Category Archives: Essay Advice

Advice for ESL Writers

Advice for ESL Writers

English can be tough. Unlike many Eastern languages, English places great emphasis on seemingly minor aspects of written communication. Yet, by paying careful attention to the finer points of the language, a writer can create interesting subtleties and nuances that would not otherwise be possible.

One of the problems for non-native writers of English, of course, is that there are exceptions to every rule (for example, i before e except after c). The solution? Learn the rules, by rote, by practice, or by whatever works. There is no other way. In time, you’ll find yourself remembering them.

Also, Americans have a great penchant for colloquialisms and slang. We are a very diverse nation, and we borrow from every culture. Colloquial references to pop culture and sports are particularly problematic to those not familiar with them.

Prepositions and articles seem to be the main source of confusion, though. And unlike acquainting oneself with references to bygone TV shows, learning the proper way to use “a” and “the” is not that hard.

Without getting too technical, let’s look at a couple of examples:

  • RIGHT: We will go to the store.
  • WRONG: We will go to store.

Without the word “the,” the whole meaning of the sentence is changed. The word “store” actually becomes a verb.

  • RIGHT: It is on Broadway Street.
  • WRONG: It is on the Broadway Street.

The preposition “the” is not required here, since there will be only one Broadway Street in any town.

  • RIGHT: I need a doctor.
  • WRONG: I need doctor.

Yes, the article “a” is necessary here—it is important. Interestingly, Microsoft Word does not flag “I need doctor” as being incorrect—but it should.

There are ESL software, courses, and instruction available. In the meantime, until one becomes better acquainted with the intricacies of the English language, there is no shame in using a professional editing service.

Writer’s Block: Part 2

Writer’s Block: Uninteresting Subject Matter

Even if you enjoy the subject matter about which you’re writing, and it is something you find interesting, occasionally you may hit a roadblock and not know what to say. In such a case, there are several things that may help, especially if you’ve been working on the same project for some time:

Take a break:
Many times it’s best to just leave your work, forget about it, and go do something completely unrelated to it. After awhile, come back to it (hopefully refreshed). This gives your mind a chance to recover and, after a rest, refocus. And while you’re on a break, your subconscious may still be busy working, figuring things out for you behind the scenes.

Hit people up for ideas:
Make use of your friends, family, or acquaintances (or even cooperative strangers). Getting a different perspective is very often the catalyst that moves a writing project forward. After all, if you only get the same view day after day (your own), your perspective will necessarily be limited. It can be a wise thing to discuss what you’re writing about with some non-experts, as their views will be an interesting—and perhaps inspiring—change from the same-old, same-old opinions you get from yourself, textbooks, and experts in the field.

Do more research:
Oh, I can imagine the response to this suggestion: MORE?! Do you know how much I’ve looked into this already? That’s not the way to look at it, though. Rather, you need to think of it like this: There’s something I may be missing; if I look hard enough, I’ll find it, and then my essay will really shine.

Review what you’ve done already:
Sometimes it helps to just go back through and see what you’ve already written. It may be that something pops out at you, such as Oh, I forgot to cover this part of that subject…or maybe, Ah—I just need to expound a little more fully on this area…

Writer’s block never lasts forever. If it does, there’s probably something wrong with the length of the essay you’ve been asked to write.

Silencing the Critic in Your Head

Silencing the Critic in Your Head

Many of us have heard of stage fright, and most of us have experienced it, too. What about page fright, though? It’s that sickening feeling you get in the pit of your stomach when you face a pristine piece of paper or a blank computer screen. And one big source of a writer’s nervousness and nausea is that troll of a critic that resides in all of our heads, even those of the most experienced writers. Mine might look and sound different from yours – they often take on the persona and voice of a particularly mean English teacher who once tortured us – but the critics all yammer on about the same kinds of things. They say, “What makes you think you can write? You can’t spell. You can’t tell a comma from a piece of cheddar cheese. No one’s going to want to read what you have to say.” So how do you get Ms. McGillicutty or Professor Burnbottom to shut up?

The best way to silence the critic is to put something, anything on the page. The nice thing about writing, as opposed to talking, is that it can be edited until you have it just right. So just set a kitchen timer for five or ten minutes, and until the little bell dings, just dump everything you can think of about your subject on the page. This is called free writing, one of the early steps in the writing process. Now you no longer have a blank page, and some of those butterflies in your stomach have probably taken off. You probably aren’t hearing much from that critic, either, because your mind has been on getting your ideas down as fast as you can.

