Sometimes, learning how to write effective academic essays can feel overwhelming. You need to worry about your argument, your examples, your overall structure, and on and on. But there are a few simple steps you can take to improve the clarity and effectiveness of your writing. In today’s blog post, we’ll focus on some easy adjustments that make a big difference.
Tip #1: Use Active Verbs
When I was in high school, my U.S. History teacher forced us to write our term papers without using the verb, “to be.” It was one of the most difficult writing assignments I’ve ever had, but it transformed the way that I write—and for the better.
Why did my teacher banish the “to be” verb? Because when it’s not used judiciously, the verb can become a crutch for vague, confusing, and lazy writing. It also facilitates the use of passive voice—a way of constructing sentences that obscures the subject. Here are a couple of examples:
- Mistakes were made.
- The U.S. entry into WWII was precipitated by the attacks on Pearl Harbor.
What do these sentences have in common? There’s either no subject (who made mistakes?) or the subject comes after the verb. Removing the “to be” verb from either sentence would force the writer to clarify the subject and use a more active verb:
- George made mistakes.
- The attacks on Pearl Harbor precipitated the U.S. entry into WWII.
Try writing your next essay without using “to be” at all. It will not only help you avoid passive voice but also force you to make your writing clearer and more descriptive.
Tip #2: Avoid $10 Words and Adverbs
I know, it’s tempting. Using a thesaurus seems like the perfect way to give your writing some variety and make your word choice more impressive. But when you use big words that you don’t really know the meaning of, you run the risk of using them incorrectly. In addition, these words will often stick out from the rest of your writing, and your teachers will know that you used a thesaurus (trust me, they will).
While the words from a thesaurus might sound better in theory, your sentences can end up confusing and wordy. A sentence like, “The plethora of options attainable through the utilization of a thesaurus can be tantalizing,” would sound much better if it were written with simple words: “The number of options available on a thesaurus can be tempting.” When you’re writing for school, less is usually more.
Adverbs pose another challenge. With few exceptions, adverbs are unnecessary to convey your ideas. Often, they end up distracting from them. The best writing will act as a clear and effective vehicle for communicating your ideas. Adverbs or $10 words don’t serve this purpose, so use them sparingly….
Tip # 3: Vary Your Sentence Structure and Length
After you’ve written your essay, go back to check for repetitive language and sentence structure. This means sentences that are all the same length, style, or format. Tend to like short, punchy sentences? Try rewriting some of them so that they are longer and more complex. Tend to write sentences that might as well be whole paragraphs? Break a few of them up into shorter sentences that will allow your reader to catch their breath. Tend to start each sentence with the same word or phrase (like “although,” “I,” or “not only”)? Make sure to proofread with an eye for the repetitive phrasing. Getting sick of the call and response format of this tip? Now you understand the importance of varying your sentence structure!