Thursday, 17 May 2012

10 Ways to Improve Essay Marks

Looking at the many essays that I edit for students, it's sad to see how many students are going to lose marks that they could have easily earned. So I put together this list to help students improve essay marks. You may notice that this list does not include hiring a professional editor. The main part of your grade should be about your thinking. Nonetheless, there are a lot of basic steps to take to improve essay marks. These are things that you should be focusing on yourself to improve your writing, and therefore, grades.

How to Improve Essay Marks

10. Use the correct format.

English essays use MLA style; a lot of other subjects use APA format, but don’t assume. There are dozens of styles, and some are particular to certain institutions. Your school may have its own style. If your professor hasn’t specified, ask. Or, you can use Google, and search for your subject, plus the words “citation style.” Each style has specific ways to cite, and although it's easy to get confused. Here's a link to a page with a list of styles. Here's a comparison between APA, MLA, and Chicago styles.

9. Make a title page.

APA and some other major styles require a title page with the name of the essay, your name, the course name, your professor’s name, and the date on it. Not only does this make the essay look tidier, your professor will know who wrote it, and you will get credit where credit is due. Use the “Insert Break--Page Break” command after the title page (see below “Use the tools in your word processor). Here's an APA sample paper. (MLA only requires you to put your name, course number and professor's name at the top of the first page.)

8. Use the tools in your word processor.

Word processors are designed to make writing easier. And they work! You can turn on and off the spelling and grammar under the Tools menu. Make sure they are turned on, or if they annoy you while you are writing, turn them on after you finish. If you are using MS Word and a red line appears under a word, then it’s misspelled. Fix it! If a green line appears, then Word is questioning your grammar. It also highlights extra spaces between words and little things that just make the essay look messy. I know that Word can be wrong, but you need to think carefully before moving on. If English is not your native language, and you write in another language in your word processor, check that the document is in English (Language, also under the tools menu). You can use the Paragraph formatting (under Format) to specify “Indent first line” for body text, “Hanging” for references, and “Keep lines together” when a heading appears at the bottom of a page away from the following text. Use “Insert--Break--Page Break” when you want to force a page break instead of a bunch of returns. When you edit, you won’t need to be continually adjusting where the page breaks. Only single space between sentences. The word processor will visually adjust the space.  I wrote a whole blog post on 5 Essential MS Word Tools Every Student Should Know.

7. Double space.

Most styles require double spacing. Even if you are submitting the essay to an editor who charges by the page, they will charge you for more pages. Somewhere on the site, they have something like "275 words equals one page." In addition, double spacing makes the paper so much easier to read. Even if you are writing an essay with no defined style, such as a personal reflection, double space. Your professor or marker will appreciate it and that’s the person who should be happy at the end of reading the essay.

6. Make sure each paragraph is related to the assigned topic.

It’s easy to go off on a tangent. The purpose of an essay is to discuss a particular topic, not show off the breadth of your knowledge. In a thesis, you may need to discuss the methodology and background, but in most undergraduate essays, just discuss the topic. It's important to keep this in mind when writing, but also you should think about it when editing. Revising for a second and third draft shouldn't be all about grammar and wording, but also about whether or not you have honed your ideas to make a logical point.

5. Ensure each paragraph has a topic sentence and all sentences are relevant to the topic sentence.

It’s easy to jump into a paragraph with a quote or idea that you believe is important. But when you review the essay, think about each paragraph as an individual unit. The key idea should be clearly set out. In fact, you should be able to summarize your essay by choosing one sentence from each paragraph. Make sure you have explicitly stated that idea in each paragraph. When an essay does not have a clear thesis statement, one result is that paragraphs might contain irrelevant information. Here's some information about paragraphs.

4. Make sure your introduction has a clear thesis statement.

A good introduction will orient the reader to the topic, provide some general information, and make a clear thesis statement. It is not necessary to say, “It is the purpose of this essay to discuss…” but certainly make a clear statement that you intend to prove through the body of the essay. Here's more about the thesis statement. I recently learned that many students coming to a university in Canada and the U.S. from Asian countries have been taught a different approach to defining their essay objective. These students provide a lot of information throughout the essay and bring it together in their conclusion. The standard way when writing in English is to prepare the reader by stating your objective in the introduction. Maybe we English speakers are not as bright as Asian thinkers, but as one person told me the format of the essay is: This is what I'm going to tell you (introduction), this is what I'm telling you (body), and this is what I told you (conclusion).

3. Include a quote, citation, or fact in each paragraph and explain its importance.

Especially in high school and first-year university essays, students ask, “how many citations do I need?” That’s like telling the teacher you only want a C. Learning to properly use citations is one of the keys to developing your academic writing skills. Don’t confuse citations with sources. You might use only one or two sources (books, articles, etc.) in your essay research, but each separate idea from those sources needs to be cited. Each paragraph (with the possible exception of the introduction and conclusion) should cite some authority so the arguments that you are developing in that paragraph carry some weight.

2. Summarize, but don’t repeat in your conclusion.

Your conclusion could remind the reader of some of the major points or it could make a recommendation based on the thesis statement. A lot depends on the topic and the format of the essay. However, every essay needs to have some kind of summation, so the reader is not left hanging at the end. People often ask me if it is necessary to use quotes or references in a conclusion. The answer is that it's not. You shouldn't be introducing new facts or observations in a conclusion. Therefore any information you present has already been presented in your essay and sources cited. The exception is if you want to end with a quote. Just like in an essay, using a pithy quote from a well-known thinker is a good way to come to a completion. Here's more about writing a great conclusion.

1. Make an outline first, and then follow it.

I can’t emphasize this enough. Essays that are written without outlines tend to be disorganized. The logic doesn’t flow. There are often bits that don’t relate to the theme, or ideas that are repeated. It’s a mess. This has to be the number one reason people write poor essays. Here's some information about creating an outline. The most important part of your essay mark is the content of your essay. An essay is a demonstration of your thinking about a topic. Try to say something interesting and justify it with evidence from the text or other sources.

Updated March 8, 2018.
Image courtesy of Salvatore Vuono /

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