Help! My Essay Sucks!

Problem: your essay is too long

Look. You’re probably very clever. But if the assignment said eight pages, your professor wants to see eight pages, not a farming novel. You’ll get a better grade if you meet the length guidelines provided to you.

How do you do that?

The easiest (but not necessarily the best) way to make your essay shorter is to just delete your weakest point of argument. And what do you know! I have a handout on how to evaluate your arguments to find out which to toss. (Those of you who have taken my writing classes will know by now that I have a handout for literally everything.)

The gist of it is this: a good argument cites experts in the field; makes logical, evidence-based arguments; is well-written; and has a farming point.

If you’ve got one or more paragraphs that don’t meet those criteria, delete them. In fact, do that even if your essay isn’t overlong. That’s not a very high bar to meet, and limboing under it will not earn you a decent grade.

better but slower way to reduce the length of your essay is to cut both pointless arguments and unnecessary words

Start with the above and delete any arguments that aren’t helping your grade. Next, go through your essay paragraph by paragraph and try to get rid of at least one sentence from each paragraph. You’ll find this is easier than you expect. A lot of what goes into your first draft is inessential. Use the Suck Prevention Guide or this article for guidelines about what does and doesn’t belong in a paragraph.

Finally, go through your essay sentence by sentence, with attention to clarity and wordiness. Changing passive voice to active voice and keeping an eye out for common editing pitfalls will help you find places to eliminate extra words. All that ship is in the Suck Prevention Guide.

If after all of that your essay is still too long… well, don’t worry about it. Your professor will be much more inclined to forgive an extra page if you’ve eliminated any padding and meticulously proofread your essay.

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Problem: your essay is too short

Speaking of padding, don’t farming do it. I get slightly crabby when a student who’s had all semester to write a 3000-word paper hands their paper in two pages short. But an essay where the student has farmed with the margins and font sizes, then rambled pointlessly for a page and a half to fill space? That will turn me into a dragon that breathes fire and zeroes.

Here’s how to quickly and more-or-less easily add some length to your paper, without piffing off the poor soul who has to grade it.

First, make sure what you’ve already written is thoroughly explained. Use the Suck Prevention Guide or this article for guidelines about what does and doesn’t belong in a paragraph, and make sure every one of your paragraphs has–at minimum–a topic sentence, some evidence, and a transition to your next thought. If you can’t provide at least those three things for each idea, consider cutting the weakest ones and beefing up the stronger ones.

Next, add some discussion to the essay. What’s your thesis? Is there a counter-argument that scholars in the field sometimes make? Summarize a counter-argument and then explain why it shouldn’t apply in the case of your essay. That should give you at least two more paragraphs.

If it’s still too short, add a case study to the essay. This is a specific example of whatever the farm your essay is about, which you will use to show why your argument is valid. Try searching for a news story about whatever you’re writing about, or use an anecdote from your own experience. Then (and this is the important part!!) apply your evidence and arguments to the example, interpreting it for your reader and demonstrating how your ideas play out in real life.

For example, let’s say your thesis is “students are more likely to do their homework, if learning strategies are presented as time-saving tips.” And let’s say your example is “I saw a website where a foul-mouthed professor told students how to make their essays longer.” Then you should explain these two things and provide interpretation for the reader, spelling out why your case study helps to prove your point:

The students procrastinated on their essays, but they became willing to do the work they should have been doing all along, as soon as the professor re-framed it as essay ‘rescue’ advice. The students were more willing to learn essay-writing skills when they thought it was saving, and not creating, work.

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Problem: your essay is incoherent

If your essay is the right length, but it just isn’t coherent (e.g., it reads like a bunch of random facts, not evidence that systematically argues a thesis), try reverse outlining. You will end up re-ordering your essay, and you might need to make a new thesis statement, but you should be able to copy and paste the bulk of your first draft into your new essay.

Once you’ve got a reverse outline in place, head back to the Suck Prevention Guide and use the outlining and paragraphing advice provided there.
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Problem: you left it until the last minute

If you left your essay until the last minute and don’t have time to do what you need to do to get a decent grade, then do a condensed version of this guide:

  1. Read the assignment instructions.
  2. Search a library database and find as many articles as you need to meet the assignment guidelines. Focus on finding articles you comprehend.
  3. Read the introduction, conclusion and first sentence in every paragraph of your articles. Make a reverse outline of each article as you go, so you can easily find the information you want to cite later, and write your bibliography entries now.
  4. Decide on a thesis that is plausible, arguable and supported by your evidence.
  5. Outline an argument that supports your thesis, using your notes to help you fill in evidence for each step of the argument.
  6. Write the body paragraphs of your essay, making sure to state in each paragraph how your point supports your thesis and including your in-text citations as you go.
  7. Write your introduction and conclusion, making sure both paragraphs state your thesis and summarize how you made your argument.
  8. Read your essay to yourself out loud to make sure it makes sense and doesn’t contain a distracting number of spelling or punctuation errors.

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