Study Skills

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June 8, 2015 Improving your writing: Confessions of an essay marker

This article is part of a series called Languages by Compass.

Read the series >

Working up the resolve to sit down to work can be extremely difficult. After all, there are so many things that you would rather do than sit down and put words to page: hang out with your friends, play video games, watch a movie, eat a delicious meal, whatever.

Sometimes it can see so difficult that you might even think that you’d prefer to do something deeply unpleasant: pull out your toenails, say, or set your hair on fire, or go to the dentist. But it doesn’t need to be this way (honest)!

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Although saying that everyone can or should enjoy writing is obviously a little bit optimistic, there are ways that we can make the process of sitting down and producing words so much easier. You might not ever love writing, but it’s not too hard to make sure that you don’t hate it.

Say what you mean, and say it clearly
Although it sounds easy, it can actually be very difficult. In order to write clearly about something, your own ideas have to be clear, too. So have a think about the subject of your writing before you begin: what is the point that you are trying to make? Why are you making the point? Do you have good reasons for making the point?

Don’t be afraid to let your personality shine through
People think that they need to adopt a kind of “essay voice” in order to write with authority. This simply isn’t the case! Learning to write formally is totally different to writing as if you’ve got a stick up your bum.

If it is dark in the town at night, do you simply say so? Or maybe you can say it a little differently, with a little more character: “It is spring, moonless night in the small town, starless and bible-black…” Literature, and writing more generally, is personal, and it should say something about you.

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Avoid big words if you’re not sure what they mean
It can be tempting to try and make your writing more impressive by looking through the thesaurus and finding synonyms. However, sometimes this can go terribly wrong! So, if you’re writing an essay about your grandma, and want to describe her wrinkles, don’t describe her as ‘rugose’ instead.

For although ‘rugose’ does mean ‘wrinkled’, it doesn’t mean ‘wrinkled’ in the same way that your grandma is wrinkled. Instead, it means ‘wrinkled’ the way a coral or a reptile is wrinkled. Unless your grandma is some kind of horrible mutant, you probably don’t actually mean to describe her as ‘rugose’.

Keep your sentences short
In literature there are some famously long sentences but, as a general rule, you should try to keep your sentences brief. Each separate sentence should only contain one idea; any more than that, and you run the risk of sentences so long that they don’t make any sense.

Murder your darlings
This piece of advice, first offered by Arthur Quiller-Crouch in 1916, is perhaps the most important one of them all. No matter how much you like a particular word, sentence or paragraph, if it’s not helping your writing be better, then you should delete it. Be ruthless, and murder them.

Give it a go! And if you’ve got any feedback or questions, please get back to us.

This article is part of a series called Languages by Compass.

Read the series >

Ryan Wittingslow
is the editor of A•STAR, and also teaches philosophy at the University of Sydney.