Stepping into essay writing

“You can always edit a bad page. You can’t edit a blank one.” –Jodi Picoult

Like any writing, academic writing is an exercise in things easier said than done. One needs to write concisely, but still thoroughly explain the often-complicated course concepts we are attempting to communicate. For example, a thesis statement needs to be specific enough to articulate a position on a subject, yet remain accessible enough to be understood in a single reading. We need to incorporate sufficient outside evidence to support our arguments, yet still be giving our own conclusions and not repeating the source material. On top of all this, academic writing asks us to communicate in a way that is very different from how we speak, text, email, or otherwise communicate in our day-to-day lives.

Essay writing can be a daunting prospect — the quiet terror of a blank page and a blinking cursor has seized every writer at some point in their life. Sometimes the beginning comes naturally: highlighting facts and concepts of particular interest while taking notes in class can give you a head start by allowing you to passively consider possible essay topics before you even start writing. If you don’t have an essay topic, my first piece of advice is this: do not wait. You are more likely to find inspiration flipping through random books in your subject area than you are staring at the blank page.

Try writing down five key terms you might write about. Search for those terms in Novanet, see what articles and books come up, and look at those sources for ideas. Thanks to the extensive online component of Novanet, you do not even need to be in the library to start this process. But, you should go to the library if you can — the librarians, technicians, and archivists of the R.P. Bell Library are highly knowledgeable and very helpful. Plus, you could stop by the Writing Centre! A short conversation to bounce ideas off one of our tutors might be all you need to get going (appointments are recommended, but not strictly necessary — feel free to ask if you see a tutor not currently in a consultation with another student).

Once you have something to build your essay, start writing! It does not need to be a first draft — making an outline of what you would like to cover in your essay, what sources you would like to include, or even just riffing on a particular idea through freewriting are all useful exercises in creating material for your essay. Remember that you are not being graded on the prewriting you do — just get it out on the page and see what ends up being usable. During my time as a student, I had good luck writing a skeleton of what my essay would look like: a sentence or two explaining what each paragraph would discuss, written with just enough detail to let me see how they sat in relation to each other. Then I would take a step back and look at the whole, asking myself if there was anything missing. Having an idea as to where your essay is going to end up helps guide each paragraph you write form part of a coherent narrative — rather than giving a list of thoughts under the umbrella of a broad topic, each part of your essay should build on the next. The total should be more than the sum of the parts of your essay.

The elusive thesis statement is a common sticking point in academic writing. Every part of your essay should connect back to it, so there is more pressure when writing the thesis statement. Not all essays require one, but they are an extremely common feature, particularly in the humanities. Your thesis statement should take a specific, debatable stand on a subject: it cannot be as broad as “In Wuthering Heights, Heathcliff is a complex character.” Conversely, it cannot be as flat as “Heathcliff is the villain of Wuthering Heights.” The reader is looking for you to show that you have reached your own conclusion and can demonstrate how you got there. For example, “while he is commonly viewed as a romantic anti-hero, Heathcliff’s disregard for the welfare of others demonstrates that he is the villain of Wuthering Heights.” This thesis. assert a view that Heathcliff is a villain, it tells the reader what he does that makes him one.

There is so much more that can be said about essay writing, but do not be put off — an essay assignment is a collection of steps to be taken. It should seem big and impressive once it is finished, but the process of writing an essay can be broken down into many small parts to be tackled in manageable chunks. The best advice I can give is to get started, any way you can. Easier said than done, right? Don’t worry. You’ve got this! As with any endeavour, the most important step is the first one.

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