Above you is a real post which I wrote during a breakdown mid-way through an all-night essay session during my 3rd year. I did hand the essay in at 11:30 the next day so I did not have any marks deducted, but the feelings shown in this post were typical of my most difficult times writing essays. I found it impossible to find a strong coherent thread of argument which could be supported by a balanced argument based on evidence.
However, with a few key changes to my style of research and writing, I managed to gain first-class marks in all 3 of my essays in 4th year.
The 6 most important insights which I can provide for anyone who wants to make the best essay possible in the midst of chaos.
Read the course handbook from end to end
The course handbook made a huge difference to my essay grades in my final year for three primary reasons:
Most of the exact presentation details, from where it would be so easy to unnecessarily throw away marks, are contained in the course handbook. So make sure that you take sufficient time to understand the exact requirements for your essay presentation such as font, margins, title heading etc.
In my history course outline there was a long list of primary sources available at my University, which could be used to develop a strong argument. So check the course handbook first before starting to search online for sources which could turn out to have low academic validity. Time is critical and this one step will get you better evidence for less complex searching.
Make sure that you see tomorrow’s article for boosting your grade by using primary evidence and other methods for increased originality.
On occasion I have had the surprise of meeting a student who did not know where to find useful texts outside of the seminar notes on this particular essay topic. If you know your course handbook well then you will know that almost every useful available text is listed in it.
This is why I stated in Article 4, that you should always start by looking at the most recent publication related to your topic, because you will have a reference source for the essential and supplementary literature on each topic that you do.
Be critical of your research and writing style
As I mentioned in Article 4, I had to learn to embrace the chaotic process of interpretation that went through my mind. I could never learn to write out a complete essay from a plan, because things which appear to be good ideas can prove to be wholly insufficient when you begin to write them as an essay and seek to make a strong cohesive thread of argument.
Don’t be tempted to write large long-winded sentences containing several points. Keep it at one point to one sentence. Shorter sentences make it a lot easier for your marker to read and review.
Make reviewing essay drafts part of your daily schedule
If you wait until the day of the deadline to fix the errors in your spelling and grammar or complete your referencing or finalise the presentation style in your essay specified in your style guide, when you are already exhausted, then you will inevitably lose marks that would otherwise be yours for the taking.
As an added tip, if you can get relatives or friends to look over your work then you will have a distinct advantage. You can get advice on the topic itself, from people in your course, as well as spelling, grammar, and the strength of the argument that you have put forward.
If you make an arrangements with friends, then make some time for reviewing the essay of the person(s) who have reviewed your essay.
Keep an ideas sheet
Just like in Article 4, the importance of an ideas sheet cannot be overstated. It is the ideas sheet which allowed me to tie together the arguments which I found into a cohesive structure which could be convincingly reinforced by the evidence.
Know when to stop researching
It is often very tempting to keep adding new evidence in the hope that your marker will give you a better grade for it. However, more evidence at the expense of a well-developed argument is not the best strategy for increasing your grade.
As a history student the essential rule for me was that each paragraph had to be reinforced by primary evidence as well as examining the reasons for the point of view taken by each important academic source. However, even for other subjects you should have essential conditions for making a strong argument in each section of an essay and then stick to them. That way you will know when you should begin concentrating on reviewing your argument to make it cohesive.
Write your essay with an objective tone
In essays which I have previously reviewed I have seen two main issues on objectivity which you would be well advised to avoid:
Unless stated otherwise, never speak in the first person:
Unless you have been specifically tasked with writing about your experience, throughout the whole of an academic essay or even just part of one, then the vast majority of markers will penalise you for writing with words such as “I, me, myself … etc.”.
Even though it is your essay and your argument, you should always write an essay as if your answer to that specific question would be correct under all circumstances.
So never write a conclusion as “Due to the trends observed in the evidence I believe that…”.
Always write a conclusion as “The trends observed in the evidence suggest that (….)”.
Avoid sweeping conclusions:
Remember that when you are writing an essay your objective is to be is such strong command of the evidence that your argument is more difficult to challenge. This means acknowledging the gaps in the evidence as well as the strong parts, which allows you to produce a realistic conclusion.
In the summer of 2015, one book changes my whole approach to researching and writing history essays:
- Marius, Richard and Page, Melvin E. (2012), A Short Guide To Writing About History: Eighth Edition. Pearson Education Inc.