Ten Simple Ways to Strengthen Your Academic Essays

10 Ways to Improve Your Essays (1)
Concerned about how to present an academic essay that indicates that you understand how academic discourse functions?  These simple fixes can help you strengthen your papers if you are in the revision stage (though you will, of course, want to focus on major issues such as your argument and evidence before moving on to stylistic concerns).

Claim authority in your work.

Writing “I’m not sure but I think,” and “Perhaps the author meant,” and “I believe that,” suggest to your audience that you did not do the research or are hesitant to stand behind your claims.  Your readers need to be convinced that you have the knowledge and expertise to write on your topic so project confidence.  Simply state your claims as objective arguments and if you are going to use an “I” statement make it a strong one such as, “I argue that” or “I propose,” or “I will examine.”

Quote your sources.

Instead of simply informing your readers that something happened in the text, try quoting the actual text.  For example, if you state that a poet’s work contains many allusions, quote an allusion.  Then analyze it and explain how it relates to and forwards your main argument.  More specifics make your argument more convincing.

Cite your sources.

Citing your sources shows that you have done the research and are knowledgeable on your topic.  It also allows your readers to double-check your sources and see how you are using quotes, if you are taking them out of context, etc.  Always provide full citations both in the text and in your Works Cited.  Format them so that your readers can access the sources easily.  For instance, if you have a page number, a paragraph number, a scene and line numbers, etc. provide them.  You want to make it as easy as possible for your readers to locate the original quote.

Cite relevant and timely sources.

Fifteen years is probably as far back as you should go when citing sources (though some fields may ask you to only go ten or five years back).  You want to make sure your sources are current and that you are working with the latest available data.  So perhaps you can cite a scholar on Shakespeare from fifteen years ago, but if you are discussing teen pregnancy rates, you should find those rates from the most recent surveys.  You also want to make sure that your sources relate to your topic.  If you find teen pregnancy rates for Australia, you should not use those numbers to talk about teen pregnancy in Canada.

Know your seminal works and Your Major Scholars.

A seminal work is one that is considered to have greatly impacted the field.  Discussing communism?  You probably need to reference Marx.  Talking about psychoanalysis?  You probably need to be familiar with Freud.  But even if you don’t have a seminal source to work with, you should know the major voices in the conversation you are entering.  Writing about Tolkien?   You should probably know Tom Shippey.

Fact check yourself.

Whenever you make a claim in your paper, you should provide evidence for it.  This strengthens your argument, of course, but it also saves you from accidentally making false claims.  If you spend an entire paper writing about the corrupt king of a country because you just assume government corruption during the time period you are writing in, but never research this king, you might find it awkward for your paper to be returned with a note that there was actually a queen at this time, or that the country you were talking about was not even a country at that time in history and so there was no centralized government or monarchy.  In short, the king you wrote about for eight pages does not exist.  Oops!

Format Your Papers Correctly.

It may seem like a waste of time, but instructors like to see papers that are correctly formatted in whatever style their discipline favors.  Mastering the format  shows that you are trying to become a expert in the field in which you are writing.

Follow the Stylistic Conventions of the Genre.

Generally, you will want to write in a formal voice.  Avoid colloquialisms, slang, contractions, and cliches.  Refer to authors in the present tense.  Write literature papers in the active voice (but most lab reports should be written in the passive voice).  Use the citation style preferred by the discipline you are writing in.  Proofread your work and change misspellings.  If your instructor points out any small matters such as grammar, spelling, or stylistic issues, correct them before the final draft.

Leave the Thesaurus at Home.

Synonyms are not entirely interchangeable.  Words have different connotations and the longest word may not be the most suitable word.  Aim for clarity in your papers rather than a large number of complicated-sounding words.

Fix simple mistakes.

Make sure your dates are correct, the names of authors are spelled correctly, you have used the correct title of the work you are quoting ,etc.  Readers will be wary of a work that repeatedly refers to a book or author by the wrong name.  Doing a quick proofread can do wonders for your credibility.


3 thoughts on “Ten Simple Ways to Strengthen Your Academic Essays

    • Krysta says:

      I see it all the time! And I want to say, “If you don’t know why the author did this or don’t know anything about colonial America, as you just admitted to me, why should I read your paper?!”


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