Learning to write essay type answers whether in exams or for an assignment, takes both practise and experience. Over time, you can learn to learn to develop ideas and points that are relevant and compelling to write a strong, well-structured essay.
How to be Good at Writing Essays
Every practise that you can get in learning to organise and structure your thoughts to build a good essay contributes to your overall writing skills. Going beyond assigned work and collaboratively working in pairs or groups to compare and contrast ideas and points also significantly improves your skills.
In our earlier post, we presented some ideas on collaborative group working and how to support one another and learn together. Similarly, group working can be a powerful aid to upscaling your essay writing skills. Be open and supportive of one another, critique constructively and aim to make progress together.
Key to all good essays is a narrative outline that allows the ideas to build one upon the next to take the reader through the journey of a good essay. In almost all cases this means a strong outline.
1. The brainstorm
The brainstorm is essential a collaborative exercise to generate as many ideas as quickly as possible. Key to this exercise is to not ‘judge’ or comment on any of the ideas until after the agreed time is over. One person is appointed the scribe or note-keeper and everyone contributes.
This exercise allows you to think and contribute as many ideas as quickly possible without the need to filter or self-censor ideas. That can come at a later stage. This certainly allows for the opportunity to practise idea generation and development within a limited time frame which is particularly useful for essay writing during exams.
Once the brain storm session is over, you can then collectively discuss, expand and develop upon the ideas contributed. This is then the time to order the ideas in order of importance and perhaps sideline the ideas that are less relevant.
2. Mind maps/ spider webs
Mind maps were an idea popularised by Tony Buzan. Essentially in collaborative mind-mapping a large sheet of paper and several pens are useful. Right in the centre of the sheet, write the question or central theme.
Write resulting ideas or further ideas around that central question, this can still be developed further and written in further ‘bubbles’. In the end, link the related ideas together by drawing connecting lines and reorganising or rearranging things if necessary.
As individuals, write as many ideas down as possible in a list form. After that organise the ideas in to a plan or a structured form, ready to be developed in to an essay format. When everyone has finished listing their ideas, share, compare and contrast points that have been raised.
On of the biggest challenges in completing essay writing tasks is actually writing the essay itself as quickly and as efficiently as possible. Unlike many other forms of academic work, essay writing is one of those exercises that can inherently take as long and as much time as you are willing to spare it. So while it is ideal to outline an essay and complete it as soon as possible, the longer the time you have to spend on an essay the more tempting it is to tinker with it.
Here, it is recommended that you be aware of how much time you do actually spend planning and subsequently writing the essay itself.
4. Time-limited essay plans
Preparing essay plans within a limited time frame allows you to be focussed about what the question wants precisely. It also helps you work out how quickly you can develop a response or a plan around answering the question itself.
It each case, start with a limited time frame, perhaps 10 minutes at first. After that work towards getting a plan done in 5 minutes.
5. Timed answers
In the same way you can time yourself to create an essay plan in five minutes, you can also work on writing the entire essay within a limited time frame. Using a question that you design yourself or something from previous assignments or past papers, try writing your answer with a 45 minute time frame.
Exchange, compare and discuss your essays with your study group. Specifically pay attention to the best ways to draw on and include evidence or supporting examples for each of the points that you make within the essay structure.
6. Re-reading old essays, do it better
A very effective way to improve on essay writing skills is to re-read old essays whether your own or any that you may be able to get your hands on – even better if it has been marked.
The idea behind this is to read through and understand. Not necessarily the points raised but the structure of the essay and how best to develop an argument or discussion surrounding the original theme or question. It is also important to pay close attention to how evidence and supporting examples are used to reiterate a main point.
Once you have read through an old essay, write your own plan for the question and then write a complete essay answer. Exchange your new answer with your study group and take turns critiquing.
Be the teacher
Although it seems counterintuitive and even perhaps a little childish, but aiming to think and therefore ‘perform’ like the teacher or the lecturer at university provides you with a clearer insight as to what is expected within your written essay answers.
To clearly understand the learning aims and objectives of each course and each lesson makes you more aware and more focussed on the take-aways of each lesson. This means that you can then centre your work and your learning around achieving these aim and objectives.
7. Understand marking
Essential to every assignment and every exam is the marking process by which one is graded. To ‘understand marking’ means that you are able to derive a clear understanding of why marks are awarded; why a certain idea is given a mark and how the further development of the idea and its supporting points are important.
Share previously marked assignments and within your study group discuss the mark scheme. Assess and compare notes and ideas on how the essays could be improved, giving feed back and commenting on the structure and supporting points.
8. Design exam questions
Designing your own exam questions is the very best form of revision and of ensuring that you are completely secure in your knowledge of the learning content.
After revising a topic, write down as many questions as you can about that topic. Discuss the questions and potential answers with your group. Exchange ideas and thoughts on how the questions can be worded better and discuss how the questions can be answered and marks given.
Essay writing requires the ability to first understand what the questions asks and then design, plan and outline the structure of an essay. After that it is important to be able to explain and expand on the points clearly and succinctly making best use of examples and evidence to support each point.
Each step of the essay writing process can be developed and improved with collaborative discussion and group working, exchanging ideas constructively.
Work collaboratively, exchange ideas and feedback and make the best out of each group discussion session.