Now read over what you’ve poured onto the page and start cutting and pasting, adding to, and rearranging your ideas until a pattern starts to form. You’re still in the early stage of writing, so don’t worry about spelling and grammar and punctuation at this point. Just concentrate on getting your ideas down and playing around with them. You can worry about the formal mechanics of writing in a much later stage. The most important thing you need to do as a writer is have something important you want to communicate and work on finding the best words and details to make those ideas come alive and be meaningful for your readers.

Writer’s Block: Uninteresting Subject Matter

Writer’s Block: Uninteresting Subject Matter

Well, there’s plenty I could write about this…but I seem to be stuck. Ha! Okay, sorry…

Seriously, this is a frequently recurring problem for all writers. For example, writing blogs about one area of subject matter at some point becomes difficult, even though it’s enjoyable. Why? Because there’s only so much anyone can say about a given topic.

With essay writing, experiencing writer’s block is often a question of two things:

  1. Do I care a whit about what I’m writing about?
  2. Are my writing skills sufficient to accurately express what I want to say?

In the latter case, writing workshops can help, or a professional editing service can lend a hand. But the former case is most often the problem when it comes to academic work. It’s usually something like this:

Submit an essay of at least x pages covering the [insert the non-interesting topic of choice here].

It’s not that you don’t like your class (hopefully), but rather that no subject is interesting in every facet. Sometimes you have to bite the bullet and write about something that you do not have passion for or much interest in. The result? Writer’s block.

To get through a situation like that, it’s best to have fun with it if you can. Find a way to make it enjoyable. Once you manage that, the writing you do about even the dullest subject will be a pleasant experience. Often it’s just a matter of adopting an unusual take on what you’re covering.

Another thing you can do is call upon classmates or friends to help. Sometimes just involving someone else in the process (or having them help bear your burden) can be beneficial. Better yet, take some time to sit down with your instructor. Ask him or her why the material in your essay matters. If the instructor can convey anything interesting about the topic, it will help you to be able to write about it.

Finally, just take a mature approach. Not every subject is interesting, but there’s a reason you’ve been given the assignment. Now it’s up to you to do your best and make the most of it. Good luck.

It’s In the Details

It's in the Details

Successful Writing: It’s in the Details

Before a writer starts pecking at the keyboard or scratching with a pen on paper, she needs to have a clear idea of what she wants her readers to understand. If you are writing a paper for a professor or your boss, think about the fact that they most likely already know more than you do about your subject. They and other readers don’t want you to just regurgitate what they’ve already heard or read someplace else. They might not agree with what you say in your paper or report, but they’ll respect your ideas if you provide support for your ideas.

Readers want proof that you understand the material you are covering. Professors and bosses want proof that you understand the material they have covered with you and that you are able to use or apply this information and go beyond what you’ve heard or read. Therefore, before you begin, ask yourself, “What point am I trying to make.” Avoid making your piece an information dumping ground.

Whatever your assignment – a how-to paper, a description, an explanation, an evaluation, a comparison or contrast — you will need to uncover the main point you want to make and then support it with specific details to prove that you are correct. Concrete details are used to explain, expand on, and develop the general main idea of your paper. These details provide the answers to questions like who, what, when, how, why, how much, or how many. So avoid general words like a lot, nice, big, and small in the body of your paragraphs. Use statistics, quotes, facts, anecdotes or stories, definitions, examples, names, numbers, and the five senses (taste, touch, smell, sight, and hearing) to add life and originality to your argument.

Don’t use a general word like “flower;” call it a rose or an iris or a dahlia. Instead of saying “a long time ago,” use a number to give your idea weight. Was it a century ago, a millennium, a week? By the way, how much is “a lot”? If you tell me you studied a lot for a test, I might think you stayed up all night. Actually, you spent only an hour skimming your notes, and you said “a lot” because usually you just give your notes the once over in the hallway right before class starts.

