10 Tips for Writing a Killer Essay
This may be hard to believe, but great writers have been writing engaging, readable essays for hundreds of years. And readers have read them not just willingly, but eagerly. Despite what our familiarity with deadly-dull high school essay writing would lead us to believe, it’s possible to write essays that people actually enjoy reading.
I read essays often, and I don’t just mean the hundreds of high school papers I read in my role as an English teacher. Essays by C.S. Lewis, G.K. Chesterton and countless others have had a powerful, life-long effect on my thinking and worldview. A good essay not only makes you think, but can provoke you to laughter, tears, even wrath. The best are also beautifully crafted works of literary art.
So why is it, when we think of an essay, that we think of five-paragraphs of formulaic blandness? The simple answer is that our academic system has led us to believe that there’s only one way to write an essay. That’s not true, of course, and I’m here to tell you that it’s possible to write essays that readers will genuinely want to read. Below are ten tips for doing just that.
1. Remember that essays are meant to be read.
And I don’t mean just by teachers. Don’t be afraid to be engaging and creative. If you begin with the assumption that the only good essay is a boring essay, you might as well give up from the start. In both content and style, write the kind of paper you’d actually want to read. Keep an audience in mind; you want your tone and style to win over your readers. Don’t assume your humorless, nit-picky English teacher is the only person who will ever lay eyes on it. Even if that ends up being the case, your essay only has a chance if you can imagine a broader readership.
2. Pick a topic that matters to you.
If you don’t care about your topic, your reader won’t either. It’s too hard to fake passion, and good writing always springs from sincerity. It may be obvious, but this means that you won’t ever write good essays if you don’t care about stuff. You must have areas of interest that matter to you. What gets your blood boiling? What keeps you up at night? What ideas distract you from your daily responsibilities? These are the things you should be writing about.
3. Write with insight.
How else can I put this? You must have something to say. Something that is not obvious to everyone. Good essays turn on light bulbs in readers’ minds. You want your reader to think, “That’s an interesting perspective; I never thought of it that way before.” If you have nothing original to add to the subject, you probably need a new topic.
If you can’t be brilliant and original, at least make your thesis arguable. Don’t write about “the benefits of friendship.” Everyone knows it’s good to have friends. Don’t argue that racism is evil. We know that. Pick a topic that reasonable people may disagree about.
4. Experiment with form.
We should all learn the basic five-paragraph essay form. It’s a useful blueprint for early writing: Start with an introductory paragraph that includes your thesis. Support your thesis with three points, each in its own paragraph, in the body of paper. Conclude with a summary paragraph. Fine. But once you’ve mastered this most elementary of structures, try some new ways to organize your ideas. Get out of the box.
Read some essays by great writers and pay attention to how they organize their ideas. You’ll notice that few, if any, follow the 1-3-1 model that we are all taught in school. Their ideas tend to come more organically, one paragraph leading to another. Some essays are mostly narrative, with only a line or two clarifying the point of the story or illustration. Some are circular, wandering through several ideas before returning at last to the original thesis. Others are pure digression that start in one direction and end up someplace you wouldn’t expect.
Be careful here of course. If you are writing for a teacher who expects a certain form, by all means do as you’re told. But if you’ve got room to play with your organization, don’t be afraid to get out of the five-paragraph box.
Stay away from supporting points that are nothing but vague, abstract thoughts. Don’t just tell the reader what he should think. Show him. Tell anecdotes. Paint pictures. Support your thesis with colorful, concrete illustrations. Don’t say that military families make great sacrifices. Tell the story of a friend who lost his brother to a roadside bomb in Iraq. Don’t talk about courage, show someone being courageous. Never leave your ideas in the abstract. Illustrate your ideas with real, concrete, tangible pictures.
6. Use lively, active verbs.
Verbs power your writing like the engine pulls along a locomotive. Strong, vivid, active verbs inject desperately needed vitality into essay writing. We tend to limit creative verb selection to creative writing — narrative and descriptive pieces. But verb choice is important to all writing. And essays, where the verbs tend to be the bland, passive kind, cry out for inventive, evocative, action verbs. Populate your sentences with vivid, lively verbs. Minimize “be” verbs and avoid passive constructions unless they are necessary. Fixate on verbs and watch how your writing comes alive.
7. Find a voice and stick to it.
In most cases, it’s safest to keep a formal, distant tone, but English teachers these days are more open to first person references and contractions. The important thing is to be consistent throughout the paper. If you project a light-hearted or sarcastic tone early in the paper, you’ll want to maintain it throughout.
8. Don’t be controversial just to be controversial.
In your efforts to take an interesting position, don’t go overboard. The opinion you choose to defend in your paper should be arguable, but not laughable. You don’t want to write that “friendship is a valuable thing,” but neither do you want to write that “friendship is worthless.” The first is too obvious to be interesting and the second is too ridiculous to be taken seriously. Your task is to intrigue and enlighten you reader, not to shock or provoke him.
9. Avoid generalizations and overstatements.
If you want to defend an opinion effectively, don’t leave yourself open to ridicule by making indefensible sweeping statements. “People who smoke cigarettes are idiots” or “There’s nothing worthwhile on television today” are just too strong and broad. They are therefore easy to debunk by sensible people. Qualify your statements when necessary and state opinions that can be logically defended. “The negative effects of cigarette smoking are so numerous that intelligent people should think twice before forming the habit” or “Television programming these days offers little of value” are strong alternatives that can be reasonably defended.
10. Do the little things well.
Write as well as you can. By that I mean take care to avoid glaring errors in grammar, spelling, and punctuation. Proofread carefully and look things up when you are doubtful. If you aren’t good at the fine details of usage, find someone who is and ask for their help. Watch your pronouns and verb tenses in particular. Make sure you capitalize proper nouns and use commas and apostrophes correctly. A single obvious error can be enough to ruin your whole essay in the minds of some readers. Be diligent to remove these obstacles before you publish.
These are not the only rules of good essay writing, but they are an excellent place to start. Don’t let anyone convince you that essay writing has to be tedious and predictable.
I’d love to hear what you think! Leave your comments below.