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Great essays go well beyond good grammar.

One of the chief purposes of an argumentative paper is to present and support a position. 

While it’s easy to say this, so many students struggle to craft a well-articulated thesis with sound logic and evidence. 

I like to think of essay writing like muscle building. While exercising, healthy tension, consistent dedication, and an appreciation for form builds strength. Applying this logic to writing builds skill.

After working with hundreds of undergraduate students I have noticed that there seems to be a widespread obsession or focus on getting the grammar in an essay right, but other equally important components are less emphasized. Of course, good grammar is a central part of any great essay, however, it’s not the only thing needed to impress professors.

Here is a series of tips to help you knock your next essay out of the park!

Essays must take a position

In any essay, you MUST make an argument. At its core, an essay is an argumentative piece of writing. Therefore, without an argument, you haven’t written an essay, you’ve written a summary. In university, your professor will understand this difference and they will expect you to know it too. If you don’t, your grade will suffer, even if you have beautifully crafted sentences and paragraphs.

A thesis should be simple to understand

Also, try to avoid constructing a thesis statement that says something like, “this essay will outline the social, political, and economic consequences of …”. While this sounds intelligent, it doesn’t present a position and is therefore not an argument.   

I have read many essays that had long-winded and verbally complex thesis statements. After reading this important part of the essay, I was always left scratching my head. I simply could not understand what the student was trying to articulate, no matter how important it sounded.

A good paper typically expresses an argument simply and concisely. The complexity and quality of the argument can then be shown through research and applied logic. Consider this thesis statement as an example:

This essay will argue that while war is typically seen as destructive, it has actually led to technological advancements that have tremendously benefited humanity.

The argument is simple to understand. However, the quality of this essay would be based on the examples and evidence used to support the position – that war, while destructive, has produced technologies that have helped humanity.

The other thing to note about this example is that there is clearly a contrasting position (that war has a very high cost and there are no benefits). This isn’t a problem. In fact, all arguments have contrasting sides and angles. The point to remember here is that your argument should be clearly stated and the body of your essay should be used to make your position as compelling as possible.

Editing as a rule – Have others take a look

The most skilled writers I know always have someone (or many people) read their work before submitting it for publication. This is not a crutch or a weakness. It’s smart planning.

Sometimes, what we write doesn’t translate in the way we intended. This is probably most true during times of high stress (like assignment season!) where students write several assignments with expediency, rather than clarity, as the top goal.

Editing is the best way to guard against lack of focus, illogical sentence structure, improper syntax, and a host of other issues that can diminish your grade.

Reading your paper before you hand it in should be a hard rule. While doing so put yourself in the shoes of an objective reader and ask yourself if an average person would understand your writing. If you really want to know how your words are perceived by others, ask someone! This is the best way to know if the point you want to communicate is actually being conveyed.

Band-Aid Solutions Don’t Work

The reality is that long-term, repeatable success in essay writing requires practice and learning from an expert’s constructive feedback (like your professors). If you sincerely want to get good grades and produce good work, there are no shortcuts – despite what others or certain advertisements may tell you. Put simply, the path to writing well is a marathon, not a sprint.

There’s good news accompanying this information, though. If you consistently strive to improve and seek out informed feedback, your writing will be infinitely better in a year from now. In two years from now, even better; and so on, and so on.

Most important! Show your critical and analytical thinking

The most important part of any essay is its ability to convey critical thinking. Critical thinking means taking a fresh look at your topic, interrogating our current ways of understanding it, and then using logic to form a conclusion.

Critical thinking requires training, but it is one of the most powerful academic tools you can have. It’s what separates good from great students.

How do you think critically?

To get you started, I would encourage you to look at whatever essay topic you have chosen to write about. Read as much as you can about that topic. Once you have a good grasp of how the topic is generally understood, start asking questions like: is there anything missing in this interpretation of the topic? Are there logical gaps in this understanding? Is there a premise or context that I need to accept in order for this understanding to make sense?

Experts are telling us that critical thinking will be the most important skill in the future economy. As machines get better at performing menial tasks, it will be people who are able to analyze problems and conventional understandings of issues in nuanced and creative ways that are most successful. For students, building this skill starts with applying critical thinking in their written work.

I hope that these tips get you on your way to writing A-level papers!