During my first semester at university, my essay writing was a bit of a mess. Even if we ignore that I had to learn a different essay writing style than the one I had been taught previously, I still had lots of other things to figure out. Starting essays was a pain since I did not even have my thoughts on the question organized in my head. When finishing the essay, I was usually so disappointed in it (or overwhelmed). I never proofread or edited it and I was the most disorganized person ever when it came to referencing.
Three years in and I think I have come quite far and learned a lot. With the help of others and with some experimenting on my own, my essays are now no longer a combination of confusion, disorganization and disappointment. If I may say so, I even end up being really happy with some.
Here are some things I have learned
Before starting the essay:
1. Take a little time to think about the question. If you form some thoughts on it beforehand, you will be less likely to simply restate what others (critics/academics) have already said before you. Instead, this will help you bring in your own thoughts or a new perspective on the topic.*
2. When doing your reading: you have thought about the question already, so now you know which details are important to you when reading the critical material. Do not write down everything that only remotely touches on your topic!
3. Make organized notes when doing the reading: If you know that for referencing you will need page numbers for your quotes, write them down when taking notes and save yourself a lot of time later!
4. Make an essay plan! This may seem like a waste of time and your essay might end up quite different to your plan. However it helps you get your thoughts in order. If you get confused when trying to combine your thoughts with the reading material, making a short essay plan will help you stay organised. This will also hopefully make you get less stuck when writing as you will have a plan of what areas to focus on.
5. You might want to colour code your essay plan with the notes that you made about your reading. This will help you connect some quotes with the paragraphs that you want to use them in. Then, when you are writing your essay, you do not have to browse through 10 pages of notes looking for that one quote you vaguely remember.
Writing the essay:
1. Do not get stuck at the introduction! If you cannot think of something to write for the introduction, simply write down the words you would use to tell a friend what your essay is about. That way, you have a paragraph where the introduction will be and you can move on. You will come back and polish it when you have actually written the whole essay and have a better idea how to describe the topic in a few short sentences.
2. If you find writing essays quite daunting and you find yourself procrastinating on social media, you could try writing your essay in short bursts. That way, the task gets broken down into smaller chunks and you do not feel like you have to write it all in one go. You might also feel less overwhelmed by it. The point is to spend 25 minutes focusing on your essay and writing it without any interruptions or distractions, and then to have a 10 minute break. And repeat.
3. If forcing yourself to write for 25 minutes without distractions proves too difficult, you might want to move to the library where the social pressure will prevent you from watching Netflix. Alternatively, you can download a program that blocks you from using social media for a set period of time (e.g. Forest for your phone).
After writing the essay:
1. Read through it three times and concentrate on a few different areas:
a. First concentrate on the point you are trying to make: will your argument make sense to someone reading it for the first time or did you forget to make an important connection somewhere? Is each paragraph making a point that contributes to your overall argument? Does the order the paragraphs are in make sense in terms of how your argument progresses? Are there obvious connections leading from one paragraph to the next?
b. Then concentrate on the grammar and spelling. Likely to be very boring, but we all know it needs to be done. Make sure you are focusing on the grammar and spelling in the essay and not on the overall text. For this, you need to see the essay in a different way than the 1000 times you went over it when writing it. There are lots of techniques you can use to do this. I recommend increasing the spacing between lines, increasing the text size or change the font, changing the colour. Why not also try reading your essay out loud slowly, or even read your essay from bottom up.
c. After you have fixed everything, you should read through the essay one final time. Make sure that while you were editing and perfecting your essay, you did not accidentally delete some words.
Are you about to start writing a thesis or dissertation? This handy series of videos on Toolkit shows you how to unleash the power of Word and includes tips and trips for creating and manipulating long documents.
*Please keep in mind: I do believe some of these points will be useful for any type of essay. I am however a Literature student with experience in writing essays on literary works and literary criticism. Some points may not apply to other fields.