9 Ways to Write a More Original Essay to Impress Your Teachers and Improve Your Marks

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As a bright student who aspires to the upper echelons of the university league tables and the highest degree classification, you’re naturally going to want your essays to stand out from the crowd.

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Faced with the same essay question and reading material, it’s likely that there’s going to be a significant degree of conformity among the essays produced by your classmates. Having read the same literature or scholarship, everyone tends to end up writing much the same thing – which must get rather boring for the person marking it! If you want to reach the top marks and impress your teacher or lecturer, as well as developing your own knowledge of the subject and cultivating your capacity for original thinking, you need to start writing more original essays. So how do you make yours a bit different, so that it gets noticed? Here are a few tips to give you some inspiration.

1. Choose an obscure topic

Image shows a painting by Charles Waterhouse of the Attack on Derna in the First Barbary War.
An illustration of the attack on Derna in the First Barbary War.

If you want to write an essay that nobody else is going to be writing, you’ll need to start by selecting a topic that nobody else is going to be writing about. Of course, you may not have this option if you’ve had an essay title dictated to you, but if you’ve been given free rein (as you’re more likely to be when you’re at university, if only for your thesis title), this is your opportunity to go for something more individual. Perhaps rather than writing about something general, you could hone in on the specific and choose something that’s less well known, but show that it too is important and worthy of greater consideration. For example, say you were set an essay on the subject of war and asked to write about one in particular. We’re willing to bet that most students would opt for World War I or World War II, simply because they’re the best known and there’s a lot written about them. If you wanted to write something more original, you could choose a lesser-known conflict, such as the First Barbary War (1801 – 1805) between the United States and the Barbary States, which were made up of modern Morocco, Algeria, Tunisia and Libya. It’ll be the last thing your teacher or tutor will be expecting, and, providing you can say intelligent things about it, your essay should stand out from the crowd for all the right reasons.
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2. Defend a minority opinion

Image shows an artist's impression of a habitable planet.
The theory of panspermia – that all life on Earth was originally extra-terrestrial – still has some scientific currency but may be too much of a minority opinion for your essay.

If you can’t find a suitably obscure topic to write about that’s within the limits of the brief you’ve been set, your other option is to argue the case for an opinion that deviates from the standard accepted one. For extra brownie points this could even be your own theory, providing that you have a reasonable amount of evidence to support it, and providing that you also consider other opinions in your essay. Be careful with doing this, as you could risk making a fool of yourself if you choose to defend a widely discredited opinion with lots of evidence stacked against it. If you do choose this tactic, brainstorm all the possible objections or responses to it and pre-empt them in your essay. This way, as the person marking your essay reads through it and starts to think, “But what if…?” or “and how about…?”, you’ll have a response ready and waiting for them. This will show that you’ve thought about it in considerable depth, adding weight to your argument and proving that you’re someone with the intellectual curiosity to explore new ideas.

3. Read obscure scholarship

Image shows dusty old bookshelves.
You may find yourself searching through books that haven’t seen much attention.

If you read the same material as everyone else, the chances are fairly high that you’ll end up writing a very similar essay to everyone else. While you should certainly not disregard the material on your reading list – far from it – you can do a little extra reading outside the prescribed literature and impress your teacher or tutor with your additional knowledge. If you’re not sure where to start with finding other things to read, here are some good sources of information and advice:
– Your teacher or tutor – the easiest way to get a few extra ideas for additional reading material is to ask your teacher or tutor. They should be willing to provide you with this, and you’ll also score some more brownie points upfront by asking in the first place. A word of warning, though: if you’ve asked for extra reading material, they’ll probably be expecting to see evidence in your essay that you’ve read it! So be careful you don’t shoot yourself in the foot.
– Footnotes – these are a great place to look for additional (relevant) reading material by scholars or writers who’ve been cited somewhere in the text, but who may not have been on your original reading list. The author and title of the publication should be included in the footnote, with more details in the bibliography at the back.
– Ask the librarian – though the librarian isn’t going to know every single piece of scholarship in the library like the back of their hand, they may be able to point you in the direction of some other publications that may contain relevant material.
– Google search – though you should try to avoid using the internet for performing actual research, it could prove useful in locating some scholarship on the subject you’re writing about. If you read a Wikipedia article, the points made in the article should have clickable footnotes for supporting evidence; click on them, and you’ll jump to the bottom of the page for details of where this point came from. Then you just need to look up the book or article, either in the library or online (if you search the title of the publication, you might be able to find a digital version available to read online).

4. Try a different structure

Image shows a French flag.
Be aware that some subjects, such as French, have a rigid structure for essays; keep your variations within the structure you’ve been told to use.

