Essays 101: 7 Steps to Getting that A

ESSAY WRITING POST

So I’m going to have to be pretty honest, seeing all of my friends who are younger than me move back into school is hardcore bumming me out. It’s not because I’m longing for the party-filled social life of college (because my social life at home is pretty dang good), but because I so badly want to be taking classes with them all. And the thing I’m really really going to miss the most? The essay writing, because essays are kinda my shit.

I haven’t taken a legitimate exam since freshman year of college because, as a history major and English minor, I was just tested via lots and lots of essays, and I couldn’t have loved that more. Throughout all of those essays, I’ve really gotten my process down to a science—the thought of a 10-page essay isn’t so daunting anymore, and I get so excited at questions I don’t really know the answer to just yet.

I’ve boiled that science down to my seven must-dos in order to seriously nail an essay so you all can, too!

  1. Actually read the books.

I mean I guess it’s kind of obvious, but there are definitely people out there who don’t read the books you have to write your essay on. I guess that reading a straight textbook might be a little bit dry, but they make up for it by being super easy reads. When you move onto upper-level classes where you’re reading more books books instead of a textbook, though, you’ve got to read them. On the bright side, these books are usually super interesting and well-written, so it’s totally worth the time it takes to read.

When you’re reading, do yourself a favor and underline/highlight, and maybe add a few sticky-notes in there, too. You’re going to need to use quotes in your essay, obviously, so marking where there are insightful comments is kind of a must-do. Another great way to collect quotes if maybe you didn’t completely read every word of the book is to use the index and refine your speed reading skills.

  1. Make a legit outline.

These bad boys are so, so important—if you make a proper outline, you’re already like 70 percent done with your essay. I like to come up with each paragraph I’m going to write, come up with the topic of each, and at least type in every quote I’m going to support each point. I don’t let this 100 percent dictate my essay-writing, though. If I’m writing and I feel like I need to split into a new paragraph, or should swap around ideas, I allow myself room to do so.

Toward the end of college I started adding in bullet points in each outline, and would allow myself to ramble on about that subtopic as much as I wanted. Then I’d go back and edit that all out to have more scholarly language and transitional phrases, eventually turning itself into an essay.

  1. Use EasyBib.

The absolutely, positively most important part of writing an essay is making sure the whole thing is sourced properly. That means making sure you have the right in-text citations, the right footnotes, and the right bibliography at the end. I love using EasyBib.com because it organizes my bibliographies perfectly. I still need to think about the rest of my sourcing, but at least I know one part of it will be flawless.

Pay attention to the citation format you use. If you’re writing something in sociology or psychology, you’re probably going to use APA format. If you’re writing English, it’ll be MLA. History is Chicago Manual of Style (AKA lots and lots of footnotes). Those tend to be how it works out, but make sure you double check with your professor to find out what he/she would like!

  1. Think about the connected ideas between all of your sources, and what those ideas are saying about the world at large.

When you start moving into upper-level classes (your 200 or 300 levels), it’s not enough to just give a report or summary of what you read. In most cases, you’re going to be balancing multiple books, or multiple thinkers, or multiple theories, and you need to make sure that you’re showing you understand all of them. The best way to do that is to show that you understand how they all connect to each other, and how they connect to the world at large.

Obviously, this advice is going to vary on a case-by-case basis. I honestly have no knowledge about psychology, so who the heck knows, maybe this is a terrible piece of advice for that subject! I do know, however, that in history, you need to demonstrate that you know how different ideas connect and that they don’t exist in a vacuum—that’s pretty much the whole point to the study of history, and English is pretty similar, too.

  1. Say something unique, or that you don’t think your peers are saying.

THIS IS HUGE. I had a professor who used to say that it would be impossible to get more than a B on an essay with him if you only went for the low-hanging fruit. That’s to say, there are a lot of obvious arguments out there—usually the ones you went over in class a lot, or the ones you would know whether you took the course or not—and those are not enough to show that you understand a concept. While you should definitely touch on those, don’t let them be your whole essay.

When I would write essays, I would try to say something that I didn’t think my peers would say. That could mean taking a qualified stance on an argument, or saying that an event occurred for reasons we hadn’t yet discussed. It didn’t matter to me if I had the best writing skills or the best research skills in the class—I wanted to say the most creative thing.

  1. Use your introduction not just to set the topic, but to capture your professor and show off your writing skills.

Sarah Vowell, one of my favorite authors, once said “the more history I learn, the more the world fills up with stories.” That’s why introductions are my favorite, favorite, favorite things to write. That’s my space to tell a story.

Of course, in my introduction I take the time to make my thesis statement and give the reader a teeny glimpse into what I’ll be talking about, but my first handful of sentences are always dedicated to storytelling, letting my reader know the context of my argument, of letting them know that I’m not just writing an essay, but actually demonstrating writing skills.

