How to write an essay

Essays. They sound good in theory, but they can be just as bad, if not worse, than exams. If you are fighting your way through 6000 odd words at the moment, here are a few tips and tricks from the Unimelb Adventures community to help you through SWOTVAC and exam period!

1. Before you start – deciding on a topic


Look over the choices that you have been given, or brainstorm ideas that you like. Decide on one or a couple of preferred topics. It’s also useful to take a look online at potential references that you could use – are there enough sources for you to work with on your topic?

Next, make a general outline of potential arguments that you could use so that you can make sure that you will be researching the right topics and not going off on (sometimes fascinating!) tangents.

2. Research

The fastest research shortcut you can take is to find one or two articles through Discovery that relate to your topic, then find the references those articles have used. It’s not a complete replacement for research, but it will help you really flesh out your sources.


sad eating

Write down page numbers when you collect quotes. It will save you pouring through your references at 2AM and crying into your chocolate chip cookie dough ice cream you’re eating to drown your sorrows. If you forgot, try using Google Books or Google Scholar. You can usually search within text and that should get you to the page number you need.

If you have a heap of pdf articles stored in your computer, be organised. Give them useful file names, and consider sorting them into subfolders by theme or usefulness etc.

3. Planning


Each paragraph of your essay should ask and answer a question that leads to your conclusion. So when you’re planning, try writing out those questions on post-its and then organise them into a logical flow. If, for example, you are evaluating two theories and their representation in a work of fiction, your questions might be;

  • Why is theory A good?
  • What does the author of the fictional work think of theory A?
  • Why is theory A better than theory B?
  • How do we know the author doesn’t like theory B?

It can be useful to write our your paragraph headings on a piece of paper and then write below them any useful evidence that you have found, so that you know where in your essay you want to mention it. It can also help guide how you structure your paragraph and makes sure you don’t forget any important points.

4. Writing a Draft


You can’t fix a blank page. It would be nice to be able to write a perfect sentence without trying, but that’s just not going to happen. So write a bad one. Give yourself permission to write a really awful essay. Then you can fix it. If you get stuck and can’t think of the right word, that’s ok. Just write “something” and move on. Your essay draft might look like this;

  • “[that theorist guy] thinks that crime is [get a quote]. However, [that other dude] challenges this view in its application to [whatever]”

Download Omm Writer if you’re likely to get distracted. It provides an immersive distraction-free space for you to just write. There’s ambient sounds that help you focus, and the background shifts just a little bit every now and then – it makes sure that your screen is pleasant and interesting to look at.

5. Edit


Delete your first sentence. It’s so tempting to write a vague and unhelpful statement as an opening sentence, so really look at what you’re opening with before you submit, because it probably sucks. Anything along the lines of “[essay topic] has long been the subject of much debate” can be cut.

Nine times out of ten, you want to get rid of your adverbs. If your point still isn’t getting across, chose a better verb, rather than relying on an adverb. Your writing will feel more active and concise. Eg;

“She moved quickly across the road”

“She rushed across the road”


crossing road

Control+F “that”. Now get rid of it. There are very few circumstances where you actually need the word “that” It’s better for your word count, and the tone of your work if you get rid of it unless it’s really needed.

6. Tips on drafting:


Print out your essay and read it backwards. You’re much more likely to pick up on your silly typos this way. Read your essay aloud taking shallow breaths. You should be able to comfortably reach the end of each sentence without needing to pause to breathe. Remember, shorter sentences are better sentences. It’s also useful to have someone read your essay to you. Focus just on the way it sounds, not what’s coming next.

Trying to fill the word count
Trying to fill the word count, Image:


7. Try to fill a word count

Put a copy of your essay into google docs, even if you wrote it in word. The spell check in docs is much better than word and can help pick up on silly mistakes.

You’re finished! Go and celebrate with a block of chocolate…or one hundred…and get ready for that H1!


Good luck with your essay writing, you literary gods!

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