How to write a better essay in 8 simple steps

It's no secret that there are about 50 different points to think about when you write your first or next essay.

There are the technical points – setting out the structure, getting the sentence and paragraph transitions right, adding in text citations and Harvard style references at the end.

There's the content – identifying the relevant material, applying theory, finding appropriate evidence, and organising it in a logical way.

Then the basics – spelling, punctuation, grammar, and formatting.

And the references and citations...

But did you know there are some simple ways to improve the next essay you write and gain you a higher mark? It’s true. 

8 simple

The person marking your essay will probably read through lots of badly researched, poorly structured and clumsily written essays before they get to yours. That’s good. Not for your tutor maybe, but for you. It means your essay has an opportunity to stand out from all the rest.

A great essay will stop your tutor in their tracks and make them say “Wow, this is interesting! What a great answer. I’ll move this one to the top of the pile”.

How do you write an outstanding essay that grabs your tutor’s attention? I’ll give you 8 simple ways to set you on your way to writing a better essay in a moment, but before you dig into those I want you to pay close attention to what I’m about to tell you …

Academic writing is not an innate natural talent.

It’s a skill that anyone can learn.

The 'natural talent' that everyone can learn

Yes, YOU have the potential to learn how to be such a great academic writer that your tutor will say “she’s a born writer” or “he’s a real natural”.

Pause a moment. That last statement may be hard for you to take in if it seems like your professors and tutors know what they are doing and you don’t have a clue. But just as a master craftsman serves an apprenticeship, you’ll find your essay results quickly improve as you begin to pay attention and study the purpose, process, and practice of academic writing.

Remember, every successful academic was once at the exact stage that you are now. Yes, even the person marking your essay!  While it may look like natural talent, it’s not. They either pieced it all together and figured it out the hard way by themselves or they found someone who’d already learned how to write great essays to show them how.

I didn’t have anyone to guide me. I spent countless hours late at night practicing and perfecting my academic writing skills so I could achieve marks that reflected my true ability. It was a miserable, stressful time. I was constantly second-guessing myself, wondering if I was on the right track.

For that reason, I’d like to be YOUR guide to better academic writing. You’d like that?  Me too!

I've included a worksheet for this exercise, which I use to plan every essay I write (and for planning academic conference papers and journal articles these days too). I literally use this EVERY TIME I WRITE. Enter your information below to get your copy.

Get the worksheet!


Download, print out and use your worksheet to begin outlining your essay now!!

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I’ll walk you through exactly how to use this worksheet in this post, so I encourage you to download and print it out FIRST, then use it as we walk through the exercise together.

Let’s dive in right now with these 8 simple steps to improve your essay.


1.        Be prepared

It all starts here! Add your essay deadline to the calendar, but also block out the specific periods of time that you will use to research and write it. Be realistic. Allow yourself more time than you think you’ll need. Begin early so that you have sufficient time to research, write, edit, proofread and submit. Pulling an ‘all-nighter’ isn’t fun and it won’t get you the grade you deserve either.


2.       Research effectively

Great essays start with great research. Read and take notes with one outcome in mind – identifying theories and evidence that directly relate to your essay question. Targeted, purposeful reading takes up less of your time and increases the likelihood that your final essay content will be relevant. Take care to be discerning with your sources too. Engage with Wikipedia and tabloid newspapers all you like in your social life; they have no place being quoted in your University essay!


3.       Think critically

The ability to think critically is vital. Don’t blindly accept what you read – even from experts. Learn to challenge and question the ideas and concepts that are presented. Search for inconsistencies, gaps, and assumptions. Look for a new perspective. Investigate academic literature in this way and you will begin to think more deeply about how you will use the theories and evidence you encounter to develop an argument that will convince the person marking your essay and others.


4.       Create an outline

Begin with a review the notes you made from your earlier reading and research. Organise your main ideas into an essay outline consisting of an introduction, main body, and conclusion. Use the worksheet at the back of this workbook to list the main points you want to make on the left-hand side and your evidence from books and articles that support those points on the right. This will clarify your thoughts and enable you to build a stronger argument. It will also eliminate the anxiety of staring at a blank piece of paper.


5.       Introduce your thesis

Use your introduction to confirm to the marker you fully understand the question and to outline the structure of your answer. An effective introduction should provide background information, define key terms and outline relevant theories. Don’t assume the reader is familiar with all the material you include. Incorporate your thesis statement towards the end of your introduction. A thesis is simply a succinct and specific statement of the argument you plan to make, but it’s critical to the success of an essay. 


6.       Develop your main argument

The main body is the heart of your essay and the place where the major points of your argument are made. Keeping your thesis statement clearly in mind, organise the evidence you’ve gathered from reading academic books and articles into 3 to 5 major points that support or counter your argument. Arrange your smaller points in a logical order beneath these broader categories. Remember to relate your points to the appropriate academic theory.


7.       Conclusion

The conclusion is the last opportunity you have to convince the reader of your thesis statement and demonstrate how you have answered the question. In long essays, there may be the need to summarise your main points, but this isn’t necessary for relatively short essays. Instead, leave the person marking your essay with a clear sense of what you have argued and why. Don’t let your essay end on a subdued note due to lack of self-belief; bring your essay to a close with confidence.


8.       Reference correctly

Acknowledge the ideas, evidence, and quotations of others by including references within the text of your essay and providing a detailed list of your sources at the end. This demonstrates your subject knowledge and avoids plagiarism. It’s a good practice to keep clear notes throughout the research stage of your essay planning. There’s nothing worse than a trawl back through all the books you’ve read to find where that great quote in your essay came from!


Bonus step! – Wrapping it up

I like good value and I figure you do too so here’s a bonus step at the end to help you pull your essay together. It almost goes without saying but if you are careless with your spelling, grammar, formatting and punctuation then your tutor may assume you’re careless with your ideas too. Make sure that you proofread your essay at least twice, preferably a day or two apart. You’d be surprised what silly errors you find! Other ‘no way! really?’ blunders include wacky fonts and font colours, uploading electronic copies with tracked changes still visible and handing your essay in after the deadline.


Phew! that's a lot to take in I know!

I hope you’ve found this article helpful and that you’ve learned more about how to improve your University essays. It’s never fun to struggle on your own. I know. I’ve been there.

I have found that regardless of natural ability, intellect or education all students find there is a big jump up in standard from the essays that they have written at school or college and essay writing at University. One of the biggest differentiators in how quickly their marks rally is the time and effort they invest in improving their academic writing skills. 

If you're ready to take your academic writing to the next level then please get on the waiting list for my upcoming course Your Best Essay Ever®It's going to be THE best course of its kind and one of the smartest investments you'll make at University :)

Get the worksheet!


Download, print out and use your worksheet to begin outlining your essay now!!

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