Essays are designed to be daunting tasks. They require long answers, they invite complexity but are very easy to overcomplicate. whether you are writing an english essay or economics. Whether you are looking at your coursework or sitting an exam, breaking down the process into small and doable chunks will help you approach the question with confidence. No matter the subject, the type of assessment, or whether it is school, university or professional work, these steps will always be necessary for essay planning and writing.
SECTION ONE – PLANNING
1. Do you understand all of the words and ideas in the question?
What is the command word? Is the question asking you to compare / examine / analyse? Is it asking why or how? This should have a great effect on how you answer the question.
Is there a word or idea that requires specific background knowledge on the subject? If so, note down what it means to make sure you are clear for yourself. Additionally, you will need to explain these ideas in the introduction to make sure the reader understands you.
2. Remember your primary aim is to ANSWER THE QUESTION! You will hear that bit of advice all of the time, but it will always be true.
Hopefully you know something about the topic at hand. Try answer it in one sentence. One completely evidentially unsupported sentence. This is a really useful exercise because it helps develop clarity in your argument and you can use it as the first sentence.
A teacher once told to consider the ‘What? How? Why?’ and this has stuck with me because it is so useful. This works whether you are analysing language, art or even historical events. First you are thinking about what the author does / what does it look like / what happened? Then how does the author / artist / actors achieve that? (What techniques?) Lastly, why did they make that choice? Why did it turn out that way?
You might also be familiar with PQA (Point Quote Analysis) or PEE (Point Evidence Explanation). The idea is the same every time you want to introduce a point. Probably only about three maximum a paragraph depending on the essay.
3. Split your evidence into at least three main areas of supporting evidence.
This is the tricky part and will probably take up the bulk of your planning time. You asserted an answer to the essay question in your introduction. Now you have to explain why anyone should believe you. Think carefully about this part, the more coherent your argument the easier the essay will be to write. The essay structure need not be complicated. Concentrate on one main area per paragraph.
SECTION TWO – WRITING THE THING
4. Use simple clear language
Consider George Orwell’s six rules for writing (taken from Politics and the English Language, 1946)
a) Never use a metaphor, simile or other figure of speech which you are used to seeing in print. [i.e. avoid clichés]
b) Never use a long word where a short one will do.
c) If it is possible to cut a word out, always cut it out.
d) Never use the passive where you can use the active.
e) Never use a foreign phrase, a scientific word or a jargon word if you can think of an everyday English equivalent.
f) Break any of these rules sooner than say anything barbarous [break these rules if it is worth it]
The main point here is that your priority ought to be explaining the ideas clearly, not showing off your extensive vocabulary or grammatical flair.
5. Give yourself enough time to get the words down.
This particularly matters in an exam, but also applies when working on an essay at home. Don’t let yourself spend half of your time on your first paragraph and have no time for a conclusion. Give yourself manageable targets; this may be one paragraph every ten minutes (in an exam) or a paragraph every half day.
6. How to write a conclusion
Conclusions are hard. I mean, you’re done and are probably ready to never look at the thing again! Work with this urge and keep it concise and clear.
- Restate your argument
- Mention any strengths or limitations to your argument (state them without apology, you have done your best in the circumstances after all).
- (Optional) Mention what you might research next, what possibilities have your investigation opened up? What is the larger context of this question? What are the implications of what you have talked about for the genre / other events / cultural movements?