18 common myths about essay writing

Myths about essay writing abound. Some are valid; many are false. Some are universal in application; others apply to specific disciplines or classes of students. Below, I list 18 myths with suggested grounds for their dismissal. Can you think of others? Is there something here that you don’t consider to be a myth? Let me know what you think.

Myth 1: A good writer is born, not made.

This is the genius fallacy. Writing skills are not genetically predetermined, fixed, and beyond your control. Good writers rise to their level of expertise by acquiring skills and experience in writing, and through perseverance.

Myth 2: I need to be in the mood to write.

Good writing, like most purposeful tasks, isn’t dependent on good feelings. Beginning a writing session is a matter of willpower. Start writing, and before you know it you will have produced a sentence, a paragraph, an essay.

Myth 3: I should write every day.

This is good advice for creative writers, but not necessarily for academic writers. To complete a PhD thesis in a limited timeframe, you may need to write daily, but the point is to keep fresh and productive, avoiding extended periods of non-writing.

Myth 4: I should write at a desk.

No. You should write, and pursue all writing rituals, in an environment where you have maximum comfort and inspiration and minimal distractions.

Myth 5: ESL writers can’t be good writers

ESL writers may be exceptionally good writers who simply need coaching and training to adapt to the conventions of English prose. Similar advice applies to STEM graduates who need to write essays for humanities subjects.

Myth 6: My opinion is irrelevant.

An essay is an invitation to set forth rationally persuasive claims and evaluation, expressing your own conclusions based on your analysis of data and information.

Myth 7: Bigger words make better grades.

The use of unnecessarily long or sophisticated words may suggest that you are hiding a lack of ideas, research, or valid argument. Avoid words that distract readers or make your writing unclear. Note, however, that some concepts can only be succinctly expressed through certain words.

Myth 8: Good grammar skills guarantee better grades.

Correct use of grammar and punctuation are secondary to the ideas, purpose, argument, and research findings of your essay. An essay that is grammatically correct but poorly structured, or stilted, is likely to attract lower grades.

Myth 9: I must avoid first-person narration and active voice.

Different audiences and disciplines have different rules on these aspects of grammar. First-person narration and active voice deliver a more informal style. Active voice is often less confusing than passive voice (which omits the active subject, making it hard to determine agency), and uses fewer words. Refer to your academic style guide.

Myth 10: A thesis statement should comprise one sentence.

Don’t feel obliged to condense your entire argument into a single sentence. Do what communicates best.

Myth 11: An essay should have five paragraphs.

The five-paragraph format is useful as training wheels are for cyclists. Generally, each paragraph in the body of your essay should express one coherent idea supported by evidence.

Myth 12: Adding direct quotes makes the argument for me.

A direct quotation requires a signal phrase, some context, and an explanation as to why you included it. If it does not clearly advance your argument, don’t use it.

Myth 13: Writing skills are transferable across disciplines.

Each academic discipline has its own key concepts and language conventions. Shifting to another discipline usually requires some degree of reskilling.

Myth 14: A good writer knows what they want to say before they begin writing.

Writing often clarifies and improves our thoughts in ways that mere thinking does not. The best writing is almost always the fruit of extensive drafting and redrafting.

Myth 15: I need to know the main argument before I begin a large research paper or thesis.

A thesis statement usually represents the outcome, not the origin, of a research question. The process of research and writing reveals new insights and may compel you to adjust or overhaul your original plan and structure.

Myth 16: My thesis must be brilliantly conceived, structured, and written.

Your thesis needs to be good enough to justify your graduation. It’s a beginning. As Peg Boyle Single says, “Let your thesis be the worst piece of research you ever do.”

Myth 17: A good essay doesn’t need revision and editing.

A deadline and a word limit are only part of the process. Revising, editing and proofreading are all part of the work of writing a quality essay.

Myth 18: Only bad writers need feedback.

Every writer has something to improve. If you intend others to read your work, you should value critique and advice. The purpose of feedback is not to make you feel comfortable but to improve your communication skills.

Written by Rod Benson. Image source: The Guardian

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