Essay writing for dummies
January 25, 2011 9:29 PM   Subscribe

How did you write your university essays? Real life blow-by-blow accounts please.

I need to know how successful essays are written. 'Successful' in this case means 'an essay whose length is at least 80% the word limit and handed in before the deadline'. As you've probably guessed I have trouble writing the darned things, and while depression and procrastination are the main culprits, I've just realised that I might also be doing it wrong. The logistics of writing I mean.

So...please show me how you did it. What was the first thing you did when you sat down to write that essay - muse over the topic/question? Sharpen your pencils? Look it up on Google Scholar? Then what did you do - jot down random ideas? Draw up a reading list? How did you read - focus on one paper? Take notes from multiple papers? Did you print them out? How did you organise your findings - sort them by theme? Pick them as you write? Et cetera.

I'm already familiar with the theory, so I'm looking for something like this but more with more details of the work flow itself.
posted by fix to Education (56 answers total) 75 users marked this as a favorite
I had kind of an eccentric method, but once I hit upon it I used it all through school because I found it was the only thing that worked for me. See, I wasn't someone who majored in things where essays were required, but now and then I'd take a class where I needed to write them, and I realized somewhere along the line that the only writing of that sort I'd ever done before were essay tests. I'd had a lot of success with those in high school, but somehow that success wasn't translating to situations where I had more than an hour, and all the texts with me.

So I ended up simulating the time pressure of essay tests to help me get my essays done. I'd find and read all my sources, and think a lot on the topic, and then for a couple of days, I'd get to my classes a few minutes early and spend the time between sitting down and when lecture started writing furiously. I'd get about a paragraph done per before-class sprint, maybe a little less. Once this process was done, I had a rough draft. Then I could go through my sources and fill in more concrete quotes to support my points.

I don't know if this is a way to be a humanities major, but it was very effective for me as an engineer who took a good half-dozen writing-heavy classes over the course of college, including some for writing-heavy majors. It turned out I needed time pressure or the essay just never came together, and writing the paragraphs separately at first kept them on point and self-contained while heavy editing later on smoothed out the style and drew connections between the topics.
posted by little light-giver at 9:37 PM on January 25, 2011 [2 favorites]

I always procrastinated too, on account of pathological perfectionism. What always helped me was to start out thinking of it as strictly rough sketching, no polishing as a rule, including all incomplete thoughts and tangents, etc. You know, don't worry about getting it right, get something effing written.
posted by Rich Smorgasbord at 9:54 PM on January 25, 2011 [1 favorite]

Best answer: I'm an English major, so I'm all about essays. I also procrastinate and fight with bipolar depression upon occasion, so I know where you're coming from. Here's what I do (though this may not be the best way, I do get them done on time and get high grades).

I research the hell out of everything early. I mean as soon as I know what my topic is going to be, I'm in the library or online researching *everything* I can about what I'm going to write about. Once my research is done, I put it away for a while. Then I'll pull it out again and re-read everything one more time to make sure I got it right the first time.

Then I start either copying and pasting or typing everything I want to quote onto a blank document. This is usually WAY more than actually makes it into my essays, but it gives me a good handle on what my argument is and/or if I have a leg to stand on. It also gets me writing, even if (for the moment) it is someone else's words. It's at this point I also put all of my references into Word so I can cite them later. (PLEASE remember to do this!!!)

Then I start typing around the quotes, changing the quotes (paraphrasing) and arguing for or against whatever it is I'm quoting. Right about here is when I open a new, blank document so I can start arranging things so they flow better. And as I'm doing this, I go back and forth between the documents and cut and paste those quotes I need and those I won't be using. As I said, a good deal of what I want to quote ends up on the cutting room floor, but that's okay -- all of it is food for thought.

I usually start out with six pages of quotes and end up with eight pages of my words supported by quotes that might add up to two, maybe three pages. So, ten to eleven pages, by the deadline, and with fairly high grades.

In a nutshell: get the research out of the way early - let it simmer for a while - find the relevant passages and type/copy&paste them into a blank document - type around the quotes at first to strengthen your argument - then get going with your arguments... Works for me every time.
posted by patheral at 9:57 PM on January 25, 2011 [21 favorites]

Can you clarify what kinds of essays we're talking about? I had a different writing method for English papers about a poem (and that was different than about a series of poems, and that was different than medieval stuff in some circumstances), a different method for philosophy papers, a different method for history papers... I think they need to be researched, thought through, and written in different ways depending on what kind of animal you're dealing with.
posted by J. Wilson at 9:58 PM on January 25, 2011 [1 favorite]

My process was as follows, at least for my undergrad:

1. Procrastinate until a week before the deadline.

2. Panic until the weekend before the deadline.

3. Sit down and write, don't like it, but continue all the way through.

4. Once finished with a first draft, began again on a completely different essay that I liked significantly better.

5. Revise, revise, revise, and ultimately all my college apps go out via overnight mail to arrive in time.

6. Get into every school I applied for (except the one where the app didn't arrive in time, so I got a refund for my USPS express mail)

Seriously the way to do it is as follows: sit down and write something. Write it all the way through. Tomorrow, make yourself sit down and repeat the process. Keep writing every day, and your writing will gradually become more natural, more fluent, and likely more successful/appealing. When you have a rough draft that looks vaguely university essay-shaped, hand out copies to everyone you know and ask them to edit the hell out of it.

Start now. Sit down at your desk and say you can't do anything until you have typed (ANYTHING) for ten minutes.
posted by arnicae at 10:10 PM on January 25, 2011 [1 favorite]

1. All the quotes I could possible use from primary sources get typed up on the document, it's a great way to reread them and gets them out of the way early. Bibliography happens now too.

2. Skeleton of sentences that each will end up being the keystone to a paragraph or two in the final work. This would look like an outline to a casual observer, quotes get put in the right places between sentences. At this point the paper is mostly done in terms of ideas.

3. Flesh out.

4. Flesh out assuming my audience is retarded. (I'm told I am terse and skip logic steps). This feels like padding out to me, but I realize it's important.

5. Last minute editing for egregious mistakes.

N.B. I was Liberal Arts major and typically gave myself about an hour per page of actual writing, but I usually have the idea going in my head days ahead of time.
posted by 2bucksplus at 10:12 PM on January 25, 2011 [4 favorites]

Obvious misreading is obvious. Skipping step 1, the rest is the same.
posted by 2bucksplus at 10:14 PM on January 25, 2011

I find this method works pretty great regardless of what sort of paper I'm writing, as long as it's not a paper for any sciencey class. One note is that it usually takes me about 2-3 days to write a paper, but most of it's planning. I'll plan for a couple days then write the entire paper down in 2-3 hours.

1) Think about the prompt. Generally, the prompt your professor gives you will be about one of the major themes discussed in class. If you have to come up with your own prompt, make it so that you're focusing on one or two themes depending on how long your paper is.

2) Go through the readings you were assigned and see in which one the theme plays out the best so you can have a lot to write about the topic.

3) Now it gets harder. After you've identified the readings, start thinking about your thesis. Usually a good thesis will put the readings you've done in dialog (example--If you look at X from Y's point of view, etc etc) while making a claim of its own. If you do what I wrote in the example, it's a good idea to include why looking at X through Y's lens is necessary. Just jot down ideas of what you think a good thesis for your paper could be. Eventually you'll think of one that doesn't contradict itself too much or is just absolutely brilliant

4) Elaborate and explain your argument. Now is a good time to go back through your readings once more and find specific passages that support your claim if you haven't done so already in step 2.

5) Read through your paper to make sure you don't have confusing sentences, typos, and all that good stuff. One major reason I like doing papers like this is that a) it's tried and true for me and b) you don't have to revise your ideas a lot after the paper's been written since that's already been done.

I find that doing all that planning in outline form helps. Steps 3 and 4 usually take the longest as you can vacillate between the two steps quite a bit when you keep refining your thesis. I personally write this all down by hand so that I can organize things a bit spatially and see relationships between the many many many many ideas floating around.

Good luck!
posted by astapasta24 at 10:14 PM on January 25, 2011 [1 favorite]

OK. This is how I got through my BSc.

First of all, immediately upon getting the assignment, I engaged in research. I collected a bunch of articles, books and whatnot and organized them, tossing old, less relevant or simply ugly sources. I kept them neatly organized, and read them to gain insight into the topic. I used this insight to further refine my planned paper. I organized my sources by theoretical background, research methodology, or whatever made sense for the paper at hand. I then produced an APA style references section for the paper, using every source. I printed this off and kept it close at hand.

When I did the actual writing, I worked from the assignment or topic grading criteria. I made sure that I created an outline for the paper. From this outline, I wrote. I didn't attempt to write a flowing, smooth paper right off the line; I aimed at creating sections of the paper that satisfied my requirements. As I wrote, I used my printed reference list to track what sources I actually used. This ensured I didn't have a reference in my list that was not cited in text, or the reverse.

Once I had written the lion's share of my paper, I began to assemble it. I edited for flow and for readability. I removed repeated portions, which was a common occurence when writing something piecemeal. Often I would find that my work needed to be reordered, and that the outline was not that great. This was not a problem; outlines were produced early in the process and often did not resemble the final product to any great extent.

Once assembled, I reviewed it and read it out loud. This caught the most egregious violations of grammar. It is amazing how long a run-on sentence can be on paper, but out loud it sounds foolish. Copious notes were taken on a printed copy. Revision was either a full retype (for papers under ten pages) or done in situ. Retyping the paper made for another opportunity to read it through and refine further. My best papers were ones that I revised via a full retyping from a printed copy.

Finally, I passed the essay to my partner, who is rather more intelligent than I am. One thing I learned in the process of earning my degree was that when a reader tells you something is unclear, they are always correct. My partner was able to catch the little things that I missed. Although we come from different academic backgrounds, my partner was able to act as a sanity check on my papers to ensure I wasn't flying off the deep end and making unsupported arguments or drawing unwarranted conclusions.

This process earned me a >4.0GPA in my program. I would conservatively estimate that I wrote about 600 pages of academic work during my degree program, including work not directly related to classes. I was lucky in that 90% of my writing was done in one style, APA. Others in my peer group took a more diverse set of electives and found themselves writing in Chicago, MLA, or God knows what other styles. For me, shifting styles was far more difficult than writing the associated History or English paper, even at the fourth year level. In fact, I dropped a 300 level history course simply because it had five research papers, and I knew that shifting in and out of APA five times in a semester would kill me.
posted by Sternmeyer at 10:16 PM on January 25, 2011 [11 favorites]

Best answer: My workflow (as remembered from high school and from my brief, albeit successful, tenure as an art history major):

- read list of possible essay questions
- go to library and see which essay question has the most relevant books from the reading list left on shelf (possibly borrowing friends' library cards to other universities to access books that aren't available at mine)
- once essay subject chosen, do a quick blitz through the study notes, textbook and Wikipedia. Jot down or mind-map any random quotes or ideas that relate the question. The idea is to get a really broad overview of the highlights of the subject
- quickly read relevant chapters from library books
- come up with three or four main arguments in support of the thesis of the question. Just dot-points, maybe with a few quotes to remember for later
- WRITE. Don't worry about the introduction, just regurgitate all the relevant information you can remember that supports each of your arguments. Don't check your notes or books, you'll be tempted to use their phrasing. Try to write it all from memory. I aim for about 75% of the word count here (it will get cut down a lot when you go back to edit it)
- now go back over it with your notes. Put in quotes and cites for your arguments. Clean up the paragraphs. Spell-check. It should start to read like a "proper essay" by now
- reread the library books and look for any other information you missed in your first skim-through which supports your arguments
- write intro and conclusion. I may or may not use Word auto-summarise as a jumping-off point here.
- hand in essay. Receive high distinction
- transfer to engineering degree. Realise that you have absolutely no idea how to actually study now that "write lots of big words and quote as many sources as possible to look like you've done wide reading" is not an option, damnit

Last step is optional.
posted by jaynewould at 10:17 PM on January 25, 2011 [1 favorite]

Bibliography is not optional.
posted by jaynewould at 10:20 PM on January 25, 2011

My process was as follows, at least for my undergrad:

1. Procrastinate until a week before the deadline.

2. Panic until the weekend before the deadline.

3. Sit down and write, don't like it, but continue all the way through.

This was me. I was a history major, and wrote a truckload of papers. I was pretty good at keeping up with the reading, so that helped. I took notes, highlighted paragraphs in books, copied out quotes.

When it came time to actually write the damned thing, I'd psych myself out of the "But how will I *start* my paper??!!" paralysis by writing what I told myself was a paragraph from somewhere in the middle of the paper first - I could always go back and move things around. Then, once I'd built up some steam, write write write, revise a little as I went, finish, read it through, move things around, rewrite as necessary, proof, spellcheck, read again, gallop to professor's office to hand it in (we still had to hand in hard copies in those days). Then, sleep. Or start the next paper, which was due in two days.
posted by rtha at 10:22 PM on January 25, 2011

What type of topics? Do you need to include research, cite facts, etc., or just give your own opinions on something? I can give you more specific tips if you can be more specific about that.

Regardless of topic, start with a standard outline for the overall essay and each paragraph and fill in the details before you begin writing. This will not only help give your essay structure but will also force you to organize your own thinking on the topic and reveal where you have holes in your argument or explanation that you will need to do additional thinking/research to fill in.

As you are writing your essay, use "signpost" words like "First," "Second," "Third," "Finally," "In conclusion," etc. to begin the paragraphs that follow the introduction. This may seem like a very rigid and uncreative style but it makes it MUCH easier for your reader to follow your line of argument or thought.

Try to structure sentences so that they start with known information and end with the new information you want to emphasize. Try to put them in an order so that one sentence logically/naturally flows into the next. (The new information at the end of one sentence becomes the known information that is relevant to the new information revealed in the next sentence.)

Generic outline:

Paragraph 1: Introduction:
1. Sentence that asserts the main point of your essay: your position on the topic, or the main piece of information that you want to communicate to the reader.
2. A couple of sentences giving a brief overview of reasons for your position or important aspects of the information. It's generally a good idea to start with the most broad/general stuff and then narrow your way down to the more specific, but you can rearrange if a different order would be more logical for your topic.
3. A transition sentence letting the reader know that you will now go into each of these in greater detail.

Paragraphs 2, 3, 4, etc.: Supporting Points: You need a separate paragraph for each distinct idea. Put them in the same order as they appeared in the introductory paragraph.
1. Sentence that summarizes the supporting point. You will make your reader's life easier if you clearly signpost that you are starting a new idea by opening these paragraphs with "First, ..." "Second, ..." "Third, ..." "Finally, ..."
2. Details that support the paragraph's point/idea. Again, moving from the broad to the specific.
3. Make sure you also acknowledge and refute any arguments or information that oppose or detract from your supporting point. If doing so requires more sentences than would fit well in the same paragraph as your supporting point, then you can break them out into separate paragraphs that follow each point. So, paragraph on your point following by paragraph on the counterpoints and your refutation of those counterpoints.
4. Transition sentence explaining how the point explained in this paragraph relates to the point of your next paragraph.
(repeat until you run out of supporting points / ideas)

Final Paragraph: Conclusion:
1. "In conclusion..." Rephrase the assertion you made in the very first sentence of the essay and show how all the supporting points tie together to support it.
2. Give the broader context for why it is important that the reader agree with you or understand/use the information you explained.
3. If you want your reader to take a specific action, conclude with a call to action. (Note: By a call to action, I don't mean "So give me an 'A' on this essay." I mean what you would want the reader to do if you actually gave a shit about your topic and wasn't just writing this essay for a grade. :D)
posted by Jacqueline at 10:30 PM on January 25, 2011 [3 favorites]

Yeah, beginning; scheginning. End; schmend. It's all a freeform invention when you start, and any academic templates, whether of form or phraseology, should be the last thing in your mind. (Of course, you should eventually tie a few things together).
posted by Rich Smorgasbord at 10:36 PM on January 25, 2011 [1 favorite]

I'm not sure I really recommend this, but the only thing I ever found that worked for me was to have a few beers and get myself a bit tipsy, write the essay and go to bed. The next morning I would edit it in a sober state and be quite impressed.
posted by Chrysalis at 10:39 PM on January 25, 2011 [3 favorites]

I take a shit-ton of quotes before I start my essay. Seriously. 50% of the word count in quotes. Then, I know I just need to say one thing about each quote and I will be done my wordcount, so that stress is gone. Then, I break it into some easy-peasy steps.

1 - outline: introduction, supporting points, conclusion
2 - outline more: thesis statement, evidence for the supporting points, what quotes fit which argument.
3 - outline more: until I am pretty sure what I am going to say.
NOTE: these three steps are where the heavy lifting occurs. Picking a thesis and arguing it have all happened in theory by this point. More stress relieved!
4 - write an introduction: just that. cover each argument, whatever you need to do.
5 - write your argument pieces: one by one, usually in the order they will appear in the paper.
6 - bibliography: usually by now I am sick of writing and feel close enough to done that I can procrastinate the last bit for a while longer
7 - conclusion: write conclusion, read over if you're the kind of person that can bear that, spellcheck and all that jazz.
8 - hand it in!

These steps take a variable amount of time based on how long I have known about the assignment, how stressed I am, what's good on TV that week, and my general level of sleep. Prep is probably equally as long as writing, if I am diligent about it. I usually do prep right when I get the assignment and then forget about it for a while until the due date looms into my mind. Then steps 1-8 occur in steps that get increasingly faster. I get pretty good grades. The most important thing is remaining engaged with your topic/courses when not writing papers so you have a theoretical framework to fall back on during crunch time.
posted by hepta at 11:00 PM on January 25, 2011 [2 favorites]

I would:

Get the assignment and wander around for a week or so, arguing with myself about it--hopefully in my head and not out out loud--on the way to class and at the bus stop.

Sit down at some point and brainstorm, i.e. writing thoughts down without trying to organize them first. I'd usually do it long-hand because that's what works best for my brain.

Stew about it some more.

Read my brainstorming over again and pick out the useful bits. Look over the text again if it was an English/Philosophy paper and mark bits that seemed important and/or useful. Or if it was a research paper, go to the library, where my research usually devolved into wandering around in the stacks in appropriate topic-areas and discovering useful books by chance. Although The Oxford Guide to Library Research tells me now that that's actually a legitimate method of research, so there you go.

Sit down to write the damn thing two days before it was due, and spend the entire time staring at a blank computer screen thinking, 'You idiot, there's no way you can write anything interesting. Your professors are all going to think you're a fool.' Close blank document after an evening of fruitless staring at the screen and re-writing one sentence.

Wake up early the next morning, sit down in front of the computer again, thinking, 'HELL! Dark and bloody! AND it's way too early. But Russell Crowe's manservant in The Gladiator said that most of the time you just do what you have to, so here we are. Just write down anything, it doesn't matter how bad.'

Actually manage to start writing something. Get into the flow of it, marking places that needed quotes or supporting evidence without stopping to look everything up exactly.

Add quotes, clarify the thesis, go back over the paper and edit it, generally getting bored of editing around the halfway mark and skipping forward to the last quarter of the paper.

Repeat the re-writing/editing process as needed, generally continuing to skip the 3rd quarter of the paper every time.

Accept the hour-before-the-deadline version of the paper as the final draft. Spend the last hour fixing last minute stuff that always takes longer than you'd think, or fighting with a printer.
posted by colfax at 11:04 PM on January 25, 2011

Best answer: My method:
  1. Decide on topic.
  2. Stare at internet. Look up related articles on Wikipedia, but really just go down to the bottom of the page and find the references.
  3. Look at the referenced articles that are online, save them for later.
  4. Look up in online library catalog some books hopefully related to the topic. Write down some call numbers.
  5. Go to library, possibly find book or not, but take care to look at the other books on the same shelf or with a close call number. Sometimes this is the best way to find sources.
  6. Skim the books I've pulled off the shelf, see if any have useful information for me. Check out those that do.
  7. Procrastinate for a few days/weeks depending on the deadline, just because I apparently can't write except under strong time pressure. Occasionally read a little more of my books and web pages, think of some good argument to make. Acquire more sources as I wander around. I try to get as much stuff floating around my head as possible before starting to write. Take notes occasionally, make bookmarks for particularly useful-seeming pages.
  8. Finally sit down and think of a good argument. What point do I want to make, anyway? Pick something that I've found some reasonable support for, and possibly even some support against that I can discuss.
    • Write down a first paragraph including the argument expressly stated.
    • Talk about the general situation. If it's people related, talk about the people involved and social/cultural factors. This also goes for literature review--what sort of person was the author? If it is science-related what are the expected and known environmental bits?
    • Talk about past research on whatever topic I'm talking about--what have other people said about the same sort of things that I'm looking at? Has someone done the exact same thing (I hope not!), or what sorts of things were close?
    • What are the good parts and bad parts of this past research? Did they have a small sample size? Did they not consider something that I think is important? Did they uncover something particularly interesting?
    • What sort of conclusions do I think we can make from this pile of research etc?
    • If it is a literature review, what sort of stuff do I, personally, think about the literature? What point do I think he/she is trying to make? How does the literature support this claim?
    • If applicable/scienceish-related, what kind of future research needs to be done?
    • Conclude! Reassert your first paragraph and how your research supports your claim. Possibly future research could change your view but you think you're right!
  9. Think about rewriting it, but end up just revising bits that feel extra awful.

  10. Turn in.

So, really my method is "Front-load research, play around with that a little bit, and then writewritewrite up until the deadline."
posted by that girl at 11:14 PM on January 25, 2011 [4 favorites]

Best answer: Read the topic suggestions when they're handed out, put it aside. Keep the topic in the back of your mind, think about it again when you're taking a shower, and as you go to sleep. If you get a random idea, write it down in an ideas journal (during college, I always carried around a Moleskine, now I keep a couple journals at my desk, and in my bags, but only carry around a smaller pocket journals).

If you forget, refer back to the assignment, think about it some more. Once you get an idea, start hashing it out, but don't commit any sentences to paper, that'll come later (of course, if you come up with something particularly pithy get that stuff down). Don't stress it, if it's starting to stress you, go do something else, but keep it in the back of your mind.

Doodle while you stare at the wall.

When you feel like you've got enough ideas for a paper, get a giant whiteboard, draw a mind map. Your school library probably has private study rooms with whiteboards or chalkboards, take over one just for yourself (or maybe a study buddy so groups can't kick you out). Get down all the major words and phrases you think are important. Take a stab at outlining it. If you're feeling particularly stuck, put down all your major points on sticky notes and arrange and rearrange them in outlines. If you feel like being particularly anal, write everything down on pieces of paper, and put version numbers on them. You'll almost never look back at them, but honestly, it's not about keeping a record. You don't write stuff down to remember it later, you're writing it down to remember it now.

Sketch everywhere.

Once you've got an outline down. Put it aside. Take a deep breath, go get dinner. Have some fun. Forget about your paper for a couple days. This part won't be too hard.

Look back over your outline, think about how stupid it is, toss it out, put together a new one (I almost never followed this step.). It'll be much easier the second time, I promise (this part is true). If you're not sure if it'll be enough for the assignment, talk to the professor during office hours, ask the TA. In retrospect, I didn't do this enough, if you've got a good professor, they'll love it as long as you're not too demanding. You're not looking for someone to hold you're hand, you're just asking for the benefit of their experience and wisdom.

The night before the paper is due (let's be serious, this part will never change), you'll have been thinking about the paper for a good long time. Sit down alone, get a stiff drink (just one). Log out of Facebook, Twitter, and GMail, turn off your IM client. You've got an outline. You've got a couple pithy lines you know you want to use. Just start writing. If you've got a mac, use Ommwriter, if you have an iPad, use Writer. Don't worry about typesetting yet. Whatever writing software you're using, do it in full screen mode. If possible, do it with light text on a dark background, remove all your digital distractions (except whatever music you write best to). Some people work better with headphones on, others without, for me, it depends on my surroundings, but I will sometimes write with headphones on even if I'm in my own office.

(If you find yourself doing this part days before it's due, don't congratulate yourself, just keep writing. Don't stop until you brain does.)

Sip your drink slowly. These days I prefer a semi-sweet red wine, though I used to do brandy or amaretto sours. You're aiming for the Ballmer peak, in terms of writing, this is the perfect balance where the combination of alcohol and sleep deprivation have turned off the internal editor, while not rendering you a blithering idiot.

If you get too tired, take 20 minute naps. If you nap too long, you become groggy, but a short power nap can give you a complete REM cycle, and leave you superhumanly refreshed.

Don't panic when you get stuck. Go over your outline, work on a different section, check your grammar, doodle some more. You're brain just need a refresher. Refill your drink, more ice this time and a lime wedge, update your Facebook status. DO NOT READ YOUR FACEBOOK FEED. Type random sentences until something coherent comes, sometimes your brain just needs a jumpstart.

If you're more than two-thirds done and find yourself at a natural pause, you might want to switch to whatever word processor you're used to (Word, Pages, whatever). Double-space that puppy. You're almost there. Crack a smile and stretch. Get a glass of cool refreshing water. Splurge on the good stuff, not that disgusting chlorinated shit from the tap. You've deserved it.

Push to the end, you can totally do it. Refer to your outline, it is your blueprint. You've done the part part, now it's just nailing down the carpet and painting the walls. The moment you finish your last sentence, lift your hands with a flourish. You are a concert pianist finishing Rachmaninoff's Piano Concerto Number 3. Take a bow. Take a nap.

If you're among the crazy people who writes all the citations as they write, do a grammar check. If you're not, do a sanity check as you put in your citations. Read the paper backwards, make sure each sentence makes sense, check your word tenses. Are you using the active voice? Fucking beautiful.

Hit print, staple in the upper left corner. Horizontal or vertical, none of this crazy diagonal shit. I don't care if it makes it easier to fold the pages over. Your essay was a labor of love, they should suffer and care as they fold over the pages, even if it is just a little bit. Toast yourself to a job well done.

If you have lots of time, delete the entire first draft and start over. You know what you want to write, and you know what doesn't work. It's supposed to be easier the second time around (however, I am not saying this from experience, since I've never done it).

Good writing is less about eureka moments of brilliant inspiration and more about the hard long slog to the end. It is a marathon, not a sprint. Make it a habit, not something that you just sit down once or twice a month to do. Write every day. Phillip Pullman (the writer of the His Dark Materials books) is well known for getting up every morning, going to his shed and writing three pages a day. I had a history professor who has been writing 10,000 words a day, every damn day, since he started graduate school. Not everything will to be good. In fact, the vast majority of what you write will be crap. But out of that mass, you'll find little gems. Even good writers will say writing is 90% shit.

If you write regularly, you'll start getting better. Writing will come easier. More of what you write will be good. Ideas will come to you faster and you'll become better at articulating them.

Making writing a habit. Break your writing process into manageable chunks. Come up with ideas, then outline, then write. Don't try to do all three at once, you'll be overwhelmed as you try to write while you're trying to figure out what to write.
posted by thebestsophist at 11:27 PM on January 25, 2011 [8 favorites]

Best answer: I don't know that my experience will be useful, but it's what you asked for.

I had to write, on average, 2 essays of ~ 5 pages each per week in college. This was before Google Scholar or even Google existed (!!!). Most of my essay assignments (predominantly in humanities subjects) were based on analysis of the course texts and required no outside research.

Step 1: Read the essay assignment carefully, then put it away and avoid thinking about it, but let it ferment in the back of my mind for a couple weeks.

Step 2: Wait until 9:00 p.m. the night before the essay was due. I'm a night owl and I respond to deadline pressure. I don't recommend this step for everyone.

Step 3: Re-read the essay assignment carefully. Compare it with what's fermented in the back of my mind and see if any useful insights came out of the fermentation.

Step 4, quite possibly THE MOST IMPORTANT STEP: Decide what kind of evidence I should look for in order to support a response to the essay question.

4a. For example, if the essay question was something like, "Compare the conceptions of death in two different poems by John Donne. Choose one of his love lyrics and one of his religious poems," then I would decide I needed to read through the Donne love lyrics and religious poems we'd been assigned, looking for language relating to death.

4b. If the essay question was more broadly framed (e.g. "Analyze two poems by John Donne") then I would need to take a broader look at the evidence (poems by John Donne) and try to pick out interesting patterns. After picking out a bunch of interesting patterns, I'd have to narrow my topic down to the 2 - 3 most interesting/revelatory patterns.

Step 5: Go over the relevant texts with a fine-toothed comb, marking them up (underlining, highlighting) wherever I found the kind of evidence I was looking for.

Step 6: Make a list of my collected bits of evidence. This usually took the form of a handwritten list on a notebook page, with page/line numbers correlated with a short quote or summary of the evidence. For example:

The Relic lines 1-4: graves reopened for new burials
The Relic line 6: speaker's body decomposed to bone
The Relic line 6: beloved's hair has not decomposed

Death be not proud line 1: ascribes emotion ("proud") to death
Death be not proud line 2: implies the emotion people feel towards death ("dreadful" -> dread)

IMPORTANT: while collecting evidence in step 5 and condensing it into lists in step 6, I keep an open mind about the significance of it.

Step 7: Ponder my list and think about the significance of the evidence I've collected. Where do I see patterns? Where do I see connections or contrasts? Start grouping pieces of evidence according to the patterns / connections.

Step 8: Formulate a draft thesis and write an outline that roughly follows the structure of the evidence groupings I came up with in step 7. Based on the few bits of evidence I gave as examples above, my thesis in the Donne essay is probably going to be something contrasting physical / bodily images of death with emotional responses to death.

Step 9: Plug the evidence into the outline. Transfer relevant pieces of evidence from the evidence list to the organized outline. At this point I will start discarding pieces of evidence that seem weak or don't fit the pattern--but be careful about bits of evidence that don't fit the pattern. Sometimes they are the most important bits of evidence to attend to, and may open up a whole new section of the paper. ("Although [predominant pattern of evidence], there is [exception], which reveals [additional insight] . . .")

Step 10: Start writing. Start with the first paragraph, NOT the intro or conclusion. Follow the outline closely and just flesh out / explain the connections and contrasts between the bits of evidence, and explain how the evidence supports the thesis. Modify the outline as needed if, in the course of writing, I discover a fault in my reasoning or a new, additional point I could make in support of the thesis.

Step 11: Write the intro and conclusion. Accept that they will probably suck. Intros and conclusions are hard to do really well. Try to avoid flowery language or grandiose statements. Don't promise more than the essay delivers; but in the conclusion it's OK to suggest possible applications of the thesis beyond the evidence analyzed in the essay.

Step 12: Spell check. Double space and attend to other formatting issues. Add name and date to the top of the first page. Print. Staple.

Step 13: Brush teeth in the dorm bathroom at 4:30 a.m., next to the crew team members who were just getting up.

Step 14: Grab a couple hours of sleep before class.

Step 15: Go to class. Hand in paper. Prop head on hand and try to fake wakefulness.

Grade-wise, I was quite successful with this method. I would not advocate that everyone should rely on pulling their essays together the night before the due date, but the fact that I was able to do so, routinely, was probably due to my having had really strong training in the essay-writing process from a single great teacher when I was in 8th grade. I relied on that training throughout high school and college. The basic method (identify what kind of evidence you need to look for; look for it; organize what you've found; look for meaningful patterns; outline the patterns; flesh out the outline) should work across many disciplines, and I had it down COLD.
posted by Orinda at 11:42 PM on January 25, 2011 [3 favorites]

My last minute strategy for the humanities usually involved writing down all of my ideas and then looking back at what I wrote to turn it into an actual essay. Something like this:

1) Paper due soon. Should've read the prompt and had ideas stewing for a while now. Stop ruminating and start writing.

2) Write anything. Pull relevant quotes from source material and write about those, or try to articulate the thoughts bouncing around in your brain, or whatever. Write until you run out of ideas. End up with some combination of disjointed sentences, mini outlines, and standalone paragraphs.

3) Read through all the junk you've just written. Start organizing it into something that is vaguely coherent. Find some unifying idea for the overall essay / some way to group all those disjointed thoughts into paragraphs.

4) Turn those groups of disjointed thoughts into actual paragraphs. Flesh 'em out. Elaborate ideas, clarify vague wording, etc. etc.

4) Edit for flow. Cut stuff that's too repetitive, or which has the little supporting evidence. Add transitions--preferably something more elegant than a word or two at the beginning of a sentence. Make your ideas progress in a smooth, logical manner.

5) Once everything seems to be make sense, start editing for boring, obvious things like grammar and spelling and clunky wording. Oh, and make sure you've fulfilled any finicky requirements (answer any questions in the essay prompt, adhere to formatting guidelines, etc. etc.)

5) Go over it again. And again. Continue revising until satisfied with final result.

(Note: You may not have an introduction or conclusion by the time you've finished writing the body of the paper. It would probably be a good idea to add those at some point. Make sure that they fit with the rest of the essay.)

This process really depends on (1) having decent writing skills in general and (2) paying close attention in lecture / to the material so that you have plenty of ideas when it's time to start writing. It may not be the most efficient or the most elegant way to bang out a paper, but it worked for me (as long as I started early enough).

PS: I am a ridiculous procrastinator who usually gets things done anywhere from a day to a few minutes before they're due. My grades are still quite high.

(Although they'd probably be better if I began assignments earlier and could revise a couple more times...)
posted by junques at 11:50 PM on January 25, 2011

Best answer: I procrastinated, but when it actually came time to write, I drew a pyramid.

Step 1: Overall conclusion - the single point I wanted to drive home.
Step 2: Supporting arguments - three was usually enough to make the word limit.
Step 3: Three main points for each supporting argument.
Step 4: Three sources for each main point. (Not three separate authors - they might be from the same papers, but ideally you don't want more than three refs from the same source.)

So you end up with:

1 conclusion
3 arguments
9 points
27 references

Synopsis / introduction / overview

They're all exactly the same. 'In this paper I [discuss / explore / analyse (whatever verb they use in the question)] [issue / subject of question]. Drawing on [Renowned Authors 1, 2 and 3], I [consider / whatever verbs from the question you haven't used or a synonym for the one you did] subject of argument 1, subject of argument 2 and subject of argument 3. I conclude that [conclusion].

Subheading - subject of argument 1

- Brief paragraph introducing issue or subject of argument 1
- Paragraph discussing different views or perspectives about this issue
- Paragraph directly relating subject of argument to subject of question, drawing on the three points for this argument from Step 3 above
- Paragraph concluding this argument - highlight the views you agree with, or the conclusion those views have lad you to form, and why. Try very, very hard to make a direct connect with the subject of the essay, and then segue into the next argument in the last sentence.

(Alternative structure if you want to break things up a bit - intro, a para for each point that incorporates different views, relates issue to subject then concludes)

Repeat for argument 2, argument 3


Make a paragraph where each sentence is a summary of the final paras from each of the preceding three sections. Add a sentence driving home your overall conclusion. Finish with a pithy sentence that relates all of this to some larger theme from your field.

This approach is great for overcoming procrastination because the essay is broken down into tiny, tiny chunks. It's not 'oh great, I have to sit down and right my essay.' It's 'tonight, I'll find three points for argument 2. Tomorrow, I'll identify sources for those arguments.' Next thing you know you've sat down to do something small and a couple of hours have passed and you've smashed a huge chunk of your essay.
posted by obiwanwasabi at 12:35 AM on January 26, 2011 [8 favorites]

Write, even.
posted by obiwanwasabi at 12:36 AM on January 26, 2011

Get used to writing. Write a lot. Keep a diary, say—or a blog. Just blather on and on about whatever comes to mind. The important part is that you do it a lot; an hour a day should be plenty. That'll get the ol' synapses accustomed to firing in that particular way that makes it possible to effortlessly splooge out ten pages on any topic, even if you're not particularly familiar with it.

The next thing is to, you know, become familiar with the topic. This usually means reading books or whatever, plus taking notes and/or making photocopies and/or highlighting relevant passages.

Once you've got at least 50% of your word count in cribbed material, you can either reword it, being certain to ensure that each of your many sentences is presented in as lengthy a form as humanly possible without running on, or use block quotes if you're feeling especially lazy. (Not that there's anything wrong with that.) Just be sure to cite your sources either way.

Once that's done, all that remains is to flesh out the remainder with the aforementioned synaptic blather and tack on your lame-ass* intro and conclusion.

* There is no other kind.
posted by Sys Rq at 12:44 AM on January 26, 2011

1) Read the wiki, get the books, create a folder in the bookmarks menu andfill with relevent links.
2) With a pen and a notebook, write the exact APA (or Havard or whatever) reference as you will need it at the end.
3)Read the source a few time and make as many notes as possible.
4)Compile and read notes, find the points of you argument and what information is still needed.
5)Dot point plan. e.g. INTRO: heading, underneath is witty opening (if known), point for hypothesis, dot point for essay plan. Then PARAGRAPH 1: Point - evidence, etc.
6)Fill out paragraph, in-text reference as you go (if your in a hurry that's the first thing that get sacrifed and that loses a lot of marks for us). Also, format as you go.
7) Finish, have a break. Re-read each day before it's due and fix.

SAVE AS MUCH AS AS HUMANLY POSSIBLE. Save every half hour onto your harddrive and a usb. Use your housemates computers and save a draft there. Print a bit at Uni and save. Email to yourself everytime you save.

Don't start writing till your 100% on the layout and information wanted. Get reading and notes done as soon as you're aware of the topic.
posted by Saebrial at 12:49 AM on January 26, 2011

I was a math guy, but I took a lot of lit classes. These classes had essays. My process was:
1) Sit for about a week with a pad of paper writing down paragraph-length essays that would match the prompt. This was about 10% of the total time in terms of work, but the week is super important to let ideas settle out.
2) Realize that 90% were crap
3) Try to flesh out what the other 10% might be like. This was another 10% of the time.
4) A few days before the essay was due, I'd settle on one and make a full outline. This was about 20% of the time.
5) Start writing. Write the first two paragraphs first, a couple body paragraphs here & there, and a sketch of what my conclusion would be. This was about 20% of the time.
6) Iterate on body paragraphs and conclusions. What inevitably happened was that everything I thought would be in my conclusion ended up in the body, and the intro paragraphs got changed to match. This was the rest of the time and would go right up until the due date.

I proofed & edited along the way. I rarely, if ever, actually had a separate editing step.

Pick a process and trust it. Don't worry about fucking up one paper. It's just a paper.
posted by devilsbrigade at 12:56 AM on January 26, 2011 [1 favorite]

I never procrastinated, but I have an incredibly short attention span, and know that my best work happens in15 minute chunks. I try to give myself enough time to cram in enough 15 minute chunks to get the work done. Here was my undergraduate workflow (I was in cultural studies/anthro and - this is relevant - fucking LOVED IT. LOVED IT. It wasn't an issue to motivate myself, so that makes a huge difference).

1. Receive question. Go immediately to library after class. Grab 1-2 relevant books, but mostly do a database search to find 5-10 relevant papers.

2. I used to print (!!) those papers, but these days I Dropbox them and read them in iAnnotate on my iPad. Either way, the next step is the same: I'd find a cafe, order a coffee, sit down with my readings, a notebook and a pen and start reading. I think by writing by hand, and subscribe to the Graham Harman school of reading - it's like surfing. I'd pay attention to when I was surprised, excited or confused, write down things that felt important, highlight relevant quotes, and - most importantly - write down my own reflections and impressions. I habitually indent these in my notebooks and star them. This is how I end up forming an argument.

3. ARGUMENT. I can't emphasize this enough. Your paper is worthless unless you have something to say; your effort should go into informing yourself, then figuring out what you have to say BASED ON THAT RESEARCH. I do a lot of 'low stakes' free writing to figure out the beats of my argument, and, ultimately the structure of the paper. I often set a timer for, say, 5 min and then make myself just respond to the question in my notebook. Its at this stage that I start seriously thinking about the assessment criteria, the length of the paper and so on, but the task remains the same: figure out what I have to say.

4. Outline. I outline very tightly, both to manage my writing (remembering my 15min attention span) and to identify gaps in my research. Say I'm writing about 18th century yak herding practices: at this stage I'm likely to know a ton about yak breeds, yak behaviour, and the economic significance of yaks, but not much about their herders. So I write up an outline with all my sections, and note down which sections need a few more references. I like outlining because it forces you to make concrete decisions about how to spend your time and energy, rather than just spin your wheels with vague 'paper writing.'

5. I write that sucker up, filling in my sections as my mood/energy/attention allows. If I get bored I do something else. This is why I always try to leave myself some elbow room.

6. When it's done I do a quickie proofread then hand the sucker in, but YMMV.

Hope this helps! And, uh, ignore the following sentence. Im on the iPad and I can't scroll down in the answer box to delete it. Its a reading machine, not a writing machine.

5. I repeat steps 1-3 until all my sections feel full.
posted by nerdfish at 12:59 AM on January 26, 2011

My general method was to write very loosely, without worrying about structure or length, then to edit everything into shape.

1. Decide what the essay is going to be about, in the most general sense--basically just the major arguments or observations you're going to make.
2. Gather some backing evidence; mark passages that you'd like to quote, bookmark web pages you'll need, etc.
3. Write a very very loose outline to start: brief sentences or fragments describing comments or ideas you want to mention. These ideas are the elemental units of the essay; each one will become a paragraph (approximately). Don't bother trying to formally organize things, just have a simple list of ideas. Write the list in your word processor.
4. Choose an idea from the list and write a paragraph about it--maybe a short one, maybe a long one, maybe even two paragraphs--say what you have to say about it, no more and no less. Don't try to write them "in order"--choose the one that most appeals to you at the moment. If, while writing, you think of another idea you ought to mention in the essay, tack it on to the outline-list. Repeat this step until the outline-list has been exhausted and each idea has become a paragraph or so.
5. Reorder the existing paragraphs if necessary. Some of them will depend on others, some will seem like they should naturally be grouped together, etc. If it seems like you have any really big topical gaps between paragraphs, write some more to ease the transition.
6. Formal college-essay-type structure: introduction, conclusion, etc. IME the conclusion will usually be really easy: after the previous step, the existing final paragraphs will naturally be the ones that depend the most on the others, so it's not too hard to wrap up from there. For the intro, just restate or hint at the conclusion, and briefly mention a couple of the subtopics you'll mention. Finally, try to smooth out the paragraph transtions by adding segues when applicable.
posted by equalpants at 1:28 AM on January 26, 2011

Im doing a biology degree and have written a stupid number of essays. My process on really hard, don't know how to begin essays goes:

1) Procrastinate until anxiety over the essay forces me to work so i can sleep at night

2) Research - read a whole load of papers, copy all the relevant sections with their title etc as reference into one big word document

3) Start writing. Anything. Introduction, a paragraph on what i have the most information on, or whatever i feel i can handle. I consider it "powering through" essays that otherwise id be too overwhelmed to start.

4) After a few paragraphs, I generally have an idea of what I'm now aiming for. At this point, it becomes much easier, and it's just about sticking with it.

5) Smooth out the edges. Re-arrange paragraphs, research anything that now needs more back-up, re-write concepts that i now actually understand as opposed to just throwing in.

Some essays come naturally, but some i really struggle to get through. I don't know why. When that happens i find it's important just to start working on it.
posted by stillnocturnal at 1:50 AM on January 26, 2011 [1 favorite]

I wrote essays constantly in college. If my professors required a draft or if the paper was like 20% of the final grade, I'd start early-ish. If I needed to cite anything, I'd get my library trip in early and pick up whatever looked relevant. Otherwise, I'd camp out in the computer lab with Diet Coke and Twizzlers and churn everything out the night before the due date. Generally I'd start from the beginning and work my way through, but if I got stuck I'd start writing another paragraph and figure out how to connect the two later. Or I'd play a few games of Snood and be pissed at myself for not working.

I never got lower than a B on an essay, but I also got hospitalized for pneumonia, thanks to taking such crappy care of myself and writing éxplications de texte when I really should have been in bed. If I had to do it again, I'd schedule a few couple-hour blocks of essay-grinding for myself in advance - even now, I work best when I stop thinking about it and force myself to produce. If you can only start working at the last minute, find ways to create that last-minute sense of "you have to do this right now" without the urgency and pressure. It takes practice to get into that habit (I still have difficulty), and you might need to recruit a friend or someone at the writing lab to get you started in that direction.
posted by Metroid Baby at 4:33 AM on January 26, 2011

Best answer: I'll describe the system that I, a chronic procrastinator, evolved during my undergrad essays. It got me through my PhD thesis and a bunch of shorter documents since then with minimal strife. All of my higher education has been in the sciences, but I get the impression (from humanities postgrads and TAs I've socialised with) that a similar approach works well for non-scientists too.

The trick is not to approach an essay as a single, monolithic, daunting task. Break it into a set of easy stages.

Overview of topic
Start reading around the topic that you want to cover. Don't get too bogged down at this stage: skim, skip paragraphs and jump between sources. You're aiming for breadth not depth. This should let you get a broad view of the topic and a lot of ideas.

As you're doing this, get a big sheet of paper (or a whiteboard, or mind-mapping software, etc) and build up a mind map. Keep a note of which book/paper each point comes from. This will help to impose a loose structure on all the ideas and help you to see how they relate to each other.

The key to this stage is not to get bogged down. It's very tempting to dive deep into the first interesting idea you find, but this sort of depth is useless until you've decided on a structure and focus for your essay. Skim widely!

Map out a structure
Now it's time to re-organise your mind-map structure into an essay structure.

Look at your mind map and decide on a thesis: what do you want to demonstrate in your essay? what are the field's key discoveries that you want to talk about? Then decide which points on your mind map are necessary to support that. Don't be tempted to write about everything you've found! You're aiming for focused support of an argument or to summarise a particular (sub-)field.

To solidify this idea in your mind, spend 30 seconds writing a working title or "aims" statement, e.g. This essay aims to show that the use of Foo in Bar has particular consequence for Smee. It might help to add something like "...and does not aim to cover [list of topics that aren't necessary]", just to remind yourself not to stray too much from your chosen topic. Don't stress over the wording at this stage, you're going to re-write this more formally later on.

Then, with this in mind, write a few (very broad) section headings:
What are Foo, Bar and Smee?
How is Foo used in Bar?
Arguments for this affecting Smee

Once you have these, start more specific sub-headings:
What are Foo, Bar and Smee?
---Introduction to Bar
---Introduction to Foo
---Introduction to Smee

Then write sub-sub-headings, based on the points you've noted down on your mind map:
What are Foo, Bar and Smee?
---Introduction to Bar
------Bar is a widely used technique in the field
------Applications include Bing Bong and Boing
------it's based on the principle that the grinch hates Christmas

Again, don't be tempted to get bogged down. Each of these passes can be fairly quick, and you're free to skip around between sections as thoughts occur to you. It's just a mechanism to organise your thoughts -- many of which were already noted on your mind map -- into a coherent flow. Don't stress about the exact wording of the sub-headings, as long as you understand it. Feel free to make sub-sub-sub-headings (etc) to break them into even smaller points. The only goal here is to make a detailed sketch of how your argument is going to flow. This is the stage to test out lots of big re-structurings and rearrangements of your ideas, until you find one you're happy with.

Fleshing it out
From this point, the essay basically write itself. You now have a list of specific points to make with references on where to find more detail (the mind map) and a (roughly) paragraph-by-paragraph plan for how you've decided to stitch the relevant parts together.

Now is the time to start reading your sources in greater depth but, because you already know the structure, you're hunting for specific points to support specific arguments. And because you recorded on your mind map where each point came from, it's very easy to get started. You should be able to storm through the process of returning to the source(s), (re)reading them properly and then replacing each sub-[n]-heading with a handful of coherent sentences or a couple of paragraphs.

While diving into the fine detail, remember that the overall structure of the essay is important. You defined the aims and scope of your essay and then planned a coherent, detailed structure to fulfill them. Deeper reading of your sources will inevitably necessitate changing the structure you have planned (adding, removing, re-arranging) but don't do it too lightly! Always refer back to your original aims and consider whether your changed structure addresses them as well as the original.

Crucial things to remember with this technique
It's important to have a good, broad understanding of your topic, but it's easy to get sucked into spending a huge amount of time researching the minutiae of a barely-relevent point that won't end up in the essay. Excellent for your general education, but terrible when a deadline looms :). Get a broad overview first, decide on your structure and then dive into reading relevant detail.

It sounds more involved than "just sit down and start typing", but the advantages of this approach are:
(a) It forces you to organise your thoughts -- and therefore helps you to construct a sound, well-structured argument -- right from the beginning, rather than endless re-structuring and re-writing of your beautifully researched but chaotically structured masterwork.
(b) Each of the phases (mind mapping, various passes through to add further sub-sub-[etc] headings) is pretty quick and easy, so are relatively easy for procrastinators to get their teeth into.
(c) The huge, monolithic task of writing an essay (a tough conceptual challenge for procrastinators) is broken into lots of small, mostly self-contained, well-delimited tasks. Rather than needing to sit, think and write for x uninterrupted hours or risk forgetting your train of though, you have the option to sit down for half an hour and do the next obvious task then take a break.

