10 Steps for Improving your NCEA Writing for Excellence
Whether you’re studying Scholarship English or L1 Geography, you can improve your writing.
As great modern philosopher Hannah Montana once said, “Nobody’s perfect, you live and you work it, again and again ‘til you get it right”.
Ok, we’re two sentences in and you’ve already been given a Hannah Montana quote, but we promise it’s all useful from here on.
Writing skills are probably one of the most – if not the most – important strengths you can work on for all aspects of education now and in the future.
It’s not just about English; it’s about communicating your ideas through effective structure and style, and that’s just a great thing to have in life – during NCEA, writing essays at uni, or emails to potential clients.
So, without further adieu (that’s a silly word no one really knows the real meaning of; don’t use it), here’s 10 StudyTime-approved tips for taking your writing to the next level.
Step 1. Structure it
The first one’s pretty obvious, but it’s important to really get this one down before moving on to anything else.
Your essay should be structured in two ways: macro-structured and micro-structured. That’s just a fancy way of saying you should have proper paragraphs, and your paragraphs should be on point. As in, they should literally have a point.
Your essays should have an introduction, a conclusion, and main paragraphs (generally, three+ is ideal).
Your introduction should explain your argument, why it’s important, and give the main points you’ll use to help prove it.
Each main paragraph should get a main point.
When you conclude, you basically say that you’ve been right all along. For more detailed and arguably better tips for structuring your essays, check out our article on it here.
Your paragraphs should start by stating your point (the purpose of your paragraph), which is there to prove your overall argument. If you’re writing your essay about how the best heroes are the ones that aren’t heroic, the main point of your paragraph shouldn’t be why Puss n’ Boots made you cry, although this is a perfectly valid opinion.
Instead, it should be to give the reader a point for you: one neat trick is to begin by saying in your head, “[My purpose of this paragraph is to prove that] …”
After you’ve done this, make sure to give some evidence (a quote, a camera technique, a stat, a symbol, whatever you’ve picked up from SparkNotes) and then explain how and why it proves you point. Again, check out that article. This one.
Step 2. Punctuation and Grammar
Again, you’ll be surprised how often this trips people up. Generally, your marker will have degrees. They’ll be actually qualified to say that they’re really, really good at English.
A consequence of this is that they’re able to spot grammatical errors from a mile away. And this will grind their gears.
Your writing should follow the same pace as a speech would. And a good one, like Obama’s (not you know who).
This means two things.
First, avoid sentences that are way too long. A good way to work this out is reading through your sentence aloud without taking a breath if: if you pass out – it’s too long.
Secondly, your sentences should have different lengths, because this helps create rhythm. Be punchy. Be bold. Be short. Experiment. The trick is to mix it up – like I am now – and end your paragraph with a longer sentence to give more detail.
When you’re reading your essay out loud, imagine that you’re speaking to a group of people. Full stops are a pause; commas are a breath; and semicolons are the things no one really knows how to use (Google it if you’re really keen).
If you’d sound weird speaking your essay aloud – revise, revise, revise.
Step 3. Vocab
The above GIF is for aesthetic purposes and ‘cuz we couldn’t find any relevant word-related GIFS. Let me be clear: words are very necessary to good writing.
Similarly to punctuation, your vocabulary should be interesting.
No one wants to read an essay or short story using the same few words – but everyone seems to use the same ones when writing an essay.
‘Shows’ is one. ‘Because’ is another. And don’t get me started on ‘audience’ or ‘readers’.
Whomever is reading your essay has probably heard that “this quote shows the theme of love” a million times, so give them a breath of fresh air – you’ll impress them, and it will make your writing sound more descriptive and academic.
‘Demonstrates’, ‘conveys’, ‘portrays’, ‘depicts’, ‘displays’, ‘evidences’, are all good ones. If in doubt, use an online Thesaurus. But please make sure you know what the new word means, and that it actually makes sense.
Don’t use smart words for smart words’ sake. Use them to ~embellish~ what you’re trying to say.
Step 4. Flow
Flowing/linking is something that everyone’s teacher has written on their essays at least once in their lives.
Simply put, flow means that not only do your paragraphs and sentences need to have points that help prove your overall argument, but that they should build on one another to serve that purpose.
Think of it like arguing a case in court: you’re persuading the jury that you’re right on point A, which means you’re right on point B, and then C, and so they should definitely let you off for all those songs you illegally downloaded when you were twelve.
Step 5. Describing and Feeling (for creative writing)
This is where your innate creativity comes in handy.
Ideally, you want to make your reader’s perspective on life better after reading your work.
This means that you should be painting vivid pictures in their mind, and giving them feelings in their heart.
And that means two things: descriptive and emotive language.
Descriptive language is language that describes something in detail, such as adjectives (for things/people) and adverbs (for actions). More than that, though, it’s things like metaphors, similes, and personification. Anything to really spice up your description of that tree.
Emotive language is carefully chosen words and sentences to hit your reader right in the feels. Maybe you build up emotive tension by telling the reader about the adorable romance of the kids in the playground, before that tree you were just describing falls on one of them.
In any case, you want to use words that makes the reader think of positive or negative things (“the starving puppy whimpers quietly in the gutter”, for example).
Step 6. The creative hook (for creative writing)
Everyone’s read a piece of creative writing that starts with a rant about the storm outside. Be unique. Be different.
Your first sentence, and your first paragraph, should grab the reader’s attention as if they were watching the first scene of the movie of the century (Puss n’ Boots).
Start with a witty narration from the main character, or a witty narration from a very unimportant character, or a huge event and work your way backwards, or just something interesting. Anything but the weather.
Step 7. The philosopher’s hook (for English essays)
Just because you’re writing a formal piece doesn’t mean that you need to be boring about it. For essays trying to prove an idea, you should start your essay with a bit of a yarn (only a few sentences) about why this idea is important.
If you’re trying to prove how the best heroes are the ones that aren’t heroic, begin by talking about how it’s a fact of life that it’s the characters that are most like us that are the most powerful.
If you’re writing about how symbolism shows (sorry, conveys) the themes of love and death, begin by wowing the marker with your intellectual observation of how Shakespeare subtly taught his readers about the dangers of listening to your heart.
Or something, idk.
Step 8. The iceberg metaphor
Regardless of what you’re writing, one of the most important things is that you explain the how and the why.
It’s not enough to just give your reader a point or a fact. You need to tell them how it works, how this is shown (sorry, demonstrated), why it works, why the author used that symbol, and why this proves your overall argument.
Step 9. The Holy Trinity (for English Essays)
~~ SOCIETY, THE HUMAN CONDITION, LITERATURE ~~
Consider these three terms “the holy trinity” of an Excellence in English.
If you can weave one or two of those into your essay about symbolism, you’re onto a good thing. English markers have English degrees, and so they like to be reminded of how important texts are.
Furthermore, NCEA is asking you not to prove that you watched Schindler’s List, but how your ideas about life have changed.
As such, bring it back to:
Society: you can talk about how whatever your writing is important to society, is an issue in society (and how and why this is), or what society can learn from it.
The human condition: bring it back to the things that make us human. Jealousy, heartbreak, greed, family, all that stuff.
Literature: ALWAYS bring your argument back to other literature or art that follows similar themes. For example, if you’re dealing with an protagonist who has a lot of unsavoury traits – try talking about the concept of the anti-hero, and how your character fits into that literary trope.
Step 10. Drop the Mic
If you can’t imagine dropping the mic after your final sentence, it’s not strong enough.
And that’s it! Implement these ten steps into your daily life, and you’ll be amazed by the results.