How to Get an A

How to Get an “A”: The Super-Secret Knowledge Heretofore Hidden by English Teachers!

Full disclosure:  Although I cannot wave a magical wand and say, “Be witty!  Use language creatively and incisively,” I can go a step in that direction and point out the qualities necessary to move your writing beyond the uneven-but-basically-there “C” essay, and hopefully beyond the solid-but-taking-few-risks “B.”  That said, however, it now becomes incumbent upon you to try these suggestions – not just for the purpose of getting a good grade.  I’m silly enough and idealistic enough to believe that there is a higher and better purpose here no grade can measure or touch: to give you some of the best tools in the world with which to express yourselves.

Use voice.

“Voice” is a rather catchall term that loosely means the writer’s successful communication in written language of her or his unique personality and sensibility.  “Voice” often flows into or partakes of other qualities: the author’s opinions, emotions, reflections, humor, or idiosyncratic phrasing of ideas.  In short, writing that possesses voice sounds anything BUT canned or artificial; it doesn’t sound as if it got cranked out of the DAE (Dreadful Academic Essay) factory.  If you were to read the author’s work aloud, you could give the words a specific emotional value: sarcasm, delight, anomie, irritation, skepticism, grudging approval, or any number of different emotional reactions.  In short, voice is to writing what color is to pictures.


Why does writing with voice work better than writing without it?

  • Communicates ideas more effectively, often with a greater economy of words
  • Makes ideas more memorable
  • More emotionally moving and thus more persuasive to an audience = greater success at accomplishing the fundamental goal of a persuasive essay 

Use nouns.

Nouns are your friends.  Nouns give readers concrete, specific, and tangible images to hold, to smell, to see.  Pronouns are the enemy, for they are vague and colorless.  Relative clauses are also not your friends.  Abstract words are not your friends either.


Lackluster Lustrous
Quantum reality possesses a fundamental order. God does not play dice with the world. Albert Einstein
I feel guilty right now. Will all great Neptune’s ocean wash this blood clean from my hand?–William Shakespeare
We are surrounded by treacherous individuals. Where we are, there’s daggers in men’s smiles.William Shakespeare

Use figurative language.

Figurative language – especially those fabulous workhorses, similes and metaphors – are to writing what bubbles are to champagne: they often communicate an idea more effectively, more specifically, and more clearly than simply “the facts” by themselves would do.  The reason for this is simple: similes and metaphors or other figures of speech use nouns to communicate.  They concretize abstractions, making them real and tangible.


Lackluster Lustrous
I am engaged in a purposeless endeavor. In a net I seek to hold the wind.
I am quite disturbed. My mind is full of scorpions.


 Use comparisons, examples, analogies.

Even if a comparison isn’t as poetically metaphorical as Shakespeare, an apt comparison can hammer home a point with force and vividness.  Compare a situation to a scene from literature, pop culture, history, politics – even to the YouTube double rainbow guy – and you have managed to communicate your point in a memorable fashion.   Saying that Edward Cullen of Twilight has an unhealthy fascination with Bella is one thing; pointing out that he’s a teenage Ted Bundy with sparkles is another.  Don’t we have a better idea of Lady Macbeth if we say that she’s the Sue Sylvester of Scotland?

 Vary your sentence structure.

Parallel structure, anaphora, anadiplosis, chiasmus – these are more than vaguely-threatening terms that may or may not refer to evil microbes!  Instead, they are sentence structures that YOU TOO can play with for effect.  We’ve studied the “veni, vidi, vici” effect of parallel structure, but now check out MLK’s “I Have a Dream speech for examples of anaphora (the repetition of words or phrases at the beginnings of several successive clauses), or try out anadiplosis or chiasmus.  Varying your sentence structure, at the very least, makes your writing less monotonous – and allows you to emphasize certain points or ideas without a lot of unnecessary repetition.

 Please have a sense of humor (when appropriate).

