College essays rarely bring joy. Whether you study engineering, biology, psychology, or literature, looking at whatever you’ve written can feel debilitating. But it doesn’t have to. And there are quick ways to sharpen your writing.
Two quick notes: these suggestions are tips and not rules, and they’re meant to improve work that you’ve already drafted, not to help you write the first words.
For example, if you have a paper due in 30 minutes to an hour or if you’re working on a timed, in-class essay, these tips will help. But maybe don’t use them at the absolute last minute — if you’re scrambling just to get something on paper these tips won’t offer much help.
1. Review Your Thesis
The most important part of whatever you’ve written is its thesis — the essay’s main point, the claim you’re making and then explaining. A thesis is a statement that can be debated (as opposed to the results of a lab report, which rely on quantifiable findings and not argumentation).
You’ll need to review your thesis because it forms your paper’s core. Consider where you make the claim: is it early enough to signal what the rest of the piece will discuss, i.e. in the first or second paragraph of your paper?
Consider how you make the claim: is the wording clear enough that you could explain it in a conversation? Begin with the thesis.
Make sure your reader will understand what it says. Then follow its threads into the body of the essay’s argument.
2. Include Your Topic Sentences
The threads of the thesis are the topic sentences of each body paragraph. They follow whatever the thesis argued, and they should kick off the paragraph.
For instance, if your thesis says, The sky would look better orange when you consider cloud texture, parallel jet streams, and contrasting lightning strikes, you should format your supporting paragraphs with topic sentences that include:
- Cloud texture
- Parallel jet streams
- Contrasting lightning strikes
Let’s return to the thread metaphor: the thesis presents a cluster of different colors at the head of the strand, and the topic sentences show off each of those colors. Whatever you see at the start should return in the middle with greater detail.
3. Include and Disprove Counterarguments
Everyone likes to read a paper where a writer guesses what his or her readers are thinking. No reader likes to be refuted, but everyone likes the writer to consider their point of view.
So if you’ve got room for it, list a few counterclaims someone might have against your thesis. Then disprove them. This move can help you add another paragraph or two, and it can bolster your argument more than just arguing a thesis.
Let’s come back to the orange sky thesis statement.
Someone might reply, A blue sky is the ultimate sky, because there are plenty of beautiful blue shades.
Lean into this (hypothetical) rejection. Write a sentence refuting it: While x person argues that a blue sky is the ultimate sky, I argue that there are x number of stunning orange shades, a larger number than blue shades. Explain how terra cotta, pumpkin, persimmon, and salmon will surely satisfy viewers of your daily orange sky.
This move responds to your thesis’s context. Whenever you argue x, you enter into the larger conversation of x. Noting that, and then carving a place for x by refuting counterclaims, is clever, big-picture argumentation that will enhance your writing and give you more content to include in your essay.
4. Read The Words Aloud
Once your words are off the keyboard and onto the page, take time away from what you’ve written (an hour or more if you have the time). Then return to the words and read them out loud. Start with the first word and end with the last.
Combing your paper word by word is the surest way to catch any awkward phrasings and hidden mistakes you may have missed while writing. Glancing at the sentence, Take a walk around the block can reveal that it’s actually written, Take a walk on around the block.
Additionally, if you can understand what the sentences say when you read them aloud, it’s proof that the argument moves along clearly. If you can’t, it’s likely because you left a few logical gaps. And if you can read your work aloud to someone else, do it. Someone else’s confused face says more than your own.
5. Condense Where You Can
Choose fewer words wherever possible. This step becomes much easier when you read your paper out loud, since you’ll hear exactly where you may have used too many words. Don’t keep words that say what the reader already knows. Cut the phrases that aren’t essential. The more words you include, the muddier your meaning becomes.
Here are a few examples:
- If you can use far fewer words than what you’ve already written, feel free to do so on each and every line. → If you can use fewer words, do it often.
- I deleted my paper on accident, but after mild panic and frantic computer-searching, realized I could undo the action. → I accidentally deleted my paper, but frantically undid the action.
- Barbara called out Dale’s name as he left. → Barbara called to Dale as he left.
6. Specify Your Word Choice
This step pairs nicely with the last one, because when you use fewer words, the ones you keep must communicate more clearly. This is especially true with verbs, since specific verbs cut right to the chase.
Example: The moon influences the tides. The moon causes the tides.
Influences and causes are similar enough, but only causes spells out the exact relationship between the moon and the tides. On any verb you’ve written, you can usually find a more specific one.
Nouns need to be just as specific. For example, does the moon cause tides, or is it the gravitational pull of the moon? Get as close to your meaning as you can. That way, your reader, i.e. your professor grading you, can understand your work.
7. Choose Active Verbs
Use “be” verbs sparingly. Be verbs are passive verbs which state a condition or quality:
These words don’t act on a subject in their sentences; they simply state something.
A simple statement doesn’t have the same propulsion as more active verbs, and a propelled sentence usually holds more of the reader’s attention.
It’s like the way that active characters pull readers through a story. Inversely, an immobile character goes nowhere, and the reader might feel the same stagnation.
When your paper needs to fill several pages, momentum that keeps your readers’ attention is key.
My shirt is wet.
My shirt drips.
Four words cut down to three, and the three words suggest more with the active verb drips.
My shirt is wet, and now it is wrung out.
My shirt drips, and I wring it out.
Active verbs condense your writing and allow you to convey your points with fewer words, rendering your paper easier and more enjoyable for your professor to read.
As we’ve said, these 7 tips offer useful ways to revise work that you’ve already drafted, i.e. during an in-class essay or before you submit a paper—NOT when you’re just beginning a paper or brainstorming about a topic.
And these tips are not written in stone, because they’re all flexible and up to your own application.
If you remember nothing else, remember the principle behind these tips: organized writing, intentionally written with the reader’s attention and comprehension in mind, is improved writing in nearly all contexts.
So try these out as soon as you can. The sooner you begin, the more practice you’ll get to have, and you’ll need practice before these tips become second nature in your writing. And with their help, writing your next paper or essay might not feel debilitating, hopeless or desperate.