Writing university assignments is a struggle, whether it’s your first or fiftieth. You’ve learnt what you could from school but now you’re by yourself, doing your own research, starting to write some of the longest essays you’ve ever written. So much of your life seems to depend on the grade that you’ll achieve at university; each fragment of this grade dependant upon individual assignments. You’ll often be coming up with your own titles and studying what personally interests you… if you can figure out what that is specifically.
Having completed a Bachelor’s degree in English Literature, I’m all too familiar with the feeling. This post will share the method that I personally used to survive my BA by getting my assignments in on time… but it certainly doesn’t explain why I was crazy enough to begin studying for a Master’s.
Step 1: Planning Word Count
I can’t really call this much of a plan to be honest. As someone who is very much at risk of writing well over my word count, it’s much easier to work towards the minimum. I look at the word count that I have to write and start by subtracting 10%. This is the ABSOLUTE MINIMUM that must be written (this may be different depending on your course). I then split this number up into my paragraphs. Paragraphs should be of suitable length to go into detail on each point, however with longer essays you can allow for more room in each paragraph. All essays should have an introduction, a conclusion and a minimum of two paragraphs, depending on essay length. For example:
2500 word essay = minimum of 2250 words.
Each paragraph has to at least hit the minimum words counts, though this is only a rough estimate. After, there should be room for the bibliography in whatever format that you use (MMU Harvard at Manchester Met.).
Be clear to yourself what is considered within your word count. For example, footnotes were not counted towards word count for my BA assignments, they do for my MA assignments.
Step 2: Planning Time Scale
The second part of planning is considering the amount of time that you have to work with. My deadline is always in plain view to remind me of when the essay should be submitted by; often at the top of my essay plan. If submitting online via turnitin, it’s often recommended that you submit your essay hours before this deadline, to make sure that it is submitted for certain, there are no issues with internet or with the system itself. Then you should consider other assignments that need to be completed within this time period.
I divide up the total word count and set myself a specific number of words per day which I MUST complete, leaving time at the beginning and end for extra research, referencing and editing, which may in itself take a couple of days. Sometimes this can make me feel a little bit better about the amount of words that I have to write, keep me to a deadline and on days where it feels like I can easily write more, I can feel like I’m finally getting ahead rather than the usual feeling of feeling so far behind…
Step 3: Identifying your essay
If you have already been given a title, you’re off to a good start. You can already add this and the references to your primary texts. If not, you need to decide on your title or a rough version of what you want to look at, that you can hone in on as you do your research.
If you have a list of texts to choose from for your primary text, start with the process of elimination, crossing out the texts that you most certainly CAN’T write about. This doesn’t include texts that you simply dislike. To be honest, writing on texts that you dislike can also give you the ability to pull them apart a little better.
If you haven’t already, this is the latest to be reading the text that you are writing on. If you’re writing on a book, you may have read this well in advance, though often the articles for critical reviews can be chosen later on.
Step 4: Research and Reading
This is possibly the part of essay writing that I find the most time-consuming. Thankfully, there is a vast array of books and academic journal articles that can be accessed online, so these sources are incredibly useful when you’re writing within too short a time frame to be ordering books and articles from other universities.
Remember to keep it academic. The library search is the easiest way to be sure. Wikipedia articles and random websites are often questionable and not considered to be academic. If you do choose to use Wikipedia, stick closer to the references at the bottom of the page and use the original sources, such as books, journals and interviews with the original critics or authors.
Pull out quotes that you feel are most relevant, note down where they are from and, if necessary, summarise their argument. Explain what point of yours that they support. Analyse the primary quote if this is a close reading; comment on the argument’s validity if this is a critical review. Try to keep quotes below 20 words each unless you plan to analyse something more deeply. Remember when writing to try to integrate the quotes into your argument; now is a good time to start.
I don’t recommend my 1000 open tabs strategy, however sometimes there is just no other way to keep all the relevant material open unless you have physical copies of every book from the library. It is my recommendation, however, that you keep your relevant sources close, either open, bookmarked, or copy down the links of everything that you take quotes from as you go, noting down the author next to the quotation so you can easily find or reference the material later on. Bibliographies take a good while longer if you leave them until the end, even if it seems a shame to pause from the research that you’re deep into.
Try not to go too deep into a hole of research if it becomes irrelevant to your assignment, unless you feel that it will add to your essay in some way. It’s sometimes helpful to keep reminding yourself of your title. You’ll have all the time in the world for personal research when you no longer have assignments; make note of the things you want to read to come back to later.
