How NOT to Write an Essay

Although good grammar, a wide range of vocabulary and attention to mechanical details like spelling and punctuation are important, most of the grade for your essay does not come from these. Obviously knowledge of your subject is vital, but it is not enough in itself; students may have all the knowledge in their heads, but still lose grades through bad writing. Some of the most common reasons for losing marks are empty writing, clichés, over-generalisation and subjectivity.

1. Empty writing

Some sentences contain no real information, or so little that they are not worth writing (or reading). Sometimes this is because the sentence is logically obvious; it is almost impossible for it to be false. For example:

When we compare the economies of India and China, we can see some similarities and some differences.

Well of course we can. If you compare any two things, you will see some similarities and some differences.

Another factor contributing to empty writing is the use of clichés: words which have been used so often they that have lost their meaning. For example:

Turkey is a bridge between Europe and Asia.

Technology is changing our lives.

Similar to clichés are platitudes: statements which sound nice but do not say much because nobody would really disagree with them. For example:

We should all work together to solve our problems.

A good way to tell if a sentence is empty is to make it negative. If the result sounds stupid, then the sentence is probably empty e.g.

Turkey is not a bridge between Europe and Asia.

Technology is not changing our lives.

We should not all work together to solve our problems.

2. Obvious facts and unnecessary detail

Do not tell the reader what everyone knows. “Turkey is a bridge between Europe and Asia” is not only a cliché; it is obvious that, at least physically, Turkey is in both continents. Do not tell the reader that Karl Marx was German or that China is a big country.

A related problem is giving too much detail. Ask yourself if the information you are giving is really necessary to support your argument or explain a point, or whether it is just there to push up the number of words. For example, you might want to say that meat plays an important part in the diet of South-East Anatolia, but you do not need to give a recipe for çig köfte.

3. Over-generalisation

Generalisations are necessary in writing, but it is important not to overdo this. Avoid phrases like:

  • All over the world …
  • From the beginning of time/history/civilisation …
  • All people/human beings …

Anything that is really true in these situations is probably so obvious that it is not worth saying.

If you do generalise, it is usually useful to qualify your generalisation with words like “usually”, “generally”, “in most cases”, “the majority of” and so on.

4. Subjectivity and dogmatism

Although phrases like “I think” and “In my opinion” are occasionally used in academic writing, it is not a good idea to use them when drawing conclusions, since these make your writing sound too subjective, and actually weaken your argument. (In fact, when they are used in academic writing, it is precisely for this purpose: “I think” means “I think but I’m not sure”; “in my opinion” means “this is only my opinion, and other people have other opinions.”) Even more so, avoid phrases like “I want” and “I hope”.

If not everyone agrees on something, acknowledge this; do not present something as certain unless it really is certain, otherwise your writing will seem dogmatic. Phrases like “it seems that”, “it is possible that”, and “it can be argued that” are useful here. In general, try to avoid modals of obligation, such as “should” and “must”, unless the essay task specifically asks you to advise on a course of action (e.g. “What steps should the EU take to reduce tax avoidance?”).