How to go about writing an essay

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When getting started in academia, it is not long until you will be confronted with your first course work that requires you to write an essay. For some this may be a simple thing to do as they have never had an issue with putting thoughts into words; for others, however, this may be a very daunting task they want to ignore as long as possible. Now, the most typical thing you will hear from your lecturers and seminar teachers is most likely going to be something like this: “Plan ahead. Don’t leave it to the last minute/Avoid last minute night shifts.” Of course, I couldn’t agree more with such statements, but obviously the majority of us just can’t get themselves together and get any work done without the pressure of a nearing deadline. Now, that’s totally fine, if you know you can write quickly and effectively and are happy with submitting work that has not been thoroughly reviewed. If you belong to the group of people, however, that do struggle a bit getting words on paper, then you definitely have to plan ahead how to go about writing your essay. In the following list of tips I will assume that your essay question is given to you. If you have to come up with your own questions in the later stages of your education, e.g. when writing a dissertation, then there are all sorts of other things you will need to pay attention to and I will dedicate another blog post to finding a research question. Nonetheless, many of below tips are generic and may be of interest to anybody who has to write an essay.

Key tips to successful essay writing:

  1. Preliminary research: The first advice I usually give people of all sorts is to do some preliminary research, that is, reading about your topic without starting to write quite yet. Get familiar with your subject. The best thing to start with is probably to identify some (maybe two to three) key words fundamental to your subject area and see what Google Scholar comes up with. Often a good idea is to have a few variants of these key words at hand, in case the first search results are meager. Avoid doing a regular Google search; Wikipedia is not acceptable for academic work (although it may a good starting point to superficially familiarize yourself with complicated concepts or to find other sources referred to within the articles). Once you have found interesting sources on Google Scholar, read some abstracts and collect a few papers that seem relevant to you. If your lecturer has given you an initial reading list, browse this one.
  2. Pin down key concepts: After having searched the academic web for some preliminary information about your subject and after having read a few abstracts, make a list of key concepts that have repeatedly come up in your search. These key concepts are the ones you want to investigate a bit more. Start reading some of the papers you have identified as relevant. At the beginning, it should be sufficient to read the introduction and the literature sections. In these, scholars usually explain the theoretical constructs they are using and these are the ones that you will want to know about.
  3. Go beyond your course reading list: Yes, it is great to have these reading lists, but really, if you want a good result, do a bit of extra research. Your assessors will thank you for it and you will be rewarded with a better grade. It is not fun to read 100 essays using the exact same 5 references. It also does not demonstrate that you have put in a lot of effort. So, all I can say is “go the extra mile”, it will pay off.
  4. Keep a list of what you have read: Make sure that you take notes as you read so that nothing gets lost along the way. It is impossible to remember everything you have read, so better put some more effort into it right away, reaping the benefits later on. Such a list could be an excel sheet or a word document or anything you like and you should make sure you record some key information like authors, journal name and year. The more elaborate this reference list is, the quicker it turns into one of the most important tools of academic work: an annotated bibliography. For interested readers more on this topic will be covered in another blog post but for the purposes of this blog post, it’ll be sufficient to just note that you should systematically record what you have read.
  5. When to start writing: Here opinions differ greatly. I usually only start writing when I feel I have researched sufficiently and know enough to write the complete thing in a day or two. Others prefer to write little bits much earlier in the research process. I do believe, however, that you can write better essays the more you know about your subject. Consequently, the earlier you start the less you will know and it is human nature not wanting to part from something that has already been written by you (at least I really struggle with it, considering that I have already put effort into it). This means that often you keep poorly written passages because you are reluctant to rewrite. I have done it myself, it is a bad idea and you get angry with yourself because of it afterwards. So, in my opinion it is better to leave the writing till later (though I know many academics would disagree with me on that one). If you follow the previous tip of thoughtfully recording what all your readings have been saying, then you are in a good position to write a great essay. The point I want to make here though is that you should not feel you haven’t done anything after one or two weeks of research because you have not yet written anything!
  6. Structure your essay thoughtfully: Make sure you have a good idea of how your essay question can best be answered. Come up with a draft structure in bullet points and then move the different sections around until you think you have a good story to tell. This is really what an essay is all about. Telling a story, but backed up with evidence. Once you have such a draft structure, writing should be easy.
  7. Make sure your essay flows: Good transitions between the different sections are key to writing good essays. You can start out using subheadings and then take them out at the end. Does the essay still flow? Does it still all hang together? If not, make sure you put in some good transitions connecting your paragraphs. This is important for your assessors to follow the overall logic of your essay. Oh, and to keep your assessor happy, put the subheadings back in again after the essay flows J
  8. Good introductions motivate the topic: Make sure you hook the reader, do something that catches people’s attention such as a key statistic you have come across, or a counter-intuitive fact you found in the literature. This grabs the reader’s attention. Don’t forget to provide a statement of intent and an overview of your essay structure though.
  9. Good conclusions leave the reader with your key thesis: Make sure you summarize your key findings again at the end and highlight the most important point about your thesis/your answer to the essay question. To round if off you can then highlight some areas where more research may be useful or, depending on the topic, you can give a future outlook.
  10. Use evidence: Make sure that theoretical claims are sufficiently backed up with references. A well referenced essay sets the tone and makes academics happy. For more on referencing you can read my blog post on this subject.
  11. Don’t give your opinion unless explicitly asked to. It is as simple as that. This does not mean that you cannot be critical in your analysis of the existing literature. In fact you want to be critical, but base your conclusions on analytical insights and not opinions.
  12. Ask your lecturer or seminar teacher for advice: If you are unsure about your structure or anything else, go and see the responsible teacher. They will not be able to provide you with the answer to the essay question but can help you find out what exactly they are looking for. Step outside your comfort zone! I have asked many times and it has paid off.

