The essay writing process
In History, we ask a lot of questions, and we have to answer a lot of questions in the form of essays. In second year, I wrote essays on a huge variety of topics, spanning from the twelfth century all the way to the 1980s. There’s so many different approaches to writing essays: I like to take my time, whilst some of my friends can get a full first draft done in a day.
I thought I’d share my essay writing process with you. Some of these points might seem a bit obvious, but I always like to keep the basics in mind so I don’t go off on a huge tangent. I hope that if you’re still finding your essay writing process, this is helpful!
Pick something manageable
This is a pitfall that I definitely fell into when I started university. At the start of first year, 1500 or 3000 words seemed like a lot, but the truth is that it isn’t as much as it sounds. In my first essay of first year, I compared the French, American, and Haitian Revolutions in 1500 words, and it resulted in quite a confusing read. It had no depth to it, because I didn’t have the space to build up any of my points.
I’m glad I did it though: it taught me very early on in the course that I needed to focus on something specific for my essays. I’m now careful to pick one main thing, and to do it thoroughly.
Have a good bibliography
I struggled with this for a while: how was I supposed to know what a ‘good’ range of books on a topic looked like when I’d only been studying the module for a few weeks?
I think it’s about range. I like to take myself to the library and physically look at the shelf of books on my topic. I try to pick books with a wide range of publication dates, as it helps me to understand the cycle of debate around the topic. I try to choose books with different levels of depth: some are focused solely on what I’m going to write about, while others are more generally based around the topic to give me a better understanding of the context of the time.
But it’s not all about books. In second year, I’ve come to love using articles in my essays. Some of the ones I’ve used this year have only been a few pages long, but have had a huge impact on the shape of my essay. I don’t know why I wasn’t using them in first year.
I really go for this. Planning is without doubt the most time-consuming part of the essay-writing process for me. I read all of my notes out loud, categorising them with highlighters as I go, and sort them into sections which will eventually form paragraphs. After I’ve done that, I choose a few key quotes from each section (generally something I agree with, something I disagree with, and something that I think is interesting), and decide on what I’m going to argue.
If I have the time, I like to mull over what I’ve read for a day or so. I don’t try to form an argument, or even organise my ideas, but I find simply letting all the information I’ve read sit with me for a while really helps when it comes to writing. Even though I’m not doing any active planning during that time, I think it’s very useful.
Write (and make sure it’s clear)
I’m fairly fast at getting my ideas down, but I spend a lot longer editing. If a paragraph doesn’t feel right, I like to print it off and annotate it, crossing out, drawing arrows, and generally moving things around.
The goal I have in mind when editing is that someone who doesn’t study History should be able to follow the essay, for no reason other than that it forces me to be concise and clear.
Hopefully you found that helpful, or at least interesting! Of course, everyone’s process is different, but this is the way I approached my essays this year. If you have any essay writing tips feel free to leave them in the comments below!