I was researching the first essay of my Masters when I had a moment of panic: how the hell do I actually write this? That’s where I fell back on a plan I’ve been implementing since my senior years in high school. I can’t guarantee you good grades, but it does limit the stress and make writing a brilliant essay just a little easier. The plan has changed a little over the years, but the basic structure has stayed the same and I’ve used it to tackle almost all my assignments.
Do your research
Throughout my undergrad, I wrote all my notes electrically. It was much easier to copy/paste, but it got messy. For my Masters, I took on some suggestions from Jean’s very useful video on stationery, and started a small notebook specifically for assignment note-taking. I found this incredibly helpful. Although for my next assignment I will be taking on Jean’s method of writing various sources in different colours, as I did find myself flipping backwards and forwards looking for a certain reference.
So once you’ve got your essay topic, or narrowed the field you’re going to explore, it’s time to start researching.
During my undergrad, I was on-campus so I would hit the library and just browse sections relevant to my topic. However, my Masters is a little different as I’m studying wholly online. When researching, I try to let sources lead me to other articles or books which may be helpful and write notes on everything relevant. Don’t forget to note down page numbers, a title and an author, so you can return to the source later.
For the first essay of my Masters, I was analysing the forms of masculinities represented in a young adult book. I picked the brilliant Everything Beautiful by Simmone Howell. I read it once before I looked at the essay question then, after doing some academic research, I re-read and noted down the specific examples I planned to use to reinforce my arguments.
After hours of re-reading and research I had many, many pages of notes. Too many for my 1500 word count, but I’d much prefer to have extra than to be scrambling for more as the due date looms.
Preparation is everything
Now the fun begins: it’s time to plan.
Start with a fresh word document, of course. I always like the look of a little heading, but it’s definitely only aesthetic.
Essay topic: Write your essay topic or the specific essay question at the top of the page.
Thesis statement: This is your essay argument. Although it wasn’t a necessity for every one of my undergrad essays, I found writing my own one-to-two sentence thesis statement (which answers the essay question and outlines the essay argument) really helpful in keeping my writing on track. The few times I didn’t, it was really reflected in the finished product.
Body: Now it’s time to plan each section of your body. I like to do this using a series of indents and dot points.
1. This will form the first rough section of my essay. Using my recent topic as an example, this is where I outlined the types of masculinities.
i. I then break up my paragraphs. I’ll write a theory or quote I want to use and in-text reference as I go (if that’s what my class requires).
For each argument I want to make in a paragraph, I’ll write on a new line.
ii. For the next paragraph within each section, I’ll add a new dot-point (or in this case, Roman numeral)
2. I’ll continue doing this for each rough section, which helps me see how my argument is unfolding, and supported, throughout.
As I write each dot-point using a new source, I’ll add it to my list of references on the next page. I find it much easier and less stressful to reference as I write. It slows the process down a little, but makes sure you’re never going to accidentally forget to reference a source.
Time to write on
Once my outline is completed, I basically fill in the gaps. I prefer to write the whole body first, then go back and add my introduction and conclusion, working in my thesis statement. My outline for my last essay was about 800 words, and the assignment limit 1500, so you can see how much this plan adds to the overall structure of the piece.
Everyone works differently, but for me this plan is a saviour and the best way to have a great overview of what sources I’m using and the arguments I’m making.
Do you have study tips or little tricks to be more productive? I’d love to hear them!