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June 10, 2024

How To Write Better Essays: 5 Outside-the-Box Techniques + Writing Tips

How To Write Better Essays: 5 Outside-the-Box Techniques + Writing Tips

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Stuck on a B, chasing that A+? We've all been there. 

I have two degrees in Creative Writing from the University of Warwick with First Class Honors. From 2013 to 2014, I also studied English Literature at the National University of Singapore. 

Translation: I’ve written a lot of academic essays.

Some good. Some inspired. And others, plain lousy.

After a few Bs and the occasional C, I cracked the code on writing good essays. An average academic essay answers a question; but an essay that gets an A+ solves a problem — whether through discussion, analysis, definition, comparison, or evaluation. 

In this blog post, I’ll walk you through how to write better essays. You’ll learn how to construct bullet-proof arguments with five unique thinking techniques, cut the fluff, and discover F.O.C.U.S. to improve your essay writing skills. 

Because essays don’t have to be boring. And writing them doesn’t have to either. 

What Makes A Good Essay?

What is “good” writing? The answer is subjective. For example, I loved reading My Year of Rest and Relaxation by Ottessa Moshfegh, but to some, it might be drivel. 

Nonetheless, many examples of good writing share some core qualities. 

There are five overarching qualities of good essay writing: flow, organization, clarity, unity, and specificity. 

I’ve made a fun little acronym to help you remember them better: F.O.C.U.S.™️

Flow: Does the writing flow smoothly from one point to the next? 

Organization: Have you structured your essay with a clear beginning, middle, and end?  

Clarity: Is the writing clear, error-free, and unambiguous? 

Unity: Are all the elements of your writing supporting the central thesis?

Specificity: Have you provided specific details, examples, and evidence to justify your main points? 

A Fellow at The European Graduate School, and my most cherished mentor, Dr. Jeremy Fernando, has perhaps read, written, and graded thousands of academic essays over the years. 

His advice?  

“You’re asking the reader to go on an explorative journey with you; the least you should do is ensure the trip you’re taking them on is the same as the advertised one.”

5 Creative Thinking Techniques For Writing Better Essays

The thing is, good essay writing doesn’t start at — or even as — writing

There’s reading, re-reading, pre-writing, revising, then actually writing, editing, and then writing some more.

As with most persuasive arguments, you need frameworks: points of reference, mental models, and structured approaches to guide your decision making. 

That's exactly what we have here. 

1. Try Reverse Outlining

A reverse outline is just what it sounds like: a process that distills a paper down to its bare essentials, leaving only the key points and topic sentences. The result? A clear, bullet-point blueprint of the paper's structure, whether it's your own work or someone else's.

Key Benefits: 

✅Creates an X-ray of a paper's structure to identify its central arguments and assess its logical flow.

✅Helps you actively engage with someone else’s work to deepen your understanding of the material.

✅Reveals structural issues in your own essay, such as missing or misplaced points, redundancies, or weak arguments.

How To Create A Reverse Outline:

This is a two-step, and perhaps infinitely repeatable process.

Take a blank page and draw a line straight down the middle.

  1. In the left-hand margin, write down the keywords for each paragraph in your essay. Stick to the main points. Be brief. 
  2. In the right-hand margin, write down how the keyword or topic supports the main argument. Again, don't sit down to write Bonfire of the Vanities. Make it concise. The goal is to persuasively explain your arguments in a few words.

2. Practice The Lotus Blossom Technique

In this structured brainstorming exercise, you plant your main problem in the center box of a 3x3 grid. Then, you’ll fill the surrounding boxes with related themes to expand your thinking. The method was developed by Yasuo Matsumura at Clover Management Research in Japan.

Key Benefits:

✅ A fun, novel alternative to traditional mind-mapping and spider-diagramming.  

✅Helps you visualize your essay slowly unfolding from its core. (Like a lotus, basically.)

✅I like how it's creative and thorough at the same time. An equal combination of freedom and structure.

Illustration of the technique. The core problem of "self-doubt re: next job" and different colored boxes for related ideas.
Image Source

How To Practice The Lotus Blossom Technique:

  • Put your problem/essay question in the center square.
  • Fill in the surrounding eight boxes with ideas related to the problem. At this point, you don’t need to elaborate. 
  • Now, flesh out each of your eight ideas. Or, as with the lotus flower image — add another row of petals. 
64 boxes showing the Lotus Blossom Techniques with "core problem" in the middle and colored boxes from A to E.
Image Source

When all your boxes are filled in, you'll have 64 ideas for one essay argument. As far as starting-off points go, this one’s hard to beat. 

