By Tiffany W.
Sometimes essay writing is just really hard, okay? And I say this as someone who writes and teaches writing for a living. I wish I could tell you that there’s a magic trick to the whole process, but alas I’ve yet to discover one. What I can tell you, though, is that there are some tools and processes to help make the overall project a little less painful.
BUT WHAT IS ACADEMIC ESSAY WRITING?
First, you’ll want to know exactly what it is that you’re doing and what’s being asked of you. Sometimes, prompts can be long or vague or even too specific. But very simply put, an academic essay is writing that puts together a series of ideas into a cohesive and clear argument. There are, of course, exceptions to the rule, like with descriptive, narrative, or creative writing, but for other types, like argumentative, persuasive, and literary response essays, you’re probably going to need to come up with a position or argument.
KNOW THE PROMPT
One helpful tool for figuring out what you’ll need to write is the prompt! There is nothing worse than beating out a whole outline, or worse, an entire essay, only to find out that we almost answered the prompt instead of actually answering it. Read through the prompt carefully, using a pen or pencil to mark up important phrases or key words. Some other words that are helpful to take note of are the 5 W’s: who, what, when, where, and why.
Our brains have a tendency to connect things really quickly for us, which is awesome! But as a consequence, it can be hard to slow down the thought process to a point where we can articulate exactly how we got from Point A to Point B; it just seems to make sense in our head. Knowing the prompt really well can help ensure you stay on track even if this one particular sidebar answer feels like it answers the prompt because it’s tangentially related.
ALWAYS TAKE NOTES
This is my lazy girl’s secret to writing. But wait, you say. Isn’t taking notes more work? It might seem like it at first, yes. But it saves you time later on when you’re actually writing, so that you don’t have to go flipping through an entire textbook or novel to find that one really good quote that you remembered from that one chapter way back when. With notes, you’ll spend less time re-reading.
Most essay prompts on novels will ask you to analyze things like character change, larger themes, and author craft. So mark up the things that are significant thematically, show good use of literary devices, or come up often in quiz and test questions. And taking notes doesn’t have to be hard or painful. Sometimes it means writing down actual notes in the margins of your text; other times, it can just be underlining.
HAVE A STRONG THESIS
Theses are so important! They tell us about the purpose of your essay, what your essay will be focusing on, and what your opinion or assertion on the topic is. They answer the questions: what is this paper about? This also makes them really hard and even a little bit scary to write. The good news is, once we have our thesis, we have a basic outline for what the entire essay is going to be.
What should a thesis look like? A strong thesis should: answer the prompt, be specific, and be contestable. It should be at the end of your introduction, usually only one sentence long, and points your reader in the general direction of the main ideas you are going to argue in your paper. You can think of your thesis as a movie trailer of sorts: give us enough of a sneak preview of all the important things that are going to be discussed in your essay without giving away too many specifying details.
COME UP WITH A BATTLE PLAN, EVEN IF IT’S ONLY A TINY ONE
After we’ve got our thesis, it’s now time to come up with our essay outline! I will preface this tip by saying that there are generally two types of people when it comes to writing: planners and pantsers. Both methods have different advantages and disadvantages so pick the one that works best for you. I like to start out my essay-writing by brain-dumping a variety of thoughts and ideas before refining and re-shuffling them to be in the order that feels like it makes sense for what I want to argue.
To come up with your essay outline, parse out the two or three reasons from your thesis and make each one its own paragraph. Then, find one or two pieces of evidence from your text(s) to support each reason. After that, add one or two bullet points explain how the evidence supports your argument and why it’s important. That’s really the bulk of planning! It’s probably not much more than a handful of bullet points, which you can expand out for as much or as little as you prefer.
And don’t be afraid to stray from the plan. If you get halfway through your writing and realize that your original outline isn’t up to muster, don’t be afraid to change it up.
SIDE NOTE: MAKE USE OF GRAPHIC ORGANIZERS
…or whatever other visual tool or prop helps you organize your thoughts. If you need to go all out and create a mind-map that can rival even the most complicated crime investigation wall, go for it. I’m a fan of index cards and sticky notes, because I am a tactile and visual learner, so it helps that I can reshuffle my essay parts by hand and see how they fit. Besides, all those colors and shapes make the planning process a little more fun.
KEEP AN EYE (AND EAR) OUT FOR FLOW
Separate different ideas into different paragraphs. If the ideas feel related, try to put their paragraphs next to each other. Big blocks of text can be really confusing and distracting for your reader, and they might not get your point across as easily or clearly as you’d like. Make good use of transitions and linking words and phrases to help take us from one point to the next. Transitions are what show the relationship between ideas – they give us movement and tell your readers how they’re supposed to understand how each of your ideas fit together.
If you’re a native English speaker, you also have a bonus tool that you might not realize: your ear! Chances are, you’re really good at picking up on awkward syntax or diction because you’ve spent so much of your life conversing with others. And what is writing but a conversation? Reading your paper aloud can be an incredibly helpful, if not slightly awkward, tool for determining whether or not your paper is choppy. If it helps, you can always read your sentences quietly under your breath, in the comfort of your own room. No one’s judging!
SLOW DOWN EVERYTHING
Remember how we said our brains process everything really quickly for us? Writing is the process of capturing that processing, but in a clear and understandable way. We don’t want to write how we think. Those associations make sense to us in our brains, but are a lot harder to put down on paper and follow. To make your arguments and explanations as clear as they can be, make sure that you are sign-posting and articulating each of the steps of your arguments and where your essay is going to take us next.
POMODORO AND REWARD TECHNIQUE
I don’t know how it is for you, but sometimes it feels like I have the attention span of a squirrel. That is to say, it’s very easy for me to get distracted while writing, either by something happening around me or by the Internet or my phone. The most cut and dry method for getting work done is to block off access to sites that you know drain your time (looking at you, YouTube, Reddit, Twitter, Tumblr, etc), put your phone on Do Not Disturb, and eliminating all distractions near your workspace, whether that be books, games, or loud noises.
For a less painful method, I like to use the widely-popular Pomodoro technique. It’s simple: you work in 25-minute increments and reward yourself with a 5-minute break after each sprint. There are a number of cute applications on both the phone and laptop to help with this.
REVISE, EDIT, REVISE… AND THEN EDIT SOME MORE
You’ve got an essay! Now what? If you have a day, take a day off. If you have a couple hours, take a couple hours off. If you have thirty minutes, take thirty minutes off. Point is, drop the essay now that you’re done (and get a snack while you’re at it!) and let it, and your brain, rest for a little while.
When you come back to your essay, first re-read your prompt, then approach the essay with your prompt in mind. As you edit, consider the following questions:
- Am I answering the prompt?
- Is my argument clear, contestable, and specific?
- Where are areas in my essay that are confusing to follow (either syntactically or conceptually)?
- Am I offering commentary and reasons for my argument instead of simply restating my evidence?
Writing an essay is a huge endeavor: there are so many things to keep tabs on, so many rules to follow. But in the end, what it all boils down to is this: you’re holding a conversation and telling a story to your reader. We all have thoughts and ideas about anything and everything around us – writing is just the process of detangling all of that. You’ve got this!
Tiffany W. is a tutor at My Private Professor, which provides individualized online & in-person tutoring to students in all subjects, including K-12 math, science, language arts, history, foreign language, AP exams, test prep, essays, & college counseling, by top tutors from top universities. www.myprivateprofessor.com