Imagine your assignment is to discuss the three main benefits of eating locally grown food. After brainstorming and thinking, researching and reading, you decide they are: save the planet, better taste and nutrition, and helping your community. Let’s just use the first point as an example, plugging in some specifics to show that eating a diet made up of foods grown within 100 miles of your home will help to prevent wars over resources and reverse global climate change because local food doesn’t have to be shipped so far, thus saving oil. A study in Iowa found that a regional diet consumed 17 times less oil and gas than a typical diet based on food shipped across the country. The ingredients for a typical British meal, sourced locally, traveled 66 times fewer “food miles.”

Working to find the specific details that support your arguments will give your main point legs to stand on, and you’ll earn a great grade or accolades from your boss, too.

APA Headings

APA Headings

Most academic papers are written using the rules of either APA style (although MLA is also pretty popular). In the papers you write, you will have to use headings in different places. These, like the rest of your writing, need to be correctly formatted. Here’s how to make sure your paper is APA-compliant when it comes to headings.

What may seem confusing is that the style of headings you use will vary, depending on how many levels of headings your paper has. Huh? Yes, it’s a little confusing at first. Actually seeing it in action may help.

In most of your papers, you will be unlikely to ever have more than three levels of headings. In fact, it will be unusual if you have more than two, unless you’re doing graduate-level work. So, let’s look at what you should do if you have one, two, or three levels of headings.

One level:
If you don’t have any secondary or tertiary headings, all you have to do is to center your heading above the text. There should not be a space between it and the text, and it should not be formatted any differently. May students like to use bold or larger fonts for headings, but this is (according to the APA manual) not correct.

Two levels:
If you’re using two levels of headings, the first level will be the same as if you were only using one. For the second level, your heading will be left-aligned, italicized, and title case (i.e., the first letter of each word will be capitalized unless it’s a preposition or article).

Three levels:
The first two levels will be the same as above. For the third level, the words will be lowercase (except that the first word will be capitalized), it will be italicized, and it will be indented five spaces.

Again, remember that for academic work, you should not bold, different colors, or different fonts for your headings. Gotta play by the rules.

Are Your Citations Correct?

Are Your Citations Correct?

Unless you’re a professor, used to grading lots of papers, or a professional writer or editor, you may not notice some of the common mistakes made with citations. Here are a few to look out for.

Typical Convention Errors

Consider the following example from a sample paper using APA style:

It now seems clear that global warming is an out-and-out myth, propagated purely for the intent of destroying the American economy (Conservative, A., Wing, Wright, and Republic, Ann.).

Wright Wing, Ann Republic, and A. Conservative. Global Warming is Bunk, Period. Conservative Booksellers of Greater America: Washington, DC. 2006.

Corrected Form

Here are the errors:

  1. In-text citations have only last names of authors.
  2. In the parentheses, you should always use an ampersand (&) for APA style.


  1. The second and all subsequent lines should be indented five spaces.
  2. The author names should be in the format of Last Name, First Initial.
  3. An ampersand (&) should be used instead of writing out “and.”
  4. The title of the book should be italicized, not underlined (it would be underlined in the body of the work itself, however).
  5. The publisher’s location should come before the name of the publisher.
  6. The date of publication should appear in parentheses, immediately following the name(s) of the author(s).

Here’s how it should be written, again, according to APA style:

It now seems clear that global warming is an out-and-out myth, propagated purely for the intent of destroying the American economy (Conservative, Wing, & Republic).

Wright, W., Republic, A., & Conservative, A. (2006). Global Warming
is Bunk, Period. Washington, DC: Conservative Booksellers of
Greater America.

Citations can be tricky, regardless of whether you’re using APA, MLA, Chicago, CSE, or something else. It requires tedious, detail-oriented work. If you don’t want to spend time on such nit-picky considerations, you may want to look into a professional editing service such as Papercheck.

Give It a Rest

Give It a Rest

Have you ever slaved away on an essay or other writing project, only to find yourself unable to think clearly, concentrate, or focus? Probably—most of us have. This is due to the simple fact that no one can do an activity constantly, without rest. If we try to do so, our ability to hone in on exactly what we’re doing becomes impaired.

Management professionals have known for decades that a worker who goes non-stop for several hours will not be as productive as someone who takes an occasional break. Why? We are designed in such a way that, unlike some purely mechanical machines, we’ve got to stop once in a while.

Here are some tips to help with all this.

