. In fact—if you have been paying particular attention to my use of punctuation so far—you may have noticed that I’ve already used an em dash six separate times in this article alone! Indeed, em dashes are pretty awesome; depending on the context, they can replace semicolons, colons, or commas.
- Avoid the phrase “this shows.”
The phrase “this shows” is almost always redundant; this shows that chances are your teacher will feel the same way. Instead of writing “this shows,” try cutting the phrase altogether and combining the sentence with the one before it.
- Don’t utilize the word “utilize” (see what I did there?).
“Utilize” is a pretty clunky word compared to “use.” I recommend using the latter.
- Avoid complicated punctuation if possible, even if your sentence feels long otherwise.
I learned this the hard way in English class last year, where I tried to be overly concise and ended up wrecking my essay with misplaced commas and semicolons. Contrary to popular opinion, I don’t think succinctness is always a virtue, particularly when it gets in the way of stuff you’re putting forward. Clunky sentences, even short ones, can be unpleasant if you inundate your essay with them. An extra “and” or “so” won’t hurt anybody, and I tend to prefer graceful conjunctions over atrocious punctuation.
- Vary your sentences! Use the vertical line test as needed.
Bad essays are often, well, bad because they are boring to read! Sentences that sound the same get boring real quick. Avoid repetitive syntax and common grammatical structures. “Syntax” is a fancy way of talking about sentence structure. Using the same sentence structures and words makes you sound boring. Oh, wait…
On a more serious note, you can avoid boring sentences by doing the “vertical line test.” Essentially | you draw vertical lines wherever there is punctuation in order to visually divide the sentence into separate phrases (kind of like this) | Normally | you would use this trick to identify independent and dependent clauses on the SAT or ACT | but I’ve also found it to be useful for identifying monotonous stretches in your writing. For example, if all of my sentences have one line after the third word and one line at the very end, I know it’s time to mix it up a bit.
- Try integrating quotations into your sentences instead of directly block-quoting them.
When you deal with quotes, the analysis of those quotes should always be twice as long as the stuff you quote (this is something I’ve consistently heard from all of my humanities teachers). As such, block quoting can be tricky—according to the rule stated above, your analysis of the block quote has to be twice as long as the (already very long) block quote itself! While this is certainly not impossible, the sheer amount of writing required to sufficiently analyze a long quotation can be very daunting. It is often easier to simply quote the stuff you are directly analyzing and integrate it directly into your commentary; that way, you’ll avoid annoying formatting issues and keep your paper focused on your argument.
- Avoid any words or phrases that sound ugly, even if they are grammatically correct.
Language is a wonderful thing—an essay doesn’t have to be ugly just because it’s an essay! Just like fanfiction or cartoons, essays become fun when you write beautifully and actually enjoy what you put on the page. Not only will you become a better writer, but you will also hopefully begin developing your own opinions about what constitutes “good” and “bad” writing, not just “correct” and “incorrect” sentences.
- Don’t worry too much about transitions—even if your sentences feel disconnected at first, you’ll be removing a lot of hedging language in the long run. Semicolons can really help you here.
When I was in elementary school, I had all kinds of transitional words drilled into every single one of my compositions. However, as I progressed through high school, I realized that the best writers rarely rely on transitions to make their points. And rather than being clunky, their writing felt extraordinarily smooth—see, for example, Abraham Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address or Ralph Waldo Emerson’s essays. In other words, a good piece of writing should rest on the strength of its analysis, not necessarily the transitions it employs. Semicolons can really help you here by connecting related sentences without reusing common transitional words; the result is not only grammatically correct but also a little less disjointed than a full stop.
The Purdue OWL is an excellent resource with dedicated articles on common problems English students encounter, such as MLA citations, footnotes, essay structures, and more.
For those looking to improve their writing and be entertained at the same time, I highly recommend Dreyer’s English, an insightful guide written by none other than Benjamin Dreyer, the VP and copy chief of Penguin Random House himself.
If you are looking for something old-fashioned, The Elements of Style by William Strunk Jr. is also a great choice.
Lastly, if you are unsure about anything else, ask your history teachers, English teachers, and school librarians! I guarantee that they’ll have lots to teach you.
I hope you learned something new today! More posts like these will be coming soon, so keep an eye on the Schoolhouse blog. In addition, if you need help writing an essay, check out some of the AP English sessions under the AP Review—General tab on Schoolhouse.
Thank you to Maya B for editing this article!