Now these 12 pieces of advice are by far not an exhaustive list. However, I do believe if you follow them and internalize some of them, you are in for a good undergraduate career of writing essays.

The big deal around referencing…that isn’t all that big actually!

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Now one of the biggest riddles when you enter higher education is the mystery of referencing. What is it for and why is it needed? And most importantly how does it work in practice?

Well the most important thing to say upfront is that referencing is key to producing successful academic work. So you better start learning how to do it right as soon as possible. I myself struggled with this then unknown world of Harvard, APA, ASA, etc. just to name a few options you could use, and had to find my way through this jungle of in-text and bibliography referencing options as well. The thing about referencing styles is that they can seem VERY similar but still have tiny differences. The good news is, that you don’t have to learn them all and often (especially as an undergrad) what exact style to use is left for you to decide, as long as you use your chosen style correctly and coherently. The one I started with and mainly stuck to until today is the well known Harvard style of referencing. So in order to answer the last but most important question of how to reference and for those who are only very superficially interested in finding out quickly how to do it, go to a website that shows you every step of how to reference from all sorts of different sources. A fantastic website that explains to you in detail how to use Harvard correctly is available from the Anglia Ruskin University Library website. But before you go off to look there, bear with me a little longer as such websites may not help you become clearer when to use what kind of reference.

So, the first basic thing you should know about referencing is that they are there to back up any claim you make in your written academic work, firstly to show you have done your homework and have read widely and secondly to ensure that you are not plagiarizing. Though coming from a social sciences background, I am pretty sure that this applies to all academic disciplines out there. The second bit may be slightly confusing and scary for many, especially those who are not coming from a Western country, as rules and expectations of what constitutes plagiarism greatly vary from culture to culture (for those who are interested see a great article by Introna and Hayes (2011) on plagiarism detection software and Greek students in the UK HE system). But even more important is it then for these students to quickly get a hang of how to do it properly.

