As a professional editor, I’ve edited all kinds of documents, not the least of which are essays. I’ve seen it all—the good, the bad, and the ugly.
Look, it’s easy to write a bad essay when it’s due in less than 24 hours (we’ve all been there), but that doesn’t mean it’s difficult to write a good essay. To write a good essay, you just have to know what to look for to make weak writing stronger.
Simply looking is the number one job of a professional editor (outside of drinking coffee) because looking leads to discovering—and once you find your errors, improvement is just around the corner.
After editing over a million words, I’ve come to understand what makes a good essay and what makes a bad essay, and I have a few practical tips—essay hacks, if you will—for improving your own essay-writing skills.
1. Befriend your argument.
Make sure you know everything there is to know about your argument. That means you should understand exactly what it is you’re arguing and why. If your argument was an elevator pitch and you had to explain it to someone in just a minute or two, could you? If the answer is “No,” revisit the main point of your essay. Do more research to make sure you know the topic inside and out.
The reason you need to be prepared is that, if there’s any proof that can shoot your argument down, you not only need to shield those bullets but also to ricochet them back. Don’t just know your argument—befriend it. Find out its strengths and its weaknesses.
2. Challenge every idea.
If you have any questions about your topic, subject, or field, ask them as soon as you can. Hitting a snag later can stall progress on your essay, so if you can hit all the major weak points early on, you can avoid finding major flaws in your argument later.
Challenge anything that causes questions to sprout and play the devil’s advocate for your own argument. If you’ve identified these weaknesses before, now is the time to investigate further and begin to clarify anything that might still be fuzzy.