One Time-Tested Essay Writing Tip That Guarantees a Better Grade

As I’ve discussed on here before, I’m a straight-A student. Have been since high school. To me, it’s become the norm to receive top marks in my classes–and more specifically, it’s become regular practice to produce work that garners those top marks. As my partner says (oh-so flatteringly) to me regarding my writing, “your okay is a lot of people’s extraordinary“. Every  now and again–usually when I overhear people discussing grades on their exams or papers–I remember that my predicament is not the norm.

And I get to wondering: what are the things I do differently from other students when it comes to my essay writing? What are the techniques I use to create work that’s worth those A+ grades? What’s my process?

It’s a surprisingly difficult thing to unpack. I’ve been writing so avidly, for so long, in so many areas and forms (poems, songs, essays, blog posts, newspaper articles, short stories, novels, research proposals, journaling, and so on), that I’ve forgotten what I picked up and where. My writing style is too integrated and–honestly–too developed for me to pick out the specific tips and techniques that it’s comprised of. I’ve got a big beautiful clock that keeps time to the millisecond–and it is too complex for me to identify the individual gears that make it run.

Some basic things: I understand punctuation in the languages I write in (top tip for those who wonder why punctuation matters: punctuation in written language is like breathing in spoken language. It dictates the length and tone of your pauses, your silence). I draft an outline before I start writing properly, to make sure my overall point is well-made and continuously hearkened back to. I spend time focusing on the transition from one paragraph to the next, and from one point to the next, so that the essay’s internal logic chain is sound.

But after a talk with fellow eAmbassador Krysta, I’ve realized there’s one specific thing I do in essays that, upon reflection, is likely a huge reason I get the grades I do. Ready for it?

I make jokes.

In Defense of Humour in Academic Writing

So exactly how boring and dry is most academic writing? You know exactly how boring and dry it is. You know the university student narrative–chances are you’re living it. Academic writing, for the most part, is a bunch of facts and stats and information and while it could be very interesting and informative, you’re too busy being distracted by the lack of life in the prose to care.

Regarding this, there’s an excellent article by Susan Kirtley on “Medieval Diglossia and Modern Academic Discourse”* that talks about the evolution of the academic writing style/register throughout the Middle English period, where English began to appear alongside Latin and French in the discourse. Kirtley points out how the ‘vernacular’/little-people language, English, bled into the high-brow Latin discourse and eventually merged with it and created a whole new version of academic writing. She argues that we’re overdue for another transformation. She argues that modern academic discourse ought to be expanded beyond the stuffy scholarship we’ve all come to know and to begrudgingly tolerate at university:

Of course, some “purists” argue that the use of vernacular, personal writing should only be a stepping stone, something to  be gradually phased out on  the path to the “higher” thinking of academic discourse. But I don’t buy it. Yes, an academic discourse  that incorporates “home languages” and brings in our experiences and everyday lives will be of a different sort, a
hybrid discourse, but that does not necessarily mean a lesser one. Can we not have our scholarship and our inner lives, our head and our heart? (264)

I think Kirtley’s getting at something that could fundamentally change how students engage with their own academic writing. Imagine you were allowed to incorporate your own personal opinions and experiences in your papers; imagine you were allowed to make use of informal speech mechanisms (first and second person pronouns, contractions like “it’s” and “isn’t”, etc); imagine you were allowed to make snarky (but intelligent) remarks on the material not just to your friends or in your notes but also on your final papers. Imagine it wasn’t just allowed, but encouraged; imagine it got you better grades.

Not a bad idea, is it?

3 Reasons to Include Jokes/Witticism in Your Papers:

  1. It shows you know what you’re talking about–and it does it in a very subtle way. The science of a sense of humour is incredibly complex; it takes smarts to be funny about something. Example: I once made a quip about word choice with regards to Ezra Pound’s translation of the Old English poem The Seafarer. The quip is one line long. It makes implicit reference to paragraphs on paragraphs of information on Old English alliterative verse and stress patterns, Pound’s multilingualism, the etymology of several words, and the complex history between the Norman French and the Anglo-Saxons. You can convey your knowledge overtly in a 500-word text block of background facts, or you can convey it covertly in a one-sentence snipe that, logically, you wouldn’t be able to make without prior knowledge of all the facts that make it funny and/or true. Unless you are writing on a very esoteric topic, your professors are likely in on the joke. And they’ll pick up on the fact that you had to know all the things you know in order to make it effectively.
  2. If you can make them laugh, you’re doing them a massive favour. Here’s the thing: I think a lot of professors are (not-so-)secretly in favour of this approach to essay writing. Sure, on the one hand, there’s a long-standing tradition of academic propriety and distinction and well-maintained distance from the topic at hand–but on the other, if you’re a professor, you’re reading, what twenty papers? Thirty? Sometimes all on the exact same topic? The boredom must be killer. So when you’re on paper #17 of 30  about, say, the notion of gendered language codification (I can already feel you skimming), and your eyes are glazing over and you’re starting to go a little overboard with the red pen out of sheer frustration–and you suddenly come face-to-face with some snarky little quip about the fact that the only thing the English are more terrified of than the French is women? That must come as such a breath of fresh air. That must be such a relief. That must give you a second wind. And it must make you inclined to treat the sarcastic essayist in question with more good favour than you otherwise might have.
  3. It makes the writing process more fun. And goodness knows we academic students could use with a double dose of fun in the course of our studies. This isn’t really a direct reason why jokes = better grades on essays, but better grades are a byproduct of this reason, because the old trope holds true: if you enjoy something, you’ll do better at it. When you care–and in the case of academic discourse, when you’re allowed to show you care–you create/produce/perform more original, outstanding, well-informed work. Most of the students I know have no trouble doing the research for essay topics–they downright enjoy learning about topics in a discipline which they chose (it’s sort of why they’re at university in the first place). The problem always arises when time comes to take all that information and to write it down in a style they are uncomfortable with, a style they feel is awkward and disingenuine by nature. By making jokes in your writing, you alleviate some of the stress that would otherwise come with writing ‘modern academic discourse’.

Of course, it’s a careful craft, making jokes about academic subjects–and depending on your subject, you’ll need a real sense of tact to do it without being just plain offensive (International Relations and Political Science are two majors I can think of that could require a certain sensitivity.) But I truly believe that regardless of subject matter, you can upgrade the power and persuasive force of your essays if you only inject a little satire into the mix.

Have you made wisecracks in your academic writing before? How did it go? If anybody tries to work this strategy into their next essay, please let me know! I love the satisfaction of laughing wholeheartedly at a pun/wordplay/snarky remark that takes significant backstory to understand.

*PS: Shoutout to Professor Mary Catherine Davidson for assigning this article in her History of the English Language course at Glendon! MC Davidson is one of those professors who does away with any sense of academic stuffiness and focuses right in on how scholarship impacts daily life–you’ll never have quite so much fun learning Old English with anyone else. For English and Linguistics majors, I highly recommend all of her courses. (And if anyone wants to read Kirtley’s article in full, you can find it on JSTOR.)


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