How To Write Good Essays, By Someone Who Does

08 March 2014
I've got a lot of friends heading off to university for the first time this year, and many are worried about that big chunk of university assessment - essays. I know how worried I was this time last year. But whilst I'm no genius and crash and burn in group work, the one thing at uni I've realised I'm good at is writing essays; I consistently score over 90%. I've done this by working out an essay writing method and sticking to it. I can't promise it will give you good marks, but give it a try; it works for me and I hope it will work for you too. What you're doing when you write an essay is working out what you want to say in response to the question, finding academic references that agree with your view, then rewriting them in your own words. Crazy, but that's how it goes.

1. Ideally you'll need to start at least two weeks in advance of the due date. Read the question. Make sure you understand all the key terms - now is the time to contact your tutor if there's anything you're unsure of. Read the marking guide, re-read the question, make sure you understand exactly what's being asked.

2. Time to hit the library. Research. Read widely. For a first year essay, you'll need to cite between 8-15 sources. Read more than this, as you won't know at this stage what is going in the essay and what will be left out. Take copious notes; don't assume highlighting or remembering what you've read will be enough. Taking notes will help you understand and digest the information. Make sure you keep a record of everything you've read, including page numbers. You'll need them later.

3. I like to leave a day or two between research and the first draft, to work on something else or simply let my mind subconsciously work over the information. Anyway, first draft time. I get all my notes together and then just write as fast as I can, not stopping to consider whether what I'm writing is any good or not. Just let it all out. You can always edit later, no matter how poorly written it is; at least the basic idea is there. It's impossible to edit a blank page. I always do the first draft in one go; of course, this is easier with a first year essay of 2000 words than a third year 5000 word whopper, but if you've made it to third year I'm going to assume you know what you're doing by now. Just make sure you include those references with page numbers; trust me, it is a lot easier to put them in now than to try to track them down later.

4. Again, I like to leave it a couple of days before I work on the second draft. I open up a new word document, then read through my first draft, pasting over the bits that work and extensively re-writing the ones that don't. It usually takes at least as long as the first draft. This is where I try to get it right. It's important not to assume the lecturer or marker knows what you're talking about - they will assume you don't know what you're talking about, and mark you accordingly. You have to spell everything out. I got tripped up on this point many times until I got the hang of it. You may find you need to do more research. That's fine, it's all part of the process. As shown by the teeth of the British, the floods in Bangladesh and the human penis, even God doesn't always get it right first time around.

5. Print the thing out and give it a proof read. You've run it through spell check already but have you missed any punctuation? Clunkers of sentences that just don't work? Fix all that up, then if at all possible send it to a friend to read over as well, even if they've no particular knowledge of your subject (actually, that's even better - if you can make the topic clear to someone without any knowledge of the subject, you're in pretty good shape).

6. One last polish. Don't worry, you're nearly there! I'm usually up to this stage the day before the essay is due. Double check your bibliography complies with the appropriate referencing system, that you're happy with the wording, and any other little niggles. Fix them, print out your final copy in duplicate, save one and hand the other in. It's over. Go get yourself some chocolate or a glass of wine or one of Kylie Minogue's backing dancers to have sex with, however it is you reward yourself.

I hope this helps, and if you've any questions, please drop me a line in the comments.


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