One of the biggest benefits of studying a writing degree is that there are no exams whatsoever. I hate exams. Honestly, what’s the point? You cram, stay up all night beforehand worrying, then you spend a couple of hours in a worryingly smelly hall and it’s all over. 30 or 40 or 50 percent of your module is balanced on those moments.
Sorry, if your degree is weighted between coursework and exams, then that probably sounded a little bit overwhelming. Equally, you chose the course so it’s your fault really.
Anyway, back to the joy of writing essays. The negative points of exams become the strengths of essays, and this is where you’ll find the make or break moments: planning and reviewing. You can obviously plan your revision schedule for exams, but something could happen on the day and you might not be able find the right information in your mind. Yet, with essays you can just write.
And through that, we have Tip #1: Just Write. Everything that comes into my head, whether I think I’m going to include it or not, I get it down somewhere. If I’m reading a source and find a useful quote, but can’t figure out where to put it, then I just write it down and anything else relevant to that quote I can think of. By the end of your research, you might have four or five pages of quotes and loose paragraphs, but you have all of your information in one place. From there, you can open up a new document and start piecing everything together. Some people find it better to plan out the whole essay in advance, but I’m quite an erratic thinker and this tip has been invaluable to me over the course of my degree.
Tip #2: Just Read. Some people say that an English degree is just a bunch of reading and writing, but putting ‘just’ in front of anything makes it seem simple. Maths is just sums. Architecture is just designing buildings. Yes, English is a whole bunch of reading and writing, but there’s a lot more to it than that. You can’t just read one additional source and expect to get a first. You have to read a lot. After deciding on the question I’m going to delve into, I then read everything I can that is mildly relevant to it. You may end up reading a lot of sources that aren’t quite relevant, but what you are doing is expanding your knowledge in that area which will translate into your writing. As well as this, most sources reference other sources, meaning that you end up finding useful texts you otherwise wouldn’t have.
I can’t remember who said it, but one of the most useful pieces of advice I’ve read for English is that leaving out information that you do know is perfectly fine, but if you’re leaving out information that you don’t know, then the reader will know and it’ll create gaps in your writing.
Tip #3: Start Early. The earlier you start, the more you can take in, and the more you can read and write, the more you can improve your copy editing skills. What many people don’t realise about essays is that it’s not just about working to a deadline; it’s about working to a deadline with enough time to review at the end. We all hate reading back our work, but it’s a necessary evil to fill in holes that you’ve missed, correct grammatical errors, and improve the flow of your writing. Review and review again. If it means reading it 10 or 20 times, then so be it. You’ll miss things in your first draft as much as you’ll miss things in your first review.
Secret Bonus Tip #4: Pick an essay question you’re actually interested in. Sure, one might sound smarter than the other, but writing essays is already a draining task as it is let alone writing about something you don’t enjoy.