6 Essay-Writing Lies They Taught You in School

Up until now, essay writing has been boring and painful—all about no-no’s and sandwich structure. Truth is, this kind of writing is just as boring to read as it is to write, and frankly, it’s just bad. If you want to start writing on a college level, here are a few bad habits from ninth grade English to get out of your system:

1. Formality is key – You’re not a stuffy old professor, so stop writing like one! The easiest way to make a paper dull to write AND read is to stifle your voice. Let your personality shine through for a change! Try free-writing first and editing for structure later, use words that you would normally use in speech, and inject a little humor into your paper. Trust me. If you have fun writing it, your teacher will have fun reading it (and be in a better mood when it comes time to give you a grade). Not to mention, the best college application essays all use voice to show the author’s personality.

2. The more words, the better – If one wishes to expertly transmit a believed abstraction to a fellow homo sapien, one is not necessarily coerced into using a large volume of lexeme.


In other words, short sentences go a long way. Using a lot of big words may seem like a good way to sound smart, but when they’re unneeded they just muddy up your points. Instead, skip the thesaurus—try writing your sentences in plain English, then replace the verbs with more interesting and appropriate ones.

3. There is only one way to write an essay – Structure is important, but not every essay should be five paragraphs. For example, one page response papers tend to be lightly-edited versions of your stream of consciousness, while scientific term papers follow a strict pattern: intro, model, data, conclusion. The key to writing a well-structured paper is to address its needs. Does one of your points need to be pumped up? Add and explain a few more statistics. Does it feel repetitive? Take out the repeats. Will what happened last week make a great example? Write another paragraph using your story as evidence. Just don’t get hung up on your middle school writing template.

4. You should never use “I” in a paper – Don’t get me wrong, “I” should be used sparingly, but sometimes you’ve gotta use it! There’s no getting around an “I” when you’re stating your own opinion, or telling a story about your life. You’ll need it in philosophy, you’ll need it in your college apps, and you’ll probably end up using it every once in a while in those other subjects. Don’t believe me? Look for the word “I” in the next book your social studies teacher recommends, or check out your uncle’s PH.D dissertation. Heck, “I” or “we” even pops up in scholarly articles sometimes! Often, the real danger is breaking up the flow or using passive voice in order to avoid saying “I,” so strike it from your list of no-no words.

5. Plagiarism is copying word-for-word – Plagiarism is much, much more. In high school, you may be safe using others’ ideas or even paraphrasing sentences, but if you do that in college you may get kicked out. Plagiarism is not that hard to avoid—just remember to cite any ideas, quotes or pictures that aren’t yours.

6. Conclusions should be paraphrased introductions – Conclusions used to be the toughest part of every essay I wrote. Why? Because it’s nearly impossible to rewrite your introduction and make it sound interesting. Instead, use conclusions the same way movies set up their sequels, look for ways you can expand on your research in the future. Better yet, find ways your research is relevant to current events, the lives of fellow teenagers, or the human race. If you want a good example of a conclusion, just watch any episode of Modern Family. The writers are very good at referring back the episode’s kookiness to demonstrate a lesson about the meaning of “family.”

Want to expose an essay-writing lie? Share it in a comment.


written by
Eliza Miller
February 26, 2013

14 Responses to “6 Essay-Writing Lies They Taught You in School”

  1. Kylie S
    February 26, 2013 at 2:27 pm #

    When writing an English essay discussing a novel or short story, don’t use the “the author used [insert literary device here]” your professor knows that the author used them. Be specific with what is in your thesis.

    • Sarah
      March 15, 2013 at 1:13 pm #

      Exactly, it is more important to say what effect the device has to the author’s purpose than to say the author used it!

  2. Nick
    February 26, 2013 at 5:27 pm #

    This is excellent with one exception. I’m a grad student studying music education, and I have had several classes with very strict teachers when it comes to writing. The use of personal voice is excellent, but there are going to be a lot of teachers that will frown heavily on the use of vernacular wordings. The real trick is to learn how to make a paper engaging without using those kinds of verbiage. It may sound stuffy and far be it from me to say how people should write beyond college, but as “playing the game” is still an unfortunate part of college life, stuffy but successful writing is a necessary skill to have.

  3. stephanie
    February 28, 2013 at 3:21 pm #

    Great article!

  4. Cori Kirker
    February 28, 2013 at 6:35 pm #

    My ninth grade teacher quote “Your Paragrapphs only have to be 5 sentences long and there only needs to be 5 paragraphs..” thats childs writing

  5. Vinnie Babauta
    March 17, 2013 at 1:51 pm #

    Great Information!

  6. melissa
    March 30, 2013 at 1:45 am #

    Great article. Ironically, as i read it i realized most of the advice given here was similar to what my English teacher would tell me when writing essays in high school. :)

  7. Folly
    April 2, 2013 at 10:18 am #

    My ninth grade English teacher said it was bad to write, “This paper…” in an essay. Then I start reading all these academic journals in which authors say that all the time.

    • Nick
      April 2, 2013 at 12:20 pm #

      All the time! “This paper…,” first person, vernacular, passive voice, you name it (colloquialism heh). It’s all over the place (I did it again! lol). :P

  8. Jane
    April 20, 2013 at 2:13 pm #

    Don’t ever start your sentences with but. This is incorrect because sometimes a sentence can be contradicted with the next sentence. But those sentences do not always appear in peoples paragraphs.

  9. Simon
    April 28, 2013 at 3:42 pm #

    Excellent article! I’ve always been suffocated when writing essays with all those rules and regulations about not using “I” and having an exact structure for the paragraphs. I’ve always had the opinion that it wouldn’t be an interesting or engaging, reflective article if it didn’t come straight from me.. when I start writing, my ideas just seem to flow out if I let my imagination take over, but the sudden restrictions seem to destroy my style sometimes. Nice to know I’m not alone in my thoughts!!

  10. Chris Tomasso
    May 13, 2013 at 11:54 am #

    I absolutely agree with everything that is stated here.

    I would like to add that essay writing doesn’t have to be a linear process. My approach is iterative, more like shaping and refining clay or adding painting to a canvas.

    What kind of mindset shift do you see is necessary in order to write more effectively?

  11. Basil
    September 4, 2013 at 3:39 am #

    This web site really has all of the information I needed about this
    subject and didn’t know who to ask.


  1. 6 Essay-Writing Lies They Taught You in School | Chegg Blog | College Topics for Students by Students - March 18, 2013

    [...] Structure is important, but not every essay should be five paragraphs. For example, one page response papers tend to be lightly-edited versions of your stream of consciousness, while scientific term papers follow a strict pattern: into, model, data, conclusion. The key to writing a well-structured paper is… Check out the rest of these tips over on our high school blog on Zinch. [...]

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