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How to write an award-winning essay

16 August 2017
5 tips to score a high distinction

What’s the secret to writing a HD-worthy essay? Ahead of the 2017 Wentworth Medal competition, Henry Maher, the 2016 co-winner, and Associate Professor Mark Byron, one of this year’s judges and a lecturer of English, share their tips. 

1. Take your time

If you’ve ever left an assignment to the last minute, then you’ve probably asked your friends (and Google) that critical question – how long does it take to write an essay?

While some suggest you can do it in a few hours (spoiler alert: you can’t), and others say several weeks, Associate Professor Mark Byron’s answer lies somewhere in the middle.

“It depends how much background knowledge you have on the topic in question, and how conceptually challenging your essay seeks to be (and it should be as challenging as the response demands, no more and no less),” he suggests. “For a typical essay, you might take several days to read primary and secondary materials, and to take notes, and then perhaps two or three days to draft a 3000-word essay.”

If you’re aiming for top marks, you’ll also need to factor in plenty of time to refine your work. Henry Maher, co-winner of the 2016 Wentworth Medal, recommends taking at least two weeks to research, and then another week to write and edit – but the longer you spend on it, the better it will be.

2. Work your angles

You’ve probably noticed “originality” in the coveted HD box of the marking rubric – but what does that actually mean? How can you write an original essay on a topic that’s already been covered by hundreds of people? 

According to Mark, originality isn’t just about covering unchartered territory. “Originality can take on a variety of forms. It could be a new combination of existing ideas, brought together in ways that newly illuminate each of them, or perhaps a way of approaching a theme or concept that involves a new approach or methodology,” he says. “One way of seeking out an original approach is to research existing work on a subject, and to identify where the field may lack adequate articulation.”

For Henry, the key to finding an original angle lies in research and passion. “If the author is interested, there’s a much greater chance that the audience will be engaged too,” he says. “So I begin with the area that I find most interesting, and then follow the reference trail from other articles until I have a clear picture of the current state of the literature.”

Once you’ve found your angle, make sure you sell it – let the reader know that you’re addressing a gap in the literature, or are making an interesting contribution to scholarly knowledge.

3. Build a rock-solid argument

Your essay will only be as strong as your argument, so make sure that every paragraph drives your point home.

To do so, Henry recommends first focusing on your ideas. “Break those down into a series of dot-points, and then fill that out with full sentences until the essay is complete,” he suggests.

“Don't simply believe your own argument; rather test it with the same scepticism that you would with something you learn in a lecture or a journal,” says Mark. “This will get you ready to defend your views and to support your claims with evidence.” 

4. Edit (then edit again)

You’ve reached the word count, finished your conclusion and your paragraphs seem coherent. This is often the make-or-break moment – to edit, or to just submit?

For good writers, a thorough editing stage is non-negotiable. Henry has a simple strategy that helps him overcome the temptation to submit a first draft. “I aim to write 10 percent over the word limit, then remove the worst 10 percent from the essay.”

Mark stresses the importance of considering a first draft as a “point of testing ideas”.

“Discard anything that doesn't contribute to the central argument, no matter how attached you might be to the turn of phrase or the idea,” he says.

5. Find your voice

A strong and independent voice is the holy grail of essay writing, and something that you’ll get better at with practice and plenty of editing.

“The best essays identify themselves by virtue of the clarity of their thought (argument structure, logical analysis) and the way the flow of ideas aligns with clarity of expression,” Mark notes.

“A very good essay will do this well, but the best essays demonstrate a higher quality of independent thought, where the voice of the writer comes through, not obtrusively, but in a style that works in harmony with the material at issue in the essay.”

“The production of complex ideas in elegant language can be arduous, but the final result should be satisfying and rewarding. There is room for enjoyment, even if the process feels a long way from leisure!”