I’m going to take a wild guess and say you’ve had to write an essay at least once in your academic career. Maybe I’ll even go crazy and suggest that you’ve probably struggled to write an essay before. Trust me, we’ve all been there. My first year I had to hand in an essay every two weeks. After that I’d consider myself a bit of an expert on essay panic.
Writing’s one of those frustrating things where the only way to get good at it is practice. You have to keep writing and you’ll probably never get perfect. Especially when different profs like different writing styles. Unfortunately for us, that means having to constantly work at it.
For me, setting myself up for success before I even start writing is so important. It’s the reason I’m not crying (too much) when I realize I’ve put off essay writing until the night before. How do you expect to write an A essay if you haven’t prepared for it? You can’t (and if you can, please teach me your ways).
BEFORE THE ESSAY
ONE – if you’re not reading with a pen, you’re doing it wrong
I don’t know about you, but I used to hate marking up my books. Books are precious and I would treat them as such. Except, when it comes to class books, it’s important to always have a pen or pencil in hand when reading for classes (personally I like the pencil).
When you read, whether it’s for English class or Biology, don’t just sit there and read the words on the page – think about them. As you’re reading, go over and underline things that are important, make note of stuff you have an emotional reaction to (did you laugh? Feel grossed out?), and write down any questions you have regarding the text. I like to write down my questions on a stick note and put it right in the book. My friend likes to keep a notebook by her when she reads and she’ll write questions down in there.
By reading actively you’re getting half the work done before you even start! When it comes time to actually prepare for the essay, you don’t have to reread the whole book to find the important parts. Hopefully you already have some ideas, and you already have some questions.
TWO – ask questions
So when you were reading chances are you found at least one question about the text, great! Now’s your chance to ask it. Depending on how discussion based your class is, ask the question you had when reading the text in class or during office hours. This’ll be a good chance to either clear up your question completely or discover you want to know more.
Whatever happens, I like to write down their answer on the back of the question and leave the sticky note in the text. By leaving it I’ve made it easier for future me to get an answer.
THREE – talk about it
This tip kind of relations to asking questions, I’ll admit it, but I think it’s distinct in one way – you don’t have to be looking for answers. Regardless of the assignment, I think chatting with classmates or friends can be so helpful to gain a deeper understanding of the text. In terms of helping with an essay, chatting can help you see where your knowledge either lacks or where your opinions differ from others (which will be really helpful when it comes to the actual essay writing part).
I tend to freeze up when we’re given the essay topic(s), but if I find at least one that interests me and chat about it with a friend I get a jumping off point. Starting an essay is all about those starting points.
DURING THE ESSAY
FOUR – abandon your computer
This is maybe the most sketchy of all my sage (ha!) words of advice. Sure, write your essay on the computer, but when you’re planning? Get rid of it unless all your notes are on there (in which case, you have a pass). Writing it out with a pen and paper lets you be a little messier. For me, essay planning involves a lot of half-formed ideas and crossing out information and drawing arrows to connect points – basically I brainstorm.
While I love the computer for how organized it can keep my thoughts, during a brainstorm being able to go all over the place is an asset in my opinion.
Plus, no computer means you’re less likely to get distracted by the web so it’s kind of a good idea to always abandon your computer when you’re doing work.
FIVE – don’t stress about your thesis
Coming up with a killer thesis is hard, and you’re probably not going to get it right away. Don’t sweat it. Put together a string of words that roughly argues what you want to talk about it and then workshop it for no more than half an hour. This time probably won’t be enough to get the final wording of your thesis, but it’ll give you enough time to make it a little stronger. When you’re work shopping either talk it out to yourself, or to a friend and bounce wordings off of each other.
The reason you shouldn’t take too long to come up with a thesis is that it’s not the only thing. Sure, having a killer thesis helps but you’re being graded on my whole essay, not just the thesis. You’ll get a better grade if you have a terrible thesis but good supporting evidence than if you have a great thesis but didn’t have time to finish the rest of the essay. I know all the tricks, don’t use coming up with a thesis as a procrastination method.
SIX – reread
Before I start my essay, but after I have a thesis, I like the skin the book again. This is where active reading and taking good notes comes in handy. I’ve probably already marked a lot of important parts of the book, or at least left helpful markers to help find parts that relate to my thesis. When I’m rereading, what I’m looking for is specific quotes that advance my argument. I’ll write all of these down on a piece of paper as I go along, making reference to their page number and maybe a word or two that explains why it fits my thesis.
Collecting quotes gives you a visual reminder of your evidence. When you see everything you have laid out, you can figure out what your thesis is lacking by reminding you of parts you may have forgotten. It can also help you figure out if your thesis has a leg to stand on. Can you find any evidence to support your claims?
Putting quotes on a piece of paper also helps me when I’m writing so I don’t have to go back into the text to find evidence, breaking my flow. I’ve even used looking over my quotes page as a way to help me come up with arguments or as a way of reminding me that my thesis does make sense. It’s sort of like a security blanket in that way.
SEVEN – just start
After all of this, you’re ready to go but where do you start? Anywhere really. If you like starting with a conclusion, do that. I start from the beginning and work my way down. My first draft is never very pretty. I like to write stream of consciousness style. I’ll put a timer on for however long I want to work and type until it’s finished. Sometimes this comes up with some great sentences. Most of the time it peppers my essay with comments like how hungry I am. Either way it gives me a place to start editing and tweaking.
Before I started to just word vomit on a page, I used to take forever to write my first draft. I’d spend so long making sure I had the perfect phrasing that it was intimidating to start. Once I started to accept that my first draft was allowed to be rough I started to do much better.
EIGHT – don’t delete everything
When I write essays I’ll have about four versions of it going. If I’m going to be making any major changes to my essay, I open a whole new document, copy and paste the old one, and then make the change. This is something a high school teacher taught me. Basically, by not getting rid of the old phrasing completely you give yourself a chance to draw from it later. Maybe it didn’t fit perfectly there, but in a later draft you’ll like how you worded part of the sentence but not remember exactly what you said – you can just go back and look! I find this really helpful and sometimes it’s also nice to see how your idea progressed from nothing into something great.