Hand in a first draft or a draft worthy of a First?


“Let’s go to work.”

From Reservoir Dogs

One of the best ways to improve your essay writing skills is to draft and redraft.

Drafts let you revisit later, they give you a chance for preliminary feedback from tutors, and they let you consider your mindset at different points in time.

Doing all the work in one go is tempting, but it’s a false attempt at saving time. You can’t produce your best work either.

The problem with an all-nighter, or any attempt to get the essay right in one attempt, is that your first draft is your only draft.

There are other reasons for going with a “one and done” approach:

  • It’s a way of procrastinating;
  • You don’t want it bothering your schedule all over the place;
  • You’re uncertain or unclear about editing;
  • The work stays on your mind until you’ve finished, so you focus on the end more than the process.

Most of the reasons boil down to worry at some level. Take procrastination, for example. When you worry about the task at hand, you put it off. Why bother with multiple drafts when you find it hard enough to muster up the courage to deal with the essay in a single session?

How do you work best?

On one hand, the pressure is huge when you don’t break the work up in chunks. If you’re in that camp, the enigmatic idea to “Write an essay” certainly is overwhelming! Little tasks are much easier to handle. Make a list of what it means to write an essay and tackle the smaller tasks instead.

On the other hand, you may like the pressure. If you’re in that camp, you don’t have to wait until the last minute for a monster writing session. Instead, create a false deadline. You can manufacture the pressure before the actual deadline.

If you’ve got two weeks to write 2,000 words, set a deadline in one week and do your single session before that time is up. Make the deadline as real as you can, otherwise you’ll just ignore it. Take it seriously. If you can manage that, you’ll have another week to go before the hard academic deadline.

During that extra week, you can ask for feedback on what you’ve written, read your attempt out loud for a fresh perspective, make edits, and so on. You get the pressure, but you also get the extra time to re-draft. Bringing the work forward gives you the best of both worlds.


Another issue is writing an essay in chunks, but still focusing on a single draft. So you write an introduction, write a section, write another section, write a conclusion, that kind of thing.

There were times when my friends and I would take this bit-by-bit approach. But in a way, it’s like doing a more spaced-out all-nighter.

We improved our approach by adding an extra task to the process. After writing in parts, we left time before the deadline in order to read the piece as a whole. Unsurprisingly, it could be pretty embarrassing to read through!

The good news is, it didn’t take too much to re-draft again. You can get a lot done with one more assessment of your writing. A second draft can make  a big difference.

My personal sweet-spot, however, is three drafts:

  1. First draft – Get your points and arguments ready. Address the question. Search for good ways to answer and explore. Look for areas you’re not yet clear on or convinced about.
  2. Second draft – Shape your argument. Work on the structure of the essay. Create a killer introduction and conclusion. Make sure references are plentiful and relevant.
  3. Third draft – Ensure the question has been answered properly and in full. Make sure the essay sticks to the point throughout. Check for a good reading flow (reading out loud is a big deal here). Find the clearest ways to state your case. Make sure your most important points aren’t buried away in the text.

After a third draft, we’re probably talking minor edits and nitpicking only. Call that tidying up as opposed to another draft. And remember not to let that perfectionist voice in your head mess you about. Your job is to do well, not do perfectly. It’s not possible to get it perfect, regardless of what that internal editor in your head might be saying!

Too many re-drafts and it may take too much of your time. Too few and you’re liable to miss out on your best attempt. Unless it’s a fluke, you won’t get all the marks you’re capable of from a first draft attempt at writing.

Find your sweet-spot and your process

Keep thinking about your sweet-spot. Work out what each draft means to you. If you don’t agree with my list above, make your own. Keep working on the piece until you reach a stage where any time spent poring over your work won’t yield enough change to warrant it worthwhile.

Put it this way, spending half an hour or more obsessing over the order of words in a single sentence is rarely good use of your time.

Here’s the main takeaway for each way of working:

  • If you get most of your work done through a single session of pressure, bring your deadline forward so you have room to improve (and re-draft) before you hand the work in.
  • If you write in chunks, but don’t tend to re-draft, it’s a similar drill. Bring the deadline forward and re-draft.
  • If you already like to work in drafts, just remember not to go overboard. My own sweet-spot is for three drafts. Whatever you choose, have a clear idea of what your aims are for each draft you work on.

What is your essay-writing process? What would you like to improve?

