How to write an essay

Start early

As soon as you are given an essay question, begin your thinking. If you don’t, you might miss useful information whilst doing other research. The television and radio often have programmes on topical issues which could be of use – if you don’t already have some ideas for your essay you could miss their usefulness. It is similar to the process when you learn a new word: because you have actually looked it up, it then seems to appear more often. This is because you become more sensitive to it – the same will happen with your essay subject.

Starting early also gives you the opportunity to draft and redraft your essay, talk to someone else about it and get it typed up and ready to hand in on time. If you do your essay the night before it is due in, it shows!

Collecting the material

It is important to collect information that is relevant. How? It is all too easy to dash to the library, collect a huge pile of books and then browse aimlessly. You might learn something, but you won’t get your essay done.

The best place to start is by quickly jotting down what you already know about the question: you will probably know more than you realise. It helps to get you thinking about the topic and may also give you some ideas to follow up.

Purposeful reading

You need to adopt a strategic method: in order to read purposefully, formulate a set of questions before you begin reading. As you read, more specific questions will arise and you can look for the answers to these too. It is easy to do too much research and end up getting confused by the facts and figures. Looking for the answers to predetermined questions helps to avoid this.

Use varied sources of information

You will usually have a book list which will list the major sources of information for your subject. Use the bibliographies in these books to extend your reading. You can refer to your lecture notes, but don’t rely solely on these, as they are often a general overview or could contain incorrect information if you have misunderstood something. The most productive sources of information are often subject specific journals, the “broadsheet” newspapers (e.g. The Guardian, The Independent, The Observer) and ever increasing on-line resources, such as the Internet. These publications often have specific days in the week when they focus on issues such as business, society, law and so on. They will not only give you solid up to date information on your subject, but they will give you an indication of the style of writing which is required at this level.

Keep a notebook, record cards or data base

Jot down ideas, discussions, quotations or examples as you come across them. If you don’t write them down, you will inevitably forget them when it comes to writing up time. This tactic also frees your mind, because you are not trying to remember small points which can block creative thinking. As an alternative, try using small record cards which can be shuffled and sorted out as you plan and write up your essay. This can also be easily done on a computer – but a computer is harder to carry around!

Record your sources

Your notebook should also be used to write down exact details of the sources of information which you use. Failure to do this will result in wasted time relooking for information, frustration and even information being wasted because you can’t use it, due to not being able to state the source.

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