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What to Do Before You Start Writing an Essay

Writing essays for school, college, and university can be daunting. In many ways the genre of the essay is slightly out dated in our world of blogs, texts, tweets, insta posts, and microblogging. Because we are less and less familiar with writing essays these days, they are often something we only do in the context of school. As a result, writing essays feels a bit weird. Add to that the fact that most teachers and professors out there may have first learned how to write essays either by hand or on old word processing software, whereas students these days have often learned not to write or type, but to text with their thumbs! So the technology is moving in one direction, but schools, colleges, universities, and testing boards still expect students to display mastery over essays - be they short exam essays or long graduate theses - and so if you have an essay to write, what should you do first?

 

Open up your word processing software to a nice, clean, blank page.

 

WRONG!

 

First, consolidate your notes. This could be simply that you do some research online and copy and paste quotations that you think might be interesting (making sure to note the citation information so that you can cite the source and not be guilty of plagiarism), or it could mean moving your notes from class over into a document in some form or another. You don't yet have to have a clear idea of exactly what you'll argue at this point, but you just want ideas and research handy.

 

Second, make an outline. An outline is going to have your topic, thesis statement, and a brief summary of the main points you will raise. All of this can change later, but this is your starting point map to prevent you from going all over the place, because for any given assignment topic, there are likely a million and one ways that you can tackle the subject. Your job is to focus as clearly and specifically as possible on an area.

 

Third, get writing. No amount of sitting around thinking, planning, or reading is going to get your essay written. The only way it will get written is if you just start writing. Then you'll find out along the way whether you need more evidence, or have to change your approach, or want to refine things. Otherwise, you'll think and think and think and think, and then once you start writing, you might find that you have to make changes anyway, but you'll have run out of time!

 

Often students struggle with writing assignments because they are struggling to create something perfect. The constraints on their life - jobs, friends, sports, work etc. - end up eating into the time that they'd ideally like to devote to writing, and then they are crunched for time and stressed. I used to tell my students, that I didn't want to read the essays that they wrote for me under the most perfect conditions of all time, when they were well-rested, focused, feeling fine, and ready to go. I wanted to read the best essay they could pull off given all the other things going on in their lives. Because that's real life! Real life demands that we can juggle all sorts of competing expectations and still get things done in the best way possible, and simply dumping content from our brains onto a blank page won't deliver that best-work-in-real-life writing that instructors are looking for. But taking time to consolidate and clarify some research notes and make an outline, and then starting to writing nice and early can make a big difference.

 

 

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