Whether you enjoy writing or not, there’s probably a fair amount of it that you have to do as a student. I don’t think essays are anyone’s favourite thing to write (and I say that as a former English Literature student!) … but by honing your writing process, you can get them over and done with quickly and – hopefully – well.
I was an undergraduate student in the back in 2003-06 and back then, the most sophisticated tool I had to help with my writing was Microsoft Word 2003’s spellchecker! Today, there are loads of useful tools you can use – and I covered some of those in my post 10 Online Tools to Help You Write the Perfect Essay.
No tool can offer to write your essay for you, though (and if it does, I’d be very dubious about using it). So in this post, we’ll be looking at some key tips for getting your essays written as smoothly and painlessly as possible.
Tip #1: Don’t Start Writing Without a Plan
I know it can be tempting to just dive into an essay, especially if you’re short on time. With anything you write, though, you’ll find it much easier if you plan ahead – and I think this is especially true for essays, which generally need a strong structure that supports you in making a particular argument.
Depending on the length of your essay and how much you like to plan ahead, your plan might be a short list of bullet points and some ideas about key sources to reference – or it might be a detailed paragraph by paragraph outline. But you should definitely have some sort of plan in mind, or you risk going off on a huge tangent that doesn’t really relate to your essay question.
Tip #2: Don’t Leave Your Writing Until the Last Minute
Okay, I know it’s sometimes unavoidable – but very few people do their best work while staying up all night frantically trying to finish an essay that’s due imminently (or worse, overdue). It’s much better for your writing – and your health – to work consistently on an essay well ahead of the deadline.
One great way to do this is to break down your essay writing process into different stages (which will probably correspond to these stages of the writing process). For instance, if you have a short essay due Friday, you might come up with ideas and useful references for your essay question on a Monday, write a detailed plan on a Tuesday, and start drafting on a Wednesday … instead of leaving everything to the end of the week.
Tip #3: Know Your Best Time of Day to Write
All of us have times of day when we find it easy to focus – and times when we really struggle. I’ve known since my schooldays that I’m a morning person: I’m at my best between about 7am and 12 noon, and my focus dips dramatically around 4pm.
You might be totally different – perhaps you can concentrate really well between, say, 7pm and midnight – but what matters here is knowing yourself. Figure out your best hours for writing and try to use them where possible.
Tip #4: Ask for Sample Essays or Projects to Look At
Whatever you’re studying, if you have to produce essays or projects that are assessed, there will almost certainly be (a) a mark scheme and (b) examples of previous students’ work. Ask your professors about these. Take a really close look at past work, and at the mark it got: see if you can figure out why – and what you could do to improve your own work.
If you’ve got connections to students who’ve taken your course in the past, you might also ask them if they’d be willing to share any of their old essays. (Be really careful here that you don’t end up accidentally using any of their ideas or phrasings as your own – that’s plagiarism and it’s a serious academic offence. So if you take notes based on their essays, label those very clearly so you don’t later think that they’re part of your own work.)
Tip #5: Know How to Present Your Work Correctly
The rules about formatting essays – particularly things like footnotes and bibliographies – can seem rather arcane and confusing. But it’s important to get these little details right. If you’re unsure, again, ask for examples or take a look at whatever style guide your university uses.
One area where students sometimes struggle is in the presentation of quotes from sources. Depending on length, these can either be presented as “blockquotes” – in their own paragraph, indented from the main text – or as “inline” quotes that are incorporated into a paragraph. Again, ask for examples or consult the appropriate style guide for your institution.
Tip #6: Look Up a List of Commonly Misused Words
Some words are very easily confused with one another, or used incorrectly. It’s worth checking through the words and phrases that people commonly get wrong just to be sure you’re not making any mistakes.
We have a category dedicated to such mistakes.
Tip #7: Edit Your Essays On Paper Where Possible
Hopefully, you’re already editing your essays before handing them in – if not, definitely make that into a habit. Don’t just look out for typos and spelling mistakes: think about areas where you haven’t made your thinking clear, or where you haven’t backed up a statement with a reference or fact.
While there are lots of tools you can use to make editing on the screen easier, I don’t think anything can replace a careful read-through on paper – especially if you’re handing in something that’s going to make up a large part of your final mark.
#8: Share Your Essay-in-Progress With Fellow Students
Can you get together with one or two other people on your course and swap your draft essays? Often, someone else’s feedback can really help you to clarify your own thinking – and they may spot potential problems that you’d have missed, or areas where you could go further.
Even if you don’t want to give one another substantial feedback, you could still swap essays for light editing / proofreading purposes: it’s surprising how someone else’s mistakes can leap out at you, whereas your own tend not to be obvious (because you know what you think you wrote…)
Whether writing’s something you enjoy, or a necessary evil, I hope these tips help you to write great essays without spending a huge amount of time on them. If you have an essay-writing tip of your own to share, feel free to leave it below in the comments.