Essay Structure advice from a University of Oxford graduate
It might sound rather a melodramatic claim, but I feel as though I only truly grasped how to plan and write essays effectively towards the very end of my English degree.
That’s not to say that I couldn’t write essays at all beforehand, but rather that far too much agonising went on. I’d make elaborate spider diagrams; reams of increasingly unintelligible notes; complex colour-coded systems. All of these things were helpful (to varying degrees), but the one key element I was missing was the ability to boil down my argument to a single sentence.
No matter how simplistic or banal this sentence might sound, it really doesn’t matter: it’s a thought experiment, not a mission statement. Next time you’re wading through a plan or staring at a blank page, just try it. The sentence itself doesn’t have to be elegantly crafted, or persuasively forceful: all that can wait. What it does do is focus the mind and force you to remember what exactly you’re trying to cover and communicate.
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There’s another lesson to be learnt from this, which is that is key not to self-edit too much as you go along. Allow yourself to write a dire paragraph or two – you can always revisit them later. The enemy of productivity is perfectionism, and it’s far easier to tweak a block of text than it is to create one from scratch.
I’m certainly not against planning per se; indeed, it’s vital! Just try and be creative and concise in your approach. Write a few key points on post-it notes so that you can rearrange them later (the order they come in doesn’t matter quite as much as you’d think). Suggest some ideas out loud to yourself, just to mix things up. And, above all, take breaks. Do not stare at an empty screen for hours upon hours waiting for your masterpiece to take shape. Work in short, effective bursts and reward yourself for your concentration.
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