Please.  Just please.  Making a humorous observation (when the humor itself would be an effective tool to communicate your point) can be a wickedly effective argumentative tool.  Humor has the ability to cut right to the essence of an issue in a way that “straight” commentary often does not: that’s why scores of people get their political news from Jon Stewart.



Yes, I am asking you to care about what you write enough to have a genuine opinion about it.  It is utterly irrelevant whether I agree or disagree with your opinion.  What I do care about – and profoundly – is that YOU care about it.  To my vast regret, most essays have as much depth of feeling as the average shopping list – and this includes some of the essays I wrote when I was in high school and college. 


Having an opinion means selecting some issue or some topic or some idea that matters to you.  It often means finding an issue in your text that’s controversial and picking sides: Is Shakespeare’s Othello racist?  Is Ayn Rand a sociopath?  Is Gregor Samsa a Christ-figure? Often, your negative emotions are a rich and fabulous source for good papers.  Did some aspect of the text annoy you? Did the author take a position with which you disagree?  Are you apparently the only person in the world who didn’t like this book?  Good.  Having an opinion almost automatically gives you “voice.”


And last, for the example-hungry among us:

Lackluster Writing Lustrous Writing
I postulate the following future goal: that the state of Mississippi, a place which I find to be notable for its injustice and oppression of others, will one day become notable for its freedom and justice.  I have a dream that one day even the state of Mississippi, a state sweltering with the heat of injustice, sweltering with the heat of oppression, will be transformed into an oasis of freedom and justice.— Martin Luther King, Jr. 
Objective considerations of contemporary phenomena compel the conclusion that success or failure in competitive activities exhibits no tendency to be commensurate with innate capacity, but that a considerable element of the unpredictable must invariably be taken into account.— George Orwell, mocking bad writing in “Politics and the English Language”  I returned and saw under the sun, that the race is not to the swift, nor the battle to the strong, neither yet bread to the wise, nor yet riches to men of understanding, nor yet favour to men of skill; but time and chance happeneth to them all.— Ecclesiastes
It will be agreed that individuals are born with certain inherent rights which society cannot remove from those individuals; specifically, that individuals inherently possess a right to life, to a limitation of artificial restraints, and to define one’s goals for oneself and to achieve those goals.  We hold these truths to be self-evident: that all men are created equal; that they are endowed by their Creator with certain inalienable rights; that among these are life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness…— The Declaration of Independence


Here are George Orwell’s rules for good writing:


(i ) Never use a metaphor, simile, or other figure of speech which you are used to seeing in print.

(ii) Never use a long word where a short one will do.

(iii) If it is possible to cut a word out, always cut it out.

(iv) Never use the passive where you can use the active.

(v) Never use a foreign phrase, a scientific word, or a jargon word if you can think of an everyday English equivalent.

(vi) Break any of these rules sooner than say anything outright barbarous.


For further reading:

  1. START HERE: George Orwell, “Politics and the English Language” —  Yes, I know it’s a dull-sounding title.  Click it anyway.  More than almost any other author I can think of, George Orwell has a dog in this fight: he saw firsthand how language is used to manipulate  thought.  Manipulate language enough, Orwell knew, and you eliminate the possibility of revolution — even in thought.  Rob people of words and you rob them of the ability to communicate, even to themselves.
  2. HUMOR: For devastatingly effective use of humor, check out Jessica Mitford’s bitingly satiric – and very effective — exposé of the funeral industry, The American Way of Death NOTE: This selection concerns the postmortem treatment of a human body and may not be suitable for all audiences.   You are not required to read the selection.
  3. VOICE: Some of the best examples of voice – not surprisingly – come from great speeches, including this one.  Sojourner Truth was arguing the validity of a commonly-believed syllogism: Women are weak; you are a woman; therefore, you are weak.  As a former slave hardened emotionally and physically by the events of her life, Truth was able to refute this argument with an economy of language and sincerity of voice that remains impressive to this day:
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