I’ve been teaching university courses and grading student essays for twenty years. A lot of students need help with their writing, and I really enjoy working with students on their essays. But I’ve noticed that there’s a curious mismatch between the kind of advice I usually find myself giving, when I start working with students, and what students are commonly taught in writing classes.
In a writing class, the curriculum usually starts with grammar, sentence structure, elements of style, and moves up to paragraphs and paragraph structure, and then toward the end of the course, gets to essays and different essay types. So they start from the smallest units of writing and scale up to the larger units.
For me, from the standpoint of a teacher trying to help students write better essays, this gets things entirely backward.
In this video I’m going to explain exactly what I mean by this, and why the most efficient way to improve your essay writing is to fix the problems with the the largest unit first — the problems with essay structure.
The 80-20 Rule
There’s a rule known as the 80-20 rule that originated in economics but is commonly taught in management and business. It states that, in many different situations, roughly 80 percent of the effects arise from 20 percent of the causes.
In business, it might imply that 80 percent of your sales come from 20 percent of your customers. Or, 80 percent of your company’s profits come from 20 percent of the time your staff spend. 80 percent of customer complaints come from 20 percent of your customers.
The exact percentages aren’t important, the point is that certain inputs have a disproportionate influence on outputs, and knowing what those inputs are can be very important if you’re looking to diagnosis problems in your organization or optimize performance.
An 80-20 Rule for Essay Writing
I want you to consider what an 80-20 analysis would look like when applied to essay writing.
When I get an essay from a student that has problems, I’ve got some choice when it comes to deciding what sort of feedback would be most helpful.
Most essays have a mixture of problems — there are problems with spelling, word choice, grammar, sentence structure, paragraph structure, and so on, all the way up to overall essay structure and organization. I could start anywhere. I could fill up the pages with red marks just focusing on grammar and style issues alone.
But that’s not what I do, and it’s not what any good instructor or editor should do. I want to make the most efficient use of my time and the student’s time. So I’ll focus on fixing the problems that have the greatest impact on the overall success of the essay.
And that’s not spelling and grammar.
What I need to focus on is essay STRUCTURE, essay ORGANIZATION. Fixing problems with structure will fix the majority of the problems with your essay, and make the greatest contribution to improving the grade on your essay.
Let me say that again. Fixing problems with overall essay structure will fix 80% or more of the problems with your essay.
In an 80-20 analysis, this would be the input that makes the greatest contribution to the overall success of the essay. Again, don’t take the exact percentages seriously, they’re just to illustrate a point, which is that structural issues have a disproportionate impact on the the success of an essay.
Why Fixing Problems with Structure Fixes Most of Your Essay Writing Problems
Why is this?
We have to remember that the primary goal of an essay assignment isn’t to write beautiful sentences or even beautiful paragraphs.
The goal is to communicate a main idea, a thesis, and to use the essay format to organize ideas in the most effective way to successfully communicate that main idea.
An essay’s success or failure is primarily a function of the organization and flow of ideas, at the highest level of organization, at the level of the essay taken as a whole, not at the level of individual sentences or individual paragraphs.
The priority of structure in essay writing is familiar to anyone who has graded papers. I’lll repeat what I said before — when a student hands in a draft of a paper that is poorly written, it almost always has a mix of spelling, grammar, sentence structure and organizational problems. If I wanted to I could start identifying every grammar and stylistic problem, and I could write a long document with editorial tips on grammar and style issues alone.
But I don’t do any of that.
What I do is make a few comments about the overall organization of the paper and invite the student in to talk about them. Often I don’t even bother commenting on the spelling and grammar and style issues.
Why? Because that’s not the priority. That’s not the part that is most important to the success of the paper. Even if all the spelling and vocabulary and grammar and sentence structure problems are fixed, if the organizational parts aren’t fixed, I’ll never give this paper a top grade. No instructor would.
So we, as instructors and editors and graders, focus on the most important feedback first, which is structural. Once that’s fixed it would make sense to look closer at style issues, on a second or third draft.
But even on second or third drafts, most of the constructive feedback your teachers give you will still be feedback about structure, because (a) it can take several tries to fix the structural problems, and (b) it’s only at the structural level where you can move a paper from being merely good to excellent.
So, the take-away is that not all the skill sets that are important for good writing are equally important.
In essay writing in particular, there is a HUGE asymmetry — structural and organizational factors are far more important in determining whether an essay is successful or not, than spelling and vocabulary and grammar.
It follows, then, that a program of instruction that aims to improve people’s essay writing should focus on principles of structure and organization at the essay level.
And that’s I’m trying to do in this course — I have relatively little to say about grammar and style and usage, except when it relates to structural and organizational features at the essay level.
