Essay writing is HARD, right? So many rules, such a long, drawn-out process. Over the last four years I’ve worked one-on-one with hundreds of students to help them improve their essay writing skills. And now I want to share with you the most common essay writing mistakes I see so you can identify areas for your own improvement.
Improve your essay writing = achieve higher grades + make the process easier
13 essay writing mistakes
1. Expecting to be good at essay writing straight away
A person isn't born a good writer. It takes years of practice to learn how to spell, how to put your ideas across, how to write clearly…etc. But it’s a pretty common essay writing mistake to believe we should excel at it straight away, and that if we don’t then we must just not be very good at it.
Holding this belief is gonna hurt your confidence and progress because if you don’t think you’re very good at essay writing, you’re more likely to procrastinate, leave it to the last minute and not put in enough effort to get a good grade.
In the same way you need to bake a number of cakes to become good at baking cakes, you need to actually write a few essays to become good at writing.
Essay writing is a craft so take on that apprentice mindset and focus on learning. Practice your skills with each essay, ask your tutor for feedback and advice, and develop your writing skills by reading one of my blog posts or buying my book.
2. Starting your essay too late
Q: How do you know a student’s got an essay due soon?
A: Their bathroom is spotless and their kitchen cupboards are organised alphabetically.
Writing an essay involves a lot of uncertainty as the creation of something brand new is pretty taxing on our brains. This is why our mind tries to hunt out a more concrete task with a quicker reward e.g. cleaning or tidying.
Leaving an essay to the last minute is a really big essay writing mistake because you’re just not leaving yourself enough time to do well. A great essay takes shape over a number of phases and the crafting of strong, flowing arguments takes time. You also need to leave time for multiple rounds of editing to ensure your ideas are strong AND, most importantly, that your essay answers the question you’ve been set.
One way you can combat this essay writing mistake is to break down the process into stages so the task doesn’t feel so colossal, and so you can build momentum as you go.
3. Not answering the set question
The aim of an essay is NOT just to write down everything you know about the topic. It’s to argue a case in response to the question you’ve been set. Too often I review students’ essays and notice that, while they’ve written an interesting piece, they’ve not actually answered the question they were set – meaning low marks.
Starting writing without having a 100% clear understanding of the question is a common, damaging essay writing mistake to make. So make sure you understand the keywords in your essay – the directives (doing words) such as describe, evaluate, critically analyse, illustrate…etc.
4. Starting writing without any planning
Students are often split into two camps – those who plan before they start writing and those who just dive straight in.
Unfortunately, the eager-beaver second group are making a big essay writing mistake by not planning. Benjamin Franklin is quoted as saying, “If you fail to plan, you are planning to fail.”
When you don’t plan you’re way more likely to go off on a tangent and start answering a different question, include irrelevant ideas, and make weaker arguments because you haven’t planned your evidence – all of which will lead you to scoring low marks.
Factor in time for planning for your next essay so you can select only the relevant material to include, and outline a sensible order to follow that’ll take the reader (your tutor) on a journey to your answer.
5. Failing to back up your ideas with course material
The aim of an essay is NOT to answer a question with material off the top of your head. Your essay is a chance to demonstrate your understanding of the material your course has taught you AND your ability to apply it to answer a question or problem.
A common essay writing mistake I see with my clients is that they don’t refer back to the course materials enough. They include whole paragraphs without referring to what they’ve learning and/or including references for their sources.
Each point you make needs to be backed up with evidence.
6. Writing your points in any ol’ order
Another common essay writing mistake is to include your points and arguments with no particular order. This makes for a much harder reader experience and can make it more difficult for your tutor to understand your train of thought.
And if they can’t understand your arguments…you’re unlikely to score high marks.
Instead, think of your essay as a journey. You want your ideas to build upon each other and flow from paragraph to paragraph, leading sensible to your conclusion.
7. Accidental or deliberate plagiarism
Plagiarism is a massive essay writing mistake to make. It’s a bloody big deal for universities and if you’re caught you are likely to fail assignments or entire modules, or be kicked out – depending on the severity.
It is plagiarism to pass off someone else’s work as your own. This can range from accidentally including someone else’s ideas without referencing it, to lifting sentences or paragraphs from the internet or someone else’s work to use in your own essay, all the way to copying an entire essay.
