A Guide to Improving Essay Writing Skills

Many people, whether they be students or professionals are often found to have poor writing skills. Often this is caused by a lack of knowledge of the actual language and punctuation – a problem that can be remedied by reading and practice. However, nearly as often, the most troubling aspect is the writing style. Employers, teachers and admissions tutors often value the quality of a candidate on the basis of their writing skills, and this short guide hopes to provide an extra nudge to those wanting to either improve their general writing proficiency or push ahead those other candidates in a job/university/school application.

Write with an aim. One of the worst feelings as a reader is to reach the end of an essay and have no clue why this piece of work was even written. Any piece of work, if submitted seperately, should have an informative title. The reader should be aware of the topic of discussion from the first glance.

Provide the reader with the aim of the essay in the first paragraph – give an idea of where you wish to head with your argument. Continue to return to your aim (key point) throughout the essay, do not allow yourself to sidetrack without connecting further points to your aim. Connectivity and flow are crucial.

You should often finish the essay with a conclusion tying all your points together. So, as an example you might say “Considering all the points, one would have to argue that…”, or if writing an application “Hence, due to the above mentioned points I feel I am the optimal choice for this…”.

Planning. It is always important to plan your work before writing it. Include your main idea (and title), a list of points you will make to support your idea and your conclusion. If you are writing a source-based essay, compile a list of the sources you are thinking of using – this list is likely to increase as you write, but it is still helpful to tie sources to points before you start. Do not be afraid to rearrange points to be different than the order you thought of them in; an uncosidered chain of thought can ruin an otherwise fine essay.

This crucial step allows you to make sure that each subsequent point is connected to the ones around it. Remember, in any essay longer than about 150-200 words, you will have to use paragraphs. In the planning step, any major points should have their own paragraphs, these can then form a smooth flow of reading and allow the reader to be able to find any major point more easily if the work is referred to again.

Concision. You do not want the reader to get bored, simple as that. Often you find that the best books or articles are the shortest. Remember, the aim is to convey the point as concisely as possible without losing any detail. A balance has to be struck between explanation and concision.

I find one of the best ways of cutting down an essay is to go through sentence by sentence, considering whether each is required to carry my point. If it is, keep it. If it isn’t, get rid of it. If there are some important elements but not all is essential, try and combine it with either the sentence before or the sentence after.

Punctuation. This may be an obvious one, but try and take full advantage of the choice of punctuation marks in the English language (NB if writing in a different language, the same applies, and will often impress a teacher or general reader). The colon (:), semicolon (;), are two which are too infrequently used. These allow for the reading to be smoother, allow to tie ideas together more easily and generally show a more mature author.

Descriptive words. Use a greater vocabulary, especially for your adjectives and verbs. More often than not you will find that there is a word which describes your thought better, which you have either forgotten or simply were not aware off. This of course allows you to be more concise at the same time; I have often seen whole sentences which could efficiently be reduced to a few words.

The above point is most crucial in descriptive sentences and dialogue. There is a marked difference between a candidate who puts “(s)he said” after every piece of dialogue and one that uses words such as: implied, insinutated, answered, shouted, whispered, announced, etc…

Your best source of these if of course reading, the more you read – the more vocab you pick up. However, for short term, the Thesaurus option in MS Word or even an online thesaurus will provide you with a great selection of alternate words which will set your work apart.

Sentence length. This is quite important for the more advanced author. Sentence length can be effectively used to set the mood, and is a good technique to be used in creative writing. Short sentences in a row are often signs of fast action; longer, more drawn out sentences can cause the opposite effect.

Source citation. If writing an analytical essay where you use other sources (such as websites, books, papers) it is important to show the reader where you source your information. For the casual reading, this will allow your reader to go to the source information and read further on the subject. If writing an assignment, source citation will ensure the marker knows that you are giving credit for the information you have written to the original authors and will make sure you do not lose marks for apparent plagiarism. Whether you are giving a quotation from another source or presenting an idea which is not yours, it is equally important to acknowledge the original author.

Source citation can be done in two different ways (or you can combine the two). When giving a quotation you can insert a footnote (in MS Word this is Insert -> Reference -> Footnote); you can then add any other relevant information as well as enough data so that the reader can find your source (for a website – the link, for a book – the title, the author, the relevant pages). Footnote citation is very often viewed as the mature author’s choice, many teachers are impressed by this form.

The other method is by an addition of a bibliography at the end of your essay. Although often seen as something a younger, less experienced author may do, it is in fact quite important. Here you can add literature which you have generally used for the entirety of the essay, i.e. something you have used over and over again. If footnote citation is not used, then all sources should be placed here.

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These are, what I consider, the most important points to consider in writing an essay. Of course, I will freely admit, that others’ opinions may differ to mine. Indeed, there may be things other may wish to add on top of what I have said. However, these basic pointers have served me well through an education system filled with essays. Best of luck!

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