Pro Tip: Did you know that dim light is a creative stimulant? Go dark. Light some candles.

3. Build A Toulmin Argument Model

According to philosopher Stephen E. Toulmin, arguments are broken down into six key components: claim, grounds, warrant, qualifier, rebuttal, and backing. 

There are three essential parts to every argument: the claim, the grounds, and the warrant.

  • The claim is the main argument you want to prove to your audience. 
  • The grounds of an argument are the evidence and facts that support it.
  • The warrant is the assumption which links a claim to its grounds, whether implied or explicitly stated.

Key Benefits:

✅Craft persuasive arguments through an in-depth analysis that closely examines each part of your essay.

✅Analyzing an argument from its components can help clarify its logic.

✅The rebuttal component encourages you to anticipate and address counterarguments. The more perspectives you consider, the more well-rounded your argument will be.

How To Build A Toulmin Argument Model:

Let’s take a published paper — “Coffee and Health: A Review of Recent Human Research” by Jane V. Higdon and Balz Frei — and break it down using the Toulmin model. 

Bonus Tip: The paper’s pretty long and written in a small font. To get an overview of its main arguments, upload it to Wordtune and take a quick look!
  • Claim: Consuming moderate amounts of coffee (3-4 cups a day with 300-400 mg of caffeine) has few health risks and some health benefits. Nevertheless, caffeine may be more harmful to pregnant women, children, adolescents, and the elderly.
  • Grounds: According to epidemiological studies, coffee may prevent diabetes type 2, Parkinson's disease, and liver disease. 
  • Warrant: Studies suggest that coffee consumption in moderation may have some health benefits and poses minimal health risks.
  • Backing: A number of well-designed prospective cohort studies with large sample sizes are cited as supporting evidence. 
  • Qualifier: This study applies specifically to healthy adults who consume moderate amounts of filtered coffee. Optimal intake hasn’t been defined. 
  • Rebuttal: Some may be more sensitive to negative effects. Further research is needed.

I don’t know about you, but I often get convinced of my own arguments when writing essays, and then it’s hard for me to consider other perspectives.

So, if you want a sparring buddy, here’s how Wordtune can help you with counterarguments:

First, I’ve copy-pasted our claim from above 👇🏼

Wordtune's workspace showing how to generate a counterargument with AI based on the claim above.

Next, click on the little purple sparkle icon and choose “Counterargument” from the drop-down menu. 

Wordtune's generated text highlighted in purple and an arrow pointing to the research's source with a blue tick.

Lo and behold! Not only does Wordtune provide accurate contextual suggestions for a convincing opposing opinion, it goes one step further and cites a clickable source for the research.

Nothing short of time-saving magic, if you ask me.

4. Ask The Five Whys

You need to ask “why” five times to get to the root of any problem. That’s what the inventor of the method, and founder of Toyota Industries, Sakichi Toyoda, believed. 

Key Benefits:

✅The approach identifies the real problem, not just its surface symptoms. 

✅It’s an easy-to-do and straightforward process that gets to the heart of your essay question.

✅Use this approach in combination with the Toulmin Model to build a killer essay argument.

Asking The Five Whys:

Let’s look at a sample essay question and drill down to its core.

When you have the core of the problem in your palm, you can then start thinking of solutions. Perhaps finding more cost-effective ways to train and support teachers. Or exploring alternative funding options, such as grants and partnerships with local businesses.

5. Experiment With The Ben Franklin Exercise

Franklin wasn’t always a prodigious scholar. While working at a print shop, he reverse engineered the prose from the British magazine, The Spectator, to learn how to write better without a tutor. 

He took detailed notes at a sentence level, contemplated them for some time, and then re-created the sentences without looking at the originals.

In fact, research from MIT shows that it's “not just the study of tiny details that accelerates learning; the act of assembling those details yourself is what makes the difference.” This is called constructionist learning. 

Key Benefits:

✅Improve your essay writing by studying works of skilled authors through practiced imitation.

✅Organizing your notes from memory will help you construct a solid structure for your essay, and evaluate any gaps in logic and flow.

✅Actively deconstructing and constructing the material allows you to engage deeply with it, and therefore, write better essays.

