It’s that time of year for all of us college students, and no, this isn’t about my literary pursuits per se, but it’s something that anyone thinking of writing an essay on anything can benefit from. THIS is my step-by-step guide to essay writing.
1. Figure out what you’re writing about. Sometimes this means choosing from a set of prompts, sometimes you just get one prompt, sometimes it’s entirely up to you. Whatever your situation, you need a topic (sometimes given to you), and a thesis which is something you come up with no matter whether or not you have chosen the topic. But start with the topic and a general idea of what you’re wanting to say, and we’ll deal with the thesis later.
2. Gather your sources. Sometimes these are completely or mostly assigned to you, but sometimes you have to find them yourself. Google Scholar can be useful, or your college’s library database if you’re looking for articles. Where you look will depend on what subject you’re working in, so if you’re stuck ask a research librarian (I’ve never met a college library without one).
3. Read your sources. If you’re in a hurry, just do this step combined with step four, but if you’ve got time, read them first and then….
4. Find textual evidence. As you go through your sources a second time (or the first, if you’re in a rush), pick out quotations that might make a lovely addition to your paper. Sometimes I write these out in a list in a notebook, being careful to put down the page number and source so I don’t get confused. Sometimes I do these on note cards. Note cards are advisable for long papers, especially, and definitely when you’ve got more than a few sources.
5. Organize the paper. I have a spiral notebook just for this purpose. I start out by marking down which essay it is, then what the requirements are. This includes formatting, page number, a question I need to be sure to answer…. Whatever. Then I write out my topic, then my thesis, then the three or four points I’m making in the body paragraphs. This is basically the beginnings of the outline.
6. Outline the paper. This means taking the quotes and figuring out where in the body they fit. I make columns and put them in appropriate columns (physically if I’ve got note cards, numbering them if they’re listed somewhere in another notebook), then thinking about what they’re talking about and how they fit together. Usually, they flow more easily than you might expect.
7. Write the paper. My advice, for if you have time, is to write it out by hand first, right below your planning. Then type it up, making revisions and edits as you go. If you don’t have time, just type it up as the thoughts come to you, according to your outline. Don’t forget your conclusion paragraph!
8. Edit and revise. This involves the basic editing and revision, but also make sure that you’ve followed all of the guidelines and formatting requirements if this is pertinent to your essay. I didn’t number my paragraphs for one of my recent essays and I got docked two points. I could afford it, but some people wouldn’t have been so lucky.
9. Relax. It’s over. Go read a fan fiction or my novella or something.