I find that taking this approach makes me much more likely to start well in advance of the deadline and enables me to spread the writing over several sessions of varying length without losing my train of thought.
posted by metaBugs at 5:16 AM on January 26, 2011 [2 favorites]

- I write essays like computer programs.
- Begin wide, go narrow
- Start with random notes, tidbits
- Scattered ideas all up front
- Wrap excellence with filler

I write essays the same way I write computer programs. Well, basically the same way.

First I start with the 20,000 ft. view. The start, the finish, and maybe a couple of lines in the middle to support your contention. This is often when I come up with my best "stuff." As all the great speech writers know, the powerful phrases don't come in the middle of a bunch of writing. You usually think of one or two great sentences and a bunch of crap to go along. So get down those good sentences. Then wrap them with filler.
posted by Civil_Disobedient at 5:20 AM on January 26, 2011 [2 favorites]

There isn't just one method and it will depend based on what sort of essay it is, how many sources, etc. That said, here are some tips:

*Research early. Personally, I need time to let research percolate. If it's just a couple sources I simply highlight; for several sources I would highlight and use post-it flags; for a metric asston of sources I would use notecards or copy quotes (with citations!) into my computer. There are nearly infinite ways to do this. With a single book-length source, sometimes it helps to note down interesting ideas that get you excited or mad or interested on a notecard as you go through.

*Percolate. Think about it, talk about it with a friend, or just let it bubble around in the back of your mind while you do other things. Taking at least SOME time to digest your research helps.

*Outline. It doesn't have to be a big formal outline, but even on the bar exam I took five minutes at the beginning of each essay to quickly jot down the main points I wanted to make and in what order. One method I suggest to my students is that they jot down ALL of their ideas about a particular topic, and then sort those ideas into major themes. BAM! You've got your major points to guide your paper. In other cases it may be easier to come up with themes first and then fill in points. It's really just a less-formal way of doing the traditional outline of A (A1, A2, A3); B (B1, B2, B3); C (C1, C2, C3); etc. I like to make columns. Some of my students like circles. Some like traditional outlines. It's really just a form of "mind mapping" however you choose to do it, so do it how it feels natural to you. Sometimes I even transfer it onto my computer in one long column with paragraph breaks between the "big" topics, and then fill in wherever I feel like and go back and fill in the hard parts or boring parts later.

But let us say you had to write a paper about which president was a worse president, the current guy or the last guy (something everyone in the US doubtless has an opinion on). So you write down everything that drove you crazy about your guy, and you notice, "oh, here's a bunch of ideas about economic policies, here's a bunch of things about constitutional rights being abridged, and here's a bunch of things about foreign policy." So now you have a thesis statement AND a road map: "That guy was the worse president because he had terrible economic policies, constantly abridged the Constitutional rights of the American people, and ran a damaging foreign policy." Now as you get to each section, you fill it in with your sub-points ("selling igloos to eskimos was pretty much the dumbest economic policy imaginable and did little to make up for our oil importation deficit as promised") and your research and quotes and data supporting those sub-points. This also helps you notice which of your ideas don't fit and should be tossed aside.

This can be an EXTRAORDINARILY mechanical way to write a paper but it will almost always result in at least a B paper for research/opinion/analysis papers. Why? Because plenty of college students can write pretty. Very few college students can write ORGANIZED. If you give a clear thesis, a clear road map ("this is what will support the thesis, in this order"), and then follow the road map and provide support for each of your points, your profs will love you. As a college teacher myself, I read SO MUCH CRAP that's all over the place, when I get a paper with a clearly identifiable thesis and a clear roadmap of how the student intends to prove the thesis, I'm ALREADY THINKING it's a good paper and the student is smart, JUST BECAUSE I CAN TELL WHAT'S GOING ON without having to turn the paper upsidedown and perform mystical acts upon it. And yes, it's not all that exciting as a work of great literature. DO NOT CARE. (And, really, when you finish college, for most people, most of the writing you do is going to be in the service of clear communication with colleagues, not the Great American Novel.) The other benefit of using this fairly mechanical method is that you don't have to care what you're writing about. If you're writing beautiful prose you usually have to care. If you don't give a rat's ass about the topic and it's excruciatingly boring -- which, let us face it, will sometimes be the case in college -- writing in this mechanical way can help you crank out something competent and workmanlike that fulfills the assignment. It's probably not going to be an A paper, because it's hard to come up with really good insights when you'd rather stab a pencil through your eye than read the material (I'm looking at you, Jeremy Bentham), but it at least won't be an embarrassment.

You may have heard the old advice, "Say what you're going to say, say it, and then say what you just said." This feels dumb but when I'm reading 70 papers on the same topic, 80% of which are badly organized, it's incredibly good advice. I'm like, "Hey, this guy has a point and he knows what it is! And I can tell what it is!" And my lizard brain is going, "Hey, he said it THREE TIMES, that makes it more persuasive!" (Lizard brains like to read op-ed columns too, they're not smart.) I know my lizard brain is doing this, but that doesn't make the feeling of being more persuaded by repetition go away.

Some of this is not so much paper advice but "write for your audience of graders" advice but I hope it helps. :)
posted by Eyebrows McGee at 6:26 AM on January 26, 2011 [5 favorites]

I have a degree and a half in English, so this will apply mostly to literary papers. The first thing I always did was to read through all the possible topics I could respond to and mark the one or two I hated least. Then I thought, over the course of a day or so, about which topic would be easiest for me to write about. Once I had that decided, I'd jot down whatever it was I was planning to prove - in essence, a statement that would (probably) become my thesis.

Once I had my topic and my basic argument, I spent a lot of time reading. I printed articles (from scholarly journals) that seemed like they might be relevant. I read these quickly and jotted brief notes in the margin near anything that might be used for the paper. Any quotes I thought I might use got highlighted.

When I finished reading outside stuff, I often had a clearer picture of the shape of my own argument. Then I'd pick up the text, whatever it was, and skim through it looking for ways to use it in my paper. Anything I thought I might use got marked with Post-Its or Post-It Flags (I hate writing in my own books, because then I'm stuck with the same thoughts whenever I reread them).

(On preview, seconding everything Eyebrows McGee says about organization being a handy way to get a good grade.)

Usually at this point I knew enough about my topic and where I wanted to go to just start right in on a draft. I usually started with the introduction and laid out my basic format, in a sort of outline-draft hybrid, and then went back over it two or three times to flesh each idea out fully. Writing a draft of a seven-page paper probably took, on average, two hours.

If this was a paper I had struggled with or was really important, I'd leave it for a day or two and then work backwards from the finished draft to an outline. This usually involved different-colored highlighters for each topic in the paper. This gave me a way to double-check my organization and make sure I didn't have anything bizarre that was unrelated to anything else (Only one sentence highlighted in pink? Either it comes out or gets expanded upon.)

After letting the paper sit for a day or two, I reread it from start to finish and noted any problems I had in the margins. Then I'd spend some time rearranging, clarifying, and writing the conclusion (always the hardest part for me).
posted by SeedStitch at 6:50 AM on January 26, 2011

Best answer: actually, if it helps, here is EXACTLY what I did on the bar exam (which are time-pressured essays, but it was basically a condensed version of my normal essay-writing procedure), particularly the long essay:

Read essay question carefully, underlining things I thought were particularly important.

Spend three to seven minutes thinking and frantically jotting in the margin of the question every idea I had about the essay question. Group these jottings into sensible groups, which I did by writing my major headings up top with numbers, and then putting the same number by the random ideas, so I didn't have to rewrite things. (Maybe 1) 14th Amendment objections; 2) state law due process quirks; 3) evidentiary considerations; 4) orphan ideas.)

Write something like, "Among the major issues to consider when analyzing this question are 1, 2, and 3." Start in with my strongest or most important argument first (since I'm time-limited). Follow with next argument, then next argument. When they say "five minutes left," write something like, "Other issues that might be considered in analyzing this issue are ( 4) orphan ideas)," which I loved because I got to toss in my orphan ideas without having to flesh them into full points, and I always hate losing orphan ideas. (Bar prep usually tells you if you don't have time to flesh out a point, to at least "flag" those issues at the end of your answer so they know you at least SEE the issue even if you don't get to analyze the issue.)
posted by Eyebrows McGee at 6:51 AM on January 26, 2011 [3 favorites]

The best way for me was to write a a basic outline, then fill it up with all my class notes, citations, etc. Once that's out of the way, the argument/hypothesis usually presents itself to you. Then I'd write the first and last paragraphs, rejigger the whole outline/pile of notes to match the argument, and start filling it in. That usually left me at about twice the word limit, but it let the paper almost write itself.

Then it's just a matter of cutting out the crap and polishing it, which takes a long time but always feels easy.

The hard part is figuring out how to tie a bunch of facts together into a cohesive paper. Professors want to see that you've absorbed the class material and worked in into your understanding of the world, so it's often a good idea to use a central argument that goes a bit outside the artificial box around the assignment. My gimmick was to bring in a concept from another field to tie the paper together, preferably one the prof knows nothing about. I used punctuated equilibrium in biology to explain how ideas/objects/art/whatever evolved over time in at least five or six different classes and it never failed. Drawing parallels to another subject lets you avoid writing exactly the same paper as everyone else in the class. Alternatively, totally reject the question the teacher wants you to answer, and instead write what you want. "While it may seem that the question is 'how do we protect the unicorn's habitat?' the question should really be 'do unicorns even deserve to have a habitat?'" Again, this gets around the problem of writing the same paper as everyone else and thus being compared directly to the smartest kid in the class. :)

The risk is running into a real stickler who WANTS to read the same essay 50 times or somehow offending the professor with an idea that goes against the grain. Better to get a bunch of A's and a couple C's than all B's, though.
posted by pjaust at 6:54 AM on January 26, 2011

Response by poster: Wow this is amazing!! I went to bed and wake up to this - thank you everyone who contributed, I'll read each and every one of these carefully :)

Forgot to say I'm in one of the social sciences, so essays are more like 2000~3000 words long.
posted by fix at 7:00 AM on January 26, 2011 [1 favorite]

"Alternatively, totally reject the question the teacher wants you to answer, and instead write what you want. "While it may seem that the question is 'how do we protect the unicorn's habitat?' the question should really be 'do unicorns even deserve to have a habitat?'" Again, this gets around the problem of writing the same paper as everyone else and thus being compared directly to the smartest kid in the class."


