VCE Study Tips

Improving Expression and Flow in Essays

Michelle Xin

September 2, 2017

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Written expression is often overlooked in our essays. Often, if we are made aware of clunky or awkward expression, we are also not quite sure how to go about improving it. Although sophisticated and pertinent ideas serve as the foundation of a successful essay, how we construct our sentences and express these ideas may be what distinguishes a good essay from a great essay.

These differences can be rather subtle, but the small things can and do matter.

1) USE YOUR VOCAL CHORDS 

(to read out loud, not sing… unless you really want to)

Take your essay and read it out loud. Let your own conscience guide you in terms of whether a particular sentence flows well, is complete and makes sense. Keep your eye out for these small errors in particular: Grammar:Does your sentence actually make sense? Let’s have a look at an example:Although Funder suggests that the act of telling one’s story, especially one of victimisation, can catalyse the internal confrontation and healing required to move on.

?!? 

(This is not grammatically correct! This is because this example only contains a subordinate clause and is lacking a main clause.)

But wait… what is this ‘subordinate clause’ and ‘main clause’?

A clause includes a subject and a verb.

Melissa ate an apple.After Wendy ate an apple.

What is the difference between the two clauses above?

‘Melissa ate an apple’ makes grammatical sense on its own. This is what we call a main clause (or an independent clause). On the other hand, ‘After Wendy ate an apple’ is an incomplete sentence as it does not make sense. What happened after Wendy ate her apple? This is the information that is missing from the latter clause, making this a subordinate clause (or a dependent clause).

So now let’s try again…

Although Funder suggests that the act of telling one’s story, especially one of victimisation, can catalyse the internal confrontation and healing required to move on, ultimately, these individuals can never be truly free from the past that has irrevocably defined them.  

(Hooray! This is a complete sentence now.)

Spelling: Are the title of the text, the author or director’s name, characters’ names, publisher’s name, etc. all spelt correctly (and capitalised, underlined, and italicised appropriately)?

Did you use the correct there, their and they’re? How about it’s and its? (and so on).

Sentence length: Did that sentence just go on for 5 lines on a page and you are out of breath now? You can most probably split that overloaded sentence into two or more sentences that make much more sense. Check whether you have a clear subject in your sentence. If you have three different ideas in one sentence, give each idea its own opportunity (ie. sentence) to shine. The opposite also applies: if it is for a very short sentence, did that sentence pack enough content or analysis?

One spelling error or half-finished sentence in an essay will not severely affect your mark, but they can easily add up if they occur often enough. Consequently, this will distract the reader from engaging with your ideas fully and thus disrupt the flow of your essay.

By being aware of these aspects, you are now able to easily fix them and boost your writing.

2) BE SUBTLE

Try not to be casual or overt in your writing as it can be quite jarring to read and unfortunately give readers a potentially negative impression of your piece.

Try not to use phrases such as:

- In my opinion… (You do not need it as your entire essay should be your implicit opinion!)

- This quote shows that… (Embed the quote and link to its implication instead)

- This technique is designed to… (Identify the technique and be specific, especially in Language Analysis)

- I think that…, I believe… (Avoid using first person in a formal essay. Use of first person in creative writing is fine though if required)

They are redundant and do not add much to your ideas and analysis. Try omitting them and see whether that helps your sentence flow better and seem more formal.

3) LINK ‘EM UP

Sentences that seem disjointed or a clear connection can make it difficult for your teacher or the assessor to join the dots between an idea and an implication or consequence. Use linking words as they are fantastic for explicitly showing the reader how your ideas are related and thus allow your writing to proceed smoothly.

Therefore, hence, thus, thereby, consequently, subsequently, in addition, additionally, furthermore, moreover, on the other hand, on the contrary, however, henceforth, and so on… The list is endless!

4) ADD OOMPH (through vocabulary)

In general, having a wide vocabulary will allow you to express your ideas and analysis more accurately as you are likely to have access to a precise word that can capture the essence of your idea. Make a vocabulary list for a particular text or for Language Analysis (such as tone words) and aim to use varied language to convey yourself well.

Focus on verbs and expanding your list of synonyms for words such as shows, demonstrates, highlights, emphasises, suggests and so on. An individual, character, author or director may not only be conveying but also denigrating or remonstrating or bolstering or glorifying or insinuating. Adding precision to your writing through careful vocabulary choice will distinguish your writing and also add complexity.

BEWARE! There is a fine line to tread with sophisticated vocabulary - do not overload your writing as you can risk writing convoluted sentences that hinder the reader’s ability to understand your piece. Also make sure that you understand the nuances of each synonym and that they are used in the correct context! (They are synonyms after all - not the same word!)

If you are debating whether to use a word, ask yourself: do you know what it means? 

If yes: Go for it!

If no: Do not use it until you know what it means.

5) READ

Reading sample essays, The Age Text Talks, reviews and more of the texts you are currently studying will expose you to not only a multitude of interpretations of your text, but also to different sentence structures, writing styles or vocabulary that you could incorporate into your own writing.

I would also highly recommend that you read outside of the texts you are studying if you have time, whether that may be novels by the same author or even newspapers. Your written expression will only benefit from this exposure as the ways you can express yourself through writing continue to increase upon seeing others’ eloquence.

6) GET WRITING

If you do not write, you will never be able to improve your written expression. Put pen to paper (or hands to keyboard) and start constructing that essay. You can only fix your writing once you have writing to fix.

Good luck!

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