The essays in DD303 go by so fast that I haven’t had enough time to really gather my thoughts on this topic. As I write this TMA03 is nearly due which means there’s only one more essay left (TMA06). I’ve found the advice in chapters 10 and 11 of The Good Study Guide comprehensive and practical and recommend reading them well in advance of starting the module and again before each essay TMA (01, 03 and 06). Those chapters comment to some extent on most questions or problems I’ve had with writing essays.
I’m sold on the benefits of using an outliner to create essay structure. It allows you to work with structure at the point and paragraph levels and quickly move things around without getting lost in the details. OU essay guidance often poses a number of questions which help you to address the essay question. One approach is to use these as your initial top level headings. This helps to keep your reading focussed on answering questions as you research the essay. As you address each point, convert the question to an answer and add sub-headings for evidence which supports main point. When you’ve answered all of the questions (and possibly with a bit of reordering) it should be possible to follow your argument by simply reading the fully expanded outline. To complete the essay, top level headings get converted to the first sentence in each paragraph and sub-headings get converted to sentences providing supporting evidence within a paragraph. This is also a good way to create flow between paragraphs without getting bogged down with the insides of each paragraph. If the outline is readable as a continuous flow the final essay should be too. It also gives a structure for the introduction and conclusion. An additional tip whilst you’re trying out different structures is to use the ‘versioning’ feature of your word processor which allows you to save multiple versions of the same document in the same file. It’s also useful at the drafting stage in case you want to look back to an earlier draft.
Talk to yourself
A recurring, useful principle I’ve come across when thinking about and writing essays is that they are conversations. I was reminded by one of the talks at residential school that formulating arguments in everyday conversation is more or less effortless. This is easily missed under the more formal conditions where you have to construct an argument to answer an essay question. Also, because it tends to be a solitary activity I think you need to explicitly engage this type of thinking. A simple approach is take opportunities to make your argument to someone who’s willing to engage and see how persuaded they are and whether you can address their objections. As these opportunities don’t always present themselves to fit in with TMA deadlines I’m always on the lookout for ways to do this for myself. One way which helped me resolve a problem with knowing when to cite is to try to take a different mental stance. This is sometimes easier said than done when you’ve worked so hard on taking a particular position in relation to an essay question. A slightly easier habit that I’ve formed is to use my word processor’s comment feature to argue with myself. This reduces the sustained effort of maintaining a position different to your argument but captures those magical WTF moments where you read back what you’ve written! Adding questions, challenges to points you’ve made or other comments on your essay (“what do you mean by X?”) is like taking the mental stance of your tutor. I used to put these types of comments inline with my essay, but I’ve found that as comments they automatically create a list of issues to address and then delete prior to submission. Effectively you are anticipating and addressing negative feedback before your work is assessed!
Here’s a list of essay writing resources I’ve found useful.
- A talk by Steven Pinker proposing principles that can improve academic writing.
- The canonical (and useful) DD303 guidance is the Social Sciences Assessment Information essay writing skills (OU students only).
- The Good Study Guide Section 6.5 p.153-155 has some useful ideas on how to make notes for use in an essay.
- Good Essay Writing: A Social Sciences Guide is a good supplement to The Good Study Guide and there’s an associated collection of ready-made exercises to develop essay writing skills which you can follow without having to buy the book. Two activities specific to essay writing involve evaluating different introductions and evaluating different conclusions.
- Some of The Good Study Guide downloads are useful even if you don’t have the book. For example there’s an article in which signposting words have been highlighted.
- A discussion of plagiarism which goes beyond the OU advice for avoiding plagiarism in that it gives referencing advice on grey areas such as “common knowledge”, paraphrasing and striking the right balance between too few and too many citations. (SPOILER: The moral turns out to be: when in doubt, cite.)
- A wide range of activities which look promising (but which I haven’t evaluated) to help you “improve you english” (sic!)