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How to write an essay your professors want to read

| Friday, September 25, 2015

So, you have to write an essay. The assignment date is sitting there on the syllabus, terrifying you.

While essays are expected in some Gen Eds or in classes at the College of Arts and Crafts, writing assignments can pop up anywhere. Many of my friends have been startled to learn they have to write something for a class on chemistry, business or electrical engineering. Professors don’t simply assign essays to fill up the syllabus or to inflict pain. They assign them because they want to assess your knowledge of something that cannot be assessed with an exam. Reading bad essays is almost as tortuous for your professors as writing bad essays.

In an effort to alleviate torture of all kinds, here are my (an English Writing major with a minor in Secondary Education and a mother who is a professor) tips for writing an essay your professors want to read:

1. Plan ahead.

The night before something is due is a horrible time to realize you know nothing on the subject. Look at the assignment sheet or other provided information as soon as you have it. Ask yourself: Do I totally understand the assignment or do I need to ask for clarification? What type of assignment is this — a one-page summary of a lab or an eight-to-12-page research assignment on a topic relevant to this class? Do I need to incorporate outside sources? Will we be discussing things in class that will help me on this essay?

Answer these questions and act accordingly. If you don’t understand what the essay is about, ask your professor. If you need outside sources, start gathering them. If the topic is something you haven’t learned about yet, be sure to keep it in mind and make a note during class whenever something relevant is discussed. If you need to choose your own topic, choose something that interests you, or is related to something that interests you. A topic you care about will make it less painful to write, as well as more interesting for your professor to read.

2. Make an outline.

Some people think they work best by just sitting down and spitting everything out onto paper. That approach works well if you’re Proust, but not so much if you’re a student writing an analysis of how stock market fluctuations affect small businesses. Write down the important parts of the essay. For some assignments, this can be as easy as writing down the two to four things you’re going to talk about. For others, you need to determine how your information will flow — data, your analysis and contemporary opinions or contemporary opinions, data and your analysis? Once you have your rough sections, plug in what you’ll write about in each. If you have a section that’s relatively empty, think about it and figure out if you really need it. If you don’t, cut it. If you do, find what needs to go there.

3. Write.

Put your phone away. Turn off the TV. At this point in your life, you should know what distracts you and how to get away from it. You don’t have to write everything all at once, nor do you have to write it in order. One section of your outline or writing session per day is a good starting point. Be sure to add an introduction and conclusion, as well as any other parts you initially skipped out on.

4. Proofread.

For the love of God, Jesus, Buddha, Mohammed and Shiva, don’t forget to proofread. You definitely made a typo at some point, and it’s going to make you look unintelligent and unprofessional. Be sure to look at your essay stylistically — break the paragraphs properly, use parallel structure, use varied yet precise vocabulary, etc. Asking someone else to read through it is a good idea. They’ll notice errors you didn’t and tell you about anything that’s unclear to the reader. Proofreading is essential to find typos or grammar errors, but will also help you make sure the essay as a whole is sound. I recommend taking a break between writing and proofreading jobs. Even if you don’t have a lot of time, stepping away to put on a new pot of coffee or take your shower is a good way to clear your head and ensure that you have a fresh perspective on your writing when you return.

5. Vanity checks. 

Make sure you have the font, spacing, headings, length and anything else your professor requested correct. If you print it, check that the printer didn’t malfunction and print page seven in Wingdings. If you’re submitting it electronically, change the file name to something clear and distinctive — “Phelan Essay 2 Jane Austen” rather than your original file name “Dumb essay.”

6. Submit.

Congratulations, you just wrote an essay your professor wants to read.


Courtney Phelan is a junior English major living in Le Mans Hall. She can be contacted at [email protected]

The views expressed in this column are those of the author and not necessarily those of The Observer.

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About Courtney Phelan

Courtney Phelan is a junior English major living in Le Mans Hall. She can be contacted at [email protected]

Contact Courtney