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Secrets From An English Major: Top Tier Essay Hacks

I am an English major who professionally counsels college peers on academic writing. My job has made me realize that many students, especially STEM folks, lack writing confidence and are out of practice when it comes to tackling essay assignments. The lesson that I always try to tell my counselees is that we can all write successful essays if we just learn to streamline the writing process. If writing isn’t your strong suit, and you find yourself panicking over a final essay for a GE class, don’t worry! You’re not alone, and I’m here to help. Here’s a list of five go-to tips that I’ve used to succeed in my writing-heavy major:

Try out this thesis formula

The backbone of your essay will always be your thesis, and a good thesis must be argumentative. I’m sure that you’ve heard this before and asked yourself, “Ok, but how will I know if it is argumentative enough?”. One easy tip for an argumentative thesis is presenting your argument in direct comparison with a more obvious, contradicting take. For example, here is the beginning of a thesis that I wrote in an intro English course: “Despite the poem’s veneer of blaming the Lady of Shalott for her own demise, Tennyson suggests that…”. The short phrase at the beginning of my thesis clearly tells readers what a potential counterargument to my thesis might be, and the existence of a potential counterargument proves that my thesis is arguable. Try this formula out by adding phrases using words such as while, although and despite to the starts of your theses.

Don’t over quote

I often notice that students who struggle with writing like to fill their essays with as many quotes as possible. This is an understandable approach to try and meet your page counts with limited writing, but it ultimately hurts the quality of your essays. As an English department TA explained to me, whenever you introduce a quote into your essay, you will need to follow it up with your own analysis. You can’t leave quotes freely hanging, so if you can’t explain to readers why the quote is relevant to your argument, cut it out. In addition to not wanting to over quote in your body paragraphs, especially avoid over quoting in your conclusions. Essay conclusions are not meant to introduce any brand new concepts and facts and oftentimes quotes serve to do just that. If you decide to add a quote to your conclusion, be extra careful that it ties back to earlier concepts and helps synthesize your essay’s ideas.

Cite smarter not harder

Citations tend to be a stumbling block for those who don’t feel comfortable writing essays for college courses. No other stage of writing feels quite as stressful as rushing to figure out how to add citations and a bibliography to your document right before an assignment is due. My biggest tip to avoid this last-minute chaos is to cite as you write, and specifically, to use the Zotero software tool early and often during your writing process. Zotero is a free computer program that neatly keeps track of your sources. It’s amazing because you can set it up to automatically create an MLA or Chicago citation for every source you input, and you can connect it to your Google Docs for quickly creating in-text citations and a works cited. If you aren’t already utilizing this citation life-saver, make sure to download it before drafting your next research paper.

Level-up your word choice

Word choice plays a subtle yet important role in the overall impression your writing leaves on graders. Repeating the same words in every paragraph can make your essay appear low-effort and out-of-place diction might hurt the tone of your writing. One hack that I use on every single writing assignment I turn in is putting my text through the analysis site Voyant Tools. Voyant reads your text and spits out helpful info about your word choice like how many times you employ a given word, the vocabulary density of your essay and so much more. The website even produces graphs and word clouds which provide you with visual summaries of your diction! I highly recommend this site to my students as a way for them to recognize which words they rely upon too often. Once you employ Voyant to find the flaws in your diction, it’s then super easy to pull up a digital thesaurus and find synonyms to replace the problematic words.

Give your essay some space

One of my English professors once explained to my class that there is a gap between what every writer thinks they’re putting on the page and the ideas that actually end up in writing. I’ve found that this concept is true with all of the students I work with. The best way to lessen this gap between what you mean to say and what your grader reads is to attempt to see your essay from an outsider’s point of view. Ideally, you’d do this by getting a friend to peer review your writing, but that’s not always possible. A great alternative is setting aside your essay overnight and editing it with fresh eyes the next day or even just waiting a few hours to give your essay its read over. If you’re in a total time crunch and neither of these options work, try to get a new perspective on your writing by printing your text to read it on paper. You’ll definitely catch lots of phrases that need explanation and typos.

As finals season quickly approaches, try out these tips when writing your last essays. I can tell you from personal experience and anecdotes from my students that each hack on this list will help clean up your writing and assist you towards better essay grades. Don’t let the task of writing intimidate you, you have all of the skills necessary to produce a stellar argument. So, good luck and happy writing!

Kate is a San Francisco native and second-year English major at UCLA. When she's not writing articles for Her Campus at UCLA, she enjoys getting lost in a good book and experimenting with vegan recipes.
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