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Tips for Writing Better Essays

Welcome back to The Curiosity Concept!

If you’re new here, hello, welcome, take a seat anywhere you’re comfortable.

This week’s post is all about everyone’s favourite topic – essay writing!

Okay, so it might not be the most fun activity ever, but it is definitely one that most students have a shared experience of stressing over.

Honestly, my essay writing process tends to involve countless cups of tea and coffee; typing in lots of filler words because I’m under the word count; stressing because then I’m suddenly like 500 words over the word count; constantly googling synonyms for ‘therefore’; and working for an hour and a half only to reward myself with a four hour ‘break’.

Although I’ve never found essay writing easy (which links to my previous post, Learning isn’t supposed to be easy) I’ve always preferred and chosen essay-based subjects like English, History, Psychology and now Law, which means that over the years I’ve learned methods for writing better essays and as I’ve used them, my skills have definitely improved.

So, as March brings with it essay writing season (instead of Spring, apparently), I’ve written this post to share some tips on writing better essays.

Also, shout out to my friends Isabel and Nana for sharing their great tips with me and allowing me to include them here!


Read and understand the question/task

The first step to take when writing an essay is to understand what you’re being asked to do. Pay attention to the terms, or directive words, used in the question to guide your approach to researching and writing. Directive words can include:

  • Analyse
  • Evaluate
  • Explain
  • Discuss
  • To what extent / How far

Giving an explanation of all directive words would make this post way too long, but a general tip is that good essays go beyond just describing the topic or regurgitating facts.

In a simplified sense, ‘analyse’, ‘evaluate’, ‘discuss’ and other directive words ask you to take a deep approach and engage with the issues within the topic critically, exploring why or how something is the way that it is and, if relevant, maybe suggesting ways in which it could be improved.

‘To what extent’ and ‘how far’ questions require that you make a judgment after you have considered contrasting ideas and opinions.

The University of Leicester has a table that explains lots of directive words in good detail – click here to check it out.


Braindump your ideas

Once you’ve understood what you’re supposed to do, take time to write down everything you know about the topic.

You could do this in the form of a mindmap, placing the question in the centre and branching off with every concept, idea or further question that you can think of. In this way, braindumps are useful because they can show you that you actually know more than you might have initially thought.

Nana’s tip related to this is to always start by planning the essay, and the braindump stage is great for this because once you have transferred all your thoughts on the topic from your head to the paper, you can then organise them and create a basic skeleton of your whole essay, bullet pointing your initial ideas, questions and arguments.

I’ve found that braindumps can also help get over the initial fear of the blank page. It might be a bit irrational, but the fact that the screen is completely blank, and I’m somehow expected to conjure 3,000 words of critical evaluation, can be quite intimidating. But, making that first mark and typing that first word, whatever it may be, means that there will only be 2,999 words left. Then 2,998. 2,997, 2,996…

The fact that what you initially put down isn’t going to be perfect is okay – treat the braindump as the first draft that you can then start building on and refining.


Find a wide variety of resources and determine how you will use them

After the braindump and skeleton planning stage, you can then get into researching your ideas.

Your reading list, the library and Google are the basic places to start when looking for material, but a crucial tip here is to go beyond the journal articles and books you’ve been given by your teachers and lecturers. They expect you to use what they give to you, so doing your own independent research means you can bring something different or present a more nuanced argument in your essay.

I recommend Google Scholar, Hein Online, JSTOR and Wiley Online Library as online databases to use when looking for books and articles.

Two tips for when you’re looking for material:

  • Don’t be afraid of sources that challenge your ideas. Markers and examiners are looking for you to be able to identify areas where there is a debate, so make use of resources that don’t agree with your argument in order to show that you can critique different ideas and also support your own arguments.
  • Don’t be afraid of a difficult text. As I explained in my previous post, difficulty encourages development. If something is hard to read, set aside more time to really pick it apart or start by finding other sources that either explain it or are on the same topic (YouTube videos are good for this) and then go back to the original with some sort of introduction to it. I do this for all of my essays and so far it has worked out well for me.

You might not end up using all of the resources you find, but taking a look at what’s out there that is related to your topic aids your own understanding and could bring something new to your attention that sparks your curiosity. And I’m clearly a strong advocate for being curious.

