Wondering how to improve your essay writing skills? Well, you and I both know the only way to do this is to practice more. But practice what? And practice how? Easy: practice reading, writing, and getting feedback.
In his book Outliers, Malcolm Gladwell asserts that you need 10,000 hours of practice at anything to become an expert at it. Okay, so we know you’re most probably not reading this to become an expert essay writer; you’re more likely here to get some advice on how to improve your writing skills and make essay writing more bearable, right? So instead of worrying about practicing 10,000 hours of essay writing, I’ll walk you through some practical ways you can improve your essays by reading, writing, and learning to get feedback.
The one thing that I will emphasis is that you need to get whatever you practice right. What do I mean? This: “practice makes permanent”. As opposed to perfect. Makes sense, right? Practice is nothing more than a repetitive behaviour and if you are practicing something wrong it’ll become a habit making it difficult to change. So getting started right with how you practice reading, writing, and getting feedback will serve you better throughout your essay writing career in school and university.
Read a lot and read actively
Read good examples of different types of essays. Ask anyone (who writes well!) how to improve your writing and I’m sure they’ll say: “read more.” There’s just no getting around this one. Fiction, non-fiction, science-fiction, fantasy, historical fiction, classical literature – whatever genre floats your boat, just read. But this is just reading for fun and learning to love reading. Where reading will really improve your essay writing is when you start reading actively. This just means that when you tackle a book or a text that is relevant to your essay topic with a specific aim in mind.
For example, if you’re writing an essay on the use of onomatopoeia in a poem, you’ll automatically read the poem looking out for words that phonetically recreate the sound they are trying to describe, words like “meow” for example. Similarly, you can actively read any book, paper, journal or article to observe the style, language, grammar, vocabulary, structure, and anything else you want to learn to use better in your own writing. This is really useful because humans learn through mimicry. So, if you’re supposed to be writing an essay to apply for a scholarship it might help to read through examples of successful scholarship essays and look at what worked for the applicants. Was it their style, clarity, focus, structure etc? So learn to read actively, and whenever you have a specific type or topic of essay to write, try to find one or two good examples of previously written essays to understand what the end reader is looking for.
Our favourite tip: Ask your teacher or professor for samples of well written essays that they can share with you to inspire you to write better.
Write, as much and as often as you can…
short essays, long essays, essays for competitions, timed essays. Yes, pretty obvious right? So what are you waiting for? Write! Okay wait, don’t just write anything, anyhow. Practice writing with a purpose. Just as I mentioned that practice makes permanent, if you get into the habit of writing essays haphazardly with no clear process or structure it’s going to make your essay writing life permanently stressful. If you’re already struggling to sift through your ideas and and experiencing “writer’s block” often then, ironically enough, you probably just need more practice writing. There are two reasons why you might get stuck writing and improving your essays. The first is that you might not have a process before you actually start writing. Trust me, no one just gets a writing prompt, sits in front of a blank screen, and 30 minutes later has produced a flawless piece of writing. Just. Does. Not. Happen. Writing an essay is a process that begins with some brainstorming and outlining (at the very least), followed by the first draft. So create a pre-writing process that works for you.
The second reason is that you’re probably not fully aware that all writing has a simple and basic structure that is adapted depending on the type of essay you are required to write and the subject area involved. This is where EssayJack can help you break down the structure of the most common types of essays and guide you through the drafting process section-by-section. Practicing writing essays on EssayJack will teach you the conventions of essay writing making sure you’re getting the all important structure of essay writing right! So make sure you create a process for yourself and then practice essay writing as much as possible with the right guidance. If you need that extra bit of motivation to practice writing more try looking for engaging essay competitions (like this one by the GOI Peace Foundation) to enter your essays for. Alternatively you could write short-timed essays to practice zipping through an essay and not wasting endless hours trying to figure out where to start!
Our favourite tip: Find some essay prompts online or, again, ask your teacher or professor for some good ones, and just get down to it quickly – quick brainstorm of ideas, quick outline, and then dive right into it. And of course, we love using our EssayJack templates for Academic Essay or the Five-Paragraph Essay to practice.
And no, feedback should not just be from others. Develop the skills to give yourself feedback too! Asking for feedback on any work that you’ve produced can be intimidating, either because you’ve put in so much effort and are proud of it or you’re just practicing and didn’t put in hours and hours of work and are afraid to ask for feedback on something that might not be “perfect”. Don’t worry about it. The whole idea of getting feedback on your practice essays is to know that you’re heading in the right direction. Because how are you going to improve if you don’t get some impartial (i.e. not coming from you) comments?
All writers have editors. Why? Because usually when you create something you’re “too close to,” it’s difficult to spot errors or find ways to improve it and a third party who isn’t familiar with it can usually point those out instantly. The best way to get feedback is to ask your teachers or professors for some comments. They’ll be thrilled you’re practicing your writing and most probably happily do it for you. If not, try writing centres at your school or university. If all else fails either ask a classmate who you know writes well to peer review your practice essays or find a reputable proof-reading service online and make sure it’s not writing essays for you (read our blog on how to spot the difference). Just make sure you get comments on your work to confirm that you’re improving and forming good writing habits.
While getting external feedback is the best, you’ll want to slowly learn how to proof and edit your own work as much as possible. One way to start off is to make a checklist of common mistakes and errors to watch out for when proofing your own work (you might be aware of these from comments on previous essays you’ve submitted). Another way, that works well, is to read your practice essay out loud to someone (or yourself to begin with). When you struggle to read through a certain part or feel that it sounds awkward, you’ll know that it needs to be fixed.
Our favourite tip: Read your work out loud. This really helps identify the awkward and repetitive parts of your essay so you can edit and make it flow better.
And there you have it! Some practical ways to practice and improve your essay writing. If you want to make a more conscious effort to improve, create a process of reading, writing, and getting feedback that works for you and repeat it as much as you can.
Useful samples and examples: