So, it’s that season when exams are just around the corner and someone asked me to put some advice for students on how to write essays during exams up here. I’m pretty sure that most people will know this stuff, or have further suggestions, but here is a list of things that I think are important. This also means that other people may value things differently – but as we shall see, that is why we all write differently! I may add more as time goes on, and feel free to add suggestions in the comments below. I’ve split them up into some broad categories to help.
1 – Firstly,writing is something which is very personal. We all write in different ways and as a result, I don’t think there is such a thing as a ‘model’ answer – each person will structure things differently and write things differently. By all means look to help each other when revising by reading each others work and commenting on it, but remember that your style is your own, and you’ll never be able to write in the same way as your friends. The last thing I want is to mark a lot of exam questions which all read exactly the same!
2 – Academic writing, however, is quite formal. That’s why spelling, grammar, punctuation and good vocabulary are important. However, this formality does mean things should be clear and straightforward. I often read essays where students add words which are more complicated than they need to be – they equate big sounding words with a high mark. In fact, the clearer and simpler you can be, the more likely I am to enjoy reading things.
3 – When you are reading articles, think about the style in which they are written. If you particularly enjoyed reading a paper, or if you found reading a paper particularly straightforward, think about how that paper has been written. Is it the language, the style, the structure or something else which has helped? Think about how you write compared to this and what you could do to make your writing a bit more like this academic writing.
On Essay Writing
1 – Personally, I’m a bit of a stickler for structure. By writing a clear introduction, some well organised argument, and a clear conclusion which answers the question, half the battle of writing a clear, legible essay is done. However, others may not feel the same way, and this isn’t to say that the content of what you write is not equally important.
2 – Many, if not most, academic essays ask you to argue for a particular position in relation to something. Make sure you know what your position is before you start writing. If you do change your mind (which happens, writing is a form of thinking, and I often develop ideas as I’m writing) then make sure that the essay is consistent in its argument. You don’t want to start of arguing for one thing and end arguing for another!
3 – A good introduction really helps, especially in exams. Lots of people write a quite bland sentence which regurgitates the essay title and think that is enough. A good introduction does a few things – firstly, you should sketch out your key ideas in relation to the question. That way, the reader/marker knows straight away what to expect for the rest of the essay. A second thing that people often leave out is a clear outline of the rest of the essay. When I’m writing, I often leave parts of the introduction until the very end. That way, I can put a clear layout of the rest of my argument in AFTER it has been written. This way of writing means you can reinforce what your essay is arguing in the reader’s mind.
4 – Remember to keep the main argument of your essay as logical and ordered as possible. Grouping key ideas (e.g. the positives/pros of any argument) together and discussing them fully before moving on to discuss the next set of ideas (the negatives/cons etc.).
5 – Remember to explain ideas/concepts fully. Lots of people write essays assuming that I will automatically know what they are talking about, or without explaining what they mean fully enough. Often this is done in sentences where people will write something like “Mumbai is clearly a neoliberal city. Water is also a key issue in India, as with climate change it may become an increasingly scarce resource” The first sentence doesn’t explain WHY you think Mumbai is a neoliberal city, nor give any idea about what a neoliberal city is before moving on to discuss a different, if related, topic. It’s important to do this for two reasons a) you may be writing for someone who isn’t familiar with the topic – you need to make sure that after reading something you have written, it is understandable. b) In assessment terms, I’m looking to see if YOU understand what you are writing about. If you haven’t explained something, you haven’t shown me you understand it, and therefore I can’t give you any credit for it. So, I always think when you have finished writing a paragraph, pause for a second and think “Have I explained everything in this paragraph clearly enough?”
6 – Proof read your essay. The number of essays I mark which have simple mistakes/errors which make them much harder to read is enormous, and could be much reduced if people spend a bit of time closely reading their own work before handing it in. You could also swap essays with a friend if you’re happy to so that you can check each others spelling and grammar.
1 – Try not to panic! Easy to say, I know, but when marking, I never aim to fail people, and there are no quota systems (i.e. x many people have to fail, y many have to get a 1st etc) – your essay is marking on its merits and those alone.
2 – Always plan your essay – this helps with the issues of structure mentioned above. Also, if you’re writing in an exam booklet, write the plan in it – that way the person marking it can see that you have done one. If you have 1 hour to write an essay, aim to spend 10 minutes planning it.
3 – Try and leave enough time to read over your essay. This really helps. I’d say 5 minutes at the end (so, if you’ve got an hour, you have 10 mins to plan, 45 minutes to write, and 5 mins to check over it).
4 – Exams (and essays in general) are one of only a few chances you will have to actually show me what work you have been doing outside of lectures. That’s why we ask you to reference as one marker of evidence of reading. However, that means its your chance to SHOW US what you’ve been doing. When I mark an essay by someone who has clearly engaged with some of the ideas of a module, and has shown they understand them it’s brilliant. However, you need to make sure you actually tell me them (see also the point about explaining things above in relation to this point) so that I can give you credit. Remember, it’s a chance to show off!
This is all for the moment – If I think of anything else, I will add them in the comments below. Feel free to add your own ideas or suggestions in the comments as well, or any questions you may have.