The Top Four Student Essay Problems

1. Unclear, weak, obvious, or missing thesis.

The purpose of every essay, no matter how routine, is to prove an arguable, interesting thesis. A thesis is arguable if a reasonable person could make a case for the other side of the question. The statement, "Shakespeare’s sonnets are primarily a series of meditations on Platonic love," is an arguable (but dull) thesis—a reasonable person could take the other side and say that they’re something else. The statement, "In his sonnets, Shakespeare utilizes diction, tone, and the English language to discuss love," (taken from an actual paper) cannot be disputed—no one would argue that Shakespeare does not use them. Without an arguable thesis, the essay gives its readers no reason to bother continuing.

2. Excessive use of the verb "to be" and passive constructions.

Professional writers rarely get through an essay without using "to be" or passive voice occasionally. However, beginning writers use them both as a crutch. A sentence that begins "The man was bitten…" doesn’t tell us who, how, or why. "Elevated diction is used in Shakespeare’s Hamlet to indicate…" By whom, Shakespeare or one of his characters? For what purpose? Turning this sentence (however it ends) from passive to active will take thought, as well as a commitment to a particular idea of how the play works. The many versions of "to be" used in essays not only bore readers, but also cover up the central question of analysis—what is happening in the work. Even lyric poetry and sculpture do things—they say, appear, stand, loom, sound, rhyme, intimidate, inspire, puzzle—the list goes on. Take a stand and say what happens, not what merely is.

3. Useless, hackneyed, and excessive modifiers.

Nouns and verbs supply the action in a sentence. Use modifiers sparingly, and only when necessary. "Very," "rather," and "quite" serve no useful purpose and water down your statements, so take them all out. All clear skies are blue, all new bikes are shiny, and snow is generally white—don’t bother telling your readers what they already know. Adverbs in particular waste space and attention more often than not; when someone says something "cuttingly," "sharply," "softly," or "lovingly," a reader usually already knows how it was said by the tone of the words used to say it. Make sure every modifier pulls its weight.

4. Wild variations in tone and diction.

Slang and extremely elevated language have their places in the world; on occasion, one ends up in a poolroom or at tea with the Queen. In formal writing, however, your tone establishes trust with your reader, and your diction indicates that this trust is not misplaced—that you know what the right word is, and when to use it. People who "utilize" everything and "use" nothing show contempt for their readers by assuming they will be impressed by inflated vocabulary. Using slang or the latest fashion in jargon demonstrates an equal disregard for readers who don’t consider themselves members of an exclusive group. Keep a clear idea of your audience in mind and say what you mean, precisely and politely.