Find your optimum break time:
It has been recommended that if you’re reading, it’s a good idea to rest your eyes (by simply not staring at a page or a screen) after 20 minutes. How long should you rest? For a few minutes—at least two, but probably not more than five. But different people are different, so you need to find the amount of time that works best for you to first work, then have a break, and then return to work.

Activities for your break
The main thing here is that you can do just about anything, as long as it’s different from what you were doing. For example, since you would have been sitting at a computer, thinking, typing, and staring at a screen, you should now do something totally different. Here are some possibilities:

  • Get up and walk around
  • Lie down (be careful with this one if you have more work to do)
  • Have something to eat or drink
  • Talk to someone
  • Pray (not a bad idea, especially if your essay is important)

Some things you should not do include watching TV (which is staring at another screen), reading, or thinking deeply about anything.

So, remember to give it a rest, once in a while. You’ll end up being more relaxed and efficient, and your essay will likely show it.

The Importance of Organization


Okay, so you’ve got a paper due in a week. Will you get it done on time? Sure! Well, I think so. I mean, maybe, if I don’t get too caught up with other stuff. Um, actually, I don’t know, but hopefully I can pull it off.

If you’ve ever been in a position like this, you may realize the importance of being organized. In fairness, this is something that most of us struggle with. However, deadlines are deadlines, whether you’re a student or an employee. Here are some tips to help you make sure you don’t miss the deadline for your next essay.

Consult your syllabus:
Most syllabi will tell you when important papers are due, and how long they should be. You may want to ask the teacher how much preparation time will be needed. Then you can plan for this project weeks in advance, setting aside time to get it done.

Start immediately:
This doesn’t mean to necessarily start writing or researching immediately. Rather, it means that as soon as you are assigned the paper, you adjust your schedule and plans right away to accommodate it.

Since you probably have several classes (and some kind of a life, job, relationships, etc.), you can’t just shut out everything all the time. By putting things in their proper place, however, you can be sure to have a good plan that will work, and will enable you to meet your obligations while still enjoying life.

Be careful not to get sidetracked:
Yeah, I’ve got this paper due, but I don’t want to miss Gilligan’s Island tonight. It’s that one real cool episode with…Come on. You can find a million reasons not to do the work, but when it actually comes due, you’re going to want to have it done. And getting it done doesn’t happen by accident. Stay focused.

Reward yourself as appropriate:
If you stick to your schedule of working three hours on your paper tonight, you deserve a treat! Let yourself have fun. Give yourself positive reinforcement for doing the right thing.

So, be organized, enjoy yourself, and good luck on your next essay!

Vetting Your Sources


If you’re writing a run-of-the-mill, two- or three-page essay for an undergrad class, you might get away with citing just any old source. Plucking quotes from different websites is not difficult, and in so doing, you can create a paper that, to someone who didn’t know better, would think that you’ve written a scholarly, professional work.

From your perspective, it seems fine. Your research took all of a half-hour, and you’ve pulled plenty of quotes and citations from professional-sounding organizations and people. But what if you happen to run into a professor who, in addition to having a great deal of knowledge (if you’re at the university level, your professor will almost certainly have a doctorate), also has the time and inclination to actually check the reliability of your sources?

This could be embarrassing for you if it is discovered that the ultra-professional-sounding organization you cited in your paper happens to be a kook fringe outfit with zero credibility. As bad as this would be for an undergrad class, it is inexcusable for graduate-level work.

Thankfully, there are some easy ways to double check that your sources are reliable. Here are a few:

Use well-recognized sources:
If your paper is full of quotes from obscure or little-known groups or individuals, you’ll have to verify that what they say is true—and this can be time-consuming. However, if you cite sources that are widely recognized as being reliable, you’re in good shape from the start.

Avoid agenda-driven sources:
Impartial and unbiased sources are not always easy to find. After all, every person or group has an opinion. However, many groups exist simply for the sake of performing research in the pursuit of truth. These usually make excellent sources, especially if they are well-known.

Check sources against other sources:
If Group A says one thing, you may want to see if equally reliable Group B says something else. (Of course, if Group B is a bunch of nutters, you can safely ignore them). But it’s wise to present the opposing point of view, if it has any merit, as this will lend credence to your own argument.

So, be careful to ensure that the sources you use are reliable—especially if you’re doing graduate-level or professional writing. The credibility you preserve will be your own.