Essay Writing 101
It’s the middle of term, and you’re probably entering what I like to call “Essay Hell”. Papers are starting to come due, and you should have been writing them before, but you had other work. I know how it is. With that in mind, Labyrinth will feature a number of posts about essay writing and research strategies that will help you survive and thrive in Essay Hell, and aren’t necessarily dependent on starting your essay the day after it’s assigned. Although that is a pretty good idea. Today’s post is an overview, but check back every Tuesday to learn how not just to get your paper in on time, but do well.
Writing research papers is the backbone of any degree in the humanities. During my time as an undergrad, I wrote around fifty of varying lengths. They’re the cause of much fear and consternation, and but can also be the source of a great deal of pleasure and, dare I say it, fun. If you go on to graduate school, they’re going to get longer and tougher, and if you’re looking at a career in academia they’re going to be your bread and butter for the next forty years. Even if you’re not, the act of writing them will teach you about communication, research, argumentation, and how to manage an idea with a deadline. It may be hellish, but it’s worth it. But here’s how to make it easier.
Take just about everything they told you in high school and toss it out the window. Just forget about it. Not the grammar, but the five paragraph model. Having three points to support your introduction, etc. Abandon that framework in favour of explaining and supporting your thesis in a way that best fits your thesis. Don’t just be afraid to deviate from it, be encouraged to. I’ve handed in research papers in poetry, as songs, and once as a detective story (though every time, I spoke with the professor first. It’s important to gauge their expectations). Abandoning the high school method is the first way to stand out.
2. Master Skimming
I’m not saying don’t read thoroughly, but learn how to assess books and whether they’re what you need for the paper without reading the entire thing in depth. It will save you time and effort, and let you move on to the material that will really help you.
3. Research Early
You may not start writing the day after you get the assignment, but be sure to start your research early. For one thing, you don’t want to have to dig through the dregs of the library for the books your classmates have left behind. For another, it will let you cover more ground in your research, and put ideas in your brain that will percolate during the day, and help with the writing process. Even if you’re not writing, you want to be thinking about it. Besides, thinking is better than agonizing.
4. Focus Your Thesis
Don’t try and talk about something large when you can talk about something small. The Spartans are too big to fit in your paper. They’re too big to fit in a dissertation. The Spartan system of government is too big. Narrowing your focus will help guide your research, and keep you from overreaching yourself in the paper. So don’t talk about ten things when you can talk about three, or three things when you can focus on just one.
Always be conscious of your word limit, and how many components your paper needs to have. Do you have terms you need to define? Historical context that you need to explain? You have to have room to do that while still making the argument in your thesis. I’ve read and reviewed too many papers that spend six pages on historical context and two on the thesis. If it takes three quarters of your paper to explain the history, your thesis needs more focus. Save it for a senior seminar.
6. Citation Nation
We may be living in a material world, but academia is a citation nation. Always cite your sources, and make sure your citation style is consistent throughout the essay. Classical studies tends to use the Chicago style, though if you’ve taken courses in other humanities, you might be used to MLA or APA. Learning all of these is useful for more than academic integrity purposes. Your professors may not care how you cite, as long as it’s consistent, but journals and conferences will.
Finally, write. Don’t wait until you’re in the mood, or for inspiration to strike. Just write. Write without worrying about it being terrible. You can edit later, but you can only edit something that you’ve written. I like to write a thousand words after I get up in the morning, before I do anything else. Some days I write two thousand. Writing is like any other skill. the more you do it, the easier it gets, and the better you get at it. Knowing that you can write consistently will take some of the stress out of having to write a lot once you enter essay hell, and may even lead to you finishing the occasional paper well before its deadline.
Each of these points, as well as a few others, will be expanded on in a full post over the coming weeks, but I wanted to boil it down in order to give you something to work with during the middle of term, without a doubt one of the most stressful times. Take a break and give them a read, and share your own essay tips in the comments!