13 Rules for Writing Good Essays

To write a good essay, you have to make your message clear.

Posted Mar 07, 2018

To write a good university essay you have to make your message clear. This means organizing your key points, supporting them with a series of evidence-based arguments, and wrapping it all up at the end so the reader knows what they've learned. To do this well, you need to take the reader's perspective. If you can see what might trip them up as they read your work, then you can avoid pitfalls that will confuse or bore them. Here are some tips to help you avoid the easy pitfalls. Once understood, these rules can be broken. But if you're unclear on how to approach your writing, these tips can help. 

1. Your opening paragraph should clearly describe what you are going to discuss in the essay. These three things are vital: What’s the thesis (or problem), why is it important, and how are you going to address it? If you have each of those items in your opening paragraph your reader will know what they are reading, why they are reading it, and what they can expect to get out of it. 

2. Organize the essay so that it covers a set list of subtopics that each support your main thesis. If it's a long essay, you should break it up into sections with headings that focus on specific subtopics. Introduce these topics in the opening paragraph of the essay (see 1 above). Overall, you want to organize information so it is easy to understand and remember. 

3. Start paragraphs with opening sentences that explain what the paragraph is going to say. Then write sentences that follow one from the other and are easy to read. Avoid paragraphs that are too long, that read like lists, or that have no main thesis. Summarize complex paragraphs with concise sentences that explain what the paragraph said.

4. Create transitions between paragraphs so that one paragraph follows from the next. You are trying to make it all easy to understand for your reader. The more organized your writing, the more clearly you will understand and communicate your own ideas.

5. Make your sentences work. Avoid long sentences. When in doubt, break long sentences into smaller sentences. Avoid sentences that are repetitive and don't provide new information. Throw away weak and empty sentences ("Angioplasty is an important procedure." "Emotions are a central element in people's lives."). Sentences also need to be crystal clear. You can check for clarity by making sure they read well. Read them out loud to yourself or have someone else read them out loud to you.

6. Explain novel terms (jargon) when you introduce them. Don’t assume your reader knows what terms mean. Avoid jargon except where it communicates key concepts. Imagine the reader knows less about the topic than you do.

7. In science writing, you can use synonyms for key concepts only when you are first explaining them. After that, use the same word every time to refer to the idea. For example, you might want to write, 'affect,' and then 'emotions,' and then 'feelings.' If you use different words every time you refer to an idea, your reader will get confused. Define a term and then use it consistently.

8. Be careful when you use words like ‘this’ or ‘that’ or ‘their’ or ‘those’ or 'these' or 'they.' These words are often not as tightly connected to what they reference as you think. Check every one of them and see if you can rewrite it more clearly. When you use *these* words carelessly, your reader will need to think more to understand what you are referring to. *That* will break the flow and make it harder to understand what you're actually try to say. *They* (the readers) won't know who you're referring to. By simply stating what you are referring to specifically, you make your writing clear. It is better to be repetitive than unclear.

9. Use concrete information. Concrete information is powerful, is appealing, it is easier to understand, and it sticks in people's memory. Concrete information includes things like examples, statistics, quotes, facts, and other details. The more sentences that go by without communicating new concrete information or ideas that develop your thesis, the more likely your reader is to get bored.  

10. If you have an interesting idea, check to see if someone else has already had it. If they have, cite them. Chances are someone has at least hinted at your clever insight, and you can use them as a springboard to say something even more interesting. This will demonstrate scholarship and an understanding of the broader context.

11. Make sure everything is relevant. Don’t include random facts that are not relevant. Don't include extra words that you don't need ("actually," "very," "in many ways," "the fact that"). Don't include paragraphs that have lots of cool facts if they aren't related to your central thesis. These slow down your reader and confuse them because they expect to hear content that is related to your theme. After you write a first draft (where you are just trying to get ideas down on paper), see what you can cut out to focus your argument on what matters.  

12. The very best essays provide their own critique. End with something like this before the final summary: Provide criticism of your key point (appropriately referenced). Then provide criticism of the criticizer that you referenced (with another reference). If you can do this well, then in most instances you will have demonstrated thorough understanding of the issues. After this, provide your conclusion.

13. In the conclusion, take a position, make a prediction, or propose some future actions (an experiment, an implication, a new question to be addressed, etc). Summarize your thesis and the evidence you’ve provided in a concise way without being wishy-washy.

You might also be interested in my top 10 job interview tips or top 10 science-based study skills.

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