Cleanliness Is Next to a Good Grade


The stereotypical bachelor student’s room looks something like this:

  • Smudge-ridden computer screen
  • Crumb-filled, crusty keyboard
  • A desk buried under papers, food, clothes, and heaven knows what else
  • A floor that’s…well, it’s under there somewhere, just can’t see it right now

Does this describe you? Of course not. But believe it or not, such people do exist in the world—and there’s a little of that slovenliness in many of us.

Unless you’re a so-called neat-freak, there are probably some areas of your work area that could be in better shape. But it’s not just the obvious, physical area I’m bringing up, although that’s important. It’s also other areas, including the following:

Your mind:
If your room is cluttered, you’ll have a hard time finding stuff. Same with your mind. When it’s time to work, you need to shut out distractions as much as possible. So, resolve that you’re going to forget about all the other pressures (and pleasures) of life, just long enough to do a great job on the essay you’re doing.

Your computer:
Do teachers even accept handwritten papers anymore? Beats me. In any case, since you’re almost certainly going to be working at your computer to write your essay, you need to make sure it’s not a mess.

First, tidy up the desk (or floor, bed, or lap) that your computer happens to be on. Banana peels and old soda cans in your line of vision are not conducive to concentration.

Second, take a few minutes to un-clutter your computer’s desktop and My Documents, if these areas are not already reasonably organized. It is very nice to be able to find things when you need them.

Once you do these things, make it a habit to keep things in good shape. It will put you in a better state of mind while you work, and this by itself may result in a higher grade.

There are very few reasons to begin a sentence with “there are”


The next time you think your essay, article, or letter is finished, use the Search function to look for “there.” I’ve come to suspect that, for some writers, typing There is or There are to start a sentence or clause must be an unconscious habit. I think people do not realize how often they do it–or how cluttered, unfocused, overly wordy, and weak it makes their sentences. Break the habit of beginning sentences with there is or there are. Notice how, in the examples that follow, “there is” or “there are” makes the sentences less smooth and causes the reader to stumble a little.

Rewriting is often a straightforward matter, as in these examples:

  • weak, overly wordy: There is research that shows that obesity has a genetic component.
  • concise: Research shows that obesity has a genetic component.
  • weak: There are many things that can go wrong when instructions are not followed.
  • concise: Many things can go wrong when instructions are not followed.
  • weak: There was an incident last year of a student caught cheating.
  • direct: Last year, a student was caught cheating.
  • overly wordy: There is a lot that needs to be done to renovate the house.
  • better: A lot needs to be done to renovate the house.
  • better: Much needs to be done to renovate the house.
  • best: The house needs many repairs.

In other cases, the fix is not quite so straightforward and might require completely rethinking and rewriting, finding specific verbs to replace the deadly “is,” “are,” “have,” or “has”:

  • weak: We interviewed the employees, and there were few complaints.
  • direct: We interviewed the employees and heard few complaints.
  • especially overly wordy: There have been several issues concerning the problem of how to get more business.
  • direct: Getting more business is a problem. We have identified the following issues: (list would follow).
  • overly wordy: If there is one thing the principal can’t stand, it is students who are late for school. (this sentence has an additional problem: it could be interpreted to mean the principal has a personal dislike of students who are late.)
  • concise: The principal really does not tolerate tardiness.
  • weak: There are few reasons to begin a sentence with “there are.”
  • concise: Beginning a sentence with “there are” clutters and weakens it.

Engaging the Reader


If you’re a copywriter, you understand the importance of engaging the reader. If you’re a student—maybe not so much. Nevertheless, the key to successful writing lies in seeing things from your audience’s perspective and then writing accordingly. Let’s see how that applies to essay writing and, subsequently, good grades.

One thing you can do is to use stories. For example, if you’re writing about tigers, you can actually tell about what you know has happened to some of them (make sure it’s true, of course). You might say something like:

It’s another day for the new cubs. Mom’s not back yet, and they’re starting to feel the pain of hunger. If she doesn’t make it back, they’re not yet old enough to hunt; instead of becoming the future predators, these little ones could instead become today’s prey…

Engaging? Yes. True? Yes. Likely to get you a good grade? Well, probably (unless, of course, your report is supposed to be about something other than tigers). Now, let’s take a look at a not-so-effective essay about the same subject:

The tiger is in the grass. It is about 6 feet long. It has stripes and a tail. The tail is long. It eats other animals because it is a predator. The little tigers cannot hunt until they reach a certain age. Before they can hunt, they may become the prey of other predators…

  • Paper 1: A.
  • Paper 2: Probably not an A.

Why is Paper 1 more engaging? Because it goes beyond just fact citing. It brings the subject to life in such a way that the reader will be interested. And you must do that if you’re going to get good grades on essays. It’s not just about putting facts on paper. That’s obviously important, but you’ve also got to have these facts well organized, properly formatted, and interesting to the reader.

That’s not to say that all this is easy; it takes time and practice to develop one’s writing skills. But the extra time and effort invested in making a paper interesting—as well as factual—will definitely pay off.

That Paper You Don’t Feel Like Writing…


Let’s face it—sometimes writing can be hard work. For example, you may not really care about Russia’s GDP in 1933 (or, then, perhaps you might). Likewise, the migration habits of squid are not at the top of most students’ lists of captivating studies. Nevertheless, to get a good grade (and to learn something, of course), it is necessary at times to do a good job and write a solid paper.

Here are some helpful tips to writing those “ugh” papers (and any other papers, for that matter).

Choose to have a good attitude:
If you look at it as a learning experience (which it is, not only in your subject matter, but also as an exercise in self-discipline, writing, and probably research), you can really motivate yourself to get something out of this.

Fact is, some of the most personally rewarding papers you write may not be the ones you’re naturally motivated to write. On the contrary, the ones that you have to stir yourself up to do will be the ones that make you feel really good when you end up with a good grade.

Basically, before you even start doing the actual work, you need to tell yourself that you can do this paper; you can do a good job on this paper; and you will both learn from it and feel great when you accomplish this task that is not naturally appealing. And during the times you feel like, “Why do I have to do this stupid assignment?” just remember the preceding points.

Make a plan:
When you’re intrinsically motivated to do a paper, it comes easy. Even then, however, you should be as organized as possible. But when the subject matter is something you don’t really care about, you have to protect yourself from the natural tendencies to escape from applying yourself to the task at hand.

With this in mind, insulate yourself from TV, friends, other work, or anything else that would give you an excuse to stop doing what you need to do to succeed at this writing. Keep in mind, however, that it is especially important to reward yourself with breaks periodically, or you can get burned out and really frustrated.

Make the most of unappealing writing assignments. The ones you enjoy will come along soon enough.