A Genuinely Helpful Guide to Writing an Essay at Uni
We’ve all been there, staring at a blank page as the cursor flashes expectantly as we attempt to write an introduction.
Whether you’re tackling your first assessed essay, or you’re coming back from the long summer break and feel like you’ve forgotten how to hold a pen, this should help you.
I studied French and Italian, so can only speak about writing literature essays, but this is the method I gradually ended up using. Of course, it is quite a personal process, so view this as a kind of essay-writing buffet where you can take bits you like and leave the things that don’t take your fancy.
1. Choose your question.
A couple may stand out to you, so consider which one will let you go focus on the texts you enjoyed the most in the module and which one will give you the most to explore. Some lecturers are happy to chat to you one-on-one about your essay and will even give you the freedom to write your own question, so always ask if this is possible.
2. Read the primary texts.
It’s tempting to just read around the books, especially when they’re pretty dense, but make sure you’ve read the actual books. As you’re reading, make a note of any quotes that you think could be useful for your question.
3. If it’s a theoretical question, read up on the theory.
Use your library, its online resources, articles on JStor and Google Scholar.
4. Make a start on secondary reading and make notes in a Word document as you go.
Give yourself a solid groundwork by starting with anything that’s been suggested by your lecturer. You might find you absorb the information more easily if you print out the reading so you can highlight and annotate the text – anything to have a break from looking at a screen.
5. Open up a fresh document, choose your favourite font and get going writing down useful quotes.
Making notes on your laptop as you go will be so much quicker than hand writing notes.
6. Make subheadings each time you start making notes from a new text with the text’s full reference.
This way you can just copy and paste it into your bibliography at the end.
7. Remember to write down page numbers.
Always, always note down the page number when you’re quoting or writing down an idea from a book because it’s an absolute nightmare trying to find one specific quote at the last minute because you forgot to put the page number while you were reading. Over a couple of weeks of reading, you sift through a lot of text and never know what will end up being a really useful quote or idea once your argument takes shape.
8. When you’re reading, have a constant eye out for ideas that agree and disagree with your argument.
As you branch out into your own research, having read the primary texts and the suggested reading, know what you’re looking for in the texts. Remember, you really don’t need to read everything – don’t make the mistake like I did of over-reading and trying to read everything ever written about Camus.
9. Print your notes.
Once you reach saturation point with reading, you might find it helpful to print out all your notes and go through them and highlight quotes that jump out at you.
10. Think about the points you could make.
By this stage you can start thinking about the two or three main points of your essay, which might have come to you as you’ve been reading – whether it’s your own interpretation or something that’s come up a lot in the critical readings.
11. Organise your quotes.
Copy these useful quotes into a document so they’re easier to find and organise them thematically, so all quotes about ‘gender’ or ‘colonialism’ for example can be put together in one place.
12. So, you’ve read the texts and the secondary reading and made your notes. Now it’s time to write a draft.
Use subheadings like Intro, First Argument, Second Argument and Conclusion and just stick with writing bullet points of what you will be dealing with in each section, rather than actually writing the essay at this stage. Are you saying something original? Are you supporting all of your points with critical material (quoting or paraphrasing other writers)?
13. Start writing.
Don’t panic – once you’ve got your introduction down, a lot of the hard work is over. You’re ready. You know where you’re going.
14. Keep nothing up your sleeve.
When writing an introduction, I always defined the key terms of the question and introduced the primary texts (the novels/poems I was writing about). Then I would write ‘This essay will firstly examine X, it will secondly demonstrate X, in order to show that X.’ This way the reader knows exactly where you’re going, right from the start.
Don’t withhold your argument – be clear about your argument the whole way through, and at the end of paragraphs you might want to write, ‘Therefore I have shown that…’ to hammer your point home.
15. Check the structure of your argument.
You’ll generally make two or three main points in one essay, depending on its length. Structure is key, so make sure each point is of a similar length.
16. Write out a first version of your essay.
Don’t worry if it’s a little under or over the word count at this stage, and print it out so you can read through it and annotate it. Looking at it on paper can help you see bits that are repetitive or sentences that go better in a different paragraph.
17. Make the final changes.
Once you’ve made some amendments, have someone proof read it. Upload it and then it’s out of your hands. You’ve done everything you can.
18. Don’t take your final mark too much to heart.
Remember that essay marks can be random and disappointing sometimes, so don’t be disheartened – everyone gets a disappointing mark sometimes. Certain modules and teachers will suit you better than others – which you can learn from for the coming years at uni, and you’ll develop your own way of doing essays that works for you as you go along.
19. Give yourself plenty of time.
It can be hard to motivate yourself when you have lots of time, and some people do work better under time pressure, but time goes past scarily quickly.
Future you will be extremely grateful that you started earlier than absolutely necessary.
20. Most importantly of all, don’t forget to reward yourself.
Whether it’s a large glass of wine, pyjamas and Netflix or going out out, be sure to reward yourself when you’re done.