If you’re struggling to find something original to say in the actual content of your essay, you could instead try experimenting with a different structure to the one you imagine your peers will be using. Particularly at A-level, you’ll find that what you’ve learned in class, and the way in which the questions are worded, makes a particular structure suggest itself straightaway. Rather than going with your first inclination, you could perhaps experiment with a different way of structuring it. That doesn’t mean you should dispense with the conventions of an introduction and conclusion, of course. Trying a new structure just means thinking outside the box when it comes to how you deal with the evidence you have available to discuss. Doing something different with the structure should capture the interest of the person marking it – but do make sure it’s for the right reasons, rather than because your argument is all over the place!

5. In English Literature, compare your set text with others

Image shows a detail from the Canadian cover of Animal Farm.
An essay on 1984 might reference Animal Farm.

If you’re asked to write an essay about the set text you’re working on, it can be difficult to come up with something original. You and your classmates will probably be regurgitating the same interpretations given to you by your English teacher, and although this is an opportunity to come up with your own original interpretations, it’s not always possible to think of something that hasn’t already been thought of. A possible avenue for writing something a bit more original in this situation is to add in some comparisons with between the set text and other literature of the same author or period, or upon which your set text may have had an influence.
For example, say you’re studying Nineteen Eighty-Four by George Orwell. Unless they’ve been instructed otherwise, your classmates are probably going to stick exclusively to talking about this specific book. So, to be more original, you could bring in other works by Orwell, as well as other dystopian fiction likely to have been influenced by Orwell. An example of a phrase you might use could be, “This is an idea Orwell had touched on four years previously in Animal Farm…”. Or, “This idea was to have a profound influence on Margaret Atwood, who developed the idea decades later in The Handmaid’s Tale”.
Try not to shoehorn references to other works into your essay just for the sake of it; only include them where it would develop your argument further, or add some context. Done properly, referring to other texts in this way helps make your essay more original at the same time as impressing the person marking it with the breadth of your knowledge.

6. Include photographs, charts and other illustrations

Imaeg shows a famous cartoon on the US decision not to join the League of Nations.
Contemporary images can support your essay.

Provided they don’t detract from the words, visual illustrations could be another way to add originality to your essay. While you’ll need to be careful that they don’t come across as trying to divert attention away from an ill-formed argument in the writing itself, illustrations – such as charts, graphs, tables, photographs, diagrams and so on – can be a great way to support the text and make the overall essay more rich and interesting. Carefully thought-out visual features such as these can be an extremely effective way of conveying information, and, if nothing else, will certainly give your teacher or lecturer something of a break in the monotony of essay-marking!

7. Use more advanced language and syntax

Making use of a good vocabulary and employing advanced sentence structures are ways in which you can make your essay more linguistically original. What’s more, rather than aping the written style of whichever author or scholar you happen to be reading at the time, make sure you write in your own voice. That doesn’t mean you should write conversational English; it simply means that you need to find your own tone of voice and communicate confidently in it. The reader needs to feel that you know what you’re talking about, so confident use of language, in particular the effective use of sophisticated words and more advanced syntax, are crucial. Your essay shouldn’t read as though you’ve had a thesaurus next to you while you were writing it and replaced all the simpler words with more complicated ones; but a cleverly delivered under-used word will give a good impression.

8. Use an analogy

Image shows an army fire helicopter spreading water onto a forest fire.
The rate at which water comes out of the bucket declines exponentially, a handy analogy for radioactive decay.

This tip may not be applicable to all essays, but one way of making your essay more original is to explain a complex concept using an analogy. An analogy, simply put, is when you compare one thing with another to help explain something. Most students will battle on with trying to explain something with a straightforward definition. However, if you can find a simpler way of explaining it using an analogy, then you may be able to summarise the concept far more effectively. For example, the pressure with which water escapes from a bucket with a hole in it can be used to explain exponential decay in radioactive substances. In both cases, the rate of a consumptive process depends on how much there is left of whatever is being depleted, which results in an exponential rate of decay. Drawing comparisons in this way takes advantage of the reader’s existing knowledge of something else to explain something new to them. Providing your analogy doesn’t become too tenuous, this is a sure-fire way to deliver greater originality in your essay.

9. Give your own opinion

Many students are so absorbed in writing about the opinions of other people that they forget to include anything of their own. This gives you an easy way of making your essay more original than theirs, by including your own opinion. You should avoid using the pronoun “I” too much (the received wisdom is that you should never say it, but there is a time and a place in my view), and your essay shouldn’t revolve around it; but there’s certainly nothing wrong with giving your own intelligent responses to the things you’ve read. Doing so shows a genuine interest in the subject, and it’s unlikely that your classmates will have made such an effort as this.
With a little extra effort and thought, it’s relatively easy to make your essay stand out from the crowd. Is it worth putting in this extra elbow grease? Absolutely. You’ll be rewarded with good academic references, a deeper knowledge and, ultimately, better grades.


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Image credits: banner; Derna; planet; dusty books; flag; Animal Farm; cartoon; bucket