Almost every student is taught that an essay has to have an Introduction, followed by the Body of the essay, and then concluded with... well, a conclusion.
Many teachers stress that an essay is supposed to be ‘logical’, to contain an ‘argument’, to lead the reader on from one point to the next. Most of the students I have spoken to about this find it all unutterably boring and decidedly unhelpful. What is meant by ‘logical’? How are ideas supposed to be linked together in an ‘argument’? What’s the difference between the introduction and the conclusion?
But these concerns are not even the worst issue.
The most difficult thing faced by students when it comes to writing an essay, given that they have sat through all of the above lessons on how to do it, is how to actually start.
Confronted by a blank piece of paper in an exam, or a blank computer screen at school or at home, it is so easy, students tell me, to drift off and find something else to do.
They are simply not sure of how to begin.
Take for example an essay on romantic poetry. Students have studied the poems in depth and detail, learned all about the poets’ backgrounds, covered what romanticism is as a historical movement, made lots of notes, listened to lots of ideas.
Now they are sat in front of a blank screen with a keyboard in front of them. What should they do first?
What Students Usually Do About It
Students usually do several things at that point:
1. They go off and do something else.
Overwhelmed by the magnitude of the task, it is a simple matter to contact a friend through the same computer they are sitting at, and engage in a conversation with them. At best, perhaps, the friend has the same essay to write and they discuss that - students exchange ideas, but hardly ever really come to grips with the central issue with any confidence. It’s not a lack of willingness or failure to understand the material in most cases - it’s simply the steep gradient of what to put down first on their paper or screen. They are confused.
2. They start writing from notes, item by item.
Some students ignore any idea of an introduction and just launch into regurgitating what they have been told.
Their philosophy seems to be 'Get it down and get it done.'
What results is a mish-mash of facts, perfectly accurate in themselves but following no real pattern or structure. It’s not really an essay at the end, but a couple of pages of reconstituted lessons.
3. They write a very boring introduction along the lines of 'In this essay I am going to be discussing the romantic poets...'
They know it’s dull; the teacher reads it as dull. But at least it’s something, and it gets them started. Then they plough through their notes and usually run out of momentum before any real conclusion forms, because they haven’t really been thinking at all, just trying to finish.
These approaches result in essays which, even when they get finished, score low to average grades because they lack shape and life.
There are many tips about writing essays out there, but they generally follow the same kind of pattern as described above, and are…well, boring.
For a free download on how to go about writing an essay that is a bit more interesting, easy to do and quick, click here. Using the guidelines described there, students have been known to lift their results by a whole grade, while actually understanding what they are doing - and (maybe) even having fun!
Check it out.