Essays. You can’t get away from them. And even if you’re up for the challenge, that doesn’t make the writing process less stressful.
Whatever happens in a single essay, don’t be distracted or downhearted. I remember handing in an essay that I was proud of, yet it barely scraped a pass. I was gutted. In the same semester, I couldn’t get my head round a particular essay and handed in what I thought was mediocre work…but my tutor didn’t see it that way and gave me an amazing grade.
No wonder the essay experience is a stressful one!
While I can’t take away that stress, I do have 26 tips below to reduce some of the uncertainty. They’ll point you in the right direction when it comes to making the grade. It’s not exhaustive, but when it comes to essays, nothing is! If you have any killer tips that you can’t live without, let us know. We like advice. Advice is good!
26 Sharp Essay Tips
1. Read, read and READ! Find links, make notes, enjoy!
2. Work in short bursts, from the moment you’re given an assignment.
3. Be critical of what you read. Just because it’s been published doesn’t always make it right. Your marks will improve if you can argue against someone…although they’ll suffer if you don’t explain the argument fully.
4. Cite other works throughout, be proud of your bibliography, and get involved with other texts. Your essay shouldn’t be in isolation, it should open up far and wide to other sources.
5. Be selective! It’s great to show off your extensive reading, but only reference the best examples. You don’t need to explain the point ten times with ten different references. Refer to the most relevant examples and do no more than point out the rest. Don’t waste half the essay on a single point. Only emphasise to death if that’s what’s required of you!
6. If it needs explaining, be brief and clearly outline the point. Get rid of everything else. Padding is pointless and it won’t get you extra marks.
7. Summarise what’s at the heart of your debate/argument. Introduce the themes with confidence and work off that. Tie things up so the essay flows and the marker can see your point throughout.
8. Get as close to the original data as you can. You may find an amazing comment in a textbook or article, but if it refers to another author/study/book, try to track that down. If it helps prove your argument or open up the debate clearly, you may find even more gold from the actual source.
9. Work on the Introduction and Conclusion both first and last. Give yourself a basis to work from by drafting these before you do anything else. The conclusion may be even easier than the introduction at first. Give it a go. Return to them after you’ve done your research and drafted the core of the essay. Now you can make any relevant changes and tie up the main arguments more confidently.
10. Don’t be scared to be you. Your voice is critical in an essay. Yes, you’re meant to use others in citations, but you don’t need to emulate them in other ways. Be you and speak as you. The less you hide behind the voices of others, the more you risk sounding stilted and unsure (as well as risking plagiarism!).
11. Actually answer the question. Even when you’re able to choose your own question for an essay, it’s not always the best question to suit what you’ve written. The whole purpose of an essay is to answer what’s being asked of you. Go off on a tangent and you’re just wasting words.
12. Bash out a first draft. Don’t even think about what you’re writing. Don’t find quotations. Just write what’s on your mind, no matter how daft you think it is. This process opens you up to so much goodness. Getting a quick first draft on paper is a massive boost for confidence and it’s so much better than knowing that your first draft will also be your last (as so often happens).
13. Revise your first draft. But not straight away. Be patient. When you’ve had time to breathe, mould the essay into something a bit more presentable and track down relevant quotations if you haven’t already.
14. Get advice. Armed with the (slightly amended) first draft, now’s a good time to speak to your tutor if you wish to. You want to push your writing to the next level, so ask specific questions. It’ll go down a lot better than “I don’t know what to write. What am I meant to write?”
15. Don’t be afraid of your own opinions. Similar to Point 10, you have a mind of your own. So use it. Use your opinions to explain why you feel that way and use resources based on those opinions.
16. State possible (and definite) flaws. Any person’s opinion is subject to argument from others. As you’re not afraid of your opinions, neither should you be afraid of flaws. Explain them now so you’re less likely to be questioned later for missing something.
17. Keep the question in mind. Refer back to what you’re trying to answer so that you’re sure it’s relevant and so the reader can see what you’re trying to achieve.
18. Use the wordcount to understand what’s required of you. A 1500-word essay will need to make bold points and clear arguments. A 500-word piece will likely require no more than a brief summary of main points. A 10,000-word dissertation wants in-depth analysis and extensive knowledge of the field. Too often, a standard essay of 1500-3000 words either contains too much detail so it goes over limits or it has unnecessary padding because the student didn’t go in to enough detail. An essay isn’t an exhaustive study, neither is it a quick look at some bulletpoints.
19. Take care of your essay. When you’ve got a good argument, don’t blow it by not checking for dodgy spellings! Make sure the assignment is presentable and as error-free as possible before handing it in.
20. Talk through with study friends. It’s not for everyone, but some people like to gang up and discuss their thoughts. Debating in an informal atmosphere can uncover issues you hadn’t considered. And the moral support is positive too.
21. Work when it suits you best. “Never” is not an option. Early in the morning, over the weekend, from 2-4am…find when you’re on fire, then produce awesome work.
22. State examples. It’s not all about references. Sometimes your point can hit home when you describe a working example. Unfortunately, this doesn’t work for all disciplines, so be careful.
23. Open your mind to all possibilities. You may think you’re about to solve all the world’s problems…Then you find a wealth of texts arguing against your amazing plan. Don’t feel bitter. Be prepared to change your view if necessary. If you still refuse, speak to your tutor ASAP so they can either declare your problem-solving genius or help you to think differently…
24. Go further than stating the case. The point of arguing in an essay is…well, arguing. Once you reach an opinion or conclusion, explain the implications and how it works.
25. Go beyond the core texts. Remember the first point? Read, read, READ! Well the reading doesn’t stop once you’ve exhausted the books on your shelf and on your reading list. Explore the library, go online for the wealth of journals out there, get to grips with the latest arguments.
26. But do know when to stop reading. Yes, you need to do a lot of background research. That’s a big deal in Higher Education. But you have to stop at some point so you can actually write stuff down. So find a balance, or the work won’t get done. And I don’t want you blaming me because I told you to keep reading! 😉
When your essay comes back, pay attention to your feedback and don’t be scared to request more detail from your tutor if you didn’t get enough. You deserve quality feedback as you’re here to learn, not to stab in the dark and hope for the best!