After spending three years at university, essays are nothing new to me. I used to struggle with finding a routine that worked for me, and my essay writing process was, quite frankly, a shambles. Now I’m an essay veteran, and I’ve found a system that makes essay writing (almost) painless and a lot less stressful for my poor delicate head. So here’s my advice for getting in the essay groove!
Do your reading, and do it properly. If your course has compulsory reading, do it. Make notes and flag up the pages or quotes that will come in handy for your essay. This makes quote-hunting a lot easier and helps you to form a proper argument in your work. All of my books are coated in little sticky notes with annotations purely to make my life easier in future, and it really works for me.
Find where you work best. A lot of people will tell you not to do work in bed. To those people I say this: you are wrong. For me, bed is the place. It’s quiet, comfy, and I don’t have to wear a bra. However, for many others, their bed is an evil temptress that seduces them into a nap. Figure out where your ideal work space is, whether it’s the library, your favourite cafe, an empty classroom, or just at the desk in your room. You might find that you work better with a buzz around you, or you might find it distracting. Do you work better with music, or without? Maybe a study group is helpful for keeping you motivated, or maybe it’s just an excuse to gossip and take more trips to the vending machine without feeling ashamed. Figure it out for yourself.
Find your sources first. Once you know what angle you’re going to take for your writing, go and find sources to support your argument, and make sure you keep a note of them for referencing later on. It’ll make your life easier if you can pull up a few quotes that will help to mold and support what you’re writing about. I like to put them all into my document first so that I don’t forget anything important, and it helps me to plan out where I’m going to take my essay. You can always find more sources later, but this is a good place to start.
Split your topics into segments, and find an order that flows. Your essay should make a logical progression, rather than jumping from one place to the other. Think about the best way to manoeuvre from start to finish, including an introduction and conclusion that matches up with what you’re actually saying. There’s no point in talking about one topic in the intro if it’s never going to see the light of day again. Keep it clean, concise, and focused.
Separate the workload over a few days. Teachers are wrong: you can write an essay the day before it’s due in – but that doesn’t mean you can write a good one: if you try to crack out an essay the day before (or even the day of) the deadline, you’re missing out on marks and setting yourself back. I set myself a goal of 500 words per day. It doesn’t actually take that long, and it makes everything a little more manageable. So if I have a 2000 word essay, I tend to split it over 5 or 6 days (not including any prior reading/research).
- Day 1: Find your sources and make a plan for the direction that your essay is going in. Once you’ve got that nailed, the rest of the essay can be molded around that skeleton.
- Day 2-5: Write 500 words each day. Easy!
- Day 6: Add your bibliography, edit, and proofread.
And just like that, you have a completed essay with minimal tears and (hopefully) less stress eating.
Reference as you go. You might think it’s quicker to just hammer out all your content first, and then go back and reference afterwards. You would be mistaken. Although referencing can be a pain and put a hold on that roll you’re on, it’s better to do it as it comes rather than go back afterwards and try to hunt down all your quotes, find out which source each one is from, and fiddle around looking for page numbers. You might end up forgetting something, or losing your place in a source so you can never find the quote again. And if you can’t reference it, you can’t use it.
Use referencing websites. If you struggle with referencing and bibliographies, try using websites like Cite This For Me. I used to do all of my bibliographies manually, but websites like this take out the fear of making an error, and order your bibliography in just the right way. They reduce the stress out of those little finishing touches, so then you can submit with confidence. Just make sure you have it set to the right citation style for your university!
PROOFREAD. As much as you might hate your essay and just want to get it out of your sight as quickly as possible, I cannot stress enough how important it is to proofread. Check your spelling and grammar, and just make sure that what you’ve written actually makes sense. Sometimes reading it out loud can help you to identify areas that jar or don’t sound quite right, or ask somebody else to read it and see if they can follow what’s going on.
This is the writing process that works for me. Give it a go, change it, tailor it to how you work, and see if it helps – if you decide to try it out, let me know how it goes!