Landing : Athabascau University

How to Get a Decent Grade on an Essay, or “Writing Tips for Students Who Suck at Writing”: Revision

Last updated March 8, 2014 - 2:15pm by sarah beth

Writing is a fact of university life, but not everyone likes to do it, and not everyone is particularly good at it.

If you don’t make it out of undergrad without at least the ability to communicate clearly, you’re going to be pretty fucked. And if you don’t write at least somewhat competently, you’re not going to get very good grades, even if you have passion for and really good ideas about whatever it is you’re studying.

This guide is for students who don’t like to write or just plain suck at writing, and who want to be able to make themselves clear and get decent grades. You don’t think you need to be perfect, but you’re tired of hearing that poor composition is distracting graders from your good ideas. And of course, you want to get a decent grade on your paper.

The guide is divided into sections, which you can read all at once, or take one by one as you get to each stage in your essay-drafting process. 

Start Early and Start Right

Research Smart, Not Hard

The Thesis Makes or Breaks the Essay

Never, Ever Skip this Step: Write an Outline

Forget Writing Beautifully -- Just Make Sense

Finishing Touches



Start Early and Start Right


Start early. In my experience, this is the single most effective thing a student can do to improve their essay grade. That doesn’t mean do the whole essay early—just get started and take it in little bits.


You will lose points automatically if you don’t follow instructions, so read the assignment prompt thoroughly. Find out what kind of assignment it is: Does it offer a checklist with specific things you must do? Or does it provide a primary topic (usually the first sentence of the prompt) and several “jumping-off points” or questions to get you thinking? That will tell you how much flexibility you have. When in doubt, ask whoever will be grading your paper.

Make a checklist, so you don't forget any important instructions, and check things off as you go (e.g., "use ten peer-reviewed sources," "include one article by Author X," "include discussion of topic A").


The first few things that occur to you about your topic won’t make for a very good essay because they are the same first few things that occur to everyone else. Snoozefest. Endear yourself to your professor or TA by giving them something to read that won’t make them want to die of boredom.

Here’s how to make your essay topic interesting:

  • Approach it from a particular theoretical angle: can you do a feminist, queer or antiracist analysis of the thing you’re writing about?
  • Narrow that shit down: is there some specific aspect of your topic that would be interesting to study in great detail?
  • Be interdisciplinary: can you look at your topic from a new angle, say by doing a labour studies analysis of a literary topic, or a geographical analysis of a health issue?


Send your professor or TA a polite email telling them what you want to research and why you think it’s a good idea. Ask them for advice on pursuing the topic. Academics love giving advice (case in point: this blog post). Feel free to copy and paste this sample email, filling in your own details as necessary:

Dear [teacher],

I’m writing to ask for your advice about my essay topic. I was thinking of writing about [topic]. I think it will be interesting because [reason]. Does that sound like a good idea? Is there anything you think I should keep in mind while researching? Can you recommend any reading for this topic?


[your name]

Whatever advice they give you will probably be very helpful, and they will notice when grading that you have followed their advice.


Research Smart, Not Hard


As an undergraduate student researcher, you have two goals:

  1. Don’t fuck it up.
  2. Don’t make it take longer than it has to.

Meeting these goals is a matter of good planning. You need good search terms, sources that won’t get your essay flunked for being unscholarly, and notes you can use when you’re writing your essay.


Start with Wikipedia, but don’t use Wikipedia as a source in your essay. Instead, read the Wikipedia page on your topic to get an overview of what most people consider relevant when discussing it. Write down the terms Wikipedia uses for headings and any words that are used repeatedly throughout the article. These will help you create search terms, and they might help you narrow down your research topic even more—maybe you really only want to research one sub-section of your broader topic.

Narrow is good because the narrower your topic, the more specific your thesis -- and the better your argument.

Your search terms will include: the words that you use to describe your topic, the headings you saw on Wikipedia, synonyms for these words, and words you see in the titles of papers once you start searching.


Use your library’s databases to search for peer-reviewed papers relevant to your topic. Brock and Athabasca students can find those databases at the links I just provided. Students at other schools will have to find them via your library’s website. Project Muse is a good database for Humanities research (English, History, Philosophy, etc.) and Sage Journals is a good database for Social Science topics (Sociology, Criminology, Geography, etc.). There are other good databases, too, but these ones will serve you well if you don’t have time to ask your professor or a librarian for advice. (But if you can, ask your prof or a librarian for advice. As mentioned, these people love giving advice and will really help you along.)

Don’t just pick the first papers that come up in your search. Not all of them will be relevant, and a lot of them will be so densely-written that they’re incomprehensible to you. First, look at the titles: do they appear to be relevant to your topic? If so, click through and read the abstract (a short summary of what the paper contains). Do you understand the language the author uses? Are their findings relevant to your topic? If so, great! Download the paper.

Stop searching when either (1) you have as many papers as your assignment requires, or (2) you are finding new papers, but they are all saying the same things as the ones you already downloaded (this is called saturation). If your search results are saturated, but you don’t have enough papers to meet your assignment guidelines, look in the bibliographies of the papers you’ve already chosen. Do you see titles that look relevant to your topic? If so, use your library’s journal title list (Athabasca and Brock) to navigate to those papers, read the abstracts to see if they’re helpful, and download them.

