When I got to the end of primary school, I remember a teacher telling me that soon I’d be at big school writing these things called ‘essays’ I remember they sounded really difficult and terrifying to a 12 year old brain. When I got to secondary school, fastforwarding about 3 years, writing a two page English essay and getting A’s based on the argument that red curtains signify anger, felt really legit. Oh my sweet summer child, if only I knew…
When I came to university, I had obviously come a long way since my first essay in year 7/8 and had written loads throughout school and sixth form. But what I didn’t know is that a university essay is most definitely not the same as anything I had done before, and just like that little 12 year old felt the fear rush over me once again, not of essays this time, but of having to think about referencing. So here’s a few things to keep in mind when you write your first university essay (note not everything applies to all degrees and some styles may vary, but you get the gist.)
Reading Around Before You Start
I can’t stress this enough, don’t just start your essay blindly without thinking about which citations you’re going to use. I made this mistake with my first essay and it’s a real struggle making a point and then trying to find a perfect supporting quote to back up your argument. You will also run the risk of making your point seem really tenuous if you do it in this order.
Don’t underestimate how long this will take! For a whole essay, during a busy term time, I usually allocate about 3 weeks per deadline, the first week and a half of that, maybe even two weeks, is reading and researching for me.
The best thing to do is to get your subject matter first, and a rough idea of your opinion on the argument and then go straight to reading up on it. I personally prefer books over the internet, probably because it makes me feel more studious sitting in the library with a big stack of books. Go for stuff that is roughly linked to the subject and then the index is king, find quotations that may be useful or connected and note them down in full, making sure you have the page number, author, chapter title, publication house, date and location. I like to do this on a word document, making sure it stays nice and organised with little line breaks as I do it.
Use Your Reading to Inform Your Argument
The reality is, you probably can never do enough reading on the subject you are writing on, but there will come a point when you’ve got to get pen to paper (or fingers to keyboard) usually because the deadline is only a few days away and you’re starting to sweat over your empty word document. Depending on the department or task, you may need more or less, but four strong references are probably a good starting point. From these you can formulate your plan (this is where it varies from student to student, while some will plan very heavily, others -myself included- will do a rough plan knowing that eventually that will go entirely out of the window. I quite like this method because it means your essay can flow organically and your opinion can adjust as you write but you still have a framework behind it.)
Think on what the author is saying, you don’t necessarily have to agree with them, you may disagree wholeheartedly, but that can make for an even stronger argument. Then you can shape paragraphs around their point in relation to your own, either the point can heighten your argument or be used as a point of discussion.
Watch your Language
When writing your first university essay, the likelihood is you will be tempted to use all of the complexity that your capability allows. Avoid this. Just because you know the word ‘verisimilitudinous’ doesn’t necessarily mean you need to use it 12 times (although it is a great word.) Of course using the odd term, complex word, or sentence structure may benefit you occasionally, but writing like this all the time can read as confusing and may sometimes make you seem like you’re trying to hide the fact you haven’t got a clue what you are talking about behind big words. Try write clearly and fairly simplistically, essays aren’t a vocabulary test.
Taking a Step Back and Simplifying When Your Brain Feels Mushy
I’m going into my third year now, and with every essay, I still without fail, hit the wall at some point during every essay. There’s a few things you can do when this happens to keep yourself on course. First of all, if you haven’t already, write yourself a little mini thesis, this can even become a part of your introduction or conclusion, write down an extremely succinct version of what your argument is, your essay concentrated. This really helps if you are getting lost or veering off on a tangent, use it to remind yourself what your essay is about. Secondly, if you can’t quite word what you’re trying to say, I find it really useful to try and orally explain the point I am trying to make to a friend. It makes you clarify what you are trying to say and bring it back to basics away from a tangle of words.
The Dreaded Footnote
Ugggggghhhhhhhhh referencing why?! You will have heard of plagiarism and how much of a big deal it is. Plagiarism is important to be aware of, you may think that just not being an idiot and avoiding copying people is enough, but plagiarism covers incorrect referencing too. Depending on your department the referencing style you use may vary, you can easily find guides of each style on the internet, i.e. Harvard, APA, Chicago etc. However a lot of departments will have a style handbook too to help you with that. Referencing isn’t hard once you’re in the swing, but getting it in the right order and correct can be a struggle, but after a few essay’s practice, it is sort of second nature. Be aware too that footnotes and bibliographies go in different orders depending on the style.
Stickler on the Proof
Just for the love of all that is holy, proof your work. Proof read it alot, proof read it until you’re sick and tired of reading it, then, read it again. It may be a struggle for your first essay as you may still feel a little too shy to share your work, but reading and proofing each other’s work is so so useful as well in making sure your argument is clear and cogent.
People work in different ways, all of these tips may prove completely useless to you, but I hope it has dispelled just a couple of those first essay fears!