SOME BASIC ADVICE:
- Read the question. It is too easy for the student to think the question said one thing when it actually says something different. This can cause disastrous results. Write the essay you are meant to write.
- Answer the question. This can go wrong at several levels. If you have a lot of knowledge about the subject that only loosely relates to the question it is tempting to cram it all in. You might manage to pass with this, but you will do far better if the give a direct answer to the question that shows you have the relavent background knowledge. On the other hand if you do have a test question that you are really stumped on you might scrape through by showing relavent information that you do know.
- Highlight the key word(s) of the essay question. Does it say ‘explain’, ‘compare’ or ‘discuss’ the topic? If the wording is very general (like ‘discuss’) you might find that defining your argument in the introductory paragraph helps. A law student who was asked to attend a local court and give his impressions managed to get an excellent result by posing the question ‘are the courts looking after the individual on trial or just trying to get the proceeding over as quickly as possible?’ The essay was about his impression on the topic.
- Are there limiting words in the essay question? Does it say to discuss the topic only in the 18th century, or from the first 5 chapter of the text, or how a particular author was received in his lifetime? If so, stick to these parameters. Anything more than a passing reference or comparison outside of this risks going off topic.
- Obtain reliable sources of information. Class textbooks are fine for high-school, though better essays require more than this. If you can find information that challenges conventional views this can be a good basis for an essay, provided that it closely ties to the question.
- Find quotes that are relavent and have them written down with the relavent source information. You don’t want to lose your train of thought finding that great quote.
- If you come across a great concept in your research, then write it out straight away in your own words, with reference information where appropriate. You essay will fly ahead when you have information easily at hand, sometime these notes can go straight into the essay. This also helps if you have writer’s block or procrastination issues.
- Avoid information from television, popular magazines, and Wikipedia or non-academic articles. I cannot express how inaccurate these sources are. The bibliography with these sometime leads to actual, reliable information, but the rest is just somebody else’s essay. Secondary sources are like copying from the student next to you; they might know even less than you do.
- Prepare in advance. If you have time to think about it you will find your unconscious mind produces useful insights, often while you are doing non-mental activities.
- Write the essay plan that you want to follow. This is not just any plan, but a structure that leads up to the conclusion. Information that is structured well, including a solid introduction and conclusion, will do far better than the same information in haphazard form.
If there is one essential point to essay writing it is relevancy to the question. Everybody from famous scriptwriters to first year university students have claimed to benefit from the simple habit of writing out the theme/topic/question on a post-it-note and putting it in plain view. Make sure everything you write connects to this note.