Do not just use Google to search. You will not find peer-reviewed sources, much of the information you do find will be wrong, and you will waste hours searching through thousands of results only to get an F for having unscholarly sources.

I repeat: use your library’s databases, not Google, to search. Do not use Google. Google will fuck you up. Do not use Google.


As soon as you have all your research source articles downloaded, write your bibliography. Use the Purdue OWL’s guide for APA, MLA or Chicago style as instructed in your assignment.

You want to take notes that you will be able to copy and paste into your essay later. That way, by the time you’re done researching, you will have most of your essay drafted, just not in the right order. As you read the articles, make a note summarizing each paragraph or point of argument in each paper. Include an in-text citation, per MLA, APA or Chicago guidelines, for each note. If you insist on coming back to do the citations later, insert the letters “TK” as a placeholder for the citation (these letters rarely appear together in English, so it will be easy to ctrl-f where you need citations later).

When you finish reading each article, write a short (3-5 sentences) summary, explaining what its argument was, what kind of evidence it used, and how it is relevant to the essay you plan to write. Include in-text citations, so you can copy and paste these summaries into your essay later.

When making notes, use your own words as often as possible. This will increase your comprehension of what you’re reading, make your essay easier to draft, and cut down on the possibility of accidental plagiarism. When a part of the paper you’re reading is just too quotable to pass up, integrate the quote into your own prose in your note and include the citation, e.g.:

According to Author, “leprechauns are awesome” (75).

For students in English, Cultural Studies, Film Studies or a similar discipline that deals with texts, you don't want to take notes on stories or movies the same way you take notes on academic articles. See Mark McCutcheon's page "Strategies for Close Reading and Critical Reflection" for instructions on how to read literary and cultural texts. 


The Thesis Makes or Breaks the Essay


The most important thing you need to know about the thesis statement is that you have to have one. If you don’t have one, and I’m grading your essay, you’re not likely to do better than a C (and then only if your essay has a lot of other redeeming qualities).


Students’ first draft thesis statements are often bad. Take, for example, this draft thesis statement, written by a student in my third year class on “Sex Work and Sex Workers,” and used here with his permission:

“The thesis of this paper is to compare the health and safety implications between stripping and prostitution while highlighting the myths and realities of safety and health in the sex industry.”

This student is well on his way to earning an excellent grade on his essay, since he started early and asked for feedback, but this is not a good thesis statement. It is more like a combination of a purpose or research question (what he wants to find out) and a method (how he is going to find it out). Let me explain:

The purpose or question is: "What similarities or differences are there between health and safety issues in stripping and those in prostitution?"

The method is: "I’m going to compare health and safety issues in stripping with those in prostitution, and I’m going to compare the real occupational health and safety issues that exist to myths about health and safety in sex work."

Having a clear research question and a plan for finding out the answer is necessary for good research. But the thesis is what comes after that. What I advised this student to do is to read about occupational health and safety issues in these two sectors of the sex industry, compare the documented issues he reads about, and then get back to me when he thinks he has an argument to make about them.

His thesis could be something like:

  • “Occupational health and safety issues in prostitution and in stripping are very similar (or very different).”
  • “Among the similarities (or differences) between occupational health and safety issues in stripping and those in prostitution, X is particularly interesting because Y.”
  • “Comparing occupational health and safety issues between stripping and prostitution is illuminating because we learn X.”
  • “’Occupational health and safety’ is not an adequate framework for analyzing sex workers’ wellbeing because X.”

Or it could be one of an infinite number of other arguments. It will depend on what his research turns up.

What makes these possibilities good thesis statements is that they are:

  • Plausible: they’re not outlandish, impossible, or unlikely to be believed by a reasonable reader.
  • Arguable: they don’t state the obvious, but rather offer an argument that may or may not be true.
  • Provable: they’re arguments, not opinions or feelings. They can be supported with evidence.


Never, Ever Skip this Step: Write an Outline


Oh, but it takes so long. Oh, but I just want to get started. Oh, but I’m a magical unicorn, and my essays, unlike every other student’s ever, make perfect sense if I just start typing them beginning to end.


If you want a decent grade on your paper, write an outline. I have a 4.0 GPA as a graduate student because I write outlines. I even wrote a fucking outline for this blog post. 


Your outline will lay out your topic, working thesis statement, the terms you need to define (anything a specialist in your topic uses that a layperson wouldn’t understand), each point of argument, and how your analysis can be applied to the real world, to similar questions or to the broader discipline. The structure of your essay should reflect its purpose: convincing your reader that your thesis statement is true. Making it look like a typical academic essay with help your case because your reader will know what parts of your argument they’re reading.

Each point of argument, other than your introduction and conclusion, is like a mini essay in itself. It claims something is true, offers evidence to support that point and only that point, states how the point supports your thesis, then lets your reader know what you are moving on to next.