Step 5: Organisation
You should now have some kind of collection of quotations and notes, but you may still feel very far away from completing the essay. Here is your time to plan out what your paragraphs will be and to sort your notes and quotations into those paragraphs, then into a logical order that you would like to address them.
Parts that you are unsure of including can be thrown at the bottom until you need them (or choose to delete them).
Introductions and Conclusions
To write an introduction, I always introduce the primary text(s), stating the title(s) and author(s). I often summarise what each paragraph of my essay will cover. If you’ve done your organising as above, you probably already have some idea of this and can make a start. Don’t worry about solidifying your introduction until you’ve written the rest of your paragraphs and conclusion. You may change your mind partway through. Try to give an impression of what you will be trying to argue.
The conclusion should link very closely to your introduction, concluding the findings of what you planned to explore. It is good to have notes here now, but better to write this at the end, going over your essay and summarising each of the main points of analysis that YOU made by looking at evidence within the essay.
Your conclusion should sway to one side of an argument or the other and very rarely remain passive (if you do so, you must explain why), though it is also important to include acknowledgements to the other side of the argument.
Step 6: Continued Research and Writing
It’s time to turn the notes into words and substantial paragraphs. If you’ve done sufficient research and organisation, you already have some kind of word count and your argument is already building up, all ready for you to fill in the gaps.
Some points might need shuffling around as you write, but you’re getting somewhere. As you write, you may require more specific evidence to back up your points, which will require more research as you go.
Stick to your word counts. If footnotes don’t count towards your final word count, they can be a good way to add extra information to your essay.
Do I use ‘I’? Often, the answer is no in academic essays, though obviously everyone has very different styles of writing. But the simple answer is that we already know this is your opinion; you are the one writing it, after all. The benefits of omitting ‘I’ include a stronger sounding argument by removing personal bias and allowing you to write in favour of arguments that you don’t necessarily stand for yourself.
Step 7: References and Bibliography
If you have been referencing or making a list of sources during your research, this step will take a lot less time and usually only need a little bit of a cleanup to standardise formatting. Stick to whatever guide you’ve been given, right down to every individual comma.
Step 8: Editing and Proofreading
A quick read through after finishing is the first step. However this is probably an essay that you’ve been staring at for hours at a time and you can’t even pick out the most obvious mistakes in sentences any more. Your eyes tend to read what they want to read at this point.
SLEEP ON IT.
Look at it with fresh eyes in the morning or later the next day. You’ll be surprised at how much more you can pick up. I would also suggest getting a peer to read through your essay just to check for simple mistakes such as incorrect spelling or grammatical errors that you may have missed simply from staring at the same piece of work for so long.
- Are your dates correct?
- Are your points backed up with evidence?
- Are your quotations explained sufficiently?
- Are the citations correct?
- Are all your quotations referenced?
- Are your titles italicised?
- Is your punctuation correct?
- If you have chosen to capitalise a specific word, such as Gothic, is it capitalised throughout the essay?
- Are your spellings correct – e.g. have you spelt Percy Shelley with two ‘l’s?
- Are long quotations formatted correctly? With MMU Harvard, they need indenting and italicising
Step 9: Formatting
I do this at the end because single line spacing and Calibri font is easier for me to work on, though many will choose to do this at an earlier stage. I also like the satisfied feeling of it looking finished once it is all formatted.
This is the step where you double space, change the font to one that is recommended (I use Times New Roman) and make sure that it’s the correct size. For longer essays, the pages sometimes have to be numbered, which can be easy or a chore, depending on if you need multiple types of numbering (you may need to learn to use page breaks).
If you haven’t already, check that longer quotes are indented if they need to be so.
Step 10: Submission
I like to give a little bit of time before submitting an essay, in case you remember something that you really need to change or add. But if you really just need it get it out of the way and out of your mind, submit it as soon as you’re happy with the editing.
Of course this is not the same for every style of deadline, however this was my personal process when writing university assignments at BA level. I hope to adapt my method even further the longer I am studying for my Master’s, in order to reduce stress leading up to tight deadlines in future.
It seems like a daunting process to start with, but once you begin, you’ll feel much better about it. We’re all in the same boat, going through the same struggle, but I believe in you to get it in on time.
What is your personal process when writing university assignments or what tips would you give new students that you wish you knew when starting university?