How can I improve my essay grades? Students, writing is drafting

student writing an essayWith academic writing or other research projects, student improvement has a single source: drafting. Students will always score a better grade if they don’t hand in a “first draft” to the teacher.

Think of handing in an unrevised paper as “going in blind.” That means that no one else, including the author, has looked it over. A fully revised paper or project is one that has been looked over — and over again, hopefully also by a second pair of eyes – revised, sat upon, and revised again.

The great writer and critic, Evelyn Waugh, advised* :

Never send off any piece of writing the moment it is finished. Put it aside. Take on something else. Go back to it a month later and re-read it. Examine each sentence and ask “Does this say precisely what I mean? Is it capable of misunderstanding? Have I used a cliché …. Have I repeated myself and wobbled round the point …. Am I using words in their basic meaning or in a loose plebeian way?”

So you see the essential ingredient to revision is time — a paper or project written just before the deadline will not have time for revision.

And that means starting earlier.

Essays & Projects Take Time

Here we get into trouble with procrastination and working to the deadline and not to the project. Not only does starting too late limit the revision and drafting process, if you haven’t started, you have no idea how long it will take to get it done.

For more on the logic of getting started, please see Beating back procrastination part 1: Start Now & Finish Later and Part 2: smoothing out your workflow.

Those posts discuss how to get started and how last minute cramming actually takes more time to finish a project than one that was started several days earlier. The benefits to “starting” and “smoothing out your workflow” are numerous, but it is especially important to allow for a full drafting process.

The Effective Essay

At the A+ Club, we focus on three aspects of writing improvement:
1. Audience
2. Feedback
3. Focus

Achieving each of these aspects of a successful academic essay or project requires a full drafting process.

Essay Audience

When writing, all the words and ideas are directed from the writer to the page, and no matter how much we attend to audience while writing, we can not see our own work as our audience until we step away from it.

That means printing it out and seeing it on paper and not on the screen before you. That means putting the paper aside and looking at it again later.

I recommend that students print out a draft, go do something else, and then sit and read that draft in another chair or room, somewhere removed from where it was written. This forces a different perspective than that employed while writing.

Students assume that the teacher is their audience. Technically, yes, but, more importantly, the audience of a work is the “teacher expectations.” What is this paper or project supposed to achieve? How does the student demonstrate the expected learning? Does the paper or project meet teacher criteria?

Teachers generally expect student essays to speak to an uninformed audience, so be sure to explain everything and assume nothing in what your audience already knows. It’s your teacher’s way of knowing that you know what you are writing about. It also forces clarity and precision.

(I have only run across one high school essay in which the teacher’s instructions were to assume an informed audience.)

A core benefit of drafting is to look upon our own work as the audience and not as the writer. You will see things differently now, and you will identify needed changes, deletions, or additions to ensure that your paper or project speaks to the correct audience.

Essay Feedback

As my Uncle John used to tell me whenever I’d complain that my publisher changed some perfect word or phrase, “God made editors for a reason.” It’s at times hateful, but a “second pair of eyes” is essential to effective writing.

For academic writing, the best feedback, of course, comes from the teacher. This isn’t always possible, so seek out someone who can serve as your audience and editor and give you essential feedback for improvement.

At the A+ Club, we review essay and project drafts for grammatical, structural and content correction and improvement. The most common mistake we find is that the student assumed  that the reader already knew about the topic, so the student skipped essential information or argument that the student knows, but not the reader.

Think of having someone else read your work as test-marketing before going live with the final draft handed in to the teacher. Without feedback, we cannot know what another reader will see, especially your teacher.

Writing Focus

Every sentence, paragraph and argument needs to have a specific purpose and needs to build up to and not stray from or jump around the overall purpose of the essay or project.

This is the goal of feedback and drafting: honing, sharpening, tightening, and reworking to make everything fit your essay purpose, audience and the ideas you wish to convey.  Remember Evelyn Waugh’s advice, Examine each sentence and ask “Does this say precisely what I mean? Is it capable of misunderstanding?”

You can only get there through a multi-step process of editing and revision – over time.

Give it an extra day

Students don’t have that extra month for revision that Evelyn Waugh wants us to use, but they do have an extra day or two — if they get started early and smooth out their workflow — to engage in an effective drafting process.

Good luck with your essays and projects! If you want a second pair of eyes to look over your work, just let use know here for a Free Consultation.

– Michael

* Letter by Evelyn Waugh (quoted in WSJ Notable & Quotable, May 3, 2016)