You can fill in this template outline if you want. Just add points of argument, depending on how long your essay is supposed to be. Remember all those notes you made while you were researching? Well, once your outline is done, you can copy and paste them into the appropriate places to create a first draft. Remember that your outline is of an argument, not a sequence of summaries of the things you read. Mix and match from your readings. Include 2-3 sentences (at least) for each point of argument that explain how and why your sources relate to each other and to your thesis (if you've been told to summarize less, and synthesize and analyze more, this is what that instruction means).


Forget Writing Beautifully—Just Make Sense


Sometimes students listen to their professors and TAs talk, or read the scholarly sources on their topics, and think that what makes them scholarly is the scholarly language we all use. So students figure that if they want a decent grade on their essay, they’d better do the same.


Our job, as academics, is to use the specialist jargon that comes with our fields of study. We’ve had a lot of training and a lot of practice doing so. But your job, as an undergraduate student researcher, is just to make sense. You don’t need to “sound smart.” We know you’re smart. That’s why you’re still here. You just need to be clear.


When it comes to actually writing the paper, write more or less the way you speak. Don’t use slang or swear words, of course (I get to swear because this is my blog), but use the same vocabulary you use on a daily basis.

When students try to use academic jargon, you usually end up using it wrong, so we can’t figure out what you mean. Or you use the words correctly, but your syntax (sentence structure) and spelling are so horrendous that we still can’t figure out what you’re saying. This is very bad for your grade. Use the simplest language available to you to say exactly what you mean. If you want to learn one or two new words, define them in your introduction and use them correctly throughout your essay, but otherwise, just write the way you speak.

Don’t try to say what you think we want to hear. Yes, your professors and TAs have political and moral positions on the course content, but no, we don’t give a crap whether you adopt the same ones or not. What we’re looking for is evidence that you’re (1) thinking for yourself, and (2) learning something. Just show us that.

Being clear is more important than being stylish, even if you have to write "my thesis is [blah]. My first point is [blah]. Next I am going to discuss [blah]. In conclusion, [blah]." Does it sound like your essay was written by a stoned robot? Yes. Am I going to be left guessing what your thesis is? No. Do what you have to do to be clear. 


Finishing Touches


OK. So all your words are on paper, they’re all in basically the right order, and they more or less support your thesis. Let’s wrap this shit up.


Run spell check. But don’t be passive about spell-checking. Make sure the spell-check wizard doesn’t replace a grammatical sentence with an ungrammatical one, or replace a correct-but-misspelled word with an entirely different word.

Now read your essay back to yourself, out loud. This is where you’re going to catch most of the mistakes you made, like skipped words, phrases that don’t make sense, or sentences that go on forever. Check for the following:

  • If a sentence goes on for longer than you have breath to get it out, divide it into 2-3 sentences.
  • Do you have phrases that are so awkward, you can barely say them, or you can’t figure out what they mean when you say them? Rewrite them.
  • Are you being vague? If you’ve written “etc.” instead of the end of a list, finish the list. Where you have written “this” or “it,” replace the word with a noun, unless it would be weird and repetitive to do so.
  • Where you have used the passive voice by saying “such and such thing is verbed,” either add the person or force doing the verbing by saying “such and such thing is verbed by so and so,” or rewrite the phrase: “so and so verbs the thing.”

While you’re reading your essay back to yourself, pay attention to punctuation. It won’t be perfect, but if you add a comma everywhere that you pause briefly while you’re speaking, you’ll mostly get them in the right places (read this sentence out loud and see if you can “hear” the commas). When you come to a full stop, put a period. And if you want perfect punctuation, check out these primers on how to use commas, how to use semicolons, and how to avoid run-on sentences. Use question marks when you ask questions, but don’t ask a lot of rhetorical questions in academic prose. Don’t use exclamation points, unless they are a part of a quotation.

Run spell check again.

Put your name and a page number at the top right corner of each page.

Give your essay an interesting title.

And you’re done!




My essay is too long

If your essay is too long, go through it and remove one sentence from each paragraph. You’ll be surprised to find that you can do this easily. A lot of what you write in your first draft is inessential. If it is still too long, go through sentence by sentence, and make each sentence as short as it can be while still conveying the same message. Finally, if it is still too long, cut your weakest point of argument. 

My essay is too short

If your essay is too short, add a paragraph summarizing counterarguments to your thesis and offering an explanation for why (1) the counterarguments don’t apply in this case, (2) the counterarguments limit but do not invalidate your claims, and/or (3) the counterarguments are wrong. If it is still too short, add another paragraph explaining how your analysis could be applied in a specific, hypothetical situation relevant to your argument.

My 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. 

I 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. Think of a topic that isn’t too boring. 
  3. Use your topic as search terms in a library database and find as many articles as you need to meet the assignment guidelines, choosing only from among the ones whose abstracts you understand. 
  4. Read the articles and make point form notes on what evidence each offers to you, making your bibliography as you go. 
  5. Use those point form notes to make an outline. 
  6. Decide on a thesis that is plausible, arguable and supported by your evidence.
  7. 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.
  8. Write your introduction and conclusion, making sure both paragraphs state your thesis and summarize how you made your argument. 
  9. 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.



With many thanks to Mark McCutcheon for his advice and editorial assistance, and, of course, for many years of very effective writing instruction.