Writing An Academic Essay
Writing academic essays is difficult, and writing good academic essays is very difficult. Yet because writing academic essays is essentially a process, there are several easy-to-follow guidelines that help this process be less arduous while improving results.
These guidelines can be applied to every form of academic writing, including essays, term papers, dissertations, compositions, and so on. They are appropriate for every academic subject and every education level, including high school, college and graduate studies. Fortunately, the guidelines are also straightforward, and realizing their collective benefit merely requires that the student be a conscientious writer, not a great writer.
1. Review all of your essay objectives to clearly understand the nature and scope of your project.
There is an adage that “if you don’t know where you’re going, then any road can take you there”. This applies directly to writing an academic essay, because everything starts with knowing exactly what you’re trying to accomplish. For example, typical important objectives include the subject matter, analytical methods and scope, essay length, type and number of sources, writing styles, due date, and so on. Many such objectives are likely to be explicitly included in your instructor’s written and verbal descriptions of your writing assignment. If something seems important but is not explicitly addressed, it could be best to discuss with your instructor.
But in addition to those objectives assigned by your instructor, you should also set your own, especially where there is a risk of open-ended analysis. For example, if your assignment is to assess the contributions of George Washington as a founding father, you might decide to only consider the period preceding his presidency. In any event, at minimum you should probably set your own process objectives, such as interim deadlines for completing your research and writing initial drafts.
2. Begin critical documentation as soon as you start your project.
There are two types of documentation you should initiate simultaneously with reviewing all your essay objectives, as discussed in #1 above. One is an outline that records your most important findings and conclusions and organizes them as you expect to present them in your final essay. This outline will likely begin as a page or less, and will dramatically expand and change as you learn more about your topic. Nevertheless, an early outline is an essential and invaluable guide to focus your analysis, organize your thoughts, and track the most important elements of your final essay.
The other critical documentation is your collection of research notes about sources, findings, and conclusions. Even if you have not yet have begun formal research, you are likely to have initial thoughts and opinions that you want to remember. The most important of these notes eventually will be organized into your outline.
3. Develop and execute your research strategy.
Academic essays invariably require you to research your topic, and it is your research strategy that drives your essay’s grade-producing findings and conclusions. Although a research strategy need not be entirely written, it should identify specific issues you want to examine, identify specific sources of information that address those issues, and summarize how you intend to collect and analyze that information.
Unfortunately, if your assignment does not specify information sources to use, locating appropriate ones can be an overwhelming task in this age of broad and readily accessible information. Thus, you need to quickly filter your way through the clutter. As a first filter, look for sources that will pass academic muster because they are fact-based, not opinion-based. These sources are readily found in colleges, universities, reputable “think tanks”, and certain government agencies. They may also be found in private and public organizations devoted to fact-based study of particular topics, such as historical societies, technical associations, and even industry and trade associations. In fact, you’ve hit a mother lode of interest if you find credible non-academic sources that challenge a prevailing consensus within academia.
You also may be fortunate to have access to “primary” as well as “secondary” sources of information. A primary source typically would be an individual subject matter expert, whereas a secondary source would be the written and oral renderings of that expert. Generally speaking, most academic essays rely on secondary sources, so including one or more credible primary sources may favorably distinguish your essay.
4. When you begin to draw conclusions, begin to draft your essay.
Even if you have developed superb findings and conclusions based on impeccable research, your essay likely will be graded as marginal if you cannot explain it all. So, unless you’re a naturally gifted writer, the quality of your explanation will be proportional to how much time, effort, blood, sweat and tears that you invest in writing and rewriting it. Sadly, the best measure of this investment is the number of drafts that actually advance your readers’ understanding of your explanation.
The sooner you get started on explaining your analysis, the more time you have to implement the inevitable refinements that make your writing more intelligible. And a hidden benefit is that these serial drafts force you to reexamine your own efforts until you are understood – and appreciated – by even the most jaded instructor.
5. Reduce your final task to packaging a flawless submission.
An academic essay is a unique combination of intellectual rigor and project management along with the special packaging produced by writing skills. One important purpose of good writing skills is to make your essay accessible by and intelligible to non-scholars, and it is altogether appropriate that this is one measure of the quality of your essay..
To refine the quality of your essay’s writing, it would be prudent that, by one week prior to your submission deadline, your essay be complete in every respect but packaging. Then use that last week to explicitly address such writing issues as style, grammar, rhetoric, economy of exposition and other elements of the writers’ craft.