I turn papers back with a zero when they don't answer the question I assigned, and it pisses me off. I don't spend a week going over Descartes's proof of his own existence to have students write on whether or not GOD exists. What this says to me is that the student DRAMATICALLY failed to comprehend the material and is not capable of engaging with it, but that the student lacks basic reading skills to understand a simple assignment.

This ALMOST NEVER comes across as "Hey, pjaust has a really clever idea!" but rather as "Wow, pjaust is illiterate and couldn't understand the assignment! And now is going to argue with me that s/he deserves at least a C for all the work they put into it, even though it's not what I assigned."

If you really have a brilliant idea that's related-but-not-on-point, for the love of God go to the professor and get permission. I'd love to read a paper that's a little different than the 70 other papers I'll be reading. But students are INCREDIBLY BAD at figuring out papers that still show their mastery of the material in question while being slightly different than what I assigned. (In fact, nothing freaks them out more than when I DON'T give them a question but tell them to write a thesis on X, constructing the thesis themselves on whatever interests them about it. Because they're awful at it. But I teach freshman and sophomores.)
posted by Eyebrows McGee at 7:04 AM on January 26, 2011 [3 favorites]

"What this says to me is that "

Is NOT ONLY that. grar.
posted by Eyebrows McGee at 7:05 AM on January 26, 2011

This is all awesome advice, and clearly shows that there is no one right way to write a paper. I just finished up a writing heavy graduate degree and also used to tutor students in writing, so I'm going to give a few tips rather than process, some slightly off the wall stuff that helps out both me and my students.

-First and most important is to read the damn essay question and any other guidelines your professor has given you. This is sometimes enough to give you a bare bones outline, which is a great start. You would be surprised how many times people only cursorily read the question and are then lost as to how to begin because they don't have a good sense of what the paper is supposed to be about.

-Percolate percolate percolate. What I mean by this is start early with gathering materials, gather a wide swathe of them, skim them, grab good quotes and then let everything stew in your brain for a while. Let yourself process everything over a few days (or day) of not actively worrying about your paper. Carry around some kind of a notebook and jot down any ideas you might have during this time. I often find that if I do this thoroughly enough, the paper has almost written itself in my head before I sit down to write.

-Don't put too much into an outline if you are the outline type. When I switched to writing outlines I wrote too much into them and then ended up limiting myself when I wrote the paper.

-If you are stuck with your outline, or get a block with your paper, try to turn whatever section you are working on into a question that you must answer. Or write your outline as a series of questions. This was particularly helpful with some of my students who had little to no experience writing beyond the five paragraph essay (and some didn't have that).

-If you get stuck getting into your paper, tell a story that somehow, even if only tangentially, relates to your topic and lead into your topic from there. Most likely you will end up deleting that first story, but it gets the writing going. This is something I actually do naturally, but have realized that rather than something to work against, it's a good tool for me to get going.

-Take shower breaks. Your brain processes even when you're not focused on the topic at hand and a good relaxing shower or bath can help that process along. Seriously, I was never as clean as when I wrote my senior thesis in college.

-Break things down into mini-essays, mini-chunks, whatever size you need to help you not think about it as a gargantuan project. And honestly, your writing will be tighter if you focus on one smaller part at a time.

-If you are really stuck, set a timer or a number of words that you must reach. This got me through the soul scorching anxiety of my MA thesis. It works, trust me.

Best of luck!
posted by Polyhymnia at 7:24 AM on January 26, 2011

'Alternatively, totally reject the question the teacher wants you to answer, and instead write what you want. "While it may seem that the question is 'how do we protect the unicorn's habitat?' the question should really be 'do unicorns even deserve to have a habitat?'" Again, this gets around the problem of writing the same paper as everyone else and thus being compared directly to the smartest kid in the class. :)'

OH MY GOD WHAT EYEBROWS MCGEE SAID. I've taught a lot, and students who go off on their own tangent get shitty passes or I fail their asses. Rule #1 of doing well on an assignment is RESPOND TO THE QUESTION. WE ASKED IT FOR A REASON.
posted by nerdfish at 7:33 AM on January 26, 2011

Actually, now that I'm mildly fuming from the above bit of bad advice, here is what I think about when I'm marking in order of importance, which might be useful while writing:

- Is this paper clearly a response to the assignment?
- Is there a 'point' to the paper, i.e. an argument and is this argument built logically and consistently throughout?
- Does the paper have a clear beginning, middle and an end?
- Does the student 'show their work' by (a) clearly describing the evidence they used to reach their conclusions and (b) appropriately citing that evidence?
- Is it coherent?

Pretty, flowery writing appears nowhere on that list. Originality - in the way a student uses their research and the conclusions they reach - gets my attention, but only if they fulfill the previous criteria.
posted by nerdfish at 7:42 AM on January 26, 2011

A lot of great tips above. Here's what I did. I went to a humanities magnet in high school and was lucky enough (tortured enough at the time) to really learn how to write good essays. It saved me in college.

-Think of essays as an argument. A good essay is always persuasive. I realize this can be difficult for a research paper but honestly by the time you get to college, no one is going to ask you to "tell them about stingrays in general" anymore. Thinking of essays as an argument helps focus your topic and leads to much better essays. Win win.

-Start with your intro paragraph.

This is a map to the reader and, on the flip side, a map to the writer! A good intro paragraph is about 5 sentences long, give or take, and roughly breaks down like this.

Sentence 1 - this is what I'm talking about and why it's important.
Sentence 2 - THESIS STATEMENT. This is what I intend to *argue* and *prove* - emphasized on purpose.
Sentence 3 to 5, as needed. - Map statements, IE, these are the supporting arguments I'm going to make so by the end of reading my essay you agree with my thesis.

I always started there and by the time I had worked out that paragraph, I had my map to everything I needed to do next.

Once you've written your introduction, use one to two supporting paragraphs for each point you told the reader you would make for them.

-Don't try to make it sound fancy. Your goal should be to write CLEARLY. Do not use more words or sentences than you need. Aim to write something that anyone, whether or not they are versed in the topic, can understand.

-Do your best and let it go.
posted by amycup at 7:55 AM on January 26, 2011

MFA in writing here. I recently stumbled upon my folder of undergrad papers, and it was really interesting to see how painstakingly I planned them.

First, I'd go to the library, do my research, and, as I read, copy down quotes by hand, with the full citations/page numbers/etc. This was mostly so that I didn't have to bother lugging books home (on a huge paper, I might be doing this all semester).

Then, I'd read over them and try to synthesize an argument. But I wouldn't write it down yet. Instead, I'd write an outline using only 1-2 word terms as the roman numerals, and then repeating the quotes in subcategories where relevant.

Then I'd go back, and write out my thesis and conclusion.

Then I'd write the first draft of my paper, buttressing the quotes with my own original thought and explaining their relevance.

Then I'd read it over, usually out loud, to correct any errors.

(In grad school, I gave up working in such painstaking detail, but that was mostly because it no longer felt necessary.)

Back in undergrad, I never understood procrastinators. Didn't they know they were making things more difficult for themselves? However, I've since come to understand that what works for me wouldn't work for most people who approach essay writing in a last-minute burst of activity; they often need that artificial pressure for motivation. Since turning to fiction, I've learned a lot about what people call plotters and pantsers--though who utilize detailed notes, and those who write "off the seat of their pants." I've never really seen someone successfully transform from one, to the other.
posted by PhoBWanKenobi at 8:29 AM on January 26, 2011 [1 favorite]

Everyone has to develop their own method for writing. During my BS I did the procrastination method mentioned here for a couple of years but found it too taxing on my mental status.
My method has evolved to the following:
1.) Research first. Get all sources and make notes. I use OneNote as it is completely awesome for inserting long articles off of academic journals and I can easily make notes as well as highlight on the screen.
2.) Writing it. Don't procrastinate. It can be hard to get started but once you get in your groove it moves along.
3.) I write away from distractions. I enjoy a little cafe where I can be left undisturbed. I set myself up for a long day of writing. Having my coffee and a pack of smokes, I am now in my zone.
4.) I generally will write an entire paper at once if it is under 14 pages. If I know the information as well as I should, it generally isn't difficult.
5.) Proof read, and make adjustments the next day with a fresh look at the paper.

This has not failed me yet as I've never received a grade less than a B+ throughout my undergrad program.
While not advisable for some, I have found some of my best papers were written while drinking. Obviously proof read while sober as there are run on sentences, switching of ideas mid sentence and spelling errors.
posted by handbanana at 8:32 AM on January 26, 2011

Response by poster: It's all about trying things out and finding your ideal modus operandi really. Here's what (kinda) works for me:
  1. I go through the reading list and nab any useful sources. Supplement with papers found via library search/Google Scholar. Mendeley is a life-saver for this, I can't believe no one's mentioned it!
  2. Read and jot down findings
  3. Organise findings into arguments with supporting statements. I really like obiwanwasabi's pyramid idea because I'm a visual-spatial thinker...hmm must try that next time.
  4. Then I print out the outline, create a fresh word file and type it all in again, fine-tuning the structure, adding quotes, and padding out the ideas as I go.
  5. Lather rinse repeat till something vaguely essay-like emerges. Then it's a matter of joining paragraphs together and smoothing out the wrinkles.
  6. I make it a rule that I can only leave my desk if a) I've printed off draft #n, b) my water runs out, or if c) a toilet break is necessary. I also use the hat trick (except with a bracelet, not a hat) to curb my ADD tendencies.
devilsbrigade has got me thinking...I write poetry by condensing huge amounts of information into a handful of lines - and aren't essays, in essence, the opposite of this?
posted by fix at 9:01 AM on January 26, 2011 [1 favorite]

Response by poster: Oops citation fail! The last paragraph should read:

Civil_Disobedient has got me thinking...I write poetry by condensing huge amounts of information into a handful of lines - and aren't essays, in essence, the opposite of this?
posted by fix at 9:13 AM on January 26, 2011

One thing that really helped me lessen the burden of lots of heavy typing was Windows Speech Recognition, which is freely available to those with Windows Vista or 7. Believe it or not, it can often be amazingly accurate, but doesn't work quite so well if you'll be using a lot of names or obscure words. It gets better the more you use it, since it learns the way you say particular words.

