are there any key points or specific things we can do that make our essays better straight off the bat?
Yes! The most important thing you can do is choose to write about the MOST effective writing choices in the text. To do this, get in the “head” of the target audience. Think about what writing choices would align them with the author’s purpose. If you successfully identify the MOST effective writing choices the author makes, you’ll certainly set yourself apart.
are there any examples of any specific phrases we could use? i know its subjective, but some outlines would help, specifically with maintaining fluidity
In general, something that you can do to maintain fluidity is to track the author’s argument from beginning to middle to end. So the phrases/sentences starters you’ll use here are things like, “In the very opening of her letter…” and "After (Writing Choice 1), the author launches into …).
So phrases that identify the location of your writing choice in the overall placement of the text are what I strongly recommend.
Does that help?