Study Guide - Writing Essays
Working on an essay?
Two pieces of essential advice at the outset
1. Give yourself plenty of time
2. Understand the question
These may sound like obvious points to make, but too many essays get poor grades because the student has ignored one or both of these essentials. Essay titles are often given out several weeks, or even a month or more, before the deadline, and students can make the mistake of thinking that they don't need to bother doing anything about it just yet. However, that time can disappear very quickly, especially when other assignments come along that also need to be fitted into the time available. A rushed job at the last minute is never going to be a success!
It is always worth knowing from the outset exactly what the question means. If you answer the question that you think is being asked, rather than what is actually there in front of you, you can hardly expect to get an A!
Be sure that you know exactly what all the words in the question mean. If in doubt, look it up! Very few essay topics are phrased along the lines of "write everything you know about X", so don't do it! You will be asked to look at the topic from a particular aspect or persepctive, or to consider the effects of some circumstance or influence on the subject of the essay. In other words, you will be asked to think about it! (which is another good reason for giving yourself plenty of time).
If you are really puzzled by the question, ask your teacher or tutor for advice. It sometimes happens that a question is ambiguous, in that it could be interpreted in more than one way. If you explain how you understand the question, you will either get a positive or negative response. You may be encouraged to go ahead with your interpretation of the question, or told that you are barking up the wrong tree. You won't know which unless you ask!
When you first see the question, you will almost certainly get some immediate ideas about how you might tackle it. There will be certain aspects that you know will be important in your answer. It is worth jotting these down as you think of them. As you read the source material that will form the basis of the information that you will present and discuss in the essay, other main themes will come to mind, and these can be noted as well.
Later on, you will realise that some of your jotted notes relate to each other in various ways. Some of the themes will turn out to be sub-themes of your main themes, whereas some will appear to be very different from each other.
You can now start to map these themes out, placing key words and phrases in "bubbles" on the page and drawing links between them. There is a whole science of "mind mapping" that you might want to explore in more depth, but for now all you need do is get all the concepts down on paper in a way that makes sense to you.
There are two other things to remember at the planning stage:
1. You will have a word limit for your essay. It is worth deciding approximately how many words to assign to each element of the essay, so that the whole thing is well-balanced. Bear in mind that you will need space to develop each idea, so don't include more material than you can deal with in the space available.
2. Beware of analysis paralysis! This means getting so involved with the planning that you don't actually get started on the essay itself. It is sometimes worth writing a few paragraphs before you have finished reading and planning. You can change things later, and it is always psychologically satisfying to know that you have made a real start!
In music, a typical movement in a symphony or concerto (or sonata) has a particular structure that is relevant to essay writing. This is in three parts: exposition, development, and recapitulation. In musical terms, the effect is to get the audience's attention, tell them a story, and sum it all up at the end. That is just what your essay needs to do!
Start with an opening statement that shows that you understand the question. You might even want to offer your definition of what some of the words or phrases in the question mean. Then outline the themes of the essay, but don't do any more at this stage than state what it is you intend to prove or argue in what is to follow. This paragraph should not be more than 10% of the whole essay.
Take each theme in turn, bring your evidence forward, and argue your point based on that evidence. You can bring in evidence that contradicts your point, so that you can argue against it and explain why one side of the argument is stronger than the other. However, it is not good practice to only produce evidence with which you disagree. This is like seting up the pins with the sole intention of knocking them down!
If there are sub-themes, bring them forward in relation to the main theme, but don't lose track of the main argument by making the essay too complicated.
You need to make it very clear where evidence ends and opinion begins. You can do this using such phrases as "As Partridge states in his paper", then stating or quoting the evidence, then continuing with your assessment of that evidence using phrases such as "It can be argued that ... " or "However, personal experience suggests that ...".
When using evidence from your reading, you can use direct quotation or you can paraphrase the actual words. Don't be tempted to quote more than you actually need to make your point. Anyone can fill their word quota simply by copying out the words of others, but this does not show much evidence of your own ability to explain a point and make balanced judgments. Always, if you are quoting text, place the quoted words between inverted commas (quote marks). Never copy the source materrial in such a way that it looks as though the words are your own; that is plagiarism and it is bound to lose you marks.
Paraphrasing means rewriting the text in your own words, which is a good way of demonstrating that you have understood what you have read. However, you still need to credit the originator of the ideas by saying so. Use the method of citing and referencing that is prescibed by your school or college.
Remember that you are using the evidence to support or illustrate the points that you are making in answering the question. It is good practice to use evidence from several sources throughout your essay, thus showing that you have read more than one book, but in a short essay you will use up too many words by using more evidence than is necessary to support your argument.
This is where you draw the threads of your argument together and present your conclusion. You should not repeat what has gone before, but merely summarise it, and you must not introduce any new argument at this stage. You might however wish to say that there is more that could have been said had space permitted, but don't overdo this line, otherwise the tutor will wonder why you didn't do so if you appear to have so many words to spare! Your final sentence should state your answer to the question and round it all up, much as the orchestra comes to a final crashing chord and brings the audience to its feet! As with the Exposition, this paragraph should be around 10% of the whole essay.
Some final thoughts
Remember to make good use of paragraphs when you write. Essays are much easier to read if the text is broken up into manageable chunks, but each chunk must have a reason for being as it is. Every sentence within a paragraph must have a close relationship with every other sentence.
Draft, revise and rewrite. Your first version may well be a mess, especially if you have introduced new thoughts and removed material that you have changed your mind about. Just like a sculptor, you have to knock off the rough edges of your creation and polish it to perfection!
Read the whole thing through several times, looking for different things each time. You need to check that it says just what you want it to say, that the objectives stated in your opening paragraph have been met, that the grammar and spelling are correct, and that you have not made any silly typing errors.
Proofreading is best done by someone else, because you will read the words as you thought you wrote them, and another person will read them as they are! You could offer to help a friend in the same way, but preferably not a friend who is doing the same assignment as you!
Before long you will get the essay back from the tutor, along with their comments. Take good note of these, and not just the grade he/she has awarded you. If you have made mistakes, you can learn from them for next time!