How I Use The Ben Franklin Exercise:

One of my favorite passages in Literature — as clichéd as may it be — is from Chuck Palahniuk’s Fight Club

Excerpt from Goodreads of a passage from Fight Club with red underlines at a sentence level.
  • Note how “strongest” and “smartest” are alliterative words, creating a sense of rhythm right in the first sentence.
  • The imagery of banality — pumping gas, waiting tables, etc. is at once, vivid and relatable, moving and unmoving.
  • The phrase “midddle children of the history man” places the narrative in a broader, more relevant context.
  • Notice how the “g” is capitalized for the first mention of war and depression, but then it switches to a small “g” for the same words in the next sentence.
  • The repetition of “very very pissed off” is much more effective than simply saving “livid.”

Similarly, start by taking a paragraph from an essay you like. Make sentence-level notes and rewrite its essence without looking at it. 

My Top Tips To Write A Good Essay

1. Write Lousy First Drafts

You heard me. Write as if your keyboard doesn’t have keys for punctuation. Write as if no one is ever going to read your essay. The goal is to eliminate self-censorship. When you first start writing down your main points, don’t assume the role of a self-editor. 

TRY THIS: Open a blank page, set a timer for two and a half minutes, and type until the bell goes off. Take a break. Repeat. Don’t re-read what you’ve typed. 

Forget proper spelling. Forget good grammar. Those polishes are all for later, when you have something to polish. 

This is freewriting. 

And it’s wildly effective in getting you to stop thinking about deadlines, blinking cursors, and that A+. My highest-scoring essays have all begun with messy, unstructured, poorly-worded first drafts. 

2. Read Other Essays Like A Writer

Think of your favorite book. What makes you call it your favorite? Or a series you’ve watched recently. (Behind Her Eyes is especially good.) What compels you to see it all the way through? The same principle applies to good essay writing. Have you read an essay in your research that hooked you? Or a friend’s work you wish you could put your name to? 

Read like a writer — become a proactive participant in examining why the writing works. Instead of passively drawing stars next to important observations, ask yourself, Why do I like these passages? What are they doing? And how are they doing it?” (Use the Ben Franklin Exercise here.)

Take apart the essay you’re reading like a forensic pathologist doing an autopsy. 

3. Start With An Outline

Speaking of autopsies, a good essay has good bones. Once you’ve disgorged your ideas on the page, start arranging them under headers. 

Google Docs' drop-down menu screenshot of formatting headers for the blog being written.

This blog too, was born in the Notes app on my phone. But if you’re taking the reader with you somewhere, you should know where you’re headed too. 

Pro Tip: Keep two working documents for your essay. One where you dump all the links, sources, and keywords. The other is where you work on your final draft for submission.

4. Cut The Fluff

The deadline’s in a few hours and you’re scrambling to hit minimum word count. Long, winding sentences with gratuitous adjectives you’ve just looked up in the thesaurus to sound more cerebral, erudite, scholarly.

I get it. I’ve done it. And those essays have bellyflopped. Professors know when you’re trying to game them.

Here’s an actual sentence from one of my essays I wrote in 2017:

“Ibsen’s realist drama, and in particular, A Doll’s House, is replete with the problems that chapter and verse modern life – the patriarchal model of the family, money and debt, and the performance of gender.”

And much to my embarrassment, this is the scathing comment from my then-professor: 

“This makes no sense.”

Essay sentence highlighted on the left, with a comment from Nicholas Collins on the right from 2017.

Let’s rework this sentence to make sense using Wordtune (a clever AI helper I wish I had during my university days):

“The patriarchal family model, money and debt, and gendered performance are all apparent in Ibsen's realist drama, especially A Doll's House.”

Wordtune's workspace showing how to cut the fluff with AI with the example from the essay above.

Much more sensible. 

5. Get Feedback, Edit, And Revise

I can’t emphasize this enough — don’t submit your first draft! Have someone else read it, perhaps a friend in the same class or even from a different major. Look at their eyebrows to see which sections make them frown in confusion. 

Ask them to red-pen sentences and logical gaps. And then —- edit, edit edit! 

Sleep on it. Let the essay stew in the back of your mind for a full night, and come back to it with fresh eyes.

Start (Pre-)Writing Better Essays

The ability to write persuasively will serve you well no matter what stage of your life you are in: high school, university scholar, or a professional trying to get ahead. After all, the human mind is hardwired for storytelling.

Remember, the key is to F.O.C.U.S.

Whether you’re crawling or speeding towards a deadline, bag that A+ with a smart AI assistant like Wordtune!