Essays are an integral part of college life. They can be a difference between struggling in obscurity and passing with flying colors. For that reason, you really want to do whatever you can to make yourself a better essay writer.
Fortunately, that’s possible. A lot of people seem to think it isn’t, that writing is something that you’re either just naturally good at or not. That couldn’t be further from the truth. Yes, obviously, if you have some natural aptitude that will help, but nobody expects to be able to play the guitar perfectly when the first pick it up, either. Writing is very much the same. It is a skill and you can get better at it.
And so you’ve got to practice. But how?
Learn the ‘rules’ of critical writing
There are hundreds of essays devoted to the idea of making you a better critical writer. Read them. Now, with that I don’t mean binge read. A lot of people think that consuming more information will make them smarter. That’s not actually the case, as very quickly you’ll end up skimming instead of reading and almost none of the information gets taken up into long-term memory.
Instead, focus on reading one and writing down the major points for you to consider. Then refer back to these before you start writing the essay. When you feel you’ve internalized the points that you wanted to, turn to the next essay and read that one. Then do the same.
In this way of absorbing theory and then applying it to what you’re doing you’ll be far more likely to actually retain the information and turn it into actionable points. And that is ultimately what you’re after.
Read other people’s work
Also, be sure to read more. And not just books – though that can certainly help. No, I’m talking about other people’s essays. Want to learn the difference between bad and good essays? Ask to read those written by your classmates. Even better, find the essays online that have won prizes and analyze them.
Compare them to what you’ve done and see what has been done differently. Then write down your overarching ideas and concepts and try to sit down and discuss those ideas with good essay writers. They might be able to offer you new insights that you would otherwise have missed.
Re-read your work
Don’t just put away essays that you wrote either. Instead, go back and reread them six months or a year later. The advantage of doing this is that you’ll have forgotten what you were trying to and only see what you actually did. And the advantage of that is tremendous as you can suddenly see your writing for what it is, rather than what you want it to be, which allows you to recognize problems and areas to concentrate on.
Hopefully, you’ll also be able to see how your style is evolving and developing, which will hopefully make you realize that you’re getting better. And that is nothing to sneeze at, as just having the feeling that we’re improving is going to help you work harder in order to improve – thereby creating a virtuous cycle of reinforcement.
Create writing groups
Offer an exchange. You critique somebody else’s work if they’ll critique yours. Then see what they have to say. It is vital that you don’t get defensive here. The other person doesn’t need an explanation for why you did things the way you did. That will not get you a better grade. Instead, take what they say to heart.
What if you think they’re wrong? Then get other people to critique your work as well. If nobody else says it, then it might have just been that one person’s opinion. If you hear it several times from independent sources, well then you have something that you need to fix!
Don’t leave it to the last minute
Writing good critical essays takes time. You have to be able to walk away from an essay, so that you get some psychological distance. In that way, you’ll be able to come back to it later on with fresh eyes and fresh thoughts. That’s the way you find flaws in your reasoning and fix them. And that’s the way that you can write better essays.
So start writing your essay earlier. It doesn’t mean you have to work it out in exact details, but be sure to write down the outline and bullet point the structure that you want to follow. Then, when you sit down to do the next part, you can look at that structure and see if you forgot everything and add it in.
The great thing about this strategy is that when you’ve got the outline written out in this way, the actual writing will be much faster, as you won’t be spending half as much time revising earlier paragraphs in order to fit them into the arguments you only realize later.
And finally, don’t think that you can’t write essays. If I look back at some of my earlier writings I actually cringe. And yet today I’m a professional writer who gets paid just to put words on paper. I got from there to here through practice.
And so can you. All you need to do is believe in yourself and have the motivation to act on that belief. Even if you spend an hour every week working on the theory of writing and considering what you’ve got to improve about your writing style, it will pay dividends. Not just in terms of the quality of your writing, but also in terms of how long it takes you to write.
Because better writers are faster writers.
By Luisa Brenton