How to Write Better Essays by Bryan Greetham
This book takes the reader carefully through each stage of essay writing from interpretation of the question, to the research, planning, writing and revision. Readers are shown how to improve not just study skills like note taking, reading, organization and writing, but their thinking skills too. The reader will learn how to analyze difficult concepts, criticize and evaluate arguments, use evidence, and develop more of their own ideas. This book gives clear practical advice, with a troubleshooting section that deals with a range of common problems.
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The book separates essay-writing into five distinct stages, which I will now go on to describe as reminder to myself and summary for the interested.
– Stage 1: Interpreting the Questions –
Directly after you get the question sheet and sit down to work on your essay, start by identifying the key ‘open’-concepts in the question and then analyse them by creating examples, finding the underlying principle, and finally testing it with borderline, contrasting and doubtful cases. Do this by brainstorming using a form of patterned notes (resembling a tree diagram where you start with one key idea at the top and explore splitting branches to end up with several ideas; you can also use mindmaps for this).
– Stage 2: Research –
The most important activities in the research stage are reading and note-taking, and they should go hand-in-hand. Don’t expect to understand all texts after reading them once: read them once for comprehension, once more for analysis and structure and a third time for critical evaluation. Always define the purpose of your reading (what exactly are you looking for?). Take structured linear notes during the reading for analysis and patterned notes during the reading for evaluation. Focus on finding general exceptions that apply to the argument if you cannot find anything to criticize.
One also needs to have a note-retrieval system that will ensure maximum research power. The author suggests (1) always keeping a notebook with you to be able to note down any thoughts you may have about the essay while you’re not formally studying; (2) keeping an academic journal and setting aside time every week to note down the general path of one’s ideas; (3) having an index-card system to file away quotes and interesting arguments for later use. This was the advise I found most helpful and I started using a computer-based index-card system just after I read it.
During research, it is very important to organize your time. Get a timetable to make sure you use your time productively; never study more than six hours privately each day, always take a day off each week and plan your relaxation with the same rigour as you plan your studying. Do nothing intellectually demanding directly after a heavy lunch. Contrast relaxation and studying activities (do not read your favourite novel after having read academic journals for 5h).
– Stage 3: Planning –
It is useful to plan your essays so that you can rehearse the arguments, check your argumentation for logical clarity and stringency and so that you have something prepared to learn for with exams. Actually, the author advises, you can often prepare for exams by getting a list of past papers and distilling the four or five typical questions for every topic. Then, you just have to produce and learn essay plans for every typical question – often these 24 or so essay plans are a lot less than all the unreflected learning the average desperate student assumes necessary. Only remember to adapt your pre-fabricated essay plans to the actual question in the exam! Also, plan all answers to questions in an exam first and then write the actual essays, progressing from your strongest to your weakest answer; this way, your subconscious has a lot of time to deal with the weakest answer after it has been primed to do so by writing the essay plan.
– Stage 4: Writing –
When writing, keep your inner editor at bay. Introductions can be manufactured by the simple formula “interpretation of the question + structure of your answer”. Paragraphs introducing major sections should tie in with the introduction in the topic sentence; every paragraph should start with a topic sentence that describes what you will discuss in the paragraph and why it is relevant. This is followed by the development of your line of thought and then by evidence. If you do not have any idea what to do in the topic sentence: refer back to the question; recap what you have discussed already; list what you are about to do; use any of the standard transitions like “in contrast”/”moreover” or “similiarly”. In conclusions, state your opinion, summarise the essay, “let your readers participate so that they feel they have read something worthwile”.
Regarding style: keep it as simple as possible. Keep your sentences short, use logic-indicators. Use the active voice (except to underline an action), rely on nouns and verbs to carry the meaning.
– Stage 5: Revision –
Revise at least five times: Once for reassurance, once for structure, once for the details (check numbers etc.), once for style and one final time by reading out loud.