How to add some sparkle to your uni essays

May 05, 2016
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Are your uni essays sounding a bit ordinary? Once you’ve mastered the basics of essay writing (overall structure, topic sentences and the like), it can be difficult to know how to progress. In high school, a nicely drawn border might have earned you a few extra marks, but at uni you’re going to need some more sophisticated techniques. Here’s how to add that extra bit of sparkle to your uni essays this semester.

Present a unique argument

The difference between an OK essay and a great one lies in the quality of the argument, says Dr Benjamin Miller from the University of Sydney Writing Hub.

“Most university essays summarise a topic or discuss various research findings – and they're OK,” says Dr Miller. “Excellent university essays build interesting and thoughtful arguments.”

To develop a strong argument, try taking an original approach to the topic or finding something new to contribute to a debate, suggests Dr Miller. Rather than simply summarising others’ ideas, connect them with your own opinions.

Use resources to help you get better at forming arguments. Books like The Craft of Argument can help, as can the writing centre on campus.


Help your reader to follow your line of argument by occasionally using signposts or “meta sentences” in your essays. These sentences signal where you are going.

“A sentence in your introduction that says something like, 'This essay will argue…’ or in a paragraph saying, 'Having completed the analysis of X, this essay will now turn to an analysis of Y so that…' can reveal the organisation of your ideas and the aims and goals of your writing,” advises Dr Miller.

Just make sure you don’t overuse these meta sentences. I will now move on to my next point. See, you didn’t need that signpost, right? Trust your reader.

Use subject-specific vocabulary

Add some extra shine to your essays by including subject-specific vocab. Each academic discipline has its own set of technical terms, words like provenance for History or cartography for Geography. Go back through your lecture notes and readings to find these terms and make sure they appear in your essays. It’ll show your reader that you’re confident in the subject area.

Aim for clarity

Do you regularly right-click for synonyms? It might be time to drop the habit.

“It is very tempting to use large words to make your writing sound more intelligent,” Dr Miller says. “But your language can be effective and sophisticated without jargon. You should aim to discuss complex ideas in the clearest language possible.”

So how do you develop clear language? The answer is: drafting.

Each time you redraft, your ideas become more complex and your language becomes clearer, Dr Miller explains. “The final draft will be effective because it is understandable, and sophisticated because it deals with complex ideas.”

This might mean that you need to start writing your essays a little earlier. It’s hard to do all that re-drafting in one night.

Go all postmodern

If you feel confident using the standard rules of essay writing, start mixing things up a bit and adopting a more daring approach.

“Writers should always look for opportunities to be interesting and innovative in their writing – even in academic writing,” Dr Miller says. Challenging conventions will make your essay “more interesting to your reader, help present a clearer argument, and show that you are a thoughtful and original scholar.”

You might like to try deviating from the traditional third person voice and using “I” at strategic points in your essays. Also experiment with creative ways of beginning your intros and ending your conclusions.

“Know the rules and adapt them,” Dr Miller suggests. 

Melinda Cooper

Melinda loves reading on rainy days, drinking cups of tea and making things. She is doing a PhD in English at the University of Sydney.