3 Changes That Will Take Your Essay From Good To Great

The difference between good and great essays
Getty Images | Nick Veasy

Whether you're sitting down to write a research paper for English class about Buddha or you're hours deep in the writing portion of the ACT, you want to write a great essay. And although different people have different notions about what makes an essay truly "great," there are a number of things that educators and writers generally agree upon as gold-quality standards. Here are three of those qualities that can take your essay from basic to fabulous.

1. Language

The usage of language in an essay is more than just the actual words you use throughout. Things like sentence structure, stylistic choices, levels of formality, grammar, usage, and mechanics all come into play.  

Good Language

Good language in an essay is merely adequate. It's basic. There's nothing inherently wrong with your language, but there's nothing exceptional about it, either. Good essay language means you're using some variety in your sentence structures. For instance, you may write a few simple sentences interspersed with some compound sentences. Your level of formality and tone are also appropriate to the essay. You're not using familiar language and slang, for example, when you're writing a research report in class. Good language in an essay does not disrupt your thesis. Your point gets across and that's all well and fine if you're happy with a good essay.

Example: When Jack walked into his grandmother's kitchen, he spotted the freshly baked cake on the counter. He helped himself to a huge piece. It was chocolate, and the frosting was a delicious vanilla buttercream. He licked his lips and took a gigantic bite. 

Great Language

Great language is fresh, full of sensory detail when appropriate and propels your essay forward in invigorating ways. Great language uses a variety of sentence structures and even some intentional fragments when appropriate. Your tone isn't merely adequate; it enhances your argument or point.

Your language is precise. It's chosen specifically to add nuance or shades of meaning. The sensory details you select pull your readers in, giving them goosebumps, and make them want to keep on reading. Great language makes readers take what you've said very seriously.

Example: Jack stepped over the threshold of his grandmother's kitchen and inhaled. Chocolate cake. His stomach rumbled. He walked to the counter, mouth watering, and took a  rose-pattered china plate from the cabinet and a bread knife from the drawer. The slice he sawed off was enough for three. The first bite of rich vanilla buttercream made his jaw ache. Before he knew it, nothing was left but chocolate crumbs scattered on the plate like confetti. 

2. Analysis

Teachers are always asking you to "dig deep" in your essay, but what does that really mean? Depth is the level at which you analyze the topic you are writing about. The deeper you dive into your essay, the more poking and prodding at values, tensions, complexities, and assumptions you will do. 

Good Analysis

The word "analysis" in and of itself implies a certain level of depth. A good analysis will use reasoning and examples that are clear and adequately demonstrate the importance of the topic.

Support may be relevant, but it may come across as overly general or simplistic. You will have scratched the surface of the topic, but you will not have explored as many of the complexities as you could have. 

Let's take, for example, this question: "Should cyberbullying be stopped by the government?"

Example: Cyberbullying needs to be stopped in its tracks by the government because of the harm that it causes to the victim. Teenagers who have been bullied online have had to be treated for depression, have felt compelled to change schools, and some have even committed suicide. A person's life is too important not to intervene. 

Great Analysis

A great analysis of a topic is a thoughtful critique that demonstrates insight. It critiques assumptions and details complexities not hinted at in just a good analysis.

In the example above, the good analysis mentions the harm to a victim of bullying and names three things that could happen to him or her because of it, but doesn't get into other areas that might offer more insight like societal values, governmental control, effects rippling from one generation to the next, for example. 

Example: Although cyberbullying needs to be stopped - the effects are to dire not to intervene - the government cannot be the entity to regulate speech online. The fiscal and personal costs would be staggering. Not only would citizens be forced to give up their First Amendment rights to free speech, they would have to relinquish their rights to privacy, as well. The government would be everywhere, becoming even more of a "big brother" than they are right now. Who would pay for such scrutiny? Citizens would pay with their freedom and their wallets. 

3. Organization

Organization can quite literally make or break your essay. If a reader doesn't understand how you've gotten from point A to point B because none of your dots seem to connect, then he or she won't be compelled to read any further. And more importantly, he or she will not have listened to what you have had to say. And that's the biggest problem there is. 

Good Organization

A standard five-paragraph essay structure is what most students use when they write essays. They start with an introductory paragraph ending with a thesis sentence. They move on to body paragraph one with a topic sentence, and then proceed, with a few scattered transitions, to body paragraphs two and three.

They round out their essay with a conclusion that neatly restates the thesis and ends with a question or a challenge. Sound about right? If this sounds like every essay you've ever written, then you can be sure you're not alone. It's a perfectly adequate structure for a basic essay. 

Example:

  1. Introduction with thesis
  2. Body paragraph one
    1. Support one
    2. Support two
    3. Support three
  3. Body paragraph two
    1. Support one
    2. Support two
    3. Support three
  4. Body paragraph three
    1. Support one
    2. Support two
    3. Support three
  5. Conclusion with restated thesis

Great Organization

Great organization tends to move beyond just simple supports and basic transitions. Ideas will progress logically and increase the arguments success. Transitions within and between paragraphs will strengthen the argument and heighten meaning. If you start out organizing your essay strategically, with room for analysis and counterarguments built in, your chances of building a great essay improve by quite a bit. And some students find it easier to get more in depth by writing a four-paragraph essay instead of five. You can engaged more with a particular topic in the body paragraphs if you knock out your weakest argument and focus instead on providing a deeper, more thoughtful analysis with just two. 

Example: 

  1. Introduction with thesis
  2. Body paragraph one
    1. Support one with detailed analysis
    2. Support two that addresses values, complexities and assumptions
    3. Counterpoint and dismissal of the counterpoint
  3. Body paragraph two
    1. Support one with detailed analysis
    2. Support two that addresses values, complexities and assumptions
    3. Counterpoint and dismissal of the counterpoint
  1. Conclusion with restated thesis and option for better idea

Writing Great Essays

If your goal is to move forward out of mediocrity, then spend some time learning the basics of great essay writing. After that, pick up your pencil or paper and practice. Nothing will prepare you better for your next essay then writing strategically-organized, well-analyzed, and carefully-worded paragraphs when the pressure isn't on. Here are some places to start:

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Roell, Kelly. "3 Changes That Will Take Your Essay From Good To Great." ThoughtCo, Dec. 5, 2016, thoughtco.com/take-your-essay-from-good-to-great-3991388. Roell, Kelly. (2016, December 5). 3 Changes That Will Take Your Essay From Good To Great. Retrieved from https://www.thoughtco.com/take-your-essay-from-good-to-great-3991388 Roell, Kelly. "3 Changes That Will Take Your Essay From Good To Great." ThoughtCo. https://www.thoughtco.com/take-your-essay-from-good-to-great-3991388 (accessed January 20, 2018).