5 Essay Writing Tips from the Words of Virginia Woolf

Whether you are still finalizing an essay for that late Feb. 1 admission deadline, crafting a paper for a class, or braving scholarship applications, you may be asking: How do I write a good essay?

From the words of Virginia Woolf, who was born this day on Jan. 25 in 1882, here are five tips:

1. Trust your intuition.

According to Woolf, “The most extraordinary thing about writing is that when you’ve struck the right vein, tiredness goes. It must be an effort, thinking wrong.” (The Diary of Virginia Woolf: 1936-1941, 1984)

If you find yourself laboriously trudging through the page, take it as a cue that something is amiss. Writing can certainly be difficult, but it should never feel forced. Find the right vein, whatever it may be. If you are feeling stuck, try jotting things down on the page. Consider each idea as a string. With each sentence tug a little on each one. Those that break, leave and move on to the next string. The one that can stand the weight of the pull is your vein. Follow it.

2. Seek an educated opinion, but do not let others dictate what you write.

In her famous book-length essay A Room of One’s Own (1929), Woolf warns: “Literature is strewn with the wreckage of those who have minded beyond reason the opinion of others.”

Constructive feedback is integral to essay writing, and literature teachers are correct to implore you to review your essay draft multiple times before submission. It may even be helpful to show your essay to someone you trust: a friend, family member, or tutor. An external opinion may reveal flaws you may be unaware of, and an expert opinion may even guide you in the intricacies of grammar and punctuation. But be wary when it comes to questions of style. Heed your critic’s words, but do not let them rewrite yours.

3. Pick a focus.

For Woolf, “…the art of writing has for backbone some fierce attachment to an idea…. It is on the back of an idea, something believed in with conviction or seen with precision and thus compelling words to a shape…”(“The Modern Essay” first published in The Common Reader, 1925)

Trust the three Cs. A well written essay is clear, coherent, and concise. Before you even begin writing, determine a thesis and stick to it. Think of your thesis as the spearhead of an arrow. Only with a strong thesis, will you be able to hit your target…audience.

4. Cut excess.

In “The Modern Essay,” Woolf differentiates essay writing from all other forms in that, “There is no room for impurities of literature in an essay. Somehow, or other, by dint of labour or bounty of nature, or both combined, the essay must be pure — pure like water or pure like wine, but pure from dullness, deadness, and deposits of extraneous matter.” 

An essay should contain only the essential. Excessive use of descriptive detail may detract from the point you are driving. Prepositional phrases such as, “It is important to note that…” slow down the flow of writing, and unclear pronoun references obfuscate your intent.

5. Stay true to yourself.

Above all else, remember that “So long as you write what you wish to write, that is all that matters; and whether it matters for ages or only for hours, nobody can say.” (A Room of One’s Own)

You may not get to choose what you write on, but the words you set to page are yours alone.

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