How to Survive Essay Writing in University

I handed in my first university-level essay last week for Scholar’s Electives. The purpose of the essay was to demonstrate critical thinking on an idea discussed in class, whether it be about memory, quantum mechanics, music, linguistics, or the multitude of other topics available. I love writing and I’ve never really had much trouble with essays. After the dozens of English essays and research papers I have submitted throughout high school, I figured I was ready to take the next step and tackle university-level writing. I’m glad that I was able to produce a paper I was proud of, but I’m even more proud that I did it myself. Essay writing can be the most intimidating kind of assessment for many incoming university students, regardless of skill-level. However, taking credit for someone else’s work is never the answer. Let’s face it, plagiarism is not worth the penalty. Instead, here are a few writing tips I’ve been given over the years that have helped me throughout my process:

  1. Coming up with a thesis can be incredibly difficult, especially when you’re unsure of all the facts and where to even begin. I’ve found that starting at a general topic can help to see the bigger picture, before having to narrow in on a specific perspective. When you have your topic, ask yourself “So what? Why do I care and why should others care?” Once you find a connection between your topic and that question, you’re pretty much on your way to forming a thesis. It can even help to work backwards ̶ look at possible arguments and form a thesis that is supported by those points. Nobody said essay writing was a one-way street!
  2. Create an outline. It can be painful, especially if you’re like me and want to dive right into the middle of the essay. This is exactly why you should create an outline with your thesis and arguments (with specific references to texts or other sources) fleshed out. Having a well-organized outline will give the essay a more concrete sense of direction. I find that I spend more time on outlines than I do turning my jot notes into sentences, so it’s definitely worth putting in the extra time.
  3. There are tons of resources at Western, use them! Once you have a thesis and a tentative outline, book an appointment with your TA or professor and have them critique it. It always helps to have a third party look at your work to give suggestions that will make the thesis and arguments even stronger. Most TAs are more than willing to hear the ideas you’ve come up with and offer some of their input to build on your outline.
  4. Write a first draft, re-write, and re-write again. Editing doesn’t only mean fixing up grammatical and spelling errors; it’s also a way to restructure the flow of the essay and make the content sound interesting. Try having a trusted friend or individual read over your work to suggest any final changes.

The final thing to keep in mind is possibly the most important piece of advice I’ve been given: give yourself time. A good essay takes more than an all-nighter, and people typically produce their best writing over multiple days. Set goals for yourself to finish a certain part of your essay one day, and then come back to it at a different time to add more or edit what you’ve written. Essay writing is definitely a process, but finding a process that works for you will help you succeed.

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