I have wrote a lot of essays in my time: College, University, PGCE and Masters. All in all, I have probably spent a large chunk of my life redrafting my own work a few thousand times to make it better. These are my top ten tips that I wish I had known at the start of my essay writing journey.
Trusty Tool Number One: Planning
Write a rough plan or guide for the different sections of your essay. This will help you maintain control over your writing and to avoid tangents and irrelevant material. When creating a design plan for your essay do not just stick to the lecture notes or tutorial content. Independent study is imperative.
Trusty Tool Number Two: Pick your sources carefully
Only reference books and journals, treat online articles ( even BBC news articles) as a rare treat. This is because they are hard to source and may still be based on unreliable or biased views. Also if you find your own sources it is worth checking with your seminar leader that they are appropriate. What might be a good article might be considered not quite reputable enough, especially if you base a significant part of your argument on it. It is also important to note not to use too many sources or else you are just seen to be copying others’ work. Try include a good balance of primary and secondary sources.
Trusty Tool Number Three: Colour co-ordinate your essay
When you are typing up your essay use different coloured fonts to separate what is your own words/ what is copy and pasted from websites/ what is transferred from books etc. This will help you avoid plagiarising (massive issue) but it will also help you remember what sources you got your information from.
Trusty Tool Number Four: Find and Replace
So you have wrote your dissertation or thesis (10,000 to 20,000 words) and you realise you have an American spell check. What does this mean? That certain words have been altered to have a ‘z’ rather than an ‘s’ (e.g. emphasize rather than emphasise). Now this might not seem a big deal but if it costs you your First then it is! The ‘Replace’ tool will come to your rescue. This will change any word/ number or even punctuation throughout your whole essay. Note: when you press ‘replace all’ it will change your whole essay so I recommend ‘find next’ to ensure accuracy.
Just above the ‘Replace’ button you will come across ‘Find’. I have used this many times over the years to check how many times I have used a key word in my essay. So if a word in the question e.g. ‘Coherent’ is a key word, by using the ‘find’ tool it will count how many times it appears in your answer. In the past I have also used the ‘Find’ tool to add book titles and quotes later on. This is because it will highlight all the times a name is used, so you can go directly to that section of your essay to add in what you need.
Trusty Tool Number Five: Using a Thesaurus
Using a thesaurus is a very good tool for two reasons (this is probably really obvious but just in case). Firstly you can change your words to avoid repetition, use more mature vocab or avoid plagiarism by changing the wording. Secondly you can check the meaning of a word by looking at similar words. All you have to do is place the cursor on that word, right click, go to synonyms and there you have it. Note: Avoid the Joey incident!
Trusty Tool Number Six: Watch your language
You are now writing professional, mature and sophisticated pieces of work. College and school essays are a long way in the distance. There is no excuse for sloppy writing, bad spelling or content mistakes. These will be significantly frowned upon. So make sure you avoid abbreviations (IVF), contractions (don’t, can’t), short hand (etc) or slang (ok).
Trusty Tool Number Seven: Power of proof reading
The idea of handing in a piece of work that has not been proof read brings me out in hives! How anyone can do this is a puzzlement to me. Proof reading has taken on this aura that it is a huge hassle but it is very simple. You read what you have written repeatedly before you hand it in, to make sure what you have written makes sense, is written clearly , has not gone off on a tangent, answers the question and covers the main sources with argument. Simple!When proof reading I recommend taking some time apart from your essay (short separation is good for your working relationship) because it will be surprising how different your essay reads after a break. Also make sure you have studied the mark scheme (these will be available from your department) as it will give you an idea of the structure and expectations of what an essay at a 1st or 2:1 level will look like.
Trusty Tool Number Eight: What word count?
Word counts are designed to screw your life up! You are either going to write too little or in my case (every single time) write too much. For my thesis ( I mean 20,000 words isn’t exactly short) I was at least 6,000 over – how is that possible I know! What you can’t do is go through your essay removing huge chunks of writing. To be blunt that’s just lazy! You have wrote it in the first place so it must be relevant in some way. Instead you have to work out how many words you can remove from each section of your essay (e.g. 100 words from the introduction, 200 words from the analysis section).
How to do it: read your essay out loud! You will notice sentences which are really long, places where you have repeated yourself and points that are just not relevant. Imagine whilst you are doing this, that you are your marker or an external reader – could you understand it, is every sentence clear and relevant and do you make the same point several times when only once would be necessary. The end result will be a much better essay than what you started with.
Trusty Tool Number Nine: Referencing (aaahhhhh!!)
The worst part of your university life will be referencing. It took me two days alone to write a properly sourced and punctuated reference list for my thesis. What was my secret weapon? Photocopying the inside front cover of the book you are referencing (with reference details on it e.g. place of publication, date) and either attach it to your notes from that book or keep them all together in a folder. This way you keep a running reference list separate to your essay.
Trusty Tool Number Ten: Buddy up
I’m not talking about the sort of friend who you share pizza and beers with on a Friday night. I mean someone you can swap essays with and be brutal. They will spot mistakes you have become blind to and vice versa. Also after writing your essay get together with friends from your course and read over each other’s essay to make sure you stay on topic – avoid ‘The Tangent’ (horrible creature that sneaks up on you when you least expect it and ruins your essay and grade!)
Final pointers: Always space 1.5, full stops are your friend, make sure your sentences are not too long, answer the question set ( not what you want the question to be/how you’d like it to be asked.)
Thank you to all my previous students who also contributed to this blog with their helpful tips and insights.