Essay writing is a skill, like any other. Writing lots of words is easy – what is hard is saying what you want to in a clear, compelling manner. Here are some thoughts on how to write a decent essay.
Know your subject.
You must know what you’re talking about – and this means reading more than one paper or book on the matter. You have to assimilate a range of opinions and views, and form your own thoughts on the issues, before you can begin to construct an essay.
Know what you want to say.
Be clear about what it is you are writing about, and then make sure you write about that. Too many essays are long, rambling, and fail to make any point clearly.
Build your essay.
A good essay tells a story. It usually comes in three parts: the introduction, the main body and the conclusion. You tell the reader what you’re going to tell them; you tell them; you tell them what you’ve told them. This doesn’t mean you repeat yourself three times, but that you set the scene, make you argument, then pull the strands together at the end.
A vital part of writing an essay, but often skimped on. There are many sources of information for you to use – recommended books (library, bookshop or Amazon or other internet retailer), papers (library or online), journals (ditto), magazines, other media. The internet is a fantastic resource. DAFGS is a phrase that many would do well to remember (and if you don’t know, it almost stands for ‘do a Google search’). Remember that different search engines work in different ways, so learn how to drive your engine of choice so that it gives you the answers you want. Read the search tips (usually: put important words first, don’t use ‘of’ ‘and’ etc., use + to make sure that word is included, use – to ensure that word is not included, and if the search doesn’t seem to give the right results in the first 3-5 pages, try it again using related but different words, or change their order).
Plans are vital – you should either jot notes on the main headings, construct diagrams with boxes and lines joining them, use post-it notes with the key points on and move them around a sheet of paper, or anything else that may work for you. The point is that you should know how the main parts of the essay fit together, so that you can get to where you want to go without hassle.
Take your time
You have a deadline, you have other demands on your time, so why not do what everyone else does and leave the essay writing to the last possible minute? Simple – if you don’t take your time you will do a much less good job, and be under much more stress, than if you schedule parts of your preparation and, goodness me, some of the planning and writing, in the days and weeks before the final deadline. If you want to stay up all night finishing it, fine – but it will be a shoddy piece of work, and may leave you feeling dissatisfied. On the other hand – you should not spend too long on an essay. Other courses carry marks and interest and require your attention, and you need to give them the attention they deserve too.
Be clear and concise. Use simple language to explain things. Make sure that it’s readable – you must read it back to yourself, or get a friend to read it, to ensure that it flows clearly, that it’s nicely phrased, that it tells the story you want it to. Editing text down to make it shorter and crisper almost always improves the readability and clarity of the work. Be careful not to use too many colloquialisms. It’s a neat trick to look at your apostrophes – have you got too many and are they in the right place? Compare that casual style with: Do not overuse or misplace the apostrophe. Which do you prefer and why? Think of your audience and the impression of you they will form when they read your work – are you a journalist or a nascent scientific writer?
Use a word processor. There is no advantage in anything else that I can see, and many advantages to the word processor.
Remember that the marker will be reading your essay, not giving it a score for artistic interpretation. Sure, make it look neat and tidy, but don’t spend precious time on masses of fancy layout and formatting. It won’t repay the effort put in.
Read it through from beginning to end before handing it in, preferably from a printed copy. Reading from a screen is notoriously hard, and you’re likely to skip bits that you know (and you know it all cos you wrote it, so you’ll miss glaring errers that are easy to see on paper).
Use a spelling checker and a dictionary. There is absolutely no excuse for smelling mistookes in an essay, and nothing is more guaranteed to annoy the marker than silly errors.
Grammar and sentence construction are harder. The grammar checkers that come with programs like Word are not much use – get some assistance from a native English speaker if you have to, but follow some simple guidelines and you won’t go far wrong.
• Short sentences are easier to understand than very long ones, but don’t make them too short else it seems you’re being abrupt. They should last for around as long as you would use in normal speech.
• Use ‘written’ English, not ‘spoken’ English. An essay is likely to have a more formal and rigorous structure than a speech would have, and you are likely to use a wider range of vocabulary in an essay than you might in a talk.
• Use appropriate words. Don’t use long words to impress, but if they are the best way to describe something, then use them.
• Break the essay into paragraphs, with each paragraph being roughly one concept or idea. Don’t chop the essay into random chunks, and don’t make each paragraph one sentence.
• Use headings where appropriate, to help the reader see the main parts of the argument. Some essays work well with headings, others do not – it’s up to you and how you choose to write them, ultimately.
• Don’t make long sentences using ‘and’ simply to join shorter ones.
• Remember that each sentence should have a verb in it.
• Use commas to break longer sentences into manageable chunks; read it back to yourself to see where the pauses need to be.
• Use semi-colons and colons appropriately. If you don’t know how to use them, then avoid them. The same goes for dashes – whilst they can be useful, their use has to be carefully controlled.
• Do not put your name in a footer on every page – it gets in the way of anonymous marking.
