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.

Welcome!

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“Welcome” by “Nathan”. Licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 2.0 Generic (CC-BY2.0). Accessed: 18th September 2014. https://www.flickr.com/photos/90371939@N00/4344878104/

Having gone through 5 years of undergraduate and postgraduate education in the UK, which has led me to now pursue a PhD, there has not been one week in the later years of my higher education experience, where friends and family members have not consulted me about academic issues such as referencing correctly, coming up with a bachelor’s thesis topic and getting it in shape, or conducting online research for this same thesis and how to best go about it.

I could list many more issues here and each and every one of them has its own right of being asked. The thing about academic work is that it can be incredibly exciting (at least for some including me, otherwise I guess I wouldn’t have ended up starting a PhD), yet equally daunting. The thing about academic staff is that they can be incredibly friendly and caring, yet equally unhelpful in their feedback and comments. And finally, the thing about academic literature is that it can be incredibly insightful and deep, yet equally abstract and not to the point. What’s more, often both academics and their publications can be quite detailed in the things they tell us, yet leave out the common sense stuff that we would need to understand first in order to appreciate their deep thinking. Here I am again referring to the tools of the trade like referencing, coming up with a research question or simply reading an article effectively and retrieving and retaining the relevant information. Having said all this, it is now one of my missions to address this problem by providing first-hand information on how to actually do these kinds of things based on my own experiences, the knowledge I have amassed over the years of being a student and young researcher myself and my constant review of the methods literature out there.

Please see this blog as a helping hand and a platform where no question about academic things is too banal to be asked. It is the little things that confuse us and mess up our day. We have all seen them and struggled with them ourselves. Comments and suggestions for topics to be covered are also very welcome!