December 17, 2018, by John
How to write better essays
Note: I write this article as a social work student, and this article is probably more suited to social science, humanities and arts students.
You know your lecturers really love you when they give you exams and essays as a Christmas present. So, how might we give them equally noteworthy exams and essays to read over January?
I graduated from A Levels with rather bad results. In fact, they literally spelt ‘bad’. BBAD. But since coming to university, I’ve managed much better marks. How? Here are some ways that I have found helpful.
Introduce insights for your tutor
If you have ever written an essay, you know how painful a process it can be. Why not be nice, and try not to make it an equally painful process for your tutor to mark? So, why not make it an interesting essay for your marker to read? Introduce arguments that would make the marker think: Hey, I never saw it that way before. Introduce insights that come whilst you seriously contemplate the question whilst waiting for your Christmas pudding.
Keep asking your tutor/module convenor
Essays are simply one method of assessing the learning you’ve had on the module. But more importantly, use the time on the module to explore concepts about the topic. This year, I took a module on gender, family and social policy. It gave me new insights into how women often need to conform to the stereotypes set by society, but also how men can change these stereotypes. Use the time on the module to ask questions about the module, the essay, and to simply learn. As Sir Ken Robinson says, ‘Curiosity is the engine of achievement.’
See the writing process as planning
Many of us love writing essay plans that often do not get followed. Why not start writing, instead of being stuck on your plan? More often than not, the process of writing clarifies your thoughts, and makes it easier for you to write.
We like being perfect. But let’s face it, many of us aren’t. So today, instead of working towards the perfect introduction for your arguments, why not try writing out your points, and then writing your introduction? It’s often easier to write your introduction when you’ve gotten a clear grasp of what you are actually arguing.
Keep checking your essay
The essence of writing is in the rewriting. Instead of considering an essay a definitive account, think of it more like an ongoing conversation with your marker. A conversation that never ends. As you have that conversation (or write the essay), you can constantly refine, improve, and develop it. So keep checking!
‘I believe John writes well because he has a nice keyboard.’ How did you know that? Markers love references. For every argument you introduce, make sure there are clear references that evidence why you think so. But more importantly, the key to better marks is learning how to combine evidence, critically evaluate them, and give your own judgment. For example, instead of saying:
As John (2018) argues, typing with a good keyboard produces better arguments. Thus, I can infer that students write better when they use good keyboard.
John (2018) believes that typing with good keyboards produces better arguments. Yet, Lim (2018) argues that it is not the keyboard that matters, but the content of the argument. Indeed, we can type good essays with better keyboards, but not necessarily better essays.
Here, we see the analysis of what different authors say, and then your own personal opinion of the issue. Try it!
Take feedback seriously.
The marker’s feedback are indications of what went well, and what didn’t go so well during your essay. So take the time to read it, digest it, and ask the marker about it. In my first year, I was disappointed with a result I had for an examination and went to see the convenor how I could improve. Fortunately, the module convenor read my essay again, and decided to improve my marks. The moral of this story is not that you should ask for an upgrade of your mark, but that we can always ask why we got a mark, and how to improve it.
I hope this advice helps you in your journey to write better essays. Essays are not an exercise in torture, but they are an exciting opportunity to explore concepts that interest you. Seen in that light, deadlines are not that scary after all.