I’ve always been a bit of a hoarder when it came to writing essays; my natural predisposition is to hoover up all the information I come across and try and sort it out later. I liked to think that this made my essays richer and my knowledge of the subject much deeper than anyone else’s, but the reality was piles and piles of notes, tears, and no essay to be found.
Eventually I took myself to a one-on-one essay-writing class offered by my university, and my world was profoundly changed. Galvanized, I spent the rest of my university career trying to convince other students to attend but my proselytizing rarely worked. so I’ll pass on what I learned here.
Essay writing, at a higher level, is not about the truth of what you say, rather the force of your argument. Of course you have to get the facts straight and demonstrate your thorough understanding of the topic. But the fundamental point of an essay is to argue a point of view. A good tip I was once given was to pick the most pre-eminent theorist in your field, and pick a fight with them. Learn their theories and try to prove them wrong, this doesn’t just provide a natural structure for your essay: their argument, your counter argument, both backed up by primary and secondary sources. In a humanities essay, backing your own opinion and demonstrating your understanding of the theorist can jump up your marking by a remarkable percentage.
Now I understand that most students who come through Dulwich tutors tend not to be at university level, however some essay tricks stay true throughout secondary and tertiary education. When I teach younger students I try and make them picture the examiners, sat inside on a summer’s day, a pile of papers towering over the desk, each regurgitating the same information with varying degrees of cogency. Your job is to make it as easy as possible for them to award you marks, and one of these methods is to think of your essay as a coconut shy. In your introduction you line up all your coconuts, each representing a point you are going to argue; explicitly say what you are going to discuss in your essay, and to what ends. Then you start to knock them down, once by one, arguing your point with conviction and strengthening your argument with sources. Afterwards, survey the damage and reach a conclusion, and who knows, maybe you’ll win a prize!
Finally, I couldn’t recommend highly enough seeking a one-on-one session with a professional. It doesn’t need to be a tutor, most universities offer sessions for free, and if yours doesn’t, ask them too. Same with secondary schools, there’s just so little need to flounder in the dark with essays when really they are more about the presentation of information than the information itself. Without those few hours of learning I would never have realized that I was a kinetic learner and started using index cards for almost any topic I needed to break down, something that has stayed with me throughout my writing career. I’ve always believed that the first step to enjoying learning is to understand how you learn yourself, a lesson that never loses relevance no matter where you go in life. There, proselytizing done.
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