Tips For Writing Essays In Class

Jerz > Writing > Academic

If you’re facing a timed essay very soon, this handout offers some very basic, very quick tips.

  1. Plan your time wisely.
  2. Answer the right question.
  3. Collect your thoughts.
  4. Leave time to revise.
  5. Revise your thesis statementbefore you turn in your paper, so it looks like the conclusion you stumbled across was the one you planned from the start. (This small step can often make a huge difference.)

1. Plan your time wisely.


If you are, at this moment, frantically cramming for tomorrow morning’s exam, that first tip may not sound all that useful. Procrastination is probably the biggest reason why bright students sometimes get poor grades. (Start early!)

You can also plan your time during the test itself. Your professor knows which paragraphs are harder to write, and will evaluate them accordingly. Does the question ask you to “evaluate”? If so, don’t fill your page with a summary. Likewise, if the question asks for “evidence,” don’t spend all your time giving your own personal opinions.

  • Start with the larger essay questions, so that you answer them before you burn out or run out of time.
  • If one essay question is worth 50% of the test score, spend 50% of your time on it.
  • If you finish early, you can always go back and add more detail.   (As long as your additions and changes are legible, your instructor will probably be happy to see signs of revision.)

2) Answer the right question.

Before you begin your answer, you should be sure what the question is asking. I often grade a university composition competency test, and sometimes have to fail well-written papers that fail to address the assigned topic.

If the question asks you to “explain” a topic, then a paragraph that presents your personal opinion won’t be of much help. If the question asks you to present a specific example, then a paragraph that summarizes what “some people say” about the topic won’t be very useful.

3) Collect your thoughts.

Resist the urge to start churning out words immediately. If you are going to get anywhere in an essay, you need to know where you are going.

To avoid time-consuming false starts, jot down an outline, or draw anidea map.  An idea map is like a family tree for your thesis.  Start with the “trunk” (a circle in the center of your paper).  Draw lines that connect that central idea to main branches (circles that represent subtopics), and keep fanning out in that manner.   If one particular branch is fruitful, cut it off and make it a separate entity.

If a branch doesn’t bear fruit, prune it off.   You should identify and avoid the deadwood in advance — before you find yourself out on a limb.  (Sorry… I’ll try to leaf the puns alone… I wood knot want you to be board.)

Get right to the point.  Don’t bury your best points under an avalanche of fluff.

The Great Depression was an important time in our nation’s history.  Unemployment, urban decay, and a sense of hopelessness filled almost every part of human life.  Yet, even in the midst of great misery, people needed to entertain themselves.  People tried many different ways to relieve their tensions, from religious revivals, to Jazz music, to membership in the Communist party.   But a whole lot of average people who were suffering in their daily lives often sought escapist entertainment in the form of movies.  One such movie was Charlie Chaplin’s Modern Times. In Modern Times, “The Little Tramp” symbolizes the simple human values that are threatened by industrialism.

The author of the above passage not only wastes time composing six sentences before getting to her thesis (the very last sentence), she also clouds the issue by bringing up topics (religion, music, and Communism) that she has no intention of ever mentioning again. She could have spent that time on more depth, or on proofreading, or even on some other section of the test. If she had at the very least crossed out the unnecessary introduction, she would not have mislead the instructor.

In Charlie Chaplin’s Modern Times, “The Little Tramp” symbolizes the simple human values that are threatened by industrialism — leisure, self-reliance, and compassion.

The revised example is simply the [slightly edited] last sentence of the original wordy and vague paragraph.  This clear, direct thesis statement helps the student focus on the communication task at hand.
Too often, the only revision students do is crossing out their false starts, or explaining their way out of a corner by adding to the end of their essay.

4. Leave time to revise.

Note: simply tacking on additional paragraphs or inserting words is not revision (see: “Revision vs. Editing“).

Sometimes, in the middle of a difficult paragraph, students will glance back at the question, and get a new idea. They will then hastily back out of their current paragraph, and provide a rough transition like: “But an even more important aspect is…”.  They continue in this manner, like a builder who keeps breaking down walls to add new wings onto a house.

  • To avoid this problem before it starts, see the previous tip, or this nifty handout on “Blueprinting.”
  • To handle this problem when it occurs, don’t automatically add to the end of an essay — write in the margins, or draw a line to indicate where you want to insert a new paragraph.
  • Leave space to revise too — write on every other line and leave the backs of pages blank, so you will have room to make legible insertions if you need to.
  • Obviously, if you are writing your test on a computer, you should just insert and rearrange text as you would normally.

5) Revise your thesis statement

If inspiration strikes while you are in the middle of an essay, and your conclusion turns out to be nothing like you thought it would be, change your thesis statement to match your conclusion. (Assuming, of course, that your unexpected conclusion still addresses the assigned topic.)

When a writer realizes that an essay is veering off in a new direction, and handles it by tacking more paragraphs onto the end, the result can be extremely awkward.

  • Joe Student writes a thesis statement that examines the relationship between “independence” and public morals.
  • Midway through his essay, Joe hits upon a different idea that relates to “prosperity.”
  • To mask the transition, he writes a sentence that refers to “independence and prosperity”, as if the two concepts are interchangeable.
  • After writing a few more paragraphs on “prosperity”, Joe realizes he needs to unify the two ideas in his conclusion. He writes a new paragraph that examines the connections between independence and prosperity.
  • He then writes a conclusion that “proves” that independence and prosperity are inseparable.