I’ve had students contact me before and ask for my advice on essay writing mills – those sites that ‘claim’ to write an original essay for you.
These are crappy for a number of reasons:
– You’re cheating yourself out of a chance to learn these skills yourself AND develop your understanding of your course material
– The essay you receive will probably be shoddy and will most likely be a copy of someone else’s essay. If your university uses a plagiarism checker (most do) – you’re screwed
– If your university finds out, you’re also screwed.
So if you’ve plagiarised accidentally before – develop your skills in referencing/citing and writing in your own words.
And if you are a deliberate plagiariser – it's time to stop. You CAN do this by yourself, I promise.
8. Writing with bias
One of the most important pieces of advice I received from a tutor was, “I don’t care what you think personally. I care about the argument you can put forward and the evidence you can back it up with.”
I offer an essay proofreading service and one of the most catastrophic essay writing mistakes I see is when a student brings bias into their writing. They express personal opinion, they present their own ideas or common sense as evidence for their argument, they refute the claims of a credible theorist but give no evidence for their criticism. It’s highly unlikely a student will achieve a high grade if they write with bias.
As the author, your job is to present an unbiased case. You must look objectively at the evidence available and piece together a logical, reasoned argument without taking your own personal beliefs into account. If you do want to express your own ideas, give the reader a reason to take you seriously by including convincing counter-evidence.
9. Not engaging in critical thinking and evaluation
Critical thinking is one of those words that sows fear into a lot of students, but it’s a pretty common essay writing mistake to not engage in it. Critical thinking is the process of evaluating information to make judgements on its value. It’s about questioning ideas and evidence, seeking out all perspectives and uncovering any potential bias in your source.
For example, an Instagram influencer who recommends a dietary supplement may explain that the “shake will help melt away your fat.”
But the influencer is being PAID to promote this product and is being told what to say by the company who are likely to twist or make up entirely the benefits of their product. Does it mean their claims aren’t true? No. But it means we should dig much, MUCH deeper to determine the evidence and judge its value for ourselves.
As you progress through your studies you WILL be required to think critically and analyse the evidence you’re reading and using so it’s vital you develop these skills.
10. Fluffy writing
I could probably condense this pretty hefty blog post into a few hundred words that just delivers the meat. I choose however to include more explanation and details to aid your understanding of these points.
Academic writing, however, needs to be concise so there’s no need to beat around the bush. While you won’t lose marks directly for fluffy writing, it can make it harder for your tutor to understand your ideas and takes up precious word count that could be used for additional points – an essay writing mistake we don’t want to make.
So during your editing process, look at each sentence in turn and see where you can shave off unnecessary words and reorder it to lose some fluff. Your ideas will be stronger and you’ll have saved some word count.
11. Not correcting poor grammar, spelling and punctuation
While most word processors have a spellchecker, it’s a common essay writing mistake to rely on them too much. Again, you may not lose many (or any) marks for poor grammar, it does make it A LOT harder for your tutor to understand what the hell you’re saying. They are unlikely to grasp the full oomph of your awesome points if they have to keep stopping to decipher your sentences.
Therefore, educate yourself on grammar, spelling and punctuation rules so you can proofread your essays thoroughly.
12. Not reaching the word count
Word counts are set for a reason so it’s a pretty big essay writing mistake to submit a piece that’s well below the word limit.
Now sometimes life happens and you have to submit an unfinished essay. But, this shouldn’t be an aim or general practice for any student who wants to achieve good grades.
Not meeting the word count means you haven’t included enough content for your tutor to grade you on and allocate marks for.
Spend more time in the brainstorming phase before you start writing. Scan through all your materials and notes to come up with possible ideas, concepts, examples that you can include and ensure you’re developing your arguments fully with critical analysis.
13. Hiding from feedback
It’s common for students to take a look at their mark and then ignore the rest of the feedback – especially if they’re not happy with their grade. But it’s a big essay writing mistake to ignore your feedback as this is a super valuable tool to help you improve your writing and increase your marks next time.
Rather than see feedback and constructive criticism as a slight on you as a person, try to view it as an opportunity to improve your writing craft and express your ideas more clearly next time so you can achieve a better grade.