  1. Make your title last.

God, I hate titles. To be completely honest, I don’t have the best advice for them except to write them after you’ve written the whole essay. Sometimes when I’m writing, the essay I planned on doesn’t necessarily come to fruition, and it changed into something new. Maybe there’s a really interesting point I come up with, or maybe there’s one part that’s better written than another and I want to direct attention to it. Either way, I always make sure to reflect that in my title. Another way to go is super, duper general, like “Heart of Darkness as 19th Century Imperialist Commentary.” That shit’s real general to the point that it almost sounds dumb, but it’s not going to make you drop from an A to A-. I’m also a fan of the colon, like “Heart of Darkness: An Imperialist Commentary.” That makes you seem really smart, but doesn’t take a huge amount of brain power to come up with.

Talk Nerdy to Me: How to Stay Organized and Nail your Senior Thesis

THESIS_Pinterest

As we all prep to head back to school for spring semester, some folks might be gearing up to write (or continue to write) their senior thesis. Lucky for you all, I just finished mine (and did pretty well on it, if I do say so myself).

Writing my senior thesis was really stressful for a lot of reasons, but mostly because this is such a freakin’ beefy project. I’d done lengthy research papers before (thesis proposal, senior seminar [which I took as a junior…?]). Because of all of that, I was able to really kind of figure out what I wanted to do in terms of organization for the project.

Since my senior thesis was so important to me (it was the #1 thing I was thankful for this year), I really wanted to knock it out of the park and do something great with it. I knew that since it was so much research, I was going to need to be so so organized.

So what was my thesis even about?

My senior thesis was entitled, “The Implicit Imperialists: The Disnification of American Hegemony 1990-1991.” I took a look at the relationship Disney has with the U.S. government and how, for better or for worse, everything we see (Disney cartoons included) serves as some sort of propaganda. I also looked at the history of American primacy, otherwise known as “orientalism.” This refers to the way the West perceives the East as kind of subhuman, like the way colonial powers in the late nineteenth/early twentieth century justified going into Middle Eastern countries and sort of imposed Western conceptions of freedom and civilization on them (but we have to ask– who made up these ideas of freedom/civilization?). In the end, I kind of weave this all together to make sense of the First Persian Gulf War and the depiction of Arabs in Aladdin.

It probably sounds boring to you, but I promise, it was awesome.

I tell you all this just so I can show you how many different components projects like this have. For me, I had: the study of Orientalism (I read a lot by/about Edward W. Said), history of U.S. foreign relations, Cold War and Gulf War readers (big books filled with primary documents), the study of Disney, the study of media analysis, and the study of Disney with regards to history. I organized all of my research accordingly.

The Organization:

So I decided to take all of those research topics and split them into different file folders, and decided I’d store all of those folders into one box.

THESIS_Box

You can, of course, make these folders on your computer and store everything digitally, but personally, I’d prefer to highlight and take notes on the hard copy of a journal article (if you do store things digitally, every single time you do something, back it up on a flash drive in case, heaven forbid, something get lost). When I read books, I would read the book and type out notes on my computer (I used an interlibrary loan program, so I wasn’t allowed to highlight the actual books.) I took note of different direct quotes I wanted to use, or I paraphrased ideas– mostly I transcribed actual quotes, though, because I figured I could always go back and paraphrase, but if I’d returned the book, I couldn’t get the quote again. I printed those out and put them in folders, too.

The folders were labeled: media analysis, foreign policy, orientalism, and Disney history. I also had a folder for all of my drafts.

THESIS_Folders

A note about drafts: I was super lucky because my thesis advisor was some kind of superwoman and was extremely brilliant at so many different subjects and disciplines. As a result, I got my drafts torn to gosh darn shreds. First, don’t take this personally. I took every note she gave me because I knew she knew better than me; second, if you don’t get this from your advisor, demand it. If you’re like me, your thesis is counting as a class; that means you’re paying to write this son of a gun. You should be getting so much attention. You need to be firm with your advisor about what you need. I suggest you make them return drafts to you that look like this:

THESIS_Edits

…and that was just my introduction.

As the project continued, the pages got less and less messy, but even now, after I’ve submitted my final copy for publishing, I’m sure there are so many things she could find to improve. I wanted this because frankly I spent hours on the project and I’m submitting it for awards and I want to win those freakin’ awards (woohoo for extrinsic motivation!).

A note about defending: What is a thesis without a defense? I’m a petrified public speaker, even though people always say they’re surprised by that (I think it’s because my voice projects). My goal for my defense was to make it basically like a TED Talk, and while I totally did not achieve that (although, TED, if you want me to talk, I am SO DOWN. #pipedream) I think I did a nice job. Something that made a huge different was using Prezi.

Prezi was so simple, free, stored everything in a dropbox type thing on its website, and had clean yet interesting animations. I got so many compliments on my Prezi, so I definitely suggest you give it a try.

I also super suggest taking a video of yourself doing your presentation. I did mine in the Provoc office where I could set up one of our computers with my Prezi and use the other to take a webcam video of myself (note to self: delete those before the staff comes back to school). This helped me notice stupid crap I do when presenting, let me hear where I stumbled over words, found certain phrases that worked and used them in the actual presentation, and let me time myself.

Do you have a senior thesis coming up? Do you have suggestions on how to make it work? Let me know in the comments below! I’d love to hear from you!