Essays are a chance for students to showcase their understanding and mastery of their subject, yet some find that there is a disparity between their actual knowledge and what they receive in their grades. You should not see essays as an obstacle to get over, but more as a challenge to rise to and separate yourself from others. By having a logical structure and flow to your essay you can make it accessible to your reader. This ultimately starts with good planning, giving yourself a chance to read around the subject and thinking about the direction you want you essay to take. To make the contents of your essay stand out there are some simple practices that people often overlook and overcomplicate, as well as some more advanced techniques that can push your essays up into that next grade boundary.
Preparation is key, it’s like warming up for a football or tennis match, you need to give yourself a little time for your brain to get in gear and organise your thoughts before launching into your essay, or else you may find you fail to reach your best.
This all starts by reading around the subject that you will be writing about, you may be blessed with the “gift of the gab”, but as you start writing more and more academic essays, it becomes easier to spot someone who is well read compared to someone who has just read a few short summaries. A good tip is to have the essay title written next to you when reading, as this can be helpful for you to see if what you’re reading is relevant to your essay.
Reading more has many benefits to your essay: you improve your understanding of the different arguments that pertain to the topic; you will develop your vocabulary without having to sit reading a dictionary (I promise you, you do not want to try this), which is especially important if you are learning a language; and most importantly you can start looking at what other academics have written (yes you are an academic yourself). This can later be used to support what you have written and will set you apart from the crowd. Holding an opposing view to what others have said can be a bold move, but if well supported can really be the highlight of your essay.
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Whilst that deadline for submission may seem ages away, starting early means you can write and come back to your essay, giving you the ability to see if it still looks as good as when you first wrote it. At 3am with a deadline at 9am, it is hard to distinguish what sounds good, and what sounds like ‘it’ll do’. The preparation does not stop here however, as you still need to work out what needs to be written. Once again if you do a little prep, you will make work a lot easier for yourself.
The Essay Plan:
If you are not already, then start making a plan before you write your essays. This is the essential foundation required to produce a truly remarkable essay. Many believe a plan is only important for long pieces of coursework and do not spend long enough on writing a plan in exams (yes you should still write a plan in an exam). A basic structure commonly used is: Introduction, where you outline what you plan to say in your essay; Main Body, where you present your argument, by comparing and contrasting points; and Conclusion, where you summarise you’re argument, reflecting on what has been said and drawing the essay to a close.
You should think of an essay like going on a journey: first off you need to know where you are starting and finishing; then you need to work out how you are going to get there and how to link up the places you visit in between; and finally how long you have to get there. You should get in the habit of writing a plan which can be as simple as a sentence for each paragraph you plan to write, explaining what will go into it and then a sentence that explains the link between that paragraph and the next.
By doing this it can help keep you on track when writing and also notice if perhaps the point you are making deserves its own separate paragraph, or whether or not it is relevant to the essay. The plan sets up for a well-structured essay, which is incredibly important if you want to show off the content within.
Much has been said about how to write a good essay, without talking about the actual writing of it, and that is because this part is actually quite simple, and many people overcomplicate it. “By endeavouring to appear as a literary master, one only obfuscate the true implication of a sentence” (in other words, do not try to be too smart, it’s just confusing). A simple structure is to make a point, give an example, and then explain how that example is relevant to what you have just said.
It is important to answer the question in front of you; waffling off the point can often make it appear like you do not know what you are writing about. It is tempting to try to squeeze in that great quote you found, or an awesome source that showcases the depth of your reading, however if it is not relevant, it does not belong. You are unlikely to gain any extra points towards your argument, and may even confuse the reader.
Think of your writing as a marketing campaign: you need to think about where you want to place material to have the greatest exposure and impact on the audience; and it needs to make sense and not just be random facts that do not relate to what you are telling to sell (that your argument is valid). If you try and jam too much into too small a space, everything tends to lose importance. Each paragraph should be structured like a mini essay. Start by introducing what will be discussed; develop your ideas; and then finish by concluding your point.
There shouldn’t be anything new introduced in your conclusion, you will have hopefully made all your points already in the essay. Use your conclusion to summarise the main points you want the reader to take away from your essay. Some people like to add in a quote here as it can look very impressive, although in an exam this can be quite hard unless you have memorised a couple beforehand. Some like to use semi-provocative statements, but this needs to be previously supported within the essay and not require further justification. However, try to be creative and make it memorable as this will help to leave a lasting impression on the reader. You can always practice this by writing conclusions to newspaper or magazine articles you read and experiment with different styles.
Much of essay writing is all about trying to keep things simple, rather than overcomplicating it, stick to the point and follow a logical order of progression. Keep practising and being creative and you will develop your own style as you become more proficient. However most importantly, give yourself plenty of time to prepare and you will be in a far better position. As Saint Augustine said “the higher your structure is to be, the deeper must be its foundation”.
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