I’m betting you thought twice (or maybe even three or four times) before finally deciding to read this article. And, even then, you are probably doing so with a sense of duty rather than because you actually want to read it. Why? Could it be because I used the dreaded word “essay”? As a teacher/trainer, this single word is probably the most frightening thing you can say to a classroom full of students. I’m not quite sure why “essays” are scarier than “assignments” or “assessments” but for some reason, the mere mention of this word leads to sweaty palms, tears in the eyes, and furious twitching. I’ve even seen students look happier to undertake a “dissertation” than an “essay”! So, what is it about essays that make us want to leap off the nearest cliff or throw ourselves in front of the next bus we see?
Why do we hate essays?
In my opinion, the main reason essays are universally hated is because of bad memories from school. From what I recall, essays were one of the main ways teachers assessed our understanding of topics. They seemed especially popular in exams; I can’t be the only person to groan when seeing a list of essay questions in an exam paper, none of which I could answer. Even worse, I might have learned an entire topic by heart (e.g. the reign of Henry VIII) only to find I would get asked something very obscure about the political activities of his Lord Chancellor Thomas Wolsey. Why not ask me about his six wives? That’s what we were all interested in learning about!
The second problem was that essay questions were always written in an overly complex way; full of double negatives and/or long words I didn’t understand. It doesn’t exactly inspire confidence when you have to use a dictionary and thesaurus, or break the sentence down into twenty parts, to understand what was being asked! What’s wrong with the question “What are the legal implications of introducing breathalysers for drivers suspected of using drugs?” over “Discuss the legislative frameworks surrounding the implementation of drug testing devices by police officers to assess the chemical levels of drugs in the breath of motor vehicle operatives suspected of substance misuse at the roadside”?
And then there is the dreaded word count. Why is it that 1,500 words sound like you are being asked to write a novel when in fact it amounts to approximately four pages of A4? Believe it or not, that is all it is. Open up the word processor on your computer and use the standard format (font 12, normal margins, single-spaced) and you will see what I mean? In fact, this article is just shy of 1,500 words and so might be a useful example.
Top tips for writing essays
Ok, so we’ve established writing essays can be scary. However, it does not have to be a mission. In fact, there are some very simple steps you can take to make the whole experience less stressful.
- First things first, calm down. Take a deep breath and make sure you read the question properly. If you are being offered the choice of essay questions, read all the questions and consider which one will be the best one for you to answer. Don’t just select the same one your friend is doing; I recommend picking the one that you are most interested in/feel most comfortable with. Maybe the topic is one you are familiar with already or you would genuinely like to read more about. Perhaps it is phrased in a way that is easy for you understand e.g. you might prefer a “compare and contrast” question over an “evaluate” question or vice versa.
- Start early. Make sure you give yourself enough time to read around the subject thoroughly and to write the essay. You also need to leave time to proofread before submission.
- Make sure you understand the question and plan your reading. What do you need to find out? How will you ensure you stay focused on answering the question?
- Brainstorm – this will get the juices flowing and help you identify what topics you need to read about to answer the question effectively.
- Research thoroughly. Make the most of the internet, course notes, and the library to explore the topic. Consider the legitimacy of your resources and make sure you cite good quality textbooks or websites in your work.
- Remember to analyse the material you are reading. You can pass an essay by stating facts but most essays will require you to analyse and interpret information to get high grades. You may hear this referred to as “critiquing the literature” – basically this means you should not just take it for granted that everything you read is flawless. For example, consider an experiment which looks at a correlation between drinking alcohol and making poor decisions. This seems like a logical conclusion but can you feel confident making this statement if the only people included in the study are twenty second year psychology students? Maybe the link between poor decision making and alcohol is only present in students? Maybe only psychologists are affected by alcohol? And surely a strong argument cannot be made based on the experiences of twenty people? Ok, this is perhaps not the best example as there is a lot of evidence of a link between alcohol use and poor judgement but hopefully it demonstrates the value of critique.
- Do an essay plan – sketch out what you are going to write about and what order you are going to put your arguments in before you start writing. One of the things people find overwhelming about writing essays is that they think they have to write them from start to finish in one draft. This is not the case. You can start anywhere in the essay you like, even the conclusion if you wish. Writing the section you are the most confident about first will get the essay going and feel less daunting.
- Essay structure:
o Introduction – this should grab the readers’ attention and lay out exactly what the question is. Basically, tell the reader what you are going to talk about in the main body of the essay.
o Main body – answer the question. Present the different sides to the argument. Use paragraphs – this helps the reader by giving them natural places to stop for a break in reading. Paragraphs can also help flow as you can outline an argument or idea per paragraph.
o Conclusion – sum up what you have talked about. Come to a clear conclusion, and answer the question. This might sound obvious but you’d be surprised how many people fail to do this! DO NOT add any new information in the conclusion; if information is important it should be discussed fully in the main body of the essay
- Format your essay according to course guidelines – you’ll put the marker in a good mood if you get the basics right.
- Proof read, proof read, and proof read again. If possible, after drafting the essay put it down for a few weeks as this will allow you to come back to it with fresh eyes when you come to proof read. It does not matter how good you are at writing, you will make mistakes. Proof reading filters out basic errors in spelling and grammar and, again, will help put the marker in a good mood (there is nothing more annoying than reading an essay full of mistakes). Proof reading also allows you to check the arguments flow well. I find reading my work aloud works well to check topics are presented in a logical order (I’ve even been known to do this in public; there are some people in my local coffee shop who think I am very odd!) If you struggle with spelling and/or grammar, ask a friend or colleague to proof read for you.
- Use feedback from previous essays to help you write future essays.
- If you get stuck, don’t panic. Ask your tutor for help and/or talk to other students on your course to brainstorm/get ideas of where to find interesting articles on your topic.
Essays may seem really daunting at first but please don’t be put off. Focus on answering the question and break the writing down into manageable chunks. Make sure you give yourself enough time to work on the essay, and to proof read it thoroughly before submission. Finally, if you get stuck don’t be afraid to ask for help – that’s what your tutor is there for!
About Dr Amy Burrell
Amy holds a BSc in Applied Psychology, an MSc in Forensic Behavioural Science, and a PhD in Psychology. Amy is an Associate Trainer at Perpetuity Training; a company specialising in security and risk management training. To find out more about Perpetuity Training see www.perpetuitytraining.com or email firstname.lastname@example.org