Understand Essay Titles Better With 3 Quick Questions – TUB-Thump 013



“You haven’t answered the question.”

Has a tutor ever said this to you?

Hopefully they went into more detail than that. But what is really behind the advice to make sure you actually answer the question that’s been set?

In Episode 013 of TUB-Thump, I’ve got a brief method of working out what a question means. It’s a quick process, and you should get used to it over time.

Essay questions have keywords and details. It’s easy to pick up on the keywords.

Your exercise is to deal with the details too. Stuff like reference and structure. Points that are easy to gloss over when you spot a keyword and think you know loads about that particular area.

It feels good when that light-bulb goes off in your head and you can think of loads of great points to make before you’ve even started writing.

But then…the assignments aren’t:

  • “Wordsworth…Wax lyrical about all you know.”
  • “The history of food…How much can you regurgitate?”
  • “Human geography…What facts can you uncover?”

Today’s episode looks at the three quick considerations that will get you looking at essay questions in more detail.

Here are the show notes for the 7-min episode:

  • 01:15 – What is the essay question actually asking you to do? Assess, discuss, describe, list, analysis, was X right or wrong…find the top-level reason for the question that’s being asked.
  • 02:00 – What is the question referring to specifically? Find the context and the relevant reference points.
  • 03:00 – What clues can you find from the question’s structure? Has the question been written as a challenge to a popular opinion? Is it asking you to look at several different angles rather than give a single perspective? You can often find clues within the questions to help you in writing a great answer.
  • 04:15 – If the question feels misleading after you’ve asked these follow-up questions, ask for clarification. And see if you can describe the question’s meaning in your own words.
  • 05:10 – Summing up the main points from the episode. Your questions should only take you a few minutes to unpack. And they can help you get started quickly once you get used to the process.

Music for TUB-Thump is Life, by Tobu, which is released under a Creative Commons license. Check out more of Tobu’s great sounds on Soundcloud, YouTube, and his official site.

TUB-Thump is part of the Learning Always Network.

Keep being awesome!

Don’t Fear Feedback – TUB-Thump 011



Feedback is a double-edged sword.

You want all your tutor’s comments about your coursework to be good. But you need the feedback most when there’s room to improve.

Hard is it can be, you can go a long way when you act on advice. That’s what it is…advice. Instead of thinking of it as negative feedback, give it a positive edge and use the advice to do better in your next assignment.

If you’re finding it difficult to take a peek at those comments, let Episode 011 of TUB-Thump give you a helping hand. It’ll be far less painful if you look forward rather than back.

There’s a lot of advice out there on how to use feedback. When you’re ready to tackle it, check out these links too:

Here are the show notes for the 8-min episode:

  • 01:25 – Think of feedback as help. This isn’t about where you went wrong, it’s about where you can go right next time.
  • 02:05 – Do you understand the feedback? If it’s vague or if you don’t understand it, find out more.
  • 02:50 – Check out online and library resources regarding feedback. This should help you get an initial idea.
  • 04:00 – Look for feedback as you go. Don’t wait until after you’ve got the assignment marked. Preliminary feedback lets you know if you’re going in the right direction and can help you build an even better piece of work.
  • 05:00 – Direct and relevant questions are far better than asking for vague advice. Go in prepared and you’ll get a much better reception. Plus, it’ll be advice tailored to your specific issues.
  • 06:00 – Feedback is about looking forward. It’s a tool to reach further in the future, not a retrospective on the past.
  • 06:50 – Summing up the episode’s main points.
  • 07:10 – It’s difficult to engage with feedback, but it’s worth your while embracing it for your next piece of coursework.

Music for TUB-Thump is Life, by Tobu, which is released under a Creative Commons license. Check out more of Tobu’s great sounds on Soundcloud, YouTube, and his official site.

TUB-Thump is part of the Learning Always Network.

Keep being awesome!

Why Every Essay You Write Matters…Yes, Even In the First Year (Guest Post)


I’m excited to welcome Rachael from Joined Up Writing in today’s post. I’m no stranger to going on about how much the first year counts. It’s a myth to think that you can scrape by on a pass and save your effort for next year. There are many great reasons why the first year counts far more than it seems.

Rachael gives you three of those reasons why it’s time to take your first year coursework seriously. And be sure to check her site for two more reasons after that.

Over to Rachael!

