It’s beginning to look a lot like deadlines. End of Term 1 = formatives. University essays are a bit of a mystery, especially when you are not really used to them. I hope this guide will be helpful if you are currently struggling and overall give you some ideas!
(Note: I will mention PAIS guidelines, but I hope you will find this helpful even if you’re in another department!)
The more, the merrier
The more essays you write, the more feedback you receive, and the more you will understand what is required, what style of writing is best, what gets you a good mark, how referencing works, etc. This might sound annoying (it would have for me): you kind of want to get it right from the beginning. Well, things aren’t meant to be that easy – you’re at uni and in the top Politics department in the country after all! Take advantage of formatives, and if you’re in your first year, take advantage of the lack of pressure to experiment as much as you can. Try out different ways of taking notes, planning and writing until you realise what works best for you.
Read first, write after
Many people, including me in my first and part of my second year, tend to read as they write. Accordingly, you will make your argument as you’re writing. As soon as I started reading first, I noticed the difference in the quality of my essays. It’s quite logical: if you read enough prior to planning your essay, with the question in mind, you will form an opinion based on the variety of sources you are using. Extensive background reading is important in order for you to see what academics have said about the topic you are writing about. This can then help you envision what you think and what your argument will be like, together with counter-arguments. Once you have your opinion (= the basis for your argument), it will be much easier and smoother to plan and to write.
Other things to keep in mind:
– you don’t have to physically go to the library. Make use of the online library catalogue – it is a lifesaver, and super simple to use.
– Take notes as you read! I write both quotes, summaries and page numbers down (on my laptop), and will handwrite quick ideas and words to make sense of what I am reading. Also, I love mind maps. When you have done your reading and hopefully have your idea on the topic, I think it’s great to visually elaborate the information you have, by writing down concepts and topics, connecting them, and understanding what ideas you have and how you can divide them into paragraphs.
There are endless resources and frameworks on the internet, so it’s up to you to find what best suits you or develop your own style. I usually take the ideas that I elaborated in my mind map and notes and make 3 or 4 bullet points that will correspond to paragraphs, each containing an idea. I will write down my argument in a sentence and see how I can prove it supported or countered by each of my bullet points.
Referencing – what the hell is that
If you have never done referencing before, it might be a bit daunting at first. To sum up: referencing is needed to give credit to people who came up with the arguments you are using. You cannot appropriate original ideas from authors. Every time you mention/paraphrase/quote someone, reference them. In PAIS, usually, we use the Harvard system. Very simple. In your text, you mention/paraphrase/quote, and then you put their surname into brackets, followed by the year of publication and the page where you found the argument (if it’s a specific thing you’re quoting). In your bibliography, there’s a set framework you’ve got to stick to, which includes the city of publication and the publishing company. So, let’s pretend you want to use my arguments from this intellectual blog post, which is on page 497 of my 2018 best seller “I like coffee”. In text, you would reference it as (Beltrami, 2018, 497). In your bibliography, you will write:
Beltrami, M. (2018) I like coffee. London:Coffeehouse. p.497.
Make sure you familiarise yourself with the framework used for articles and websites as well. Given that good referencing is part of the marking criteria, make sure you get this right! And rest assured – you will most likely pick up on referencing as you go. The PAIS Undergraduate Handbook (or, I’m sure, any other department guidelines) gives you extensive guidance on referencing, so definitely check that out.
There are plenty of sites that create automatic references for bibliographies, and the Library website also has a citation section on most of the information pages for books and articles.
Cite as you go. It might not make that much of a difference for shorter essays, but trust me – make a habit.
In your essays, you need to be selective, specific and creative. You want to have arguments, sources and ideas that stand out. Don’t be afraid to bring a bit of the unconventional into your work. Throughout the past few years, my arguments included memes, puzzles, Green Day, the Divine Comedy, the Reptilians conspiracy theory, real life organisations, law, engineering, etc. It doesn’t necessarily have to be something crazy: a different perspective, a voice or culture that has been ignored in existing arguments, and such like. If it is something that will eventually back up your argument, use it. Politics is about real life – talk about it.
Important bits and pieces
– Critical thinking is key. Merely stating what people have said will only get you so far. Challenge sources and have your own argument.
– Make sure you read essay guidelines on the Student Handbook, an incredibly useful resource.
– Once again, ask for help! People in PAIS will generally always be happy to help and discuss your ideas.
– We all love the student thrill of submitting essays at the very last minute. Once is fine, too many times is murderous.
Good luck and remember I’m here for any questions and thoughts!