Like it or not, essays are part of your life at School, Sixth Form College and University. Writing a good essay is not only key to getting good marks for your homework, but essential if you are to get the exam grades that you deserve. But essays often pose a major challenge to students, largely because presenting facts and arguments in a coherent way is a art – something that takes time and experience to get right.

For those looking for some advice on what makes a great essay, we have set out our top tips to help you.

  • Organise what you wish to say beforehand: Many students find it useful to work from a skeleton or outline. Work out the main argument of your essay and write down the main points you will use to back your points. Beneath each main point, write down the specific ideas/facts which will back them. Just a short phrase or a word will do – the aim is to remind yourself not to leave out important events/ideas/facts that prove your point. Refer back to your plan as you start writing the essay, making sure to cover everything.
  • Spend time writing a good introduction and conclusion: Your introduction is extremely important – spend time crafting it. Work out how to engage your audience from the word go. Maybe use an interesting quote, anecdote or event which is relevant to the topic. State what you will be setting out to prove or discuss, without giving too much away. Your conclusion should provide a concise summary of the main points you have made, while your introduction should express the aim of your essay. You should also take time to write a concise conclusion that neatly summarises the points that you have made.
  • Don’t leave writing to the last minute: Produce your first draft early, so that you can leave the essay for a day and come back to it with a fresh eye, ready to spot everything from grammar mistakes to ill-phrased sentences. When you re-read your essay, you may also find that it will benefit from a change in structure, so that the progression of ideas is more logical. One of the most important parts of correcting your work lies in paring down verbose or repetitive paragraphs. You should bear in mind that current trends favour the use of ‘plain English’; don’t try to impress your teacher by using complicated words. Let the value of your essay lie in what you are actually saying.

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  • Do not assume anything: Writing an essay often involves selecting between two or three lines of argument. Once you have chosen your path, don’t assume that the statements and ideas put forward by your preferred academics are correct. Be prepared to challenge what you do not agree with. This will shows critical thinking, and that you have consulted a wide body or sources before giving an opinion or coming to a conclusion.
  • Format and reference your essay correctly: Bear in mind that the person correcting your essay probably has to correct dozens, or hundreds, more essays. Sort out poor spelling, improper formats or incorrect referencing styles are bound to turn your reader off and reduce their patience/ interest in your essay. Don’t let poor presentation bring your marks down. It takes just a few minutes to learn how to reference correctly; ask your teacher which reference style they prefer and stick to it.
  • Use the correct research materials: When referencing your ideas, it pays to show that you have read a wide range of reliable material, published in prestigious journals or written by renowned academics or experts.
  • Analyse ‘past essays’: In an excellent article on essay writing, John Tomsett, a teacher with over 25 years’ experience, explains the value of working backwards from a finished essay. Any good essay, he says, will normally contain about ten key sentences. Students should begin by looking for these key sentences and putting them together. By doing this, they will have reduced the world count of the essay by about one quarter (i.e. if the essay contained 2,000 words, the pared down version will contain around 1,500). Students can then see how the rest of the words in the essay merely provide specific examples or evidence of the main points.

It isn’t just about structure, of course; looking at past essays enables teachers and students to point out many individual characteristics that convert a good essay into a great one. Tomsett recommends that students always begin a paragraph with a sentence that looks back to the previous paragraph and forward to a new point which will be made. This connects ideas in a smooth manner and adds a professional touch.

So what do great essays have in common? They use language well, show thorough preparation and review of materials, are well laid out and provide insightful analysis and comment. Get these right, and you will get top marks. Practice makes perfect of course, so try and perfect your essay writing skills – remember it is an art form.

We hope that you have found this article useful. If you have any tips you would like to share with us on how to prepare great essays please add them to the comments below, and we will share them with our readers.

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A student by trade, Daniel spends most of his time working on that essay that's due in a couple of days' time. When he's not working, he can be found working on his salsa steps, or in bed.