Date posted: 30/06/2016

Are your essays and papers writing skills up to task?

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Essays and papers can be quite a daunting task. All that material and information to be sifted through, organised and then put down in a structured way. Get it right, it will be a skill you'll be able to draw on all your life.

Not sure where to start? Don't worry: a simple, structured approach will make the task so much easier.

Types of essays

Broadly, there are three types of essays or papers: you'll need to pick one, according to the task at hand and which you feel will do a better job.

  • The analytical approach: starts with a topic and thesis, and explains these with facts rather than an opinion.
  • The persuasive approach: this persuades the reader to accept your conclusion, based on the evidence given.
  • The positional approach: this provides your viewpoint on the subject, backed with ideas and research.

Starting your essay assignment

Once you've picked your topic - if you've been given a choice - don't start writing straight away.

Do your research. Gather as much information about the subject - online, in textbooks, and in your notes from class or lectures. Now write all that - or the sources - down, don't keep it in your head. Review the resources, and cross off any repetitive ones or those that lack real substance.

Now that you have a shortlist, you'll start to see patterns and argument emerging. Do the authors have a common theme, with similar facts and figures? Is there a solid 'angle' you feel comfortable can be backed up?

Next, start on your outline. This is where you start organising the pieces of information and the messages in a logical order. Put main headings down the page with a little space in between. In general, that outline is going to start with an introduction or summary, introduce a topic (or topics), back up the position in those topics, then end with a conclusion.

Now that you've got the flow, put in the references and/or content to sit under each main heading. This leaves you with the 'skeleton' of your essay; now it's time to flesh it out.

Writing your essay

Write a draft first - it may take a couple of goes to get the final essay right. Start with a sentence or paragraph that will intrigue the reader and make them want to read on. If you start with straight statements of facts, the reader could soon lose concentration.

Follow your outline and stick to it, otherwise your reasoning and argument may meander off and lose direction. End with a strong conclusion that summaries the argument or position, and repeat major pieces of evidence.

Next, go back and rewrite it. Then rewrite it again if you have to until you either run out of time, or feel you've got it right.

Then, review it, and get someone else to read it to see if you've missed anything.

Some general writing tips:

  • Use short sentences: try turning commas into full stops, to break a long sentence into two.
  • Be succinct: don't use unnecessarily long words to prove how clever you are; let your knowledge demonstrate that - plain language that anyone could understand is preferable over acronyms or industry-specific jargon.
  • Keep reviewing your work: writing is about getting it down on paper, reviewing and then editing; don't expect it to be perfect first time.
  • Read your essay out loud: are you stumbling at any point? If so, review and edit.
  • Spellcheck, spellcheck and spellcheck again: Any spelling or grammatical errors can leave readers with a bad impression; did we mention to spellcheck?