I always feel a bit anxious about writing things like this, because it assumes that I a) know what I’m doing and b) feel that my expertise is necessary enough to be shared. The truth is, I have written probably around 30 essays at university so far, and every time I write a new one I still feel like I don’t know exactly what I’m doing. However, this term I did manage to pick up a few bits and pieces that have seriously aided my essay-writing, and I think that they are worth sharing. If I had picked this up a little bit earlier I could have saved myself so much stress!
Obviously, my experience is fairly specific to my English course, but I think these tips can apply to most essay-based subjects, too!
Manage your time wisely
This one is really annoying, because it seems like a generic thing that everyone will say to you, but honestly, this has been the one thing that has proved to make or break my essay-writing. Sure, I have managed to procure the occasional high mark on essays that I frantically wrote in the early hours of the morning, fuelled by coffee and desperation. But more often than not, these essays leave me feeling severely drained, unaccomplished and worried. When you’re doing anything last minute, you are putting down your unrefined ideas. They might be great, but they might need work, and not leaving yourself that time to really think about what points you’re trying to make is going to just leave you with a feeling of unease – and a feeling that you could have done better… if you’d given yourself more time.
Because this is easier said than done, and the phrase ‘time management’ doesn’t really mean anything until you can apply it to a situation, I’ll explain how I try and use my time. The first thing I will do as soon as I possibly can is read through the essay questions. This gives me time to process themes I might want to tackle or explore as I go through the weekly reading. I’ll immediately discount any questions that I don’t feel are best-suited to what I like to write about and then write out all the ‘possibles’ so I can keep them in mind as the term goes on. Once I’ve read the texts and decided which I want to work on, I’ll start planning (more on that in a minute). Ideally this will be at least two weeks before the deadline. I usually give myself mini deadlines for certain parts of the essay, and I’ll ideally want the final draft completed at least a day before it’s due. This way, if there are any problems, I’ll be able to fix them in plenty of time.
Go to your seminars (and maybe your lectures, but mostly your seminars)
This is another annoying one, I know. I’ve only really gone to my lectures and seminars this year, and let me tell you – the correlation between attendance and performance is no joke. Even if you feel that you’re not learning much from your lectures or seminars (and it is very easy to feel like that when studying English Literature, I know), just being present while other people are talking about different topics helps you to sort out in your mind what your own ideas and arguments are. Listening to others (and often, disagreeing with them) can be so useful in finding out what you think about something. Sometimes the seminar leader or another classmate will ask just the right question to provoke your thinking, and that line of thought might become the cornerstone of your essay.
Read as you go
This ties in with the time management thing, but is very useful on its own, too. What I mean by this is that you should always try and read secondary material (for English, this mostly means critical articles) during the term, and not be sourcing it out as you’re writing your essay. It doesn’t just take the pressure off, time-wise, but it situates your mind in the pool of arguments that are already out there and much like attending seminars, can help you formulate your own ideas (without plagiarising!) for your work.
What I like to do is read an article alongside a word document, type out a quote or an idea that seems relevant, and then write my own response to that, if appropriate. This way, when you come to writing your essay, you’ll have compiled a bibliography of secondary material (I like to call it a quote bank) and already have some of your ideas on that material so you can directly engage with it in your essay.
Loosely plan your essay before you write it
Sometimes, when you’re writing an essay, you will suddenly realise or remember a point that seems to follow on perfectly from what you’re writing. However, this is not (in my experience, at least) how thing happen most of the time. If you sit down to write an essay without a plan, you’re probably going to get lost in your argument. Doing this also means that when you get stuck, you can’t simply move on to the next point, because you just don’t know what that next point might be.
