Posted Oct. 19, 2015
Essay writing is one of those skills that postgrads are often just assumed to have, but something that hasn’t always been taught. Many of us figure it out through college and university by piecing things together, but we’ve never actually been sat down and explained how to best do it. If you’re really struggling with essay writing, try talking to your department – they’ll often have a course or two designed to help. Whereas if it’s just a refresher, you’ve come to the right place – here are our basic essay skills postgraduates should know: Justify Everything You shouldn’t say anything that you can’t back up. If you can’t think of a quote, a source, or a logical justification for a point – no matter how convinced of it you are – don’t include it. This should help stop you rambling, but it’ll also keep the essay well-focused, fully supported and on-point.
Introduce and Conclude Don’t just launch straight into your argument! Spend the first few paragraphs laying out anything important: what you intend to show, any methods you’ve used, and a general background of why you’re asking the question in the first place. Equally, don’t just end after your final point. Repeat what you intended to do, and highlight how you've successfully done that. Mention potential follow-ups if there are any, and don’t leave any important questions hanging.
Have a Structured Argument Don’t just jump from point to point as they occur to you – make sure you have a structure and a framework to go from. There’s no best set way for this, but as long as it’s organised and consistent, it’ll probably work. Just don’t swap half way through! If you plan to follow the structure of: point, criticism, response, point, criticism, response and so on – don’t change this half way through. Some key structures include:
Point, criticism, response, point, criticism, response, etc All your points, then all your criticisms, then all your responses All your points, then criticism/response, criticism/response
All of these are equally valid methods to use, as long as you are consistent in your usage.
More Is Not Always Better You might think that being able to easily write out 5,000 words gives you a better chance than writing, say, 3,000, but you’d be wrong. Quality will always beat quantity and it’s well worth practising being succinct where possible. The better at being clear and precise you are, the better your essay will be, and one part of that is learning not to ramble. Length isn’t inherently bad, but it’s worth questioning why your essay is so long: is everything in it something you can justify being there, or did you just do it for length? Learning to tell the difference is key to writing a great essay.
Learn to Footnote Many undergraduates don’t quite master the art of footnoting – especially since they don’t have to do it in exams. But it’s vitally important at the postgraduate level. Whilst there are online tools that can do it for you, it’s worth knowing how to do it manually just in case. Try to gain a familiarity with a couple of reference systems, and don’t just learn how to reference books. YouTube videos, internet articles – even video games – all have their own reference styles, and it’s worth being at least familiar with these in passing, because you never know when you might have to quote one.
Don’t Follow Your Sources Too Heavily While you want to follow your sources on points and content (whether in agreement or not), try not to follow them too closely. Structuring your essay in a very similar way to your main source may make it easier to write, but it will be a worse essay for it. It may well be that that’s the most logical structure, and that's fine, but try to think about your structure independently, rather than just following something you agree with. Breaking free of a pre-existing order will give you space to add in new thoughts and criticisms, and make your essay stronger overall.
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