There is a difference between in-text references and the bibliography. In-text references are the things you know from or about other people that you write about in your actual essay/paper/etc. The Introna & Hayes paper I refer to above is an example of such an in-text reference. Here are two things to look out for: First of all, when using Harvard or similar you always need the authors’ last names and the year of publication. If it is two authors connect them with an ‘and’ as demonstrated above, if you have three authors you can start using et al. instead of citing all authors’ last names. This would look like this: (Author 1 et al., year). So basically, you only use the first author’s last name and stick an ‘et al.’ in as a place holder for the remaining authors’ names. Some only start to do this after it is more than 3 authors, some write the ‘et al.’ in italics, others don’t. I usually don’t. Some require you to spell out each author with last name the first time you cite them in a paper and use et al. thereafter. The thing here is that there is lots of flexibility, but again only as long as you do it COHERENTLY throughout your paper.

Secondly going back to the Introna and Hayes example above there is another possible point for confusion here. There are four types of in-text references each of which require a slightly different approach.

  1. Direct reference to authors using indirect quote:

Since I refer to them directly in my above example, I only wrote the year of publication in brackets. So basically, as soon as you say author XX said you do it as follows: Author XX said (year) and then you go on to cite indirectly by paraphrasing what they have said. If it is more than two authors you can go back to using “Author XX et al. said” or sometimes people also write “Author XX and colleagues.” This is a matter of taste and you should check with papers in your discipline what is more common.

  1. Direct reference to authors using direct quotes:

This is very similar to the above except for that you are directly copying a sentence or more from their work. Both approaches are totally fine and usually you will find a mix of both direct and indirect quotes in academic papers. A little thing to remember though is that if you use a direct quote you HAVE TO provide the exact page number, meaning that Author XX said (year) will change to Author XX said (year: page) or alternatively Author XX said (year, page). Again, there is flexibility here how to do it but do it and do it coherently.

  1. Indirect reference to author using indirect quote:

Here you just paraphrase what the author(s) said and reference at the end of the sentence (but prior to the punctuation mark as the reference belongs to the sentence!) putting both author(s) and year in brackets like so (Author XX, year). Same rules for ‘et al.’ apply.

  1. Indirect reference to author using direct quote:

Here it is exactly the same as above just that you don’t paraphrase but use the direct words of the authors’ you are citing and putting them in quotation marks like so. “…” (AuthorXX, year: page). As you notice, you need the exact page number again. Again same rules apply for ‘et al.’.

Now you already know a lot about in-text referencing and this is probably the most important thing to get right early on, as this is where the plagiarism detection software will pick up whether you have copied stuff without referencing properly or whether all the relevant references are there. Make sure that sufficient evidence is there to back up your claims and check with journal articles in your field to get a feel for how many references per paragraph are common.

The bibliography (or reference list) is also very important and shouldn’t be forgotten. I have myself felt the frustration on many occasions when you think you found a good reference by reading a text and then it is not there in the bibliography. So make sure you are not causing this kind of frustration to others! Not much can be said about reference lists other than choose your style, follow it (there is an abundance of websites out there explaining you how to do it, most likely also on your university’s library website) and put references in alphabetical order!!! You wouldn’t believe how many essays I have already marked in my still extremely short research career, that have not done this. And to be honest, in my first year as an undergrad I did not, until I got feedback from my first essay where points had gotten deducted for this, I then thought, minor issue. Back then I was furious that points would get deducted for such a little thing. But really, it can be very annoying if you are looking for a reference and then the reference list is not in alphabetical order. True, if it is an electronic document, a simple search will do, if it is on paper it won’t. And even if it is digital, still do it! It is just a standard thing to do.

A final point to add about referencing is that the question how many is enough cannot be answered generically. Speak to your course teachers; they will give you an idea of what is expected.

Last but not least, there is one more thing to tell. There is digital help out there in form of citation management software like Endnote, Mendeley or Zotero. These tools can be very helpful if you have to write large documents and I will dedicate another blog post to these in the future. Why do I only mention them now? I guess because I am a bit old-fashioned and I think it is better to first learn how to do it yourself and then you can get some digital support. The reason for this is that these tools can mess up and then you end up with a flawed reference list without noticing and if worse comes worst, with all your references gone and you don’t know how to get them back

Now, I would say you are well equipped to get an essay written with correct referencing. It is really not that big of a deal anymore, once you get the hang of it.