When planning an essay, I’ll always start with a spider diagram of the text or texts that I’ll be using in relation to the essay question or topic. Once I’ve got all my thoughts down on paper, I’ll see how best it might fit together in an argument. Sometimes this order of points will stay the same, but more often than not, it will change as I am drafting, and this is okay. I’ll also think about how many points I should be including in my essay according to the word count. It’s never really a hard and fast rule, but I feel like I can fully explain a point using between 250-400 words. Sometimes more, sometimes less. I’ll always pretend my word count is less than it is by about 200 when I do this, so I have room for extra expansion (this is where you get your marks), and then take off a further 400 for the introduction and conclusion. This means that for a 3000 word essay, I’m aiming to write the bulk of my essay within 2400 words. That’s a minimum of 6 (very thoroughly explained) points, or a maximum of around 9. Like I said, though, this is just for my essay-writing style, and even within that there are certainly changes. Sometimes one of my points will end up being explored over 700 words. It all depends on how you’re feeling about your work.
Write the middle first
The reason I leave the 400 word gap for the introduction and conclusion of my essays is because they are the very last thing I write. Because the very nature of essay-writing means that ideas are subject to change, I often don’t know how my argument will be argued until the very end. It also means I don’t get stuck thinking of how to word that tricky introductory statement and can just go straight into drafting, which brings me to…
Always write multiple drafts!
Occasionally there is that golden egg of an essay that will seem pretty much solid in its first incarnation, where the stars align perfectly and the essay moves through you like the word of a deity. Allegedly, anyway. I personally have never written an essay that could not be greatly improved through redrafting. My first draft is usually me just trying to write something, anything, so I can get my ideas down in a vaguely coherent way. I take the pressure off by allowing my writing to be uncomplicated and more vague, with notes to myself saying or . Leaving myself these notes helps me to move through my writing faster, so that if I get stuck on a difficult point, I can leave it and move on.
Use a referencing tool
Refme has saved my life. I would spend hours trying to compile and format my references, but my wonderful friend Heli introduced me to this website/app that allows you to just input what you need and click the referencing format you use. Sometimes it will need a tiny tweak here or there, but it is nothing compared to the hours I would have spent before. It also saves all your bibliographies for your different projects, which I have found very useful if I’ve wanted to look back and see how many secondary sources I used for my essays (hint: the more, the better), or if I come across a topic similar to one I’ve covered before.
Take breaks from writing
This is another cliche, but it works. Your brain cannot handle solidly facing a computer screen for 8 hours at a time. You need space to think about what you’re writing. I will often take a break when I get seriously stuck (or bored) when writing, go and do something that requires very little thought (my latest obsession is cheesy crime docuseries on Netflix) and come back with a refreshed mind. Often I’ll see something new about my argument. However, this takes discipline. You can’t use breaks as an excuse to procrastinate. Once you’ve finished that episode, you have to go straight back to work, otherwise you’ll just be limiting yourself time-wise.
Give yourself enough time to proofread and format
Proofreading, referencing and formatting my essays always takes far longer than I anticipate, and I’ve had to hand in late pieces of work because of this in the past. I’ll always try and finish my final draft at least the morning the work is due (we have a 4pm deadline for everything, so this would be too late for a noon hand in), if not the evening before, so I can just focus on doing all the boring parts, like filling out coversheets and putting my student number in a header. If these things aren’t right, picky markers will mark you down. Referencing no longer takes hours thanks to the tool I mentioned before, but it still requires some patience and attention to detail so you make sure you’re getting everything right.
When it comes to proofreading, I like to send my essay to a few people I know so that they can have a look at it with fresh eyes. I always send it to my mum, because she has no background in English Literature, so she can often ask me questions about the clarity of my work – if she doesn’t understand something, I have to think whether it’s because of the literary aspect of the essay, or if I’m just not being clear. Fellow English students or graduates are also helpful. I’m lucky enough that a lot of my friends are incredibly academically gifted, and when they’re willing to help, I get a lot of really good feedback from them.
Final essay checklist
This is the final thing I consult before submitting an essay, just to ensure I’ve got everything locked down:
- is it double-spaced?
- are there page numbers?
- is your student number and module code in the header?
- is your bibliography on a separate page and in alphabetical order?
- is it saved as ‘ final draft’?
- are all book titles in italics?
- has it been proofread?
- have you got the wordcount?