8 Essay tips for the over-worked Badger

It’s March. For some, particularly those in the Humanities or Social Sciences, March seems a bit like an apocalyptic month of reckoning, as essays fall from the sky, landing on and crushing anything in their paths, such as social lives, happiness, and free time. Contrary to popular beliefs however, the “essay” is not a rubik’s cube, nor a riddle wrapped in a conundrum. Instead, it’s a formal style of writing and, like any other genre or mode, there are tips and tricks out there that can help you be successful. So, for you over-worked Badgers, here are 8 essay tips to help you succeed when “finals” come around.


1. A thesis should be written in English:
If you don’t understand your thesis, chances are that your professor won’t be able to either. Don’t worry so much about creating something ground-breaking – just put together a clear, coherent thesis statement that gives the reader a roadmap through your essay. Don’t be afraid to revise your thesis after you’re finished either, as oftentimes, the writing process might change what your argument is, and how you want to communicate it.

2. Plan ahead:
Listen, Virgina Woolf, academic essays don’t lend themselves very well to improv. Every single word, and every single idea should be moving the reader towards one unified idea and argument, which is very hard to do if, well, you don’t know what that idea actually is. Using an essay outline is a helpful exercise, even if your professor or teaching assistant doesn’t require it. By organizing your thoughts into point form notes, preparing yourself by finding relevant quotations and sources in advance, and looking at how all of your topic areas connect with each other, you’ll be in a much better position to write a paper that flows.

3. Use words to which you know the definition:
This isn’t Scrabble: there are no bonus points given to the student who uses the longest words. While there are lots of times you should bring out a thesaurus, essays may not actually be the right time. By using large, complex words with sorted and highly specific meaning, you might actually draw attention to your lack of understanding, if they’re not used properly. Furthermore, for most undergraduate students, style should always come second to clarity – in which those “million dollar” words may potentially get in the way.

4. Focus on the writing:
While there are a lot of fantastic resources out there to help you when formatting a piece of formal writing, oftentimes, students get too caught up in trying to perfect APA, MLA or Chicago styles. Yes, form is important, but don’t let it eat up your creative time. Check OWL purdue, be consistent and ask questions to teaching assistants and professors instead of worrying about whether or not you’re on the right track.

5. Learn what a semi-colon is:
Semi-colons, when used properly, are like crack-cocaine to a professor or teaching assistant. Learn how to use it and, at the very least, you’ll impress them. Complex grammar often takes time to learn; semi-colons are worth the effort.

6. Avoid the passive voice whenever possible:
Sentences using the passive voice often become incredibly convoluted. Thoughts become incredibly complex, subjects blur into objects, and the writer (and reader) can get lost in the complexity of the syntax. Use the active voice: not only will it make your argument easier to follow and more interesting to read, but it will strengthen your argument by embracing concise thoughts and sentences.

7. Conclusions are for concluding:
The conclusion is the point where even an experienced writer can have their train of thought de-railed by rambling. Instead of using the conclusion as a summary of everything you discussed, use it to draw together the best parts of your argument and highlight the connections you made that might not have been immediately clear. When you’re finished a conclusion, you should want to drop the mic (or the keyboard), so if you don’t feel that sense of finality and accomplishment, maybe it’s time to re-work your conclusion.

8. When you’re editing, read it aloud:
When you finally hit the required word count or page count for a paper, the initial feeling is relief. Believe me: there is nothing more satisfying than hitting “submit”. However, in the drawn-out and, often, half-hearted, essay writing process, coherence and grammar are often lost in the shuffle. Before you hand in your paper to be marked: print it off, edit visually, and then read the essay aloud. Convoluted sentences may make sense on paper, but the process of verbally speaking and hearing your work, gives you a more reliable and intuitive perspective on whether or not it’s up to par. Of course, make sure you leave enough time in between writing and editing to ensure that you’re able to be as objective as possible.

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