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I’ve had a slightly unusual year this year in that I haven’t studied any modern history, much to my dislike. Until last month (Sept) I hadn’t written an essay since last November – I was ten months out of practise and it showed!

I received my worst mark ever for an essay last month. Okay, it was a credit but that’s a poor result for me and a rare one too! Once I handed it in I didn’t know how it would be received. This was a new department, with teachers I didn’t know, in a completely unknown subject area for me. So it was a shock to receive it back and read the feedback of where I had gone wrong (I’m so grateful for feedback, I hate rubrics – I don’t see how you can improve your work if all you get back is a rubric with ticks on it). My main problem was that I had actually misunderstood a key area of the essay requirement with regards to secondary sources. This was the first essay I’d written at university where I hadn’t used all of the essay writing tips I had been collecting over the last three years. I won’t be making that mistake again!

Some nerdy types like me love researching and writing essays but most people I tell me this is not normal! Apparently most people don’t like writing essays! (I can’t understand that myself). I have to say I’m never entirely happy with the work I produce. I still struggle on the time management front in that I tend to enjoy the research too much so I don’t leave enough time for the writing and then I have to rush the last quarter or so of the essay which my teachers always pick up on but I’m working on that!

So below are my tips on the essay writing process. It’s not a comprehensive guide like you’ll find elsewhere on the web written by teachers but tips that I have found useful and have helped me gain consistently good marks when I use them all. These tips do not cover punctuation, spelling and grammar as there are others out there (on the web) who are far more passionate about these things than I am, so you can practice your research skills and research them yourself! Also, I recommend you access any information your university provides for you on writing skills. So here are my tips, from student to student:

  1. Easily Lost Points – Read your assessment requirements carefully. Check requirements for font & size, margin size, line spacing, page numbering, submission cover page, special requirements and whether or not the assessment needs to be submitted electronically and/or with a hard copy. Check what style of referencing and style of bibliography your teacher or department prefers (eg, Chicago, Harvard, Humanities). These are things that can easily annoy the teacher marking your work and points are easily lost for not delivering on basic instructions such as these.
  2. Size Matters – What is the required length of the essay? Ask your teacher what is the allowance for going over or under word limit. This is also another way you can lose marks easily if you ignore it. I’ve discovered at my university that most of my teachers have allowed up to 10% over or under and they’ve usually explained on this point that if you go over the word limit by more than 10% then you’re probably waffling.  With regard to the length of the introduction and conclusion aim to write about 10% in the introduction and up to 10% for the conclusion, although I have heard some lecturers say that for long essays 5% is fine for the conclusion.
  3. Break It Down – When I begin work on planning and researching my essay topic I analyse what the question is really asking. There is no point writing a beautifully written essay if it doesn’t answer the question! I like to do two things before I do anything else: I break down the essay question into who, what, where and when (the how and why usually are what you’ll be writing about in the essay). The reason I do this is the essay question becomes much clearer in my mind through this exercise and helps me to set further parameters after researching the topic. Then I begin to mind map and this is usually done a few times during the research process as it changes with each new major discovery and eventually it needs culling once the research is completed and this process helps me decide how best to answer the essay question and come up with my thesis statement. It may not work for you but I find this is what works best for me.
  4. Analyse ThisEvents don’t just happen they are caused by people (unless, of course, it’s a natural phenomenon like an earthquake or a tsunami). During your research you need to critically analyse how and why events occurred (or whatever your topic is) and not merely relay an account of what happened – you’re not a reporter.
  5. Sorry to Bother You . . .  During the research process go and visit your tutor or lecturer. This is the best opportunity to clear up anything you’re unsure about and whether the research you’ve conducted thus far is helpful or whether you may have been wasting your time and need to re-think your plan. I always got better marks for essays when I had talked it over with teachers. Also talk to them about feedback you’ve received from them on previous assignments – where you lost marks and how your work could improve.
  6. So, what’s your point? So after critically analysing the topic you need to come up with your thesis statement – your argument. How do you understand the how and/or why of the topic. Whatever argument you come up with you need to spend the body of your essay maintaining your argument and supporting it using the evidence you’ve discovered in your research.  Try to prove why your argument is a good one to explain the how and why.
  7. Well, Hello  Only after writing the body and conclusion of my essay do I then begin to work on the introduction. This is because I do not know exactly what I will have covered in the body of my essay until I have finished writing it. So in your introduction you need to include:
    1) your thesis statement,
    2) what the body will cover and the reason why this will support your thesis, and
    3) what the body will not cover, that is setting your parameters, because let’s face it you can’t cover every single aspect of what the essay question is asking you so you need to outline what you are not including and why.  Frequently I have lost marks because I did not clarify what I was not going to cover in the body of the essay.
  8. It’s Not Me It’s You! – Plagiarism – just don’t do it. Teachers have frequently mentioned in class that they can always tell because there’ll be a change in writing style that gives it away instantly. Apart from the usual heavy penalties as a deterrent, if you are willing to steal someone else’s work for an essay to pass off as your own then what else are you going to get up to in life? To avoid doing it accidentally make sure you take good notes of where you find passages you’d like to cite in your essay and reference them accordingly.
  9. Find Your Inner Nerd – If you truly want to improve your writing – read more, especially scholarly work or at least some good non-fiction. There are scholars out there working on just about any topic you can think of. Research a topic you’re interested in and find some authors whose style you like. If this doesn’t really do it for you then at least invest in a good dictionary and thesaurus (or find alternatives online if money’s a bit tight).
  10. I Don’t Have Time For This! Time management – need I say more? There are plenty of websites out there with advice on time management for students. Here are the two most important tips for me:
    one, recognise the time wasters in your life and cut out as much of them as you can but make sure they are things you are not going to miss desperately (my time waster is tv – I rarely watch it during uni semesters) and
    two, start your research as early as possible and start writing at least a week before the assessment is due. I try to allow 1hr of writing per 100 words for my essays, more would be nice but I know that life throws curve balls all too frequently so as long as I can achieve that then there’s enough time for writing, editing, proof reading etc. I may not be 100% happy with what I produce but this allows me enough time to produce a piece of work that I’m happy enough to put my name to it!

Let me know if you find these helpful. What other tips do you have?