Writing Hacks from a College Instructor
We’ve all been there—scrambling last minute to come up with an essay worthy of that coveted A. I remember countless nights in the campus library, crouched inside my cubicle, practically weeping into my seemingly bottomless cup of coffee as I tried to argue, articulately and accurately, some overthought thesis.
As a graduate student, it would be easy to assume I had learned from those experiences, but I still have my fair share of late night type-fests as I write and re-write essays on postcolonial literature and modernist poetry.
Now, as a graduate instructor, I’ve seen my fair share of really fantastic and downright awful student essays. It’s my job to teach my students how to write, revise, and edit their essays so that later on in their college careers, the act of writing papers might not feel so daunting. If you have the right tools, you can at least come at the task with more confidence. Still, even through two semesters in Comp 101 and 102, many students often struggle with a few specific things that, if you’re aware of them and work on them, could potentially make or break the essay. So, here are some tips from someone with more than a few prematurely gray hairs from grading a million student essays:
We’ve got a bunch of great articles on Hack College about planning an outline, picking solid sources during your research, and pulling it all together. But I’m not just talking about planning ahead for the actual paper. I’m talking about planning ahead for the time you’ll need to write it.
One thing my students are all guilty of is writing their essays at the last possible moment, and then turning them in before they’ve had a chance to edit and revise. When an essay that’s due at 11:59pm is written at 11pm, it’s going to show it. As a teacher, it’s so easy to tell when a student has been careless and turned in a paper they didn’t work very hard on, and it almost always causes me to approach the paper with a bad taste in my mouth. Put your best foot forward, and your teachers will thank you for it.
Take Suggestions from Previous Essays
One thing I spend a lot of time doing as a writing instructor is grading papers from my students. It’s part of my job to spend 15-20 minutes per paper, giving detailed feedback and justifying the grade I assign to it. As a student, I can’t stress how important it is to read that feedback and apply it to future essays.
If a teacher notes that you have an issue with grammar, brush up on your grammar and edit out grammatical issues in your next essay. If a teacher points out an issue with sentence structure or transitions between paragraphs, focus on those weaknesses in your next essay, and work to improve those aspects. When I notice a student has seriously considered the feedback I gave and actively used it to improve his or her writing, it really shows that they’re working hard and being thorough.
Don’t Use Colloquial Language
This doesn’t apply across the board, like if you’re working on a piece of creative writing, or something a little more informal. Use your best judgement here. Something I tell my students is that when they’re writing in the academic or scholarly mode, they need to wear their ties—that is, they need to dress up their language to match the form of writing. Writing formal, scholarly papers is like attending a banquet with the dean, rather than going out for tacos with your squad. Even avoiding things like contractions will really heighten the tone of your writing and make you come across a bit more formal.
Read Your Essay Out Loud
Reading over your essay before you turn it in is (hopefully) a no brainer, but you might not know that reading it out loud is actually the best way to do it. When we read things to ourselves, especially things we wrote, we’re likely to just read what we meant to write, rather than what’s actually there—meaning we might not pick up on missing words or sentences that have clunky wording. Reading out loud forces us to read what’s actually there, and will help us pick out when things don’t sound right, or if anything is missing.
Have a Clear Thesis Statement
As a composition instructor, I often spend entire semesters with my Comp 101 students telling them how not to write a standard, boring five paragraph essay. But, while trying to break them of those habits, I also try to drive home a habit they may not have established in high school — writing a clear thesis statement. As a general rule, your thesis statement should land somewhere around the last sentence of your introduction in your essay. It should, essentially, state the claim that you’ll be supporting in the body of your paper.
My students have a tendency to use things like rhetorical questions and overgeneralized statements in their introductions and thesis statements, which don’t lend themselves to good essays. My advice? Just be clear and concise. Don’t try to sound like the smartest person in the room. Lean towards the side of simplicity rather than complicated, wordy thesis statements. Having a clear thesis will not only help your reader understand your point, but it will help you keep your focus on what the paper is actually about.
There are plenty of other great tips and tricks out there for writing essays, but these particular things seem to go overlooked more often than not. As an instructor, I can promise you that your teacher will be grateful that you’ve stepped up your game with these simple, easy, and straightforward tips.
By doing these things, you’ll save them the trouble of having to point them out to you, and you’ll likely end up with better, more constructive feedback in the future. Or, maybe you’ll just get an A—and what’s wrong with that?