Your copy of David Copperfield has more highlighter marks than your younger sister’s hair; you’ve been staring at your computer screen so long your eyes are changing color; and you may or may not be able to see pink streaks of dawn outside your bedroom window. Essay writing, you tell yourself, should not be like this.
Need help from something other than SparkNotes? I’m gladly here to give it. Follow these essay TLC tips and no matter where you are at in the writing and editing process, your paper will automatically improve. They cannot guarantee an “A” grade—that is ultimately up to you!—but they will make your paper stronger. And the good news: you don’t need to pull an all-nighter to follow them!
[Continue reading to learn five tips!]
- TLC tip 1: Firstly, neither SparkNotes nor all-nighters are advisable study methods for navigating junior high or high school essays or projects—or anything else, for that matter! The former should not act as substitute for reading a book or Shakespeare play, not only because you miss out on the totally awesome experience of a great piece of literature, but also because SparkNotes are not necessarily accurate. College professors certainly are not writing those summaries. SparkNotes are helpful for a cursory review after you’ve read the book, but do not resort to them in any other context. (This also applies for Wikipedia!) And as for the latter: sleeping on a paper will always make it better. Promise.
- TLC tip 2: Find your active voice. No, I don’t mean write your essay like Batman would (although that would give you high points for creativity and voice, maybe). Locate any language that appears weak, roundabout, unclear, or unconvincing, and change it into language that is strong, concise, and persuasive. This often entails changing passive voice constructions (in which the subject receives the action of the verb, i.e., fish are eaten by cats) to active (in which the object receives the action of the verb, i.e., cats eat fish). But it also means taking out unnecessary word constructions that bog down your essay. Choose words that are brief and add an extra punch. Some great verbs: attack, emphasize, critique, scrutinize, attenuate, suggest, ameliorate, amplify, contrast, refute.
- TLC tip 3: Get rid of empty words. There are some words that should never appear in your essay because they are either cliché or simply bad language. These include: bad, good, stuff, maybe, thing, ugly, pretty, better, got, worse, best, basically, totally, literally, interesting, due to the fact that, etc. For more “plague words” that shouldn’t step foot inside your essay, check out this awesome grammar website.
- TLC tip 4: The Magic Thesis Statement. Okay, it isn’t all that magic. But it is a helpful formula if you have scanned over your essay and can’t seem to find where your main argument is. I’ll talk more about theses in upcoming blog posts, but for now, make sure that your thesis lies at the end of your introduction or second paragraph, and fits the following (general) formula:
By looking at _____, we can see _____, which most people don’t see; this is important because ______.
(For more on the MTS, check out this helpful website.)
- TLC tip 5: Does your essay have a “hook”? By “hook,” I mean those first few sentences of your introduction. Do they grab the reader in a particular way, or do they begin in the boring fashion of every average student’s English essay: “In William Shakepeare’s Macbeth, the bad guy and the good guys…” Find something interesting or unique to start your essay. Begin with a quote from the text or an article. Jump right in to what you are writing about. The more energized and specific the prose, the more powerful that first impression will be on your reader. The same goes for your conclusion.
Once again, these five tips will not guarantee an A+: that work is ultimately up to you. But with a little bit of TLC, enough time, and an indefinable amount of passion and interest in what you are writing about, you will most certainly perform well—and enjoy the writing experience.
About the author: Kathleen McGunagle is a senior in Princeton University’s English department and Interdisciplinary Humanities Certificate Program. Concentrating in British Renaissance Literature, she will be writing a thesis this spring on Shakespeare and early modern materialist psychology. Kathleen is an Academic Peer Adviser at Princeton, tutor through Princeton Tutoring, and avid performer. She has recently returned from a year of study at Worcester College, Oxford.