There has been so much written on how to write a good essay, and yet essay writing is still something many students lack confidence in doing. They may understand the theory, but when it comes to the practice the whole thing falls apart. It is undoubtedly a stressful exercise especially under exam conditions, which for most students is the sole purpose of essay writing. So let’s just imagine for a moment that you are writing an essay, not for exam purposes, but because you have something to say about a given text. What would you say? How would you put it? These are the aspects of essay writing this article will be looking at: content, structure and style.
To be able to put in content, you have to know the text. This may sound obvious, but I have met students who consider classroom reading sufficient. I would suggest that you know your texts like they were your best friends; know their moods, their opinions, their quirks, their good points and their bad. Then find out about the author, his or her society and contemporaries. Why did they write the text? Put the text into context. It may sound like a lot of work, but you don’t have to write it all down, just be aware of it. It will make your reading of the text far more rewarding. You will also be able to make informed opinions about the text.
Now that you have plenty to write about, you will have to decide which bits to put down on paper. Fortunately you have an essay question which will provide your structure. Read the question carefully; it tells you the answer it expects. All you need to do is to understand what the question is asking. There is nothing more frustrating than when you ask a person for information and he or she tells you everything about all sorts of things, but fail to give you the information you have asked for. Many politicians are experts in this field and I am sure you could make a list of your own. So, answer the question. The trick here is to angle your, by now intimate and wide, knowledge of the text and put it in a way that tells the reader what they want to know. If you look back on previous exam questions, you will get an idea of the wording of questions. If you are not as sure of the meanings of the words as you are of your own name, then look them up. Use them in questions of your own. The essay question will tell you which aspects of the text it wants explained and expounded.
There is a little bit more to structure of course and this is the bit that is drummed into all students: the introduction, the body and conclusion. However, if you have content, it is much easier to have a structure because you have something to say. The next part is to work out what you want to say and in which order. This is where a plan is invaluable, particularly in exam conditions. An essay plan need not be elaborate; in fact it is probably better to have a dot point for every idea you want to out across, followed by an example if appropriate. The more thought put into an essay plan, the easier it is to write the essay. It saves time because it allows flexibility before committing the whole thing to paper and avoids messy scribbling out or having to start again. Once you have a plan then you can write your introduction. It is there in front of you. The introduction is a means of preparing the reader for what you have to say. It states your understanding of the question and the main points that you will examine. It is also very useful as a guide for yourself in case you forget where you are, as can happen in stressful exam situations.
Follow your plan to write the body of the essay. Each point should have its own paragraph. I am sure most students have been given an acronym to follow to help them write a decent paragraph. It can happen however that the student remembers the acronym…but not what it stands for. So, dispensing with the ‘teel’s, the ‘why’s and the’ burgers’, here’s what is needed in a paragraph. First write down what you are going to talk about, your main idea. Explain what your understanding of it is. Give an example, stating techniques that illustrate your understanding. If you have a logical plan, the link should follow….logically. Repeat these steps till all the points are dealt with. Yes, this is beginning to sound like a recipe and that is why some liken the essay to a ‘burger’ or ‘salad sandwich’! So here’s the bottom slice of bread: the conclusion.
The conclusion tells the reader what you have done. It is similar to the introduction but you may give an opinion based on what you have proved in the body. So you should address the same dot points as in your plan and say how these have answered the original question. Do not at this point put in any new ideas. That was the reason for writing the essay plan. The conclusion is a summing up.
So now we come to style. Everyone has their own style of writing, some plain, some eloquent, and some who need to work on it. If in doubt, keep it simple: one idea, one sentence. From there you can extend and expand. It is much harder to simplify a complex sentence where the main idea is lost in too much verbosity. It could also play havoc with your plan. Use words which you understand and can manipulate. Become familiar with words you feel may be useful in your essay. Use them in speech and in writing. The English language is exceptionally rich in vocabulary, a word for your every wish and whim. This is important as there are often either time constraints or word limits. Don’t waste words; make the words work for you.
So to sum up: get to know your text intimately. Knowledge of the text will provide you with ideas. Use these ideas to answer the question. The question provides the clues to the answer. Write a plan before starting to write the actual essay as it is easier to modify, thus saving time. Stick to the plan as it has provided you and your reader with a guide to your intentions. Use language that is appropriate to the task. A sophisticated vocabulary is great, but limit complex words to two or three per sentence. And there you have it; another essay into unraveling the mysteries of essay writing.
Written by: Danuta Paxton