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  • Sam Finnegan-Dehn

Writing a Top-Class Essay: 3 Mistakes

While I've already written about three things you can do to get closer to a top-class essay, I thought it would also be useful to write about some of the mistakes that can move you away from essay-writing excellence. I see these things every day as a tutor, and so chances are you'll resonate with at least one of them. Without further ado, here are three mistakes that you can easily make when writing an essay.

Mistake 1: Outlining instead of Arguing

This is absolutely the most common mistake that students make when writing an essay. What normally happens is that students outline the content they've been taught without actually arguing for something in particular. This is something that I did early on in my academic career because I wasn't sure about the content I was writing about. As a result, I would get into the habit of writing out the content as part of my essay to make sure I understood it, but in the process, I wouldn't be putting any of my arguments in. For example, if I were writing an essay on ethics, and the question was asking me to argue for a certain ethical theory over the others, I would end up writing about the ethical theory that I thought was better than others without actually explaining why. In other words, I would be doing a good job of explaining the best bits in a certain ethical theory, but I wouldn't be explaining why I thought they were the best bits and why that meant the theory was better than the others. The best way to avoid this is to write your essay out in full and then take a highlighter and highlight the sentences that actually answer the question. You'll normally find that much of your time has been spent talking about the content that relates to the question without actually talking about why the content helps you answer the question. It's also really great to have someone else ask you questions about your essay and the way it answers the question. What you'll find is that when challenged, you can provide good answers, but you won't have actually translated these answers into points in your essay.

Mistake 2: Getting Lost

The second most common mistake that students make when writing an essay is simply that they get lost. They start off with a clear idea of what they are going to write and start to put together a few points, but at some point, they get carried away, and before they know it, they are talking about things that, while interesting, are not actually relevant to the question. Instead of having the question very firmly in mind, what normally ends up happening is that they have the words within the question firmly in mind but not the question as a whole. As a result, they will be writing an excellent essay on things that are related to the question but will be completely off-track with regards to actually answering the question. An example will help explain how this can happen. Imagine that the question is 'Compare how love and hate are presented in the TV series, The Sopranos.' If you've seen that show, you might very quickly start talking about the various examples of love and hate being presented in different ways – and this wouldn't be incorrect. But note that the question is asking you to compare how love and hate are presented in the show. It isn't asking you to outline the ways in which love and hate are presented. Now, you might think that by listing examples, you are answering the question, and you wouldn't necessarily be wrong. What you're not doing though is being explicit in answering the question, and this is why marking schemes cite focus and clarity as things that should be present within an answer.

What you need to be doing to answer a question like that is listing an example of love being presented, and list an example of hate being presented, and then spend most of your time talking about how they different from one-another, what aspects are the same, and which one is ultimately more prominent. Talking about things like this is much more likely to get you high marks than talking about examples generally, but unfortunately, the human brain is very good at getting carried away. In order to get past this, you need to have found the examples you are going to talk about in a question like this way before the deadline is looming. This will give you time to actually process what is going on in the example, and how exactly it relates to the question. Another tip to avoid this is to continuously read the question, and ask yourself how each sentence in your essay is helping you answer the question. If a sentence isn’t actually helping, remove it. If it is helping but it isn’t really clear why, make sure you provide an explanation.

Mistake 3: Ignoring appearances

The final mistake that people make when attempting to write an essay is that they ignore appearances. Put simply, the essay looks messy. Simply put, the essay looks messy. They might have written an absolutely exceptional essay, but because of poor grammar, irregular formatting, partial referencing, and general inconsistencies, their answer will be viewed more negatively. Again, this is something that I had to learn the hard way. In the first year or so of my undergraduate degree, I was writing essays that were objectively good, but were incredibly untidy to read. As many of you will know, you get marked for the quality of your referencing, and it therefore has the ability to make or break your grade. In this day and age, there are a thousand and one resources that will allow you to produce excellent and consistent referencing and document formatting, and so, as a result, there really is zero excuse for getting marked down on your references. What you’ll find, too, is that, like ‘tidy house, tidy mind’, the same is true for ‘tidy essay, tidy mind’. The easier your essay is to read, the easier it is to understand your points, and therefore the easier it is to evaluate their strength. It’ll also put you and your work in the markers good books, as they only have to focus on what’s being said.


In sum, making sure you avoid these 3 mistakes is absolutely essential if you’d to write a top band essay. If you’d like to see whether you’re guilty of any of these in your work, schedule a consultation with myself and we can talk through one of your essays. You’ll be surprised by how quickly your essay can improve after just one hour of discussion. In any case, I hope this article has helped a little, and I wish you all the best in your upcoming academics. Good luck!

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