Writing essays is sometimes given the same mystique that painting a picture has. Personally, I don’t think that this is the case. Writing an essay can be a very methodical and scientific sort of exercise.
This post comes with the normal proviso that this is the product of my subjective experience.
Research and thinking
This is possibly the most important stage of writing an essay, and most of the time is the bit that takes the longest.
When I get an essay title, I like to break it down into its constituent parts and figure out what each bit means. So let’s say I had the title: explain how climate models work and evaluate the strengths and weaknesses of different types of climate model.
So we have two aspects to this question. Explain how climate models work. And evaluate different types of model. Generally I would guess that the evaluation has more marks available than explain, because its a more judgement based skill. I would split this question 40/60. I know I’m going to be looking at how climate models work, but also why they work that way, which will feed into which ones are best for what uses.
Now its time to dump some ideas on paper. I’d write down any ideas I had, in no particular order, perhaps putting them into a list for the explain bit, and a list for the evaluate bit.
Then I’d start researching. For each of the points I wanted to make, I’d look for supporting evidence (from journals mainly). It’s also usually worth a browse around to see if there are points you haven’t thought of, which might be stronger than your ideas.
At the end of the research period, I’d have a stack of notes and some ideas. The essay plan is putting these into a cohesive order.
I would put the points in a logical order, so they’ll be easy to link together, with a list of which references I’m going to use for each point.
Writing – the introduction
Now I’d sit down with my document. Lots of people like to write essays out of sequence, but although I usually came back and edited the intro, I nearly always wrote it first.
My intros were generally a statement of what I was going to say in the essay, a summary of the points and an indication of the conclusions.
Writing – the points
Each point I made was one paragraph, unless it logically went into two, and was formulaic.
Make the point
Explain the point
Illustrate the point with examples
Directly link the point to how it answers the question
Link to the next point
That’s the formula for every paragraph.
When I was struggling, I would write down, in any old language, exactly what the point I wanted to make was, and then work it up from there.
Writing – the conclusion
The conclusion for me was a summary of all the mini conclusions I’d made in each paragraph, and drawing together the different threads. Usually the conclusion followed the formula of: yes, no, on balance no.
Now the fun began. This is where every sentence and every word was scrutinised to check that it was working for its living. Is that sentence clear? Is it even a sentence? Does that sentence add something new, or is it just repetition?
Editing can go on forever. I tried to stick to three sets of revisions, with one set being done by someone else, and one being the next day if possible (after a nights sleep). Sometimes I’d find myself rewriting while sections when editing, but I think that’s okay, as sometimes the main writing is a bit of a discovery process.
And that’s it. It’s not a quick method, but for me it has been effective.