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I’m an English major in college now, and since I’ve picked up a few things about writing since I started high school, I decided to write this to help out other students – high school or college – who might be having difficulties with an essay.

The most important aspect of a well-written essay is organization and flow. For this reason, many writers benefit from planning their essay ahead of time. You can make an outline or flowchart, or just jot ideas on a blank piece of paper and connect them with lines. No one method is right; find what works for you and your way of thinking.

Every good essay has an introduction and a conclusion. You can’t just drop your reader into the middle of things, or pull out without tying your ideas together. This doesn’t mean you have to write the introduction first. It may be easier for you to write the main part of your essay, and then see what types of introductory remarks make the most sense. Write the conclusion after you’re done with the main part of the essay; you might come up with new ideas as you’re writing.

A note about Cliff’s Notes, Monarch Notes, and the like: These are highly condensed versions of intricate, complex works of literature. If you only read the Cliff’s Notes, you’re going to miss out on a lot of details. This will make your essay less interesting and involved, which will not help your grade. In addition, teachers read the Cliff’s Notes to what they’re teaching, and are trained to spot their patterns in the students’ writing. This will seriously lower your grade. Do not just read the Cliff’s Notes!!! They are useful as a teaching tool, to help explain symbolism or character motivations that you might not catch on your own, but you must read the actual work yourself if you want a decent grade on your essay. (If you didn’t, you wouldn’t be reading this.)

Periodically save your work as you’re typing. I know that has nothing to do with writing technique, but it’s just a reminder to save you the possibility of extreme stress, not to mention wasted time and effort.

It’s not a good idea to put off an essay until the last minute. Not only could you run out of time (or find out too late that the printer doesn’t work, etc.) but you won’t be able to proofread as effectively. Rereading what you write is always vital, to check for mechanical errors and make sure the words flow smoothly, but you can proofread much better if you put away what you wrote for a day or two. When you come back to it, the words will seem more like someone else’s, and it will be easier to spot errors, or just places where it “doesn’t sound right.” Try reading the essay out loud. No one has to be listening. Auditory learners especially can benefit from hearing where there are logic gaps or abrupt changes, which must be fixed.

While it’s a good idea to use language that sounds educated, an essay is a bad place for elitism. Go easy on the thesaurus. Using strings of big words that you barely understand makes your writing clunky; furthermore, words have nuances that aren’t apparent in thesauruses. (Think about the difference between “difficult” and “complicated,” or “simple” and “easy.” It’s simple to lift a couch, but that doesn’t make it easy!) If you use a word with a different shade of meaning than you need, you will sound at best snobbish, and at worst like a show-off idiot. That would not be a good thing.

Your writing has to have your voice. There’s no need to copy someone else’s writing style. Your teachers want to read what you wrote, and they want to grade your thoughts. You don’t have to sound like someone else, even though they’re a “good” writer. Let your voice come through in your writing.