Writing a student essay.. top tips
Essays are one of the most frequent causes of student stress, can trigger coffee drinking into the small hours, and are the main reason for the last-resort tactic of ‘pulling an all-nighter’.
But essays written in this way rarely achieve the best marks. With a little planning, you can hand in a well-structured essay in on time, without losing sleep.
Schedule writing your essay
As soon as you have your essay title, check your diary and diarise time to work on it. If you have a long lead time before hand-in, choose your start date for some point in the future, rather than starting work half-heartedly now and tinkering for weeks – the result will be a jaded, overworked assignment that could be as unsuccessful as a rush job. Instead, choose a specific start date, allowing yourself three blocks of time between that date and deadline. Schedule blocks of time for three things: research, writing, and redrafting.
Do your research
Your tutor will likely have provided a recommended reading list for your essay. Get to the library promptly and check out the books on your list, before keen course colleagues. Pay attention to the shape of your reading list too – this gives you the best initial insight into the ‘tack’ that your tutor wants you to take, informing the shape of your final essay from the first moments of research. If, in your reading, you come across mentions of other opinions not represented by your reading list, a brief reference to these in your essay can show that your research is wide and balanced. This can earn you extra marks, but be brief, be objective, and then get back to the main point.
Create a five to seven point plan and stick to it
When researching, read with a view to collecting your thoughts eventually into a five to seven point plan, with each point being a main idea or argument. You may do this by making a list, or creating a mind map. By the time that you have done your research reading, you will already have an emerging shape for your essay plan. Then, when you create your formal plan, create points for both an introduction and a conclusion – even the most informed essays appear shapeless without the ‘gathering’ effect of these crucial paragraphs.
Create a word count for each plan point
There is nothing more terrifying than a blank page. The best defence against this stage-fright is to break up your allocated word count into digestible pieces. So, say your essay word count is set at 2,000 words, and you have a seven point plan. That gives you around 285 words for your introduction, each of your five main arguments, and for your conclusion. The benefits of doing this are three-fold – you will not go wildly over total word count (for which you will likely lose marks), you will avoid writing too heavily on one point, and the entire task suddenly becomes less scary. Which would you prefer: sitting down at your desk to ‘work on your essay’ or sitting down at your desk to ‘write 285 words’?
Stop writing before hand-in date
If ever there was one invaluable piece of essay writing advice, it’s this one: don’t keep writing until five minutes before hand-in. If you have created a proper schedule for your essay, you will have finished the writing phase well ahead of time. Now is the moment to put your essay away. Have a good night’s sleep, or even a couple of days away from it. Then, revisit your essay with fresh eyes. Typos, poor grammar, and weak arguments will leap out at you. Tweak your essay to remedy these, then give the whole thing to a trusted friend to read over. They will invariably find errors that you have missed, or areas that need work, but by now, it’s likely that these are minor points. If you have planned well, you will have plenty of time to finesse these last few issues, and hand in an essay to be proud of. Job done. No panic, no stress, no all-nighters.
Clare Dignall is the author of several books including Negotiation Skills and Successful Networking both part of the new 7 Simple Steps Series (published by Collins). She is also the author of Can you Eat, Shoot and Leave? A guide to correct English language punctuation (Collins).