For those who study humanities rather than science, academic life is filled with essays. Every stage of education is punctuated by these pieces of prose and quite often essay writing technique is just as important as knowledge of your subject.
The first and most important part of any essay, is the question. Your essay must answer the question you have been asked, so when you take notes, try to do so with the question in front of you. Set yourself a timetable to ensure that you have time to review your research, write an outline, create each paragraph, conclusion and introduction and still have time for any necessary revision. Writing the first draft the night before the essay is due is NOT a good idea.
What if you don’t have a question, or you aren’t sure what it is? Sometimes questions can be very vague, a quotation followed by the word ‘discuss’. Discuss is one of those words beloved of essay setters everywhere. It means tell us about the topic and go into the pros and cons, so in the case of our fictional question about Scotland, it could have been written as
‘Scottish scenery is the best in the world.’ Discuss.
Which means; ‘Tells us about Scottish scenery and give us the arguments, both for and against, the statement quoted. When the source of the quotation is mentioned, it can be useful to consider who said it, when and why when putting your answer together.
If you don’t know what the question is, then as long as you are not in an exam setting, ask your teacher, professor or tutor.
Review your material before you put pen to paper. Keep checking back with the question. What do you think the answer is, and why? Try to consider that point before you start taking general notes. If you are studying online, be careful to keep the url of any website you use for information, cutting and pasting information into some sort of note repsoitory, such as evernote, can be very useful, however, psychologists have noticed that note taking online is quite different from note taking with pen a paper. For some reason, if you use a pen to actually write the words (rather than typing) you are more likely to remember them.
A happy medium between the two note taking methods is to cut and paste into an online file and add your offline notes. Then turn the whole thing into a hand written mind map which gives a good overview of the subject and of your argument.
Once you have studied the overview, you need to form a view. What is your response to the question and why? Write the ‘elevator pitch’ version of this, that is, reduce it to two sentences. This will be your thesis statement, Note, you can’t put a thesis statement together until AFTER you have reviewed all the information and formed and opinion.
Now you have an idea what your argument is to be, select 3 (or five, depending on the length of essay you are expected to write) major points which support that view.
For example: Is Scottish scenery the most beautiful in the World?
You can’t discuss Scottish scenery without knowing a little about it, why for example, in a country which is famed for its mountains, are the mountains so different, for example from those in Hawaii, or the Alps, or the Himalayas? What is that makes Scottish scenery distinctive?
So the first paragraph of your essay is an introduction, not to your essay (you’ll write that last) but to the subject.
The next paragraph introduces your first point, explains it and says why it is important. You need to include facts and where you do, back them up by giving their source. You’ll then go on to say what you think about these facts, if others don’t agree, which is sually the case, say why and mention any facts which might support their argument. Round the point off by saying why you believe the people who don’t agree with you are wrong, and thwy their point of view is not, in your opinion valid.
The next paragraph deals with your second point, and the next your third. In each case follow the same format, make your argument, say why some people don’t agree with that, and then why you don’t agree with them.
The mountains are old, but not very high. Who wants to climb? And peaks are so last year.
Glens are steep and dramatic but in many cases bare. Stark scenera allows the geology to shine through.
That lochs are plentiful, wide and deep, but in most cases very cold and sometimes deadly. No-one comes to Scotland for the swimming.
At this point, you need to read the whole thing over. Do you need to say more? Do you need to say less?
If you find you have words to spare, consider adding one or two more points in support of your argument. If you find you have used too many words, never reduce the number of points below three. Simply go back and eliminate spare words. Adjectives can usually go as can filler phrases like ‘in my opinion’, ‘on the other hand’, ‘as you can see’,’as previously shown’. Look for word combinations where one word is redundant as in ‘walked quickly’ which would be better written as ‘hurried’, ‘ran’ ;rushed’.
Is you viewpoint definite? Look for words like ‘mostly’, ‘a lot’, ‘a few’ and try to be more specific. Writing ‘A lot of birds’ or ‘most birds’ doesn’t sound nearly as authoritative as ‘96.5% of birds’. If you have the facts, use them. If not, why are you even mentioning the birds?
Does the argument hang together? Where you have made a point, have your introduced evidence to support it? If you are required to, have you cited your sources? Do you have the information necessary to construct your bibliography? Do the points you have made support your thesis? If they do, you can proceed, it’s time to write the conclusion. If not, revision is required.
This is a crucial point. Try not to arrive here the night before you essay is due!
You may notice that the language of your text books and assignments is a little stilted. Academic writing employs a surfeit of jargon. Why use short simple words when long complex words will do? Try to use the language of your subject. It’s one way to show your tutor or teacher than you understand what they are saying. It’s not contagious, and won’t suddenly start sounding strange to your friends.
Give yourself time to proof read, and add your introduction, which should include your thesis statement, right at the end.
Then comes the most important part. submit your essay, get your mark. Sit down read it through. Ask questions about the marking and the comments. Then learn from them and do better next time.