Now, maybe some of you watching this will think that none of this is surprising.
But the principle that I’ve tried to articulate here, about the priority of structure in essay writing, is for the most part, completely unfamiliar to students entering college.
I can’t speak for the way that essay writing is taught in high school (when it’s taught at all), but the fact is that in my 20 years of experience working with students on their writing, I have yet to encounter a student who recognized this principle, prior to receiving some formal instruction specifically about it.
Let me say this again. What I would regard as the single most important principle of essay writing — the one that is most important for successful essay writing — is unfamiliar to most of the students entering college.
This is disturbing to me, as a teacher.
Now, this isn’t to say that there aren’t good writers among the students who enter college, because there are.
But I’m convinced that in most cases these students became good writers in spite of their formal training in essay writing, rather than because of it. They’ve picked up their skills through extensive reading and assimilation and modeling, rather than through formal instruction.
And that’s great, that’s wonderful, but the fact is that it’s something you only see in a fraction of students. There are many more students who could benefit from some formal instruction in structural principles for successful essay writing, but who have never been exposed to them.
So, in the next video we’ll get started doing just that.
Academic essay writing is a style that anyone can learn to produce, once they know the basics of writing an essay. An academic essay should provide a solid, debatable thesis that is then supported by relevant evidence—whether that be from other sources or from one's own research. Most research follows a standard set of guidelines. Remembering some basic principles for academic essay writing will allow you to create valuable, persuasive papers, even if you're under a time crunch.
Make an outline. Know what you are going to write about before you start writing.
Before you even start writing an essay, it is important to know what you want to say. The easiest way to narrow down a thesis and create a proper argument is to make a basic outline before you begin writing your essay. The basic structure of an academic essay includes the following elements: an introduction that includes the thesis; the body of the essay, which should include separate paragraphs discussing evidence that supports the thesis; and a conclusion that ties everything together and connects it to the thesis. When it comes to how much evidence should be included in an academic essay, a good guideline is to include at least three solid points that directly support your thesis.
Acquire a solid understanding of basic grammar, style, and punctuation.
Grammar, style, and punctuation are incredibly important if you want your research to be understood and taken seriously. Before writing an essay, make sure you have a solid understanding of basic grammar. Grammar basics include verb and subject agreement, proper article and pronoun usage, and well-formed sentence structures. Make sure you know the proper uses for the most common forms of punctuation. Be mindful of your comma usage and know when a period is needed. Finally, in academic essay writing, voice is important. Try to use the active voice instead of the passive whenever possible (e.g., "this study found" instead of "it was found by this study"). This will make the tone of your essay stronger. Ensure your language is concise. Avoid transition words that don't add anything to the sentence and unnecessary wordiness that detracts from your argument.
Use the right vocabulary. Know what the words you are using actually mean.
How you use language is important, especially in academic essay writing. When writing an academic essay, remember that you are trying to persuade others that you are an expert who can make an intelligent argument. Using big words just to sound smart often results in the opposite effect—it is easy to detect when someone is overcompensating in their writing. If you aren't sure of the exact meaning of a word, you risk using it incorrectly. Using obscure language can also take away from the clarity of your argument—you should consider this before you pull out that thesaurus to change that perfectly good word to something completely different.
Understand the argument and critically analyze the evidence.
In the process of writing an academic essay, you should always have your main argument in mind. While it might be tempting to go off on a tangent about some interesting side note to your topic, doing so can make your writing less concise. Always question any evidence you include in your essay; ask yourself, "Does this directly support my thesis?" If the answer is "no," then that evidence should probably be excluded. When you are evaluating evidence, be critical and thorough. You want to use the strongest research to back up your thesis. Everything you include should have a clear connection to your topic and your argument.
Know how to write a proper conclusion that supports your research.
One of the most overlooked areas of academic essay writing is the conclusion. Your conclusion is what ties all your research together to prove your thesis. It should not be a restatement of your introduction or a copy-and-paste of your thesis itself. A proper conclusion quickly outlines the key evidence discussed in the body of an essay and directly ties it to the thesis to show how this evidence proves or disproves the main argument of one's research. There have been countless great essays written, only to be derailed by vague, weakly worded conclusions. Don't let your next essay be one of those.
Image source: Jeremy Bishop/Unsplash.com
You've created the blueprint for a perfect paper: outlined the framework, devised a great thesis statement and located enough evidence to support your argument. What remains to be done, is to analyze those facts in original and intriguing ways.
If you've been told time and time again that you express great ideas in your essay writing but your writing needs polishing, you aren't alone. The following tips will help improve your writing skills and turn you into a great writer.
Movie buffs and bookworms can tell a bestseller from a dud within the first few moments. The same is true of any thesis statement you write.
Back to Advice and Articles