Worried about having to write essays this semester? There’s no need! We’ve put together a list of our top tips for writing essays in English when it’s not your first language.
When you’re at university in an English-speaking country, whether that’s the UK, Australia, or somewhere else, you’ll have to complete all kinds of assessments, from exams and oral presentations to extended essays. If English isn’t your first language, it’s normal for these to seem a bit daunting at first. But there’s no need to worry – here’s everything you’ll need to keep in mind…
1. Understand the question
Arguably the most important part of writing a good essay is knowing exactly what it is you’re supposed to write about! Whether you’re given a list of questions to choose from or you devise your own, it’s important to have complete clarity before you begin researching and writing.
Carefully read through the question, and highlight any key words that will help form the basis of your argument. Use a dictionary to translate any words you don’t recognise, or ask a local friend for help. You can also discuss the question with your professor in their office hour to smooth over any doubts you may have and make sure you know how you’ll go about answering it. Once everything is crystal-clear, you can get to work!
2. Do your research
Before you can even think about writing an essay, you need to do plenty of research. Gather information on the topic you are writing about and read as much as you can from a variety of different sources, including books, journals, interviews and newspaper articles. This can even include carrying out background reading in your native language, to make sure you fully understand the material – just make sure you don’t make any mistakes with the translation when you’re writing!
The more in-depth and solid your research is, the better your essay is going to be. Fact. Once you have read around the subject and researched the question in depth, you can come up with a thesis or idea that answers it and start to plan your essay meticulously.
Top tip: Make notes from your reading under full bibliographic reference headings – this will save you a lot of time when it comes to writing and putting the finishing touches on your essay later.
3. Don’t stress over structure
Once you’ve got a rough idea about what you want to say in your essay, you can start to plan it and think about its structure. Essays written in English usually follow the same three-step format: introduction, body and conclusion.
The introduction should present the topic of your essay to your reader – this is often done by making a thesis statement and plainly explaining how your paper will be organised.
In the body of the essay, you support the thesis with several arguments which are backed up using evidence drawn from your research. Always remember to PEEL (Point – make a point; Evidence – back it up with evidence (a quote, a statistic, a theory from your research); Explain – why or how is this relevant to your argument?; Link – Use a connective so that your argument flows from one paragraph to the next and is structured in a logical way).
The conclusion is the final part of your essay. Your conclusion should not only summarise the points you have made throughout the essay, but it should also tie all of your arguments together to further support your initial statement or thesis.
Respecting this structure is key to writing an essay that is easy to understand, and professors will reward you with high marks for doing so.
If you’ve never written an essay (in English, or in any language) before, this may all seem a little abstract or difficult. Don’t be shy – ask your professor for examples of previous students’ essays. Reading these will aid you in understanding how a good essay is structured, and make you a better writer.
4. Avoid overcomplicated language
When writing in a foreign language, it can be tempting to use a dictionary or thesaurus to find a more intelligent-sounding word. Even native English speakers struggle with academic writing from time to time, but there are certain tips and tricks that can make it easier. The real key to writing good essays in English is to use plain language which will convey your points clearly, using linking words to balance your argument.
Linking words allow you to connect ideas, sentences and paragraphs to make your writing more fluid and logical. Examples include words like ‘therefore’, ‘however’, ‘furthermore’ and ‘thus’, or phrases like ‘on the one hand’, ‘in contrast’, ‘this shows that’, or ‘in conclusion’. You can find extensive lists online, so be sure to use them when writing your essay.
5. Abandon rogue apostrophes
There are only two instances where you need to use an apostrophe in the English language: to show possession (e.g. Mike’s apostrophe belongs to Mike) and in contractions (e.g. don’t – for do not misuse apostrophes).
Following this very simple rule will help you on your way to writing academic essays like a native. But you should bear in mind that academic writing is relatively formal, so a general rule of thumb is that contractions (like don’t, won’t, can’t etc) should not really be used, but instead their longer versions (do not, will not, can not) should be used. On the same note, avoid any colloquial expressions or slang words that you’ve picked up whilst making friends in English, as accidentally dropping these into your essay could cost you a few marks.
6. Get the hang of homophones
We know the English language can be complicated, and it is made all the more difficult because of sneaky words that sound the same but in fact have different spellings – these are called homophones.
Try reading this sentence out loud: “They’re annoyed because their train was late in getting them there“. The three variations of there sound the same, right? But they have totally different definitions! Homophones are really easy to get the hang of, you just need to know how. To battle any uncertainty on this topic, read over websites like Homophone.com, which will help clear up any confusion and make sure you write the right words in your essays.
7. Avoid translating from your native language
When you’re struggling to express an idea in English, you may start trying to translate literally from your native language. The problem with translating is that the syntax (word order) used in your native language can be very different to English, and the resulting sentence will end up sounding awkward and unnatural, or just not make any sense at all.
Instead, ask a native English speaker for help. Try to explain to them what you want to say and see if they can come up with a phrase in English that encompasses your idea.
8. Use the right referencing system
Rules on referencing and citations will vary depending on where you study. There are several referencing systems in use across English-speaking universities, such as the Harvard System or the Chicago Manual of Style. Usually, before setting assessments, your university tutors and professors will confirm the referencing style you are to use. But it’s your job to familiarise yourself with the correct style guide so that your essays will be referenced properly, and you won’t drop marks for missing footnotes.
These days, it’s becoming increasingly popular for students to use built-in tools on word processing applications like Microsoft Word to help with their references, or free tools like RefME. Just remember to double-check your references and bibliography before handing in any piece of work.
9. Don’t plagiarise
This doesn’t just count for essay writing, but for all academic endeavours. Studying in English requires a lot of research from external sources, but if you forget to reference where you took an idea, quote or figure from, this can count as plagiarism. When you’re suspected of having plagiarised parts or all of your essay, consequences can range from deduction of marks to expulsion from university.
At times you may also copy parts of a text unintentionally. So before you submit your essay, run it through plagiarism detection tools like Plagtracker that compares your writing with websites and academic works and alert you if there’s any identical content. Some universities also have a compulsory rule to submit any work to sites like Turnitin before the hand-in date, so you can ensure your essay is free of plagiarism.
10. Take a break from your essay
As well as giving yourself enough time for preparation and planning, finishing before the deadline will also be hugely beneficial. Once you’ve finished (or you think you have), save your essay and leave it for a day or two. When you come back to it, you’ll be able to read through it with a pair of fresh eyes, making it much easier to identify English spelling or grammatical mistakes, or even flaws in your logic and structure.
Then, once you’ve made the final changes, hand it over to a native English speaker for proofreading. They’ll be able to spot errors you may have missed, which will hopefully take your essay to the next level.
Regardless of how many students claim to do this, starting an essay the night before it’s due is never a good idea. You need time to do your research, build a thesis and arguments, write the essay and have it looked over by someone else. If you rush it and only give yourself a few days for the entire process, you’ll likely end up with a low mark.
Handing in an essay on time is absolutely essential when studying at university. Some universities operate a no-tolerance late submission policy, though others will deduct a number of percentage points depending on how late the piece is. If you are worrying you won’t be able to get your work in on time, always check with your own department to see what the rules are.