With LSE students either coming off the back of a hefty deadline season, or the fast-approaching summer exam season (or for a few, both may be the case), now is a good time as any to think about essay writing at university-level and the steps it involves.
Before I start, I have to put in the huge disclaimer that I am by no means an expert nor are these tips necessarily applicable to all subjects and scenarios. These are merely suggestions based on what I’ve learnt so far and reflections on the process I personally take as an anthropology student when it comes to tackling an essay. I continue to modify and am learning as time goes on so this is by no means a perfected skill of mine (far from it)! There is no one way to write an essay. How you write essays depends from course to marking requirements to personal preference.
With all this being said, here are the 5 different parts to my process of writing a non-timed constrained essay.
1) Picking A Question
I don’t know what it’s like for other courses but in Anthropology, we often get a choice of questions (5-10 depending on whether it’s a formative/summative and half/full unit). To decide what question to pick, I start by narrowing down and disregarding the ones that stand out as definite no’s. This leaves a few that are ‘potentials’.
In order to decide which of these to do, I go back through the course content. By this I mean going through the lecture slides of the required weeks for that question again to refamilarise myself with the main ideas, concepts and takeaways from that week(s).
Lecture slides don’t take too long to go through, but at the same time, they provide a nice overview and help make links between weeks. Following this, it becomes a lot easier to decide which question I feel most confident answering.
Once the question has been decided, we turn to how we can make the answer well thought through. To do this, I create a word document where I ‘dump’ all information, readings- anything I find (throughout the process of deciding the question) in a single place. Lecture notes, class notes, reading notes and any ideas that are sparked whilst going through this material are all placed in this dump.
From the collated knowledge, I try to construct a *very* broad outline of what sorts of arguments I could make based on what themes constantly arise and what points stand out to me. Doing this outline also identifies the gaps in reading materials.
Once the synthesis has been done, the focus is on the readings. For our anthropology course, most weeks there are 2/3 essential readings so at least one, but most likely both/all, of these readings are guaranteed to be in your essay.
The first task then is identifying the relevant week(s) and readings for your question (this is inevitably done in steps 1-2). After knowing where your essential readings fit into your argument, you turn to the further readings and readings from other weeks to make up the rest of your essay.
As I mentioned, the broad plan helps you figure out what readings need to be done for the essay. So, step three is reading and notes on the readings required for your essay that you are yet to do.
Once you’ve done all your readings, the next step is to plan. People have varying preferences and degrees to which they plan but for me, planning is essential. It helps me to figure out what I am going to say and the process I am going to take to get there.
For me, it is really where the ‘hard thinking’ happens. It’s where I figure out what my argument is properly. Most crucially, it’s where I figure out how I’m going to structure my essay in a way that builds my argument. I always find that the more detailed and clearer my plan is, the easier the writing of my essay becomes.
Notably, as part of my plan, I also go through all the readings and pick out the quotes I want to use in my essay. These quotes are all placed into a new document and organised based on which paragraph they are relevant to. Organising the quotes in advance greatly reduces the writing time.
The next step is writing. Having done all the hard work already, writing for me really comes near the end. It’s about taking all the ideas and executing them as intended and in a comprehensible way. Organised quotes and a detailed plan means writing doesn’t take as long as it otherwise would. This also helps make the writing process less stressful and more enjoyable.
The final steps are editing and formatting. Editing is essential. My teachers would always tell me to do it in school, but it was only when I got to university that I realised why they kept telling me to do it and how important it is.
Not thinking too much about making the first draft perfect removes a lot of the friction involved with starting to write an essay. Telling yourself you can come back and edit it not only gets you through the first draft but also makes your essay better in the long run.
Editing is where I get rid of repetition (something I tend to do a lot when writing). It is also where I can rephrase overly wordy sentences and cut out unnecessary ones. I used to struggle with cutting out what was not relevant but having a word count has simplified this task for me. Finally, of course, we need to reference and format before submitting!