Preparing to write an essay

Find out what you should do before you start writing your essay

Writing an essay is just a part of the overall process you’ll go through at University. A large part of this process is preparing for the essay, which can take longer than writing the essay itself. Follow these five tips to get the most out of essay preparation.

Start Early

You will get your course readers for each subject at the beginning of each semester and as these often contain the essay questions, you have plenty of time to prepare for your essay. If you identify early on which essay you want to write, you can more easily get all the resources you need before everyone else starts checking them out for themselves. In addition, you’ll also know which lectures you absolutely can’t miss – not that you should be missing any of course.

Use the Library

Your lecturer will likely have provided you with a number of handouts, but as good as these will be, don’t rely on them entirely in preparing for your essay. Your lecturer is looking for evidence of independent study, and this includes more than including books in your bibliography which you don’t refer to in your essay. Where appropriate, draw on journal articles or information from web-based resources, and never rely on just one type of source alone.

Be Wary of Internet Resources

Ensure that, if you’re quoting anything from the internet, you have chosen a reliable source. Many, if not all Universities, forbid the inclusion of any material from Wikipedia, because anyone can edit it. However, if you’re a lazy student in a rush, Wikipedia can provide a brief overview, but at best this will only be a starting point. Wikipedia does have other uses – see my later blog entry on writing an essay against the clock for more information.

Read and Annotate

Checking ten books out the library is only the beginning – you now have to gleam all the relevant information from them. However, it’s unlikely you’ll have time to read ten books cover to cover and, quite simply, you don’t need to. Use the contents pages and index to identify the chapters or even pages most relevant for your essay – the essay question is your starting point. As you go through your reading, key passages and quotes should hopefully leap out. Make a note of these as you go along because you won’t remember where you found them later on: this can save you hours of time! Additionally, don’t overlook any handouts you’ve been given, or your lecture notes, but as discussed avoid relying on these entirely.

Draw on Additional Perspectives

Even once you have a clear idea on what issues and arguments your essay will explore, seek additional perspectives if you’re aiming to produce first class work. Ideally, drop in to see your lecturer during his or her office hours to talk through your thoughts – even if you haven’t missed anything out, your lecturer will likely provide further food for thought, or at the very least be impressed that you’ve evidently gone to great lengths to answer the question fully. Also speak to your classmates as you may learn something from their approach, even if they’re answering a different question.


Not plagiarism if they're deadYour ultimate companion during the essay writing process is, a handy free website with a tonne of information to help you reference properly. Check against billions of online resources including web pages, electronic journals and books.  Scan your essay for free and use it throughout your studies to ensure you don’t get marked down for plagiarism.

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