I've used it to type up the better half of many essays, only needing to use the keyboard and mouse occasionally to touch up a few minor errors here and there. It does take some getting used to and isn't so good for those who get frustrated easily(sometimes no matter how many times or how clearly you pronounce a word, it gets it wrong), but it's nice to have the option of talking to type for when you get tired of the keyboard.
posted by Ryogen at 12:42 PM on January 26, 2011

Wow, I should have proofread my answer much better before posting it. Oh, well.
I write poetry by condensing huge amounts of information into a handful of lines - and aren't essays, in essence, the opposite of this?
God, no. Despite their length, good essays — like good sentences — should be succinct. Good writing has no fluff. Every word, sentence, and paragraph has its place and role. No piece extraneous.

Is this level of writing hard? Hell, yes. Few do it. Even among the great and brilliant published scholars, many wax on for far too long as if extra words make the their argument more compelling.

Of course, you don't want to go the other direction either. My writing tends to gloss over too much. I take too many premises as given, providing insufficient explanation or defense. Throughout college, my professors always complained that I made 10,000 word arguments in 3,000 word papers. This is still something that I am trying to grasp. For me, balancing clarity of thought with brevity is the fundamental battle of writing well.
posted by thebestsophist at 1:13 PM on January 26, 2011 [2 favorites]

…words make the their arguments more compelling.
*ahem* I also need to proofread.
posted by thebestsophist at 1:20 PM on January 26, 2011

So I was an International Relations major so literally every course I took in undergrad required at least two papers, it was a mix of social sciences and humanities. Here's my strategy:
1) as soon as you get the topic or assignment mull it over, an hour at least. If the topic is open spend much more time on this part. Just think and think, try to boil down your topic and argument as much as possible, this is what will keep you straight on topic when you start to write.
2) procrastinate, clearly your work is done. Actually I do think it's smart to let everything sink into your subconscious for a day or so.
3) outline if necessary.
4) write from beginning to end, you don't have to make things perfect at this stage but I do. I can't edit my writing because I get too anxious. Don't skip around though it will just be harder to make it cohesive when you go back and edit.
5) edit, I only do grammar and spelling not composition, also I personally have to edit out a lot of cliches and stupid analogies, I slip them in when I'm overly tired and feeling snarky.
6) show your paper to people who don't really understand the topic at all, yell at them when they say it's fine
7) get an A
Btw my process for longer papers 25-40 pgs is much different
posted by boobjob at 2:11 PM on January 26, 2011

Response by poster: Oh I didn't mean bulking out kernels of information with waffle, sophist! I just meant that essays start out very small (the essay question) and end up a very large, that's all.

I know what you mean - I'm not good at maintaining that balance either. Completely opposite to those who chop off chunks of text to stay within the word limit!
posted by fix at 2:22 PM on January 26, 2011

Response by poster: boobjob, I'm quite curious about your 25-40 pg method, could you please elaborate? (I'm writing my dissertation at the moment and that's mega long...)
posted by fix at 2:26 PM on January 26, 2011

Previously, my writing process. Scales to papers of different sizes. This gives you a roadmap for your paper.

To gain techniques for traversing the road that that maps out, read Joseph Williams, Style: Toward Clarity and Grace, and then read it a couple more times in a couple more years. Absorbing this book will go a long way toward structuring your rhetoric (really, toward structuring the flow of your reader's attention across your rhetoric).

You might get a draft essay read by a few people. If a particular spot in your essay gets annotations from more than one of them, there is something you can fix there. Take their specific suggestions under advisement, but note that some of them will actually mark something near the problem, instead of the problem itself, because they misunderstood your intent, and note also that the best proposal for fixing the problem is not always the consensus one.
posted by eritain at 8:24 PM on January 26, 2011

Best answer: I have written a lot of essays. I have graded more essays 2bucksplus's answer above is excellent and will lead to a well-organised and well-supported essay.

The process for essays differs depending on the type of essay. A research essay or literature review requires a research/lit collection process that an essay on an assigned or selected text might not.

Also, I note that you are in the Uk -- there are a lot of differences in education between the UK and North America in how essays are written and the pedagogic purpose.

that said, here is my process (with a humanities/social-science bias):

I begin when the essay is assigned, if only to work on topics and begin research (if necessary). For assignments from the beginning of term, I always had a time when I would have begun them by; the February break in the winter-spring was a great time -- classes were off for a week (Canada's spring break) so I could just concentrate on beginning the essays due at the end of March.

Research essays are 80-90% research (reading academic books and journals, gathering relevant information as jot notes or stickies or whatever); writing happens after research. An essay analysing a piece of literature or a given text (like a book review) will be much less research intensive, but I still give a good deal of time to reading and thinking (actively, often on paper) before beginning to write.

personally, I either print articles so that I can cover them with sticky notes, or take detailed notes (very time intensive, but good when you need to filet rather than gut a work). I will also use sticky notes in books, but don't let the library catch you (and never do this on an old or delicate book).

I take notes/sticky all relevant facts or quotes; for original research, I do the same for qualitative data. I organise these by Source, with all relevent page numbers. So I might have a text file (odt) for one book, where I'm jotting stuff down as I come across it; I also use a paper notebook. The critical thing is that the file or the paper always has the source written at the top, and every fact or quote has the page number.

Like 2bucksplus, I will later put all of these notes/quotes into my draft writing file -- but before I do that

I begin to work on the argument.

Having done a bunch of research or reading, I generally have a sense of what I want to say. I begin (always) with the thesis statement. For most essays, this is just one statement -- and it's the whole point of the essay. it can be a complex statement with more than one clause, but it's still a statement.

Eg: In Shakespeare's Hamlet, Ophelia really is insane, but what she says is not nonsense: the author uses her ramblings and songs to signal to the reader what it really going on.

[actual thesis from highschool essay - I thought it was awesome at the time. lit people, feel free to tear to shreds]

After I have a distinct thesis -- I come up with my MAIN POINTS -- that is, a series of statements that directly support my thesis. they are the skeleton of my essay. So if my thesis was "The English Civil war was not a war of class-conflict" one of my main points would be "Class status was not a predictor of what side people were on in the war, whether Royalist or Parliamentarian" and my second main point would be "Religious affiliation was a predictor of what side people were on". you can have subpoints to the main points - but the main points are the important ones and they should link back always to the thesis.

My personal method is to: open up a new Document in my favourite word processor, OpenOffice Writer. I put my thesis in bold and big at the top of the page -- possibly using the Heading 1 format -- and my main points underneath -- still bold but not as big. The order of the main points may take some finagling -- they should read through sensibly, such that if I just said my main points to someone, they would know what I was arguing in my essay, though they don't know what evidence I have for it. The points should sound sensible being read one after the other, like one leads to another. they make a good story or debate.

After I have my thesis down and my main points -- so that I can see it all at a glance --

I add in my subpoints and the quotes and facts, etc, that support my main points. this can take a while if I have to go find them all, but it's still faster than trying to write and find evidence, unless you are very familiar with a topic (like your PhD). I include the citations for all of the facts and quotes at this stage - it's so easy to mess up adding later (and that leads to sticky messes like plagiarism).

having put in all these facts and quotes and citations -- I will have a good sense of the length of the essay.

Judging length is a skill that develops with practice. But let's say that for a highschool or undergraduate essay, each main point is about 1-2 paragraphs.

So the following ratios generally apply --

2 pages or 500-750 words with (a short) intro and conclusion -- 2 to 3 main points, max.

4-5 pages or 1000-1500 words: 3-5 main points. I like 4 myself -- has a nice balance.

10 pages -- still about 4 main points, but they will probably have subpoints.

20 pages -- maybe up to six main points, with subpoints and more elaboration than there is room for in a short essay.

notice - main points don't necessarily increase when page limits do. You don't come up with more ideas/points to support your thesis, but you flesh them out more fully, with evidence and details.

Having established my thesis and main points and subpoints and put in most of my evidence -- then I begin to write. In the process of writing I may alter the order of my main points (rare, if they were well planned to begin with) or (more commonly) adjust them
slightly to flow better, express myself more clearly. I integrate them into my writing, most often
as the first sentence of the relevant paragraph (or section of paragraphs). Debaters call this "sign-posting". I write by stringing together my points and evidence into english -- sometimes this means adding a lot (where my points were sketchy), other times not much.


I notice that you are currently writing your dissertation -- which is often not really an essay, but more than one essay on a theme, adding up to the greater thesis of the dissertation. (And so much easier to write if you think of it this way). my undergraduate dissertation had three chapters, each of which was a distinct essay (and I think I may have had some sub-sections, too, mini-essays within the chapter), along with the intro and conclusion. The first chapter of my current dissertation has four essays within it, each of which constitute a section, and were written that way.

None of the sections are more than 20 pages long, and most are shorter; I don't think I've ever read what would be called a single essay (no sub-essays) which was longer than 20-30 pages. Certainly, I've never written one.
posted by jb at 9:11 PM on January 26, 2011 [2 favorites]

Become knowledgeable about the subject.

Knowledgeable enough you can talk about it.

Then talk about it, either just by typing the words, or voice recording yourself and transcribing that, or talking to a friend about it and then writing it down later.

Then edit what you wrote down into the right format.

If the edit is slightly too short, plump it up; add a few things here and there.

If the edit is much too short, do another round of everything, starting at the beginning.
posted by talldean at 6:10 PM on January 31, 2011

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