Essays: Planning, Research & Writing

I have previously written about dissertations and how to get through them, I thought writing a similar guide to essays would be a good idea. So, to begin, what is an essay? In a few words it is a short written piece on a specific subject. The nuance lies in the question that has been asked. Are you arguing two sides, looking for a definitive answer, or taking a broad look on a complex issue? Context is always key and reading and understanding the question and how it should be approached is essential to getting a good mark in your essay. In the rest of this piece I will be examining the stages that take place when you are writing an essay, mainly: time management, research and writing.

I am going to cover time management again, as it is essential to avoiding stress and ensuring that you get the most out of your essay. I’ve previously mentioned how splitting your time into two-week intervals can help you give equal time to all your work. It is important to remember that these aren’t strict boundaries, but guidelines that help you to do what you need to do. Time management isn’t just how you think about work, abut also looking after yourself and ensuring that there is a good work/life balance. Essentially, don’t deny yourself food, fun, fresh air and exercise.

Research is a crucial part of how you approach an essay. One of the better ways is to dissect the question, as this will help you to focus in on how you embark on your research. I am going to dissect one of my first-year essay questions in order to show how to get through essays.

“During the Persian Wars, would you rather be a successful general for Athens or Sparta?”

  • Think about how you want to answer and why
  • Define what ‘successful’ is
  • Define the period, is it 490-480 or 496-450
  • Are you going to focus on a single city, argue both sides or focus on a single individual?

Your sources are important for how you answer these questions. For primary sources, Herodotus, Thucydides and inscriptions will be important, what are their biases and how do they present the two cities in this conflict? Plutarch may also be involved, as he did several lives of Athenian Statesmen who were active in the Persian wars (Themistocles, Cimon), but consider the moralistic spin he would apply to his writing.

There will be a vast amount of secondary scholarship on this subject, don’t do what I did and get overwhelmed and only use one source! Use everything available to you to get fight for your argument.

Click here to access the list of online sources I wrote the dissertation post.

Analysing these sources quickly, efficiently and well is important. Use of indexes can get you topics quickly in books and using Ctrl+F in an online document will get you to these important areas quicker. When I am researching an essay I write down all the useful quotes I think will prove useful with all the bibliographic information already written down, so that you have already saved yourself some time once the essay is finished and you need to get the bibliography down.

The final thing I want to write about is structure, as a clear and concise argument is needed in an essay in order for all your research to make sense:

– Definitions of the question, this allows you to make the question your own. i.e. “I am only going to focus on the generals of Athens, due to there greater role in the Persian Wars and their role in the Delian League.”
– Signpost what you are going to talk about. i.e. “I am going to examine the careers of two Athenian generals, Themistocles and Cimon, and how they were more successful militarily, but that this success came at a cost, due to the supposed threat of them overthrowing the democratic constitution of Athens. I will show this through…”

– Go through the arguments that you introduced in the introduction, using the evidence you brought together in your research.
– Treat each paragraph as a mini essay, with an intro, content and conclusion, this will help with the flow and structure of your argument.

– Go through each of the points you raised in the intro, say how the evidence supports your claims. It is important to cover everything you have brought up and how it has supported your argument. It is also the place to defend any problems that arose, and how you overcame them.

So, I think I have covered the basics on how to work through essays that you will have to do for your undergraduate degree. If you think I have missed anything or made some errors or anything like that, please let me know and I will make any additions you suggest.

This post is part of a series, Study Guides

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