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Throughout your time at university you will be asked to write an essay, probably a lot of essays – even if you are doing a science degree! Therefore, it is important to try and master them early.
When it comes to writing essays at university it will take you some time to work out your own perfect way of going about it. I am not the objective source of information on essay writing, my advice is what I have found useful throughout my time at university. Feel free to disagree with me, it’s not my way or the high way. At the very least, I hope this guide will give you something to think about.
This article is structured based on what I think are the four main elements in writing an essay: preparation, planning, writing and editing. There is more to an essay than just forcing the words out, and yet these other stages are often overlooked or rushed.
Read a lot
I never understand why people don’t read a lot before they write. It is literally the easiest part of writing an essay. Reading as much as you can, or have time to (an important distinction), means that you have more to reference in your essay. You’ll have a word document (or more) full of people you agree or disagree with ready for when you write.
If you don’t end up referencing something in your essay then it was not a waste of time, it probably helped you think about your topic – at the very least it will give you a bibliography long enough to impress any professor.
However, simply reading a lot isn’t going to help you if you are not reading smartly. If you don’t look for the author’s argument (or key facts depending on what you’re reading) then you could be reading better. Make lots of notes when reading! Write down the writer’s main argument, any secondary arguments you find interesting, how you react to the writer’s arguments and how you would use them in your essay (it is useful to do these last two steps in a different colour). Detailed notes will almost write your essay plan itself.
Write your references as you go
This is such a time saver. It will save you the faff of trying to get them all together at the end – you won’t have to basically stalk the author to try and find out what journal they wrote in. In a similar vein always make note of page references when you read! No one wants to have to read an article twice – the first time was more than enough.
Write all your points on paper first
Once you have finished doing all your reading, write down all the points you want to discuss on a piece of paper. Seeing them on a page allows you to focus on your argument and structure. You can experiment with what structure works for you without commitment. I always find seeing it on paper illustrates to me what points flow into the next one.
Go over your initial plan more than once
A simple tip, but make sure you like your plan and feel comfortable writing it before you start writing, or even properly planning. No one wants to be halfway through and realise they hate their argument.
Make a full plan
Once you have a baseline of all the points you want to write paragraphs on, fill in the plan. Put in all the information and arguments you want to use to serve that point – and be sure to include references! If you do this, you won’t have to search through multiple word documents to find what you want.
Push yourself to write a draft
To be honest, I don’t have loads of tips for actually writing an essay. So much depends on the specific essay and the way you personally write. However, I will say the most important thing is to actually write it. So much of writing an essay feels like staring at the computer praying for words to come to you, hence, I find it helpful to mildly force myself to get a draft done even if it is not perfect. I always find once I have the first draft, even if it is really rough, crafting the essay into what I want it to become is much easier.
Actually edit it
I’m under the impression that some people don’t edit their essays. While some might edit as they go and find that works for them, I would advise you to make time to edit afterwards as well. Not only does it help you get rid of pesky spelling or grammar mistakes, but it also helps you see your essay as a whole and get a good sense of the logic and flow of your argumentation.
Write the edits down on paper
I find that going paragraph by paragraph and writing down the edits I want to make (ie sentences I want to make clearer) without editing the document itself gives me clearer focus. It means I am focused on the essay as a whole rather than a single sentence or word. This takes slightly longer than a simple read through, but is so much more useful.
Have your computer read it aloud
Chances are at some point you will have been told to read your essay aloud. This is probably good advice; however, it doesn’t sound fun. An alternative is to make Microsoft Word read your essay aloud to you. I found that when writing an essay, I get used to what I meant to write rather than what it actually says. Having Word read it aloud means that you are forced to notice overlooked issues such as spelling mistakes, double words and poor sentence structure.
Have a friend read it
This is great… but can be awkward. A year ago, I would not have suggested this as a tip, however, last year a lecturer forced us to swap essays before handing them in and it was very useful. Someone else can pick up on things you can’t. For example, when reading my essay my friend noticed that I overused a word.
The act of reading someone else’s essay is just as useful as them reading yours. It shows you what other people do well and makes you focus on the act of editing. It also gives you a much-needed break from the monotony of your own writing!