Unfortunately, Joe started out by making a claim about independence and public morals. If Joe tacks yet another paragraph onto the end of the paper, he will further dilute his conclusion. If he ignores the problem, his essay will appear disorganized.  Such hasty additions will rapidly obscure the original structure.

Joe will have to wrap up his essay with something ghastly like “Therefore, this essay has discussed such important issues as A, B, C and D, all of which shed an important light on [rephrase essay question here].”

To avoid linear additions, you should ideally avoid going off on tangents.  But even a very short paper is a result of a process. If you stumble onto a good idea in the middle of your paper, go back and change your thesis statement to account for your new ideas. Then, revise the subpoints and transitions so that your whole essay points towards that conclusion. Your professor will be pleased to see that you were able to make the connection, and your whole essay will be much stronger.

Dennis G. Jerz
04 May 2000 — first posted
26 May 2000 — typos corrected; puns added
26 Jul 2000 — minor edits
04 Dec 2002 — revision


 

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As the government begins its crackdown on essay mill websites, it’s easy to see just how much pressure students are under to get top grades for their coursework these days. But writing a high-scoring paper doesn’t need to be complicated. We spoke to experts to get some simple techniques that will raise your writing game.

Tim Squirrell is a PhD student at the University of Edinburgh, and is teaching for the first time this year. When he was asked to deliver sessions on the art of essay-writing, he decided to publish a comprehensive (and brilliant) blog on the topic, offering wisdom gleaned from turning out two or three essays a week for his own undergraduate degree.

“There is a knack to it,” he says. “It took me until my second or third year at Cambridge to work it out. No one tells you how to put together an argument and push yourself from a 60 to a 70, but once you to get grips with how you’re meant to construct them, it’s simple.”

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Poke holes

The goal of writing any essay is to show that you can think critically about the material at hand (whatever it may be). This means going beyond regurgitating what you’ve read; if you’re just repeating other people’s arguments, you’re never going to trouble the upper end of the marking scale.

“You need to be using your higher cognitive abilities,” says Bryan Greetham, author of the bestselling How to Write Better Essays. “You’re not just showing understanding and recall, but analysing and synthesising ideas from different sources, then critically evaluating them. That’s where the marks lie.”

But what does critical evaluation actually look like? According to Squirrell, it’s simple: you need to “poke holes” in the texts you’re exploring and work out the ways in which “the authors aren’t perfect”.

“That can be an intimidating idea,” he says. “You’re reading something that someone has probably spent their career studying, so how can you, as an undergraduate, critique it?

“The answer is that you’re not going to discover some gaping flaw in Foucault’s History of Sexuality Volume 3, but you are going to be able to say: ‘There are issues with these certain accounts, here is how you might resolve those’. That’s the difference between a 60-something essay and a 70-something essay.”

Critique your own arguments

Once you’ve cast a critical eye over the texts, you should turn it back on your own arguments. This may feel like going against the grain of what you’ve learned about writing academic essays, but it’s the key to drawing out developed points.

“We’re taught at an early age to present both sides of the argument,” Squirrell continues. “Then you get to university and you’re told to present one side of the argument and sustain it throughout the piece. But that’s not quite it: you need to figure out what the strongest objections to your own argument would be. Write them and try to respond to them, so you become aware of flaws in your reasoning. Every argument has its limits and if you can try and explore those, the markers will often reward that.”

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Fine, use Wikipedia then

The use of Wikipedia for research is a controversial topic among academics, with many advising their students to stay away from the site altogether.

“I genuinely disagree,” says Squirrell. “Those on the other side say that you can’t know who has written it, what they had in mind, what their biases are. But if you’re just trying to get a handle on a subject, or you want to find a scattering of secondary sources, it can be quite useful. I would only recommend it as either a primer or a last resort, but it does have its place.”

Focus your reading

Reading lists can be a hindrance as well as a help. They should be your first port of call for guidance, but they aren’t to-do lists. A book may be listed, but that doesn’t mean you need to absorb the whole thing.

Squirrell advises reading the introduction and conclusion and a relevant chapter but no more. “Otherwise you won’t actually get anything out of it because you’re trying to plough your way through a 300-page monograph,” he says.

You also need to store the information you’re gathering in a helpful, systematic way. Bryan Greetham recommends a digital update of his old-school “project box” approach.

“I have a box to catch all of those small things – a figure, a quotation, something interesting someone says – I’ll write them down and put them in the box so I don’t lose them. Then when I come to write, I have all of my material.”

There are a plenty of online offerings to help with this, such as the project management app Scrivener and referencing tool Zotero, and, for the procrastinators, there are productivity programmes like Self Control, which allow users to block certain websites from their computers for a set period.

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Look beyond the reading list

“This is comparatively easy to do,” says Squirrell. “Look at the citations used in the text, put them in Google Scholar, read the abstracts and decide whether they’re worth reading. Then you can look on Google Scholar at other papers that have cited the work you’re writing about – some of those will be useful. But quality matters more than quantity.”

And finally, the introduction

The old trick of dealing with your introduction last is common knowledge, but it seems few have really mastered the art of writing an effective opener.

“Introductions are the easiest things in the world to get right and nobody does it properly,” Squirrel says. “It should be ‘Here is the argument I am going to make, I am going to substantiate this with three or four strands of argumentation, drawing upon these theorists, who say these things, and I will conclude with some thoughts on this area and how it might clarify our understanding of this phenomenon.’ You should be able to encapsulate it in 100 words or so. That’s literally it.”

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