Questions To Think About When Writing An Essay

Each time I scroll back through what I’ve written, or planned, so far, I become steadily more convinced of its brilliance.

What started off as a scribbled note in the margin, something extra to think about or to pop in if it could be made to fit the argument, sometimes comes to be backbone of a whole essay – so, when a tutor tells me my inspired paragraph about Ted Hughes’s interpretation of mythology isn’t relevant to my essay on Keats, I fail to see why. And an examiner would probably be happy not to read yet another answer that makes exactly the same points.

But your essay isn’t met with the lavish praise you expected. The grade your teacher has scrawled at the end is nowhere near what your essay deserves. And the comment at the bottom reads something like, ‘Some good ideas, but you didn’t answer the question! If this has ever happened to you (and it has happened to me, a lot), you’ll know how deeply frustrating it is – and how unfair it can seem.

When it’s tossed back onto your desk, there are huge chunks scored through with red pen, crawling with annotations like little red fire ants: ‘IRRELEVANT’; ‘A bit of a tangent! ’; and, right next to your best, most impressive killer point: ‘Right… This might just be me, but the exhausting process of researching, having ideas, planning, writing and re-reading makes me steadily more attached to the ideas I have, and the things I’ve managed to put on the page.

You’re not totally convinced that what you’ve written is relevant to the title you were given – but it’s inventive, original and good.

In fact, it might be better than anything that would have responded to the question.

You’re thinking about the different ways in which Shakespeare imagines and presents the witches, how they influence the action of the tragedy, and perhaps the extent to which we’re supposed to believe in them (stay with me – you don’t have to know a single thing about Shakespeare or Macbeth to understand this bit! Now, you’ll probably have a few good ideas on this topic – and whatever essay you write, you’ll most likely use much of the same material.In the next few hundred words, I’m going to share with you what I’ve learned through endless, mindless crossings-out, rewordings, rewritings and rethinkings.I’ve lost count of the number of times I’ve been told to ‘write the question at the top of every new page’- but for some reason, that trick simply doesn’t work for me.It means looking at the directions the question provides as to what sort of essay you’re going to write.I call these ‘command phrases’ and will go into more detail about what they mean below.It sounds obvious, but a good essay should have the title or question as its focus the whole way through.It should answer it ten times over – in every single paragraph, with every fact or figure.The second part involves identifying key words and phrases.Use forceful, persuasive language to show how the points you’ve made do answer the question.My main focus so far has been on tangential or irrelevant material – but many students lose marks even though they make great points, because they don’t quite impress how relevant those points are. It doesn’t matter how impressive, original or interesting it is.It doesn’t matter if you’re panicking, and you can’t think of any points that do answer the question. It’s a waste of time, and might actually work against you- if you put tangential material in an essay, your reader will struggle to follow the thread of your argument, and lose focus on your really good points.

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