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!
- 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.
- 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.
- 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!
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.