Learning to write essays

February 2009

The autumn before last I wrote my first essay in about fifteen years. Knowing I would have to write essays was the scariest part of deciding to take the social sciences course that I had signed up for.  At school, essay writing was up there with taking part in class discussions in English lessons as one of my least favourite things and my A-level choices were influenced at least in part by the avoidance of that dreaded activity.

Luckily some things have improved since then. First of all the godsend that are word processors have been invented. In the years that have past I have also had rather more practice writing things in general if not essays per se. I also quickly figured out when they tell you repeatedly to make sure you answer the question that they don't actually mean that. What they really mean is to use the question as a kicking off point and to not completely ignore it. At school I made the mistake of believing them which made writing most essays nearly impossible because the questions weren't the ones the teacher actually wanted us to answer.

Nonetheless it was still a slight shock to the system. It was also a bit of an eyeopener. I've been working in educational technology for nearly five years now and somehow it had passed me by how critical a part of most people's educational experience writing essays is. How could I be so interested in education but have not realised this?

Seven essays and a 60 point credit towards a degree further on, I'm undecided as to what I think of the form. Having to write the essays definitely made me think much more carefully about the topics in question than I had done just by reading the course texts. But at the same time, I spent a large amount of time in close intimacy with the word count function on my word processor, trying to cut down what I had written and also trying to second-guess what was vital to include for the marks. I understand that writing succinctly is certain a valuable skill to learn but given that my tutor commented on how succinct I was in nearly every essay I turned in, then I feel it is probably one that I have already reasonably mastered.

It is also difficult to know what risks to take. Writing about social sciences topics in particular, if you take a particular angle then even if you argue it well, there's a chance that your tutor might disagree with it strongly enough to hold it against you. Luckily my tutor wasn't like that, but it took me a few essays edging towards taking riskier and more fun points of view before I felt confident enough to just go for it and risk the marks. Even then, I was constantly thinking about how to weasel in enough evidence that I had understood the main concepts I was supposed to have understood. These often didn't fit nice and neatly into the argument I was trying to put forward. If you are happy with an upper second type mark, it's certainly safer and easier to essentially survey the area around some uncontroversial approach to the subject.

I discovered too the paucity of advice on writing essays. Given they are such a central component of so many degree courses, you would expect there would be better suggestions out there than 'have a beginning, middle and an end', 'plan your essay first' and 'make sure you reference properly'. Now of course, one of the main ways you learn to write essays is by a combination of practice and getting feedback and I think my essay writing did improve over the course, but still, given the importance of the skill, I expected more. It was also really tough to find examples of essays of the type one was expected to write. I almost found myself in the murky world of essay mills in my attempts to find sample essays to learn from and had to beat a hasty retreat.

I did unearth various articles around on 'The Five Paragraph Essay' and I found Stephen Downes' article on How to write articles and essays expertly and quickly useful too. The real gem that I stumbled across, via reading education blogs rather than intentionally looking, was a little book called 'They Say, I Say' by Gerald Graff and Cathy Birkenstein which has chapters on everything from how to handle quotations in your essays to ways to plant a naysayer to anticipate objections to your argument. It's incredibly dense and is worth a hundred study skills guides.

Nonetheless, I was still lucky to come across that book and disappointed by the general lack of advice aimed at anybody who is beyond the very basics. If there are great resources out there that I have missed, then I would love to know.