“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:
- 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.
- 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.
- 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?