FIVE SIMPLE STEPS ON WRITING AN EFFECTIVEESSAY 1. Look hard at the question This may sound obvious, but the best way to approach an essay question is to try and work out what you really think is the answer. Do you agree with the statement, for example, or think it completely misses the point? What do you really feel is the most important feature, event or theme? Are there any exceptions? Working out your actual opinion can feel difficult, or even irrelevant, especially in time-pressured situations, and when you have learnt pre-written points in advance. But in doing so, you are engaging with the question the examiners have asked you to answer, and it will show in your response. Examiners will be much more impressed with a considered answer to a task than with a response pieced together from points from old essays.
2. PlanOnce you have identified your opinions on a question, you need to work out how youcame to those opinions. The point of a plan is to set out the main lines of yourargument, and a couple of choice examples for each point. The way you structureyour plan is up to you, but many people find a spider diagram a useful tool. Each legof the ‘spider’ should lead to one point, which will translate into one paragraph inyour essay. These points should link to the examples which will provide evidence toback up your points. Clearly, when planning in an exam situation, your plans needonly give a quick outline of these points and examples, but ten minutes spent on thiswill be an investment for an hour-long essay. To ensure that your essay is coherentand persuasive, make sure that all of your spider legs contribute to your overallargument. Work out which paragraph should go in which order – that way yourargument is more likely to win over the reader.
3. Structure your essayThe plan will help immeasurably here, but you still can’t afford to take structure forgranted. A good essay will have a strong introduction and an excellent conclusion.Since these are the first and last thing the reader will see, they need to work twice ashard to make your point. Clarity is the key here. Both your introduction and yourconclusion should summarise your overall argument, and your main sources ofevidence, without repeating each other. Each of the intervening paragraphs shouldmake and attempt to prove a point, contributing to your overall argument. Yourconclusion may also bring together your central lines of enquiry in a new way, whichwill help sustain interest. One example of this could be identifying which is the mostimportant point that you have made, or showing how your argument fits into a widerdiscussion.
4. Prove your pointsIt is all very well to make grand claims about a book, topic or historicalperiod, but a reader will probably want some evidence. Each paragraph shouldmake a new point in support of your overall argument, and the wholeparagraph should persuade the reader of that point’s merit. The simplest andclearest way to achieve this is by following this easy structure. Open eachparagraph with a line summarising the point that you want to make. The nextfew lines should provide the proof: this might be in the form of a few choicefacts, a quotation from your text, and / or a critical approach. It is not enoughsimply to insert this evidence and leave it up to the reader to work out what youmean. Try to analysis and evaluate your evidence: if it is a quotation, pick itapart; if a fact, contextualise it. Don’t be afraid to identify opposing opinions, orareas where the evidence is not so strong. A good argument incorporatesthese things, and becomes more nuanced as a result. Finally, bring the wholepoint together in your closing sentence. If you are doing this right, you shouldbe able to read the first or last line of every paragraph and follow
5. Interrogate the question (again!)A fail-safe way of ensuring an interesting and well thought out response is to keep onthinking about the question throughout your answer. Is there anything that thequestion fails to consider? Does the question itself represent a particular criticalapproach or even betray a form of prejudice? If the task includes a quotation, do youknow anything about the person who said it that might add insight to your response?Sometimes, you might even be able to turn the question on its head. All of theseapproaches will make your essay exciting to read, and will give you an edge overother candidates who take the question at face value. The conclusion of your essayis often a good place to expand on any thoughts you might have of this type, butyour consideration and reconsideration of the question should be evident throughoutyour piece.