Essay writing can be overwhelming if you do not know what you are doing. Planning for your essay can make the difference between a good or bad grade. Doing well on your essay can also make the difference between a good recommendation letter or a bad one. It is important to plan ahead and plan well to make sure that essay writing goes well and lands you decent grade.
1. Start early!
Sure, there are those students who can write their essays the morning that the paper is due and still manage to get an A (I hate those students). However, even though these students are getting a nice GPA boost, they are hurting themselves in the long-run. They are robbing themselves an opportunity to build a body of knowledge that they can use in later research.
Planning for your essay is essential if you want to develop yourself as an academic researcher. Long-term planning skills are necessary to higher level research, and it is a skill that takes time to develop. Try to write an honors thesis last minute, and you will see what I mean (I know someone who did it in a week, but he received the lowest mark for it and was miserable).
If you see on your syllabus when essays are due, you do not have to wait of your professor to announce the due date to start working on it. To start working on an essay does not necessarily mean to start writing it. In fact, that is rather pointless. There is a lot more that makes an essay than the writing. That leads us to our next point…
2. Pick your topic.
If your professor assigns the topics, find out what they are as soon as possible and figure out which one you want to write about and what argument you think you will make. I would suggest talking with your professor about your ideas–if he is assigning a specific topic/topics he/she probably has some ideas of ideas that do and don’t work.
If your professor lets you chose your topic, or gives you a pretty open theme to work with, figure out the area you want to write about and start research ASAP. You may find that it does not work at all, or that there aren’t sufficient resources. You want to figure this out early so that you have enough time to switch topics if necessary.
Make sure that your professor approves of your topic before spending hours or weeks narrowing it and developing your thesis.
3. Head to the Library!
You are going to want to start your secondary-source-reading right away. I would recommend picking out at least five books as a starting point. Even if your are only required to provide three secondary sources in your paper, start with more than three. Often, a few of your secondary sources will not fit your topic by the time that you have figured out your argument.
Do not try to read the entirety of every single secondary source. Use the index to figure out the relevant parts. One time, I only needed to use one paragraph from a secondary source. Can you imagine how much time I would have waisted if I had read the entire book?
4. Narrow Your Topic Down/Pick you Primary Sources.
Now that you know more about your topic you can narrow it down to a very specific subject. The more specific, the easier your essay will be to write. The primary sources available might help you in this endeavor. Are films available? Instead of trying to write about youth culture in the 1950s, write about youth culture as represented in three films from the 1950s. Don’t narrow down your topic where primary sources are not available. Don’t try to write about films from the 1950s, when you cannot access these films. Find your primary sources as soon as possible. I have witnessed too many students failing their essays because they thought they had access to a certain collection of primary sources when they did not.
5. Make Your Argument.
What are you are trying to say? Why are you trying to say it? What does it matter? What does this topic reveal that an academic has not revealed before? Do not try to argue something too big; this is a rookie mistake. Broad arguments are often too hard to prove, and they often sound stupid. It shows that you did not give your thesis statement much thought.
Also, make sure you are not just stating a description, i.e. 1950s films reflect the youth culture of their time. You want to argue something about it. What particular things about youth culture did they reflect and why? What impact did this have? What was the intended consequence of these films? Does this reveal that they were part of a propaganda campaign? Why is that important?
Figure out your argument and your subtopics, and you will be on your way to outlining!
6. Outline, Outline, Outline!
Outlining is probably the least fun part of essay planning, but also the most valuable. You are going to figure out what way works for you. Some people need considerable detail; some people need only a little. At least organize it by subtopics and paragraphs. I tend to give a brief description of what each paragraph will contain. This habit helps me see how well my essay will flow and if anything is missing or if I need to reorganize my paper.