Can great work really be reduced to 8 stages? Well, although it’s true that there is a lot of everything that goes into academic writing of any kind, these main findings are a great place to start if you want to improve your essay. For some, writing an essay is natural. But for many, knowing how to answer an essay question in such a way as to get high marks is something that needs to be studied and regularly practiced. You can also calm down, knowing that as soon as you learn to write a great essay, you can apply the same techniques and formulas to almost any academic writing. So, without further ado, let’s dive in and learn the eight steps to writing an essay.
At first glance, this may sound like banal advice, but the fact of the matter is that a misunderstanding of a set of questions is one of, if not the most common, cause of disappointment in writing an essay. Are you being asked to critically evaluate something? Compare and contrast? Analyze a specific circumstance? Evaluate the usefulness of a particular concept?
These are some of the common phrases found in essay questions, and each one indicates a different set of expectations. For example, if you are asked to critically evaluate a specific theoretical approach, you must understand not only this theory but also other common approaches. All of them should be compared with each other, emphasizing the relative strengths and weaknesses of each theory, and, importantly, you must come to a reasonable and confident conclusion. Is the theory good? What are its flaws? How can this be improved?
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However, if you are asked to rate the usefulness of something, you do not have to go deeper into critical depth. Yes, you should still recognize alternative approaches, and yes, you should still point out some strengths and weaknesses – but the bulk of the work should emphasize the practical utility of the concepts. Perhaps the best approach is to find one or more case studies that use theory – what was the result of this? Does the application of the theory reveal any specific weaknesses or strengths?
Essentially, the wording of the essay question will tell you how the essay should be written. It will show what your essay will focus on when you search and write.
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2. Writing an Essay: Plan and schedule
Understanding the question is the first step, but it is equally important that you make efficient use of the available time. Students often underestimate the amount of work required to write a good essay, which results in two things: late nights at the library, and a disappointing grade. If you want to achieve a good mark, you should start planning your essay the moment you receive the essay question. By setting deadlines for yourself and sticking to them, you guarantee that you will not have too much work left right before your change. It is also important that you have time, ideally a couple of days, between the completion of the first draft and proofreading.
Writing an essay may be a primary concern, but reading is equally important. Before you start writing your essay, you must conduct a broad search for relevant literature. Learning to sift through a large amount of data is an important academic skill. You should start by searching the databases – Google Scholar is a great tool for this – using keywords relevant to your research topic. As soon as you find an article that sounds promising, read the essay to verify its relevance.
If you are still not 100% sure, it’s usually best to go to the conclusion – it contains a detailed summary of the study, which will help determine whether to read the article as a whole. After you have identified several relevant articles, you should look at their bibliographies and take note of who they are quoting, as these articles are likely to be useful for your own research; and check out Google Scholar to see who has quoted them. To do this, simply enter the article title in the search bar and press Enter. In the results, click “cited” – this will return a list of all the articles that cited the publication you were looking for.
4. Writing an Essay: Be critical
Perfect theories and academic approaches are rare – the vast majority of theories, arguments, and research have flaws. Being descriptive is good if you want to get a pass, but to get a higher score you need to show that you can use critical reasoning when working with training materials. What are the limitations of the theories you draw? How were they considered in the literature? How do they affect the quality of the arguments presented and to what extent do they limit our understanding of what you are studying? What alternative explanations may offer additional depth?
5. Writing an Essay: Structure, flow and focus
Having a clear and logical structure will help make sure that your essay remains focused, and does not deviate from answering the question. Each section, paragraph, and sentence should add value to your argument. When you write, it’s good to take a step back and ask yourself: what value does this sentence/section add? How does this relate to my comprehensive argument? If you find that you cannot answer these questions, there is a high risk of deviation from the main argument, and you can reconsider the path that you are following.
You should also make sure that all the different parts of your essay fit together as a cohesive and logical whole, and that the transition from one argument to the next is fluid. Students often treat essays as lists of arguments, presenting one after the other with little consideration for how they fit together, which inevitably leads to a lower grade.
6. Writing an Essay: Quoting, paraphrasing and plagiarism
Academic writing requires a careful balance between the new argument and the use of arguments presented by others. Writing a completely “new” essay without using a single source indicates that you are not familiar with what has already been published. Conversely, quoting someone for each thought expressed suggests that you have not brought a new argument.
When drawing other authors, it is important to understand the difference between quoting and paraphrasing. A general rule of thumb is that you should rephrase wherever possible and quote only when necessary, or if that makes your point clearer. However, paraphrasing can be difficult without losing the hereditary value of the argument presented.
7. Writing an Essay: Find a ‘study buddy’
Having an equally ambitious “study buddy” is often underestimated by students, but the synergy achieved through working together can help both of you achieve significantly higher grades. It is important to note that you do not have to write your essays together, and it is not necessary to agree on an approach that will be adopted in advance, as this leads to the risk of submitting two documents that are too similar – again with reference to the plagiarism problem.
8. Writing an Essay: Write academically
Another common problem, especially among first and second-year students, is that they usually use non-academic language. Academic writing should be more formal, concise, unbiased, and include good use of rhetoric. One should also use the present (and not the future) tense and avoid informal terms. Clear, concise, and accurate language is a hallmark of academic writing.
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