Everything you write in an educational or scholarly setting has to be supplied with information about the sources of information you have used. You can find out more about how to do this. Here I’ll just say something about why you must do it.
When you write for others in the formal context of studying or researching you need to supply the reader with information they can use to check your sources. They may want to do this because they are interested in something new they did not know and which you found and cited. They may believe you have made a mistake or perhaps misrepresented something. They may think you have plagiarised and want to check the source (see below). In all cases you must provide sufficiently detailed information for the reader to find the source you used. Lack of clear citation information is a major indicator of poor preparation, and immediately alerts the reader to the possibility of plagiarism.
Consider using case studies, examples, lists, scenarios and other approaches as well as straightforward description, if it will get your point across more effectively. Use analogy, metaphor, introspection, real-life examples and other techniques to help illustrate your work. Be innovative if it makes things clearer, but do not go mad with diagrams and other illustrations. Some people say that a picture is worth a thousand words, but in an essay it is the words (and the arguments you are trying to make with them) that matter. If you must use illustrations then remember that the wrong picture is a thousand wasted words!
Be your own marker.
Remember that you’re writing this essay to be read and marked by a person. This person wants to give you credit if they can, but they need to be convinced. You have to demonstrate what you know, telling it clearly. If you hide your thoughts in the middle of badly constructed waffle, they may well not find them, and you’ll suffer accordingly. Try to see your work through the eyes of another – do you assume too much, or spend too much time on the obvious basics and run out of space later on? Do your sentences make sense, and do the paragraphs slot together?
Copying another’s work is cheating. So is cutting out large chunks of stuff from different sources on the internet and pasting them together. So is getting your friend to write it. There are lots of things to say about cheating, but I’ll make just a few points here.
• You are doing a degree because you want to gain a qualification in an area you have some interest and pride in. If you gain a mark because of someone else’s work, you cheat mainly yourself. Think about it – it makes very little real difference to me whether you cheat or not, but it devalues your achievement hugely.
• Others will also cheat. They will, more than likely, cheat from the same sources that you do. So there’ll be more than one essay that is very similar, and it becomes easy to spot.
• Watermarking digital text now makes it possible to analyse things and discover their sources. Additionally, many files have embedded information in them about how they were edited and constructed, so that chunks of pasted information can be seen.
• The school has taken a software approach to plagarism detection, using a number of AI approaches and internet searches (basically, in the same way that you can find the stuff on the internet and cut and paste it into your document, so we can locate the same stuff in the same way).
• If you’re discovered, by any approach, then you're likely to suffer some or all of the following sonsequences
• 0 for the essay/course
• passed to the University for disciplinary action to be taken
• 'P' placed on their student record, denoting plagarism
• all references from the University will then contain a note saying that the student's marks cannot be guaranteed as they are known to plagarise their work
Expulsion from the University is also an option – quite a waste of time and effort, if you take time to think it through.
Solutions for sticky situations.
Writer’s block – where you stare at a blank screen for ages, frozen, unable to start.
Start. Doesn’t matter how crap it is, start writing. And then keep writing, and things will often begin to flow. You may well have to go back and edit the first stuff later, but that’s not a major problem.
Turn the screen off (but not the computer). Then start writing. People often get too tied up in pretty formatting or in reading and editing the stuff they’ve just written, and never make good progress. Turning off the screen turns the process from one with feedback to one without, and allows you to concentrate on getting going. And a beneficial side effect is that you are forced to rely on the notes you made before-hand, or even on the hand-written draft!
Can’t fill the word limit.
This usually means you don’t know enough about the subject. Read more about it, talk to colleagues, do more research. Think of different ways of putting the point across. But don’t waffle, don’t repeat yourself, don’t blather on, don’t simply try to use long and ponderous phrases and constructions in a vain and complex attempt to make whatever it is that you are trying to say sufficiently substantive such that the aforesaid word limit is now at least reached if not actually exceeded. (See what I mean?).
Can’t get inside the word limit.
See above: either you’ve padded your sentences, or you don’t know enough about the subject to be confident and therefore clear and concise. Or you’re trying to say too much about too many things in too much detail. Either focus in on fewer issues and keep the detail, or take the broader perspective. But you cannot do everything in one short essay.
Find it hard to plan.
Start anyway, writing in chunks, then use the word processor’s ability to cut and paste chunks of text to create a more coherent document. These notes were written using this technique in part; I had an outline plan, a set of things I wanted to say, and then as I wrote them a number of other issues came into my head that also needed to be written down. So I wrote them, and then cut them into different parts of the document at different times. For this document to become a decent essay, however, this would have to be done much more, and then reworded and edited. There are far too many headings, for a start.
© Copyright for this article belongs to Russell Beale
This document was re-printed with the kind permission of Russell Beale. Original Source of the article is located here: http://www.cs.bham.ac.uk/~rxb/Teaching/Materials/essay%20writing.htm