Today I’m trying out something a little different – I’m starting a series on the blog about university and academic subjects, starting with some help on writing a great essay. It should be said that I study humanities, and specifics of what you need to include in different essays vary by subject, so although I have tried to keep this advice as generalised as possible there may be some parts that won’t apply to the kind of work you’re doing.
1. Plan it out.
Probably the most obvious tip is plan the damn thing out. Dump all of your points, reference material, and ideas down on one big page, then start rearranging things until it flows well and you know you won’t have to start repeating yourself. Always refer back to the actual essay title if it’s been set, or if you wrote the title yourself, know that you can adapt it if you find yourself planning something that doesn’t quite fit.
2. Reference as you go along.
Especially with shorter essays, it’s really easy to think that you’ll be able to power through and find the sources you quoted once you’re finished. Do not do this. This is a very bad idea. I can’t count how many times in my first year of university I was scrambling to finish hours before the deadline because I couldn’t find the one crucial article in the depths of JSTOR to put in my footnotes. I’m not saying you have to do all of the formatting at once, but definitely jot down the name of the author, the title, and the page number as you go along.
3. Cut the fat.
It’s so tempting to want to show the person marking your essay how much you know, but unless its completely relevant, they won’t care. It’s great that you remember everything you read during your week on feminism, but if your essay is looking at ideas of Marxism you’re just eating up space that could be used to explore your topic better. Same goes for facts, figures, and anecdotes about the thing you’re writing on – if it’s not helping you make a point, it’s a waste of your word count.
4. Be critical of the people you’re referencing.
This is probably one of the most difficult things to do, especially if you’ve just started studying, but it’s what’s going to get you those high marks. If you can quote from a source, that’s fine, but if you can also talk about why it might be biased (or in some cases has since been proven to be incorrect) it shows that you’re not just taking everything for granted, but actually thinking outside of someone else’s ideas and capable of coming up with your own.
5. Show your work in a research context.
The most valuable piece of advice I ever got about writing essays was given to me during the very last module of my degree, and I was so annoyed I didn’t get chance to use it earlier, and that was to make sure your essay talks about why it’s important that you wrote it. In your introduction, discuss what other scholarship there is around your essay topic (just to prove you’ve read it and demonstrate that you’re doing something new), and in your conclusion discuss how your work could be taken further. Obviously the latter might not always work, especially in your first few academic essays, but anything where you’ve done a good amount of research should have something that closely resembles this in the conclusion.
Do you guys have any other tips for essay writing?