When you are clear about what the essay title is asking you to do, the next task is to find relevant books and articles and do the necessary reading. It is very likely that your lecturer will have provided you with a list of references to refer to, however, do not limit yourself to just this selection. In your search around the library, you are likely to find something relevant to your topic that is not in the book list. Wherever possible, it is a good idea to include references to material not in the book list as this will show the marker that you are researching your topic seriously.
It is advisable to have a separate folder for each essay so that all the notes and articles and photocopies that you collect can be stored together. Ensure that they are all clipped in properly so that they can’t slide out and get in a total muddle! There is nothing worse than hunting through tangled papers searching for that vital quotation!
Keep a good record of the books that you have read. This may be done on a set of cards in a small box if you are very well organised, or it can be done on pages at the back of the file that you are using for that particular essay.
Make clear notes on the material that you have read. Indicate in your notes the title, chapter and page reference for your notes so that you can easily look back at them if you need to. Indicate whether you are summarising an idea, or quoting directly, as this will help you when you come to write the essay. You can choose you own style for making notes. Some people prefer very comprehensive notes, although it will be counterproductive to copy out pages from different books. Other students are happier with brief notes. However, whichever way you tackle taking notes, there are two very important points to remember:
- Make your notes in a very careful and organised manner. Trying to make sense of untidy, scribbled scraps is not going to help you to write a good essay. It might take time, but it will save you time when it comes to writing, and you’ll obtain a higher mark.
- Make sure that you understand what you are reading so that you understand your written notes. Unless you genuinely understand what you have read, you will have little chance of writing a good essay. If you find something particularly difficult, ask another student or approach your lecturer. Don’t be shy to ask questions; lecturers are paid to teach you and part of that role is responding positively to your genuine concerns. You have the right to ask questions at any stage if you do not understand.
Many students find that rewriting ideas in their own words helps them to understand what the original text was trying to say. This may take a little time, but it will be time well spent.
Half the battle to writing a good essay is being well organised. Make sure you are well organised!
- visit the library at an early stage to look for the recommended texts
- file your notes carefully, with titles and page references
- give yourselves adequate time to complete the essay.
And remember, your lecturers can spot plagiarism at one hundred paces!