How to write a better essay

How_to_write_a_better_essayAs an editor, I read many essays, university dissertations, theses and business documents. In spite of the many hours spent getting the words just right before they are sent to me for editing and/or proofreading it’s quite common to find structural flaws – flaws that can be as easily avoided as they can be corrected.

A common occurrence is that the writing lacks structural coherence – a logical flow that makes it easy to read and promotes understanding of the key concepts in the material. It doesn’t matter how well you can write sentences, your writing needs structure. It is vital if you are to develop a cohesive argument.

How to structure your writing

Whether you are writing an essay, a dissertation or a book, every part of your writing needs to have three elements:

  • an introduction
  • a middle that expands on the introduction
  • a conclusion.

You may remember this from English lessons but we tend to forget when we’re caught up in writing mode – another good reason to get an editor to review your work.

These three elements need to work at all levels of the written text.

The big picture, or the entire written text, must have these elements. Equally, each chapter or section needs its own introduction, middle and conclusion, and each sub-section, the same. At the micro level, each paragraph should be about one idea, with a topic or introductory sentence, sentences that elaborate on that idea and a concluding sentence that encapsulates the ideas in the paragraph and provides a link to the idea in the next paragraph.

Recently I was editing a thesis that did not quite follow this model. In one paragraph the topic sentence concerned the subject of ‘self egoism’. The rest of the sentences deviated from this topic and the concluding sentence addressed an entirely different idea. As a reader, I was lost – confused as to what I was supposed to ‘take away’ from the paragraph.

So how can you see if your structure is solid? It’s easy really. At the big picture level, does the introduction have a main theme? Do the chapters explore the theme clearly and does the conclusion sum up the proposition that you are making? For each section and subsection, I look at the first two or three paragraphs and the last two or three paragraphs.

Here’s another tip for improving your big picture structure. My PhD supervisor asked me to put my thesis on a postage stamp. Could I explain my topic to someone in one or two sentences? I found that the exercise of reducing my thesis to postage stamp size helped me to clarify my thinking and ultimately made it easier to stay on message throughout the writing process.

At the paragraph level, find the key words in the topic sentence. Ask yourself if your middle sentences explore, explain or elaborate on those ideas. Does the last sentence in the paragraph mention the key words? Does it sum up the argument you are making about the topic?

How an edit can help improve your writing

As a professional editor, I check the structure of a piece of writing at all levels. Structural coherence is vital if you are a student who wants to develop good writing skills and lift your marks to the next level. Well written submissions will be rewarded with distinctions and high distinctions. If you’re in business, it’s vital that the meaning of what you write is clear to your customers, suppliers and staff.

If you are looking for an editor with specific structural editing skills, contact Susie Stevens for a quote.

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