What You Can Learn from My Essay Writing Process/University Experiences
After having my nose to the grindstone for four months, I have finally finished all of my assignments for university. Due to an episode of poor mental health in the run up to my May deadlines, I had to ask for an extension until August, which means that I will be graduating in December. Now they’re behind me, I thought now would be a good time to reflect on my essay writing process. I studied English Literature and Film & TV Studies, but I imagine that plenty of my advice here can be applied to most arts degrees. I have written a blog post already about reading for essays, and this is the final part of a series of blog posts about my essay writing process
So, you’ve received your assignment spec and you feel you’ve done enough reading to get started on your assignment. Or you’re still to get started on your reading and you just want to dive into writing it. What next?
Start early, if you can
Or at least think about it early. What book or film will you talk about, and from what angle? What snippets of the reading you have done will you add?
I’m someone who needs to start on an assignment far in advance, and the university will advise you to start on it as soon as you get the question. This is a pretty good way to look at it, but not really applicable to everyone. Students have other subjects, readings, jobs and extracurricular activities to juggle. So if you’re not one of the elite few who start on an essay or assignment as soon as the questions come out, don’t be too hard on yourself. As long as you get the essay done, what works for you will work for you.
If you’re someone who thrives under the pressure of a tight deadline, let these thoughts and ideas brew for a while so you’re in a better place to hit the ground running when you start on it the week before it’s due. My brother, who studies Politics and History, works well under these conditions and gets some amazing grades. Lucky for some!
I started my essays about four weeks in advance. I’d get panicky coming up to deadlines, leaving me a bit paralysed. Even if I’d basically completed the essay already and only needed to make some quick changes, I’d ask for a short extension to give myself a bit of room to breathe.
We all work differently, and over your time at university you’ll find your way of working.
Stick to the Task
Sticking to the Task is something I have struggled with since I started school. You’ll have your assignment remit to hand or on Moodle or equivalent platform, and it’s there for a reason. Think over your question carefully to get an idea of what they’re looking for. And I’m not meaning use the question as a loose writing prompt and go off the rails like I did. Look at the question and use that as a framework as to what they’re looking for.
Primarily, they want to know that you have paid attention in class, done the reading they’ve set you and understand what they’re asking of you. It won’t be until your 3rd year that you’ll be expected to ‘find a question within a question’, a practice I decided to take from the start of my degree to mixed reviews.
Engage with your learning!
You need to show that you not only understand what they are teaching you and you can write a well-structured essay, but also that you can engage with what you have learned. If you’ve got something new to add to the discussion, they’ll generally be happy to hear it. In the subjects I have studied, there is so much room for discussion and differing interpretations of the same work and a good lecturer will appreciate a perspective that they may not have thought of.
To that end, don’t be afraid to disagree with your teachers. If you are going to challenge an argument that they or a reading they have recommended make, you should craft a well-written, insightful and well-researched essay. A marker will not appreciate a student who insists they know better than them despite having done little to no research. However, a lot of lecturers will find the intellectual challenge refreshing if it’s done well. It shows that you have engaged with what they have taught you, even if they come to different conclusions.
Bear in mind, that your course convenors have chosen their curriculum for a good reason. Even if you dislike the text or the essays that they have assigned for you to consume, there is some value and sincere artistic intent in what is there. Art is made to be discussed, and whatever you have to add to the discussion will be appreciated.
However, if you don’t have anything original to add, that’s okay. You don’t need to have something new to say about absolutely everything you study. Some assignments and tasks don’t leave huge amounts of room for ‘original’ takes or debate. Some assignments and topics don’t spark your creativity or interest and you just want to get them done. That’s okay. As long as you can show understanding of what you’ve learned, you’ll be fine.
Give your essay a sound structure
Another thing I’ve struggled with is structuring my essays- and even structuring my stories and poems at times!- so I’ve had to work hard at this.
In your introduction, you need to state what you’re arguing in your essay. You argue 3-5 points, depending on the word count you’ve been allocated. In the conclusion, you summarise the arguments you’ve made. It is a completely different writing style to creative writing, where you are supposed to show, not tell. In essays, you need to tell, not infer. The most straight forward essays are those that sign post well. So for the love of god, signpost!
What I used to do a lot was shape my essay around key notes from my research and then try and link everything together for my argument. It’s good to know where your research fits into your essay, but you need a balance between both signposted arguments and research + engagement with research.
I found it really difficult to adjust to this and tended to fall into a journalistic tone which isn’t great for essays or textual analysis assignments. The essay writing hat still doesn’t fit me, so I probably won’t be doing a post graduate degree any time soon.
Proofread your essay before submitting it.
Make sure your references and bibliography are formatted properly. My go-to was Harvard referencing, but I know different universities like different ones, like footnotes and whatnot so be sure to double check. I talked about citations more in my reading blog post, so check that out if you want to know more. However, I did accidentally forget this point: your hyperlinks act as a placeholder in your bibliography that you can format later. If you’ve only got the hyperlink, your mark for that will suffer significantly. Hyperlinks can die or be no longer in use, after all.
While drafting my essays, my referencing was very rough. It helped me keep track of them, and there was something satisfying about going through it and fixing them. It also gave me a way to proofread at a sentence level without missing anything. However, this is very time consuming and probably not all that efficient. Still, it was my method and I stuck to it. I got good grades, even if I had to get short extensions out of panic.
Make sure you don’t have clunky sentences, typos, punctuation errors and the like. You should follow the font style and size requirements that they’ve specified. Most of them like Arial or Times New Roman size 12 and double spaced. However, different universities like different layouts so be sure to double check.
Also be sure to name your file as they’ve specified. They don’t really want your name in the file name. In my university, it was your student number and the assignment/course name. For example: 2331961h_screens and machines midterm essay. And then, you wait for your grade and hope for the best.
If you are struggling, reach out.
Don’t be afraid to ask questions if you need to. It’s part of your lecturer’s job to help you write the best essay you can. Some tutors have office hours where you can go and see them, or arrange a Zoom call, and are easily reachable through email. Some are busier than others, but it is worth your while reaching out to them.
If you are battling some external circumstances, like poor mental health, high workload/hours in your job, bereavement, illness or whatnot that is impacting your ability to complete the assignment, you must reach out to your lecturer and course convenor to let them know and, if necessary, ask for an extension. In my university, you had to fill out a Good Cause form to lay out your reasons for asking for an extension. If in doubt, your university will have people in advisory services for your subject that you can seek advice from on the matter.
At the end of the day, staff at the university are there to make your learning experience the best it can be so use that resource.
Find your process and own it.
I made this point in my reading blog post, but you will find the right process for writing essays for you. I found mine, even if whether it was efficient or not is up for debate. If it helps you get the assignment done, and you get something out of it, then go for it!
Whether or not you choose to pursue a career in academia, writing essays are a great intellectual exercise in writing to a specific format or remit. You might get a kick from studying and writing about something you love or are interested in knowing more about. You might love the challenge. You might hate essays and everything they represent. You might, like me, struggle with the format and be glad to see the back of them. You might be proud of your essays and try to get them published in journals. You might never want them to see the light of day. But when your degree is over, be proud of yourself for the effort you put into these essays. Hopefully you will have put in some effort into these essays, but you might not. It’s a free country. I know that in hindsight, I’m incredibly proud of them. I wouldn’t want them published, or for anyone to read them, but I put in a lot of work into each one and my grades were good.
If you enjoy Jen’s work, you can find more on her website jenhugheswriter.com. Or you can follow her Facebook (Jen Hughes Writing) or Instagram (@jenhugheswriting).