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Filler

When writing essays, avoid filler. Many college students are still in the habit of introducing essays with a lot of this: “We all know that topic X is [very general definition], and X is really interesting, isn’t it? It’s interesting in a bunch of ways. None of which relate to my thesis.”

Instead of this approach, get into the habit of starting with either a clear statement of your big idea—a stake in the ground—or a compelling story that will hook us in. The story may grab us emotionally or via ethical outrage.

In addition to showing up when you aren’t being direct enough, filler can also result from an overly academic voice. Keep it simple! You can—I know this is mind-blowing—write academic essays in a clear, calm style. You can write good academic essays in the way that you explain ideas to your friends. This doesn’t mean writing poorly, eschewing evidence, or throwing in inside jokes and slang; this means keeping your prose clear. Use the prose you know. Experiment here and there with new terms if you like, but don’t strike to “sound smart.”

Many college essays include loads of misused jargon, particularly philosophical jargon. You don’t need to use hard-to-define latinate jargon if you don’t want to. You don’t need to “sound smart.” Your smartness will come from having big, clear, bold ideas—and from delivering them passionately, in flowing paragraphs of vivid prose.

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