When you’re starting out at university, it can be easy to think you are the only one having problems with writing. But all students – both Australian-born and international – find writing essays difficult.
If you are an international student, you might even have an advantage. Having learned English as a second language, you are likely to know more about how English works than most Australian-born, English-only students.
No matter what your background is, there are many simple ways that you can build your essay-writing skills. La Trobe University’s Dr Karin Moses is an expert linguist who works with undergraduate students, postgraduate students and staff to improve their writing. She shares eight practical tips to help you get more control over your writing and reduce your essay stress.
1. Structure your essay to suit your discipline
The order in which you present your ideas – known as essay structure – is the most important aspect of essay writing. Before you start writing, find out how essays are structured in your discipline or subject area. Ask your lecturer or tutor (online or face-to-face) for past essays in your subject area. Read them for structure, not for content.
As you’re reading, look for how:
- the sections are ordered
- the introduction and conclusion are constructed
- the paragraphs work
- the evidence (references) are used.
2. Start with a strong introduction
Your introduction should entice your reader to keep reading. It should include:
- background and context – let the reader know where the topic or question has come from, why it is important and how it fits into the wider discussion
- a thesis statement – a clear response to the topic or question that states the aim of the essay and what your argument or position is
- signposting – sentences that indicate how the essay is structured, the sub-topics or themes that you will cover
- very little detail or evidence – this material should be used in the body of the essay
3. Refine your paragraphs
Just like your overall essay structure, individual paragraphs also have a structure that helps them make sense. Make sure that every paragraph you write has:
- a topic sentence that lets the reader know what the paragraph is about
- supporting sentences that provide definition or explanation and then detailed evidence in that order
- linking words and phrases that connect your ideas, both within the paragraph and between paragraphs (e.g. to lead to the next paragraph)
4. Finish with a convincing conclusion
End your essay with a final statement that briefly reminds the reader of your main idea – that is, the key argument or central point you have made in your essay.
Your conclusion should do four things:
- signal the end of your essay by with a connective statement, like “To conclude”, “To summarise”, or “In conclusion”
- paraphrase your thesis statement
- paraphrase and summarise your sub-topics or themes
- provide a strong final statement that leaves the reader understanding the importance of the topic (position or argument) – for example, what the implications are, what remaining problems or questions need to be addressed, and in what direction future research could head.
5. Reference other people’s work correctly
For most essays you write, you’ll need to include evidence to support your arguments. Ensure that you have used your evidence well and that your referencing indicates clearly where you have used other people’s ideas or words. In particular, you should strive to:
- Use your own words most of the time – paraphrase and summarise what you have read or viewed, and quote very little.
- Embed your references into the sentences, so that the paragraph still holds together well.
- Use the correct referencing method for your discipline – bookmark La Trobe University’s Academic Referencing Tool and use it to check the style.
6. Write clearly and concisely
Always aim to be clear and concise in your essay writing – get to the point and do so as briefly as you can. To help you do this:
- Think about the purpose of every sentence and paragraph and try to make that clear to your reader.
- When editing your draft, look for doubling up of words and meaning – remove any unnecessary words that add nothing to the meaning.
- Check your vocabulary for unneeded words – if you can use one or two words instead of many, do so.
- Avoid using words if you don’t know their meaning – it’s better to make your writing clear and simple than confusing. Long sentences, difficult words and jargon do not necessarily make for good academic writing if no-one can understand what is meant by the language.
- Make sure that you understand what you have written. If you don’t, your reader has no chance of understanding your essay.
7. Take time to check your work
Always edit or at least proof-read your work. It is at this stage that you can look for grammatical and spelling errors. Make a list of your most common grammatical errors – perhaps you struggle with subject/verb agreement, or find it tricky to identify where one sentence ends and another begins. Limit yourself to two or three focus areas for each written assignment.
Then, proofread your essay looking for these errors. Once you’ve found them, take one or two of the paragraphs that you are most worried about to a Peer Learning Advisor (PLA) and ask them to help you identify your most common errors. At La Trobe University, PLAs are available for drop-in learning and writing support and can be found in the library for most campuses.
8. Know where to get extra help
If you’ve followed all of these tips, but still need extra help, don’t worry. Universities offer lots of other resources to help you improve your English writing. As a student at La Trobe, for instance, you’ll have access to our Achieve@Uni modules in Writing (for cross-discipline writing tips) and Language (for information and activities about grammar). You can also enroll in La Trobe’s One-Step Ahead program to help develop your academic skills, including writing.
Finally, it’s helpful to remember that your writing will develop with each essay you write. Be sure to ask your teachers for feedback on your work, so you can use this feedback to improve your next essay.
Ready to put your essay writing skills into action? Find your clever at La Trobe University.