Then, when it comes to figuring out how you will synthesize what you’ve researched into something of your own, Isabel’s advice is to read with your plan in mind. If you have organised your initial points into some main ideas or categories, read your sources and place what you find into these main categories as you go. This way, you’ll already be building up your plan and separating material that is relevant from that which isn’t.


Start writing. Like, actually writing

Let’s face it. At some point, the essay has to be written.

In school, you may have been taught the point, evidence, explain, link/analyse (PEEL/A) model for writing and it might seem very basic but it definitely works.

When writing, try these steps in this order:

  • Point: What is your own idea or argument?
  • Evidence: Is there a source that is closely related to your idea? You could paraphrase it or directly quote it with ” ” marks. Always, always, always make sure to cite and reference it.
  • Explain: What is the source actually saying in relation to your idea? Does it support or challenge it?
  • Link/Analyse: How does the source support or challenge your idea? Is there a reason why it supports/challenges e.g. was the writer writing in a particular time period where they could have been influenced by their context? Are there more sources you could cite to show whether or not other writers think the same?

The PEEL/A is a model is one that could be used in a single paragraph or that can be done in detail and spread over several paragraphs.

Advice is always given to ‘make your essay flow’ and I struggled to understand what this really meant for a while, but what I get now is that making your essay ‘flow’ is about writing so that there’s a consistent thread running throughout your whole essay.

Introduction

Your introduction should state your argument and its context, answering the questions of ‘what will you be discussing?’, ‘why will you be discussing it?’ and how will you discuss it?’.

Body

The body of the essay is where you build your argument, present the sources that support it and explore those that challenge it but then explain why your argument is still valid.

To keep a thread of consistency in your body, be critical of yourself and ask if everything you have written serves the purpose of reinforcing your argument. Sometimes I find myself writing paragraphs on ideas that are very interesting and somewhat related but do nothing for the overall argument I’m trying to make. If part of your essay is like this, take it out but save it in a different document so that you can come back to it if you find a way to incorporate it in a more useful way.

Another thing to be careful of regarding the flow of your essay is that when you move on from an idea it’s not supposed to be like when your favourite TV show is cancelled but the last episode ends with a cliffhanger (i.e. Terranova and Agent Carter) – this only brings confusion and disappointment. Develop your points and then bring them to a close.

Isabel’s advice that is relevant here is to signpost your points like how I’ve used ‘Introduction‘, ‘Body‘ and ‘Conclusion‘ to clearly indicate that I’ll be presenting different ideas here. This can bring more form and structure to your essay and make clear to the reader when you have stopped discussing one idea and have moved on to the next.

Conclusion

Finally, your conclusion should summarise your argument, pointing out that you did consider opposing ideas but have made a judgement because of the reasons you discussed in your body. The conclusion can also answer the questions of ‘what now?‘ or ‘so what?‘, so that you recontextualise your argument. For example, does what you have discussed in your essay have any implications for the wider subject that you are studying?


Take a step back

Ideally, you will have given yourself plenty of time to write your essay and not left it until the last minute to just churn it out (…been there, done that…).

Spanning your work out over a few days or weeks allows you to take breaks in between, which is essential for productivity and managing stress.

In her TEDxStanford talk, Marily Oppezzo talks about the benefits of going for a walk particularly for facilitating more creative thinking. I’ve taken her advice after watching the talk and even though I’m not always working on creative projects, I’ve found walking reduces my stress levels, so I would definitely recommend you bring it into your essay writing process.

Other tips for taking a step back from your work include:

  • Ask someone else to read your essay. Someone who doesn’t study your subject can give you feedback on your style and clarity, whilst someone who does can give feedback on the actual content of your essay.
  • When you come back to your essay, print it out and read it out loud. This can give you a different perspective on how it flows and makes it easier to spot spelling, punctuation and grammar mistakes.

So, these are my tips for writing better essays. If you have some of your own that you’d like to share, as always, feel free to reply below.

This post was focused on tips for assessed essays or coursework rather than for writing essays in exams, but if that is something that you would find helpful, leave a reply or get in touch!

Until the next post,

onwards and upwards,

Anoshamisa 🙂

 

Some more great tips for writing better essays:

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