The following is based on an original document by Bethan Davies with revisions by John McKenna, D. Robert Ladd, and Ellen G. Bard of the School of Philosophy, Psychology, and Language Sciences at the University of Edinburgh.
Good essay writing is a skill acquired rather than learnt. Approaches vary from person to person and will depend on one’s experience in essay writing, almost to the point where a style of writing will be as individual as a signature.
You may already be quite comfortable writing essays and if so, you will have a definite feel for what works for you. If, on the other hand, you are new at the game or don’t seem to be getting the marks you feel your efforts deserve, then we encourage you to follow the advice in Section 2 on preparation and research. The same applies to Section 3 on structure and Section 4 on style, but the contents of these sections can also serve as a basis for self-assessment—even for the experienced—before that final draft is submitted. There is a checklist at the end—use it! You should pay special attention to Section 4.3 on stylistic conventions, as there is little scope for flexibility on these matters within a particular academic discipline.
Throughout this short guide we use the term “essay” to mean any sort of academic writing assignment that you hand in for a course. In economics you will be required to produce a variety of written assignments, and only some of them will be “essays” in the sense that the term might be used in a history or literature course. Others will be concise reports of experiments or descriptions of economic or other data. However, they are all referred to herein as “essays,” and most of the principles of clarity, organization and presentation apply to them all.
2.1 Time Management
Allow yourself enough time. If you work continuously on your essay right up to the deadline, there is a very high likelihood that you won’t have done yourself (or the topic) justice. So make a rough timetable. Aim to have what you subjectively feel is a “final” draft at least two days before the submission deadline. Use the remaining days to review your work at well-spaced intervals. This will help you look more objectively at your own work.
2.2 Getting Started
I graduated with my first MSc… well… more than 15 years ago. For some strange reason, every six years or so, I have an urge to study something new. So, after six years of successfully building my career in sales and marketing, I went on to receive an MBA in London. Now, six and a bit years later, I am finding myself busy with the third, part-time Master’s degree, while working full-time and volunteering on weekends. After a combined 7 years of postgraduate education, for the first time, I am faced with the challenge of writing an essay.
My first degree was in natural sciences, taught in a post-Soviet education system that was famous for quite tough and heavily theoretical content. Mathematical formulas were my friends at exams; I didn’t forge the same bond with words, except for the limited amount needed to explain ‘physical meaning’ or mathematical proof. I did write quite a lengthy dissertation at the end, with a lot of charts showing experimental results and an overview of existing research on the subject. And many references – about 100 of them, if I remember correctly (the referencing style I used was one of many styles using footnotes, as I discovered recently).
My MBA programme was more human science but quite a practical degree, with little words required during exams. This is how I ended up in my third Masters program with no experience in essay writing whatsoever. And, to affirm worst fear, I discovered on the first day that this would be the main method of assessment in my course. Here I am, at a point in life where others go through a midlife crisis or decide to take up an eccentric hobby, learning how to write an essay and reference in Harvard style.
The first challenge was to understand what the essay topic was about. Talking to my tutor helped to clarify what exactly it meant. Scientific background helped, in the sense that it helped me structure the approach of writing and the outline of the essay itself. Research seemed like an obvious first step, and I did a lot of it at the start of my essay: I read a few books and journal articles and made some notes on particular parts or pages to reference later. However, I later realized, I should’ve done more of this. I noticed too late that quite a few important pieces were missing page numbers and quotes, as I was not approaching my initial readings with an ‘essay-tuned’ mind. Next time I will vow to take a more structured approach to my reading, as most texts on the subject will be relevant to an essay – at least that’s how my course is laid out. Talking about research, there is more expert advice than mine about it here (How to do research for an excellent essay: The complete guide, 2014).
I haven’t built my bibliography in advance either because I knew I could rely on Cite This For Me to do it for me. The assumption was right – Cite This For Me formatted everything for me in a correct style (Harvard, APA format, or otherwise), including inline citations.
Some distant school-writing memories came back to remind me that I needed an essay plan. At Soviet school we used to practice pieces of writing on different classical literature books – not quite essays, as they were dedicated purely to one piece and had to elaborate on the plot or philosophy of the book in question, but quite similar as they were just another writing exercise.
Previous study experience seems to have made me slightly wiser (finally!) in regards to time management – I blocked time on a weekend dedicated solely to writing. Ok, half of this time was probably spent on something else, but at least I started – this is always the hardest first step for me. I thought things through and wrote down a clear and structured plan.
Having a plan for my essay helped a lot. My worry was that it would evolve multiple times while writing, but it never did (so it was a good plan!). The first two points of my plan were a struggle: it took me over 3 hours to nail them. However, the rest of my arguments fell into place and, once my structure was clear and tested, I had finished my essay in about 10 hours in total. I then spent an extra 2 hours going back and forth to fill in missing pieces of information, like book pages and quotes, but Cite This For Me saved me another couple of hours of pure reference formatting.
Collective knowledge about essay writing is outlined in a neat step-by-step guide in WikiHow (WikiHow to write a research essay, no date).
In summary, here is my step-by-step approach that I’ll be following from now on:
- Make sure you understand the essay topic! Ask your tutor if in doubt
- Research, build your bibliography and gather quotes and annotations at the same time
- Make time for writing – block it on your calendar, free from parties/events/other things. Do not block the whole day, but into manageable 4-hour blocks
- Write an essay plan/ outline
- Tune your mind – if you need extra two hours just to start writing – that’s what you need! Don’t give up and think that you can do better later
- Let your writing flow within the plan structure
- Add in-line references as you write
- Review and revise
- Add your bibliography or reference list at the end (you can export from Cite This For Me to Word in MLA format, APA format, Harvard referencing and more styles!)
P.S. When do you think I did referencing for this? After I’ve finished it! Not learning fast… but here it is, my reference list:
How to do research for an excellent essay: The complete guide (2014) Available at: https://www.oxford-royale.co.uk/articles/essay-research-skills.html (Accessed: 4 February 2016).
WikiHow to write a research essay (no date) Available at: http://www.wikihow.com/Write-a-Research-Essay (Accessed: 4 February 2016).