Hello, it’s Rachael here from and I’m excited to be sharing my thoughts with you today on why every essay counts towards your degree!

Why Every Essay You Write Matters

One phrase I often hear students say is that “first-year essays don’t matter” or “first-year essays don’t count towards your final degree”.  It’s maybe something that you’ve heard people say too. Perhaps you’ve even said it yourself?

But if you choose to ignore your first-year essays it does make a difference to your results. I’ll explain three reasons why your essays count right from day one and three pro tips you can employ right away to help you nail them from the beginning!


#1 You learn to write

Every time you write an essay, you have the chance to improve. If you don’t take those early essays seriously, then you’ll miss opportunities to hone your research and writing skills.

Even if you’ve hit it out of the ballpark with your A-Level results, you’ll find there is a big jump upward in standard when you begin to write at University.

School and college are tightly focused on the outcome of passing assessments. Teachers provide multiple occasions to practice for your final assessment through tests, mock exams, and revision classes.

It’s different at University. Here the focus is on developing critical thinking skills so you learn to evaluate research independent of your tutor. Often you’ll simply be supplied with an outline of what is required to pass the module and how marks are allocated. You may get a rubric showing what the marker is looking for, or you may be given a previous year’s exam paper or essays as examples. Generally, though you’ll need to figure out what, when and how to pass the assessment by yourself.

Your lecturer or tutor wants you to be successful, but they’ll assume you can already craft an essay that reflects your intellect and ability.

Pro tip: Every time you write an essay, set yourself some objectives for learning the process of writing alongside your main outcome of answering the essay question. Your process objective could be to: improve essay structure, apply theory correctly, or cite better evidence. This allows you to use each of those essays that ‘don’t count’ to learn to write better.


#2 You write to learn

The actual process of writing, if done correctly, can also improve your ability to learn. Writing enables you to improve the clarity of your thought process AND the precision of how you express ideas.

When you begin to research an essay topic, initially you think about your subject matter using the words of the scholars you have read. Subconsciously, you’ll think along the same lines as them too. The process of writing forces you to push beyond what you’ve read and make decisions about what is important, relevant and best supports your argument.

It is only when you begin to write that you really pull apart the different ideas and evidence you’ve read, and start to piece it together in an order that answers your essay question. It’s this two-part process of separation and synthesis that helps you comprehend, critique and commit the material to memory.

Writing also improves your ability to express your thoughts in a concise, coherent manner.  Submitting an essay that your tutor can easily understand will bring in those higher marks from the start, and those first half-dozen essays are ideal to practice new vocabulary, definitions, and terms that are important in your field too.

Pro tip: Create your own mini-dictionary for each subject that you study. Every time you find a word in a book or article that you don’t understand, make a note of it in a spreadsheet or notebook. Take time later to look them up and write what they mean in your ‘dictionary’ using words that you can easily understand.


#3 You write to access opportunities

As student numbers continue to rise, employers look for different ways to differentiate candidates, not only for jobs after graduation but for internships and industrial placements too.

Understandably, these opportunities are hotly contested because there is a strong correlation between students who complete placements and those that are offered graduate positions after they conclude their studies.

What employability factors do employers look for in applicants? Creativity? Confidence? Competence? Yes, all of those are obvious qualities that employers look for. One attribute that’s often overlooked by students, but highly relevant to companies is consistency. Employers know past performance is one of the biggest predictors of future achievement.

Think about it. It makes sense.

An internship or industrial placement is secured partly based on results from your initial year. Fortunately, this gives you a head start over those people who proclaim that first-year results don’t count. You’ll approach your essays with the knowledge that consistently achieving good marks (and working towards great marks!) shows you take your academic work seriously. To an employer, this suggests you’ll take their internship or industrial placement seriously too.

Pro tip: Examine the modules you’re due to take this semester. What assessment methods are used? Essays? Reports? A presentation? Now look at the marks assigned to each element. Are some parts of the assessment worth more than another? Then split your time accordingly. If 70% of your mark is an individual essay and 30% is a group presentation, focus your attention on the essay – tempting though it is to hang out with your group over coffee!

There you have it: first-year essays count because they help you write better, learn better, and have better opportunities!

Which reason resonates with you? Be sure to comment on TheUniversityBlog below!

Now, here’s your homework. Hop across to to grab a download with two further reasons why you should take first-year essays seriously and two extra Pro Tips.