How To Write A College/University Essay

Originally published on December 9th, 2009, this article is directed to college and university students about how to write an essay. It is based on Chapter six of a book I wrote (see my About header page), but also includes up-to-date technical resources for keeping track of references and/or inserting them directly into their text. See, for example, this google page.

(1) Preliminary Research: Be Prepared

  • Collect sources.
  • Write notes.
  • Keep track of ideas and quotes.
  • Keep source information, like book or journal titles, authors, publisher, location, page numbers.
  • Decide on what method or software you will use for footnotes and/or in-text references (e.g., Microsoft Word).

This is the time you take down preliminary notes and quotes. You are at the university library or your computer and are ready to get down to business. Just relax and don’t make the mistake of writing too much. Just keep short notes on some key phrases and main points. When recording quotes or someone else’s ideas, make sure to record all the source information — such as the title of the book or journal article, author, publisher and date and page numbers. Otherwise, it takes much more time later trying to re-locate the same sources. Moreover, you must have those recorded to avoid any accusations of plagiarism.

The issue of references and bibliography will come up again, in components #5 & 9 but at this point, just make sure all the research sources are listed on a steno pad or post-it notes for inclusion as you write, as well as at the end of the writing process when you are editing the reference and/or bibliography pages.

Do not feel guilty if you cannot read everything. In fact, it is next to impossible to do so. So, read the table of contents and the index for key words and phrases. If a journal article, read the abstract and first paragraph and concluding statements — and recommendations if there are any.

(2) Get organized — Develop System to Compile

  • Use post-it notes on blank paper, possibly colour coding key points.
  • Use a point-form list or index cards.
  • Use the Inspiration, Zotero or similar software.
  • Prioritize and sequence your main ideas.

Now that the preliminary research is done and you have your sources, you will need a format or strategy for keeping track of what you will need in order to write your essay. Put everything out in front of you on your desk or study carrel and then start a flowchart, a simple point-form list, or simply use a blank sheet of paper and a package of the small post-it notes.  

Or, use software. As mentioned under “Background” above, there are excellent management software programs — such as  “Inspiration” or Zotero, that will allow you to make lists, mind maps or flowcharts — and then automatically sequences your ideas for you. As well, here is an Internet site with every imaginable type of organizer.

Once the organizer is finished, to this point at least, sequence your ideas or points of argument. In other words, what point do you want to make first, second, third and so on.

(3) Determine the “So What” of Your Research

  • Use the W5/H strategy to define the issue or problem.
  • Why is the theory, issue, theme important or relevant?
  • Where can the information be used or useful?
  • What is the data suggesting?
  • When is it important?
  • Who will it affect?
  • How can we gain in knowledge?

You have organized your data, but you have not yet figured out your focus or slant. This is the time many university students get off the track and this is what is different from a high school level essay. Specifically, the point of any academic paper is to analyze something or come to some kind of conclusion — not simply to parrot what others have written or what the professor has said in class. It’s the process where you define the problem, the point of the essay.

For example, lets say it’s a psychology course and the topic chosen is  Piaget’s theory of child development.” You can do all your preliminary research on the features of that theory, such as adaptation, assimilation and accommodation, as well as the stages/transitions of cognitive development. But, none of that data is about the problem or the so-what.

The “so-what” is why you are writing about Piaget’s cognitive developmental theory — such as saying that without a firm understanding, an ECE or primary teacher would not be able to develop his or her curriculum effectively. In other words, their understanding of  Piagetian theory would guide their practice. And, therein lies the key focus.

(4) Translate/Rehearse What You Want To Write

  • Explain your ideas to a study partner.
  • Tape-record what you want to say.
  • Listen to the tape. Re-record if necessary.
  • If no tape-recorder, somehow translate your notes into spoken sentences.
  • This is about rehearsing what it is you want to write about.

This is what is different about my model for writing an essay. Before you ever start to write, you need to somehow verbally rehearse and repeat out loud what it is you want to write about and why.

Now, the reason for this step is to get your own voice — literally and figuratively — into your material. There are a couple of ways you can do this. Work with a study partner somewhere private. Talk  into a tape-recorder so you can listen back to what you wrote and then be able to record again and again, as needed. Or call someone you know on the telephone or via the Internet and run your ideas by them. Ask them to remain silent until you are finished and then ask them if they have any questions. If they do, you will know you need to rethink your focus.

(5) Review Material Following Rehearsal 

  • Review your notes and sequence.
  • Make any changes that are necessary.

Once this rehearsal is done, go back to your organizer and notes and revise what needs to be changed or updated. Then, put your organizer, list or sequence of post-it notes in front of you, even all across the top of the computer monitor if that works.

(6) Start Writing: The Introduction

  • Simply start writing.
  • Just get words down on the page.
  • Explain what you are going to do in the paper.
  • Review that you have covered all your points.

Using your sequence of ideas or points, write a complete and thorough introduction. Remember to include what the purpose of the paper is — again based on the format of your academic discipline (e.g., the social sciences have a different focus than the humanities or engineering).

Then, just start writing. Don’t try to make it perfect. Just get ideas down. You can always go back later and rewrite and revise. In fact, that is how writing works. Writing is a draft, editing and then more writing. In other words, writing is a process.

(7) Write the Body of the Essay

  • Use the points in the introduction and start writing.
  • Remember to use quotes just as defence, not as the main voice in the paper.
  • Use examples to prove your points.
  • Write freely, not worrying about number of paragraphs.
  • Depending on the length expected, expand or reduce information as necessary.
  • Do not simply pad. Make the information count.
  • Make note of references and/or footnotes as you write and keep track of the bibliography as you go.

Now, ignore formulas here. I am not going to tell you to write one or two paragraphs about each point. Professors will find that sort of technique disjointed. Moreover, don’t simply put in unrelated information simply to pad the word count.

Remember too that an essay is not a series of quotes put together with a few words. An essay is about your ideas and your interpretation of what other people have quoted. The quotes are simply to back up and defend what you have already said in your own words. Give examples of your ideas if that is appropriate. Do that for all your points.

How much you write and how many examples you provide will depend on the length of the essay expected. If the essay is 1000 words, two points will likely be enough. Whereas, 2500 words would require five or six points in depth.

Also remember, as listed in the bulleted points, make sure to add references and foot notes as you write using the correct format for your discipline. For example, the social sciences use APA, while the humanities use the MLA Style Sheet (e.g., this online version) or Turabian. (See this source for most styles).

(8) Write the Summary & Conclusion

  • Restate the introduction, but not word for word.
  • Make sure you actually did what you said you were going to do.
  • Finish with a concluding statement.

A summary is not a conclusion. A summary is a restatement of your introduction said in such a way that is confirms you have done what you said you would do. For example, “as stated at the start of this paper….”

The conclusion is a statement or two that says what you learned from this analysis or presentation. And, usually begins with: “Therefore…..” Which brings us back to the “so-what” question again. Every aspect of scholarship, no matter what the discipline, is done for a reason. Just remember, you are writing about some small part of some topic within that bank of knowledge. 

(9) Verify References & Prepare Bibliography

  • Have the format for your academic discipline handy.
  • Make sure you know what to include.
  • Edit for everything from capitals to correct punctuation.
  • Review and verify references, footnotes and prepare bibliography.

It is assumed that you have been keeping track of your reference materials all along per point # 1 (Preliminary Research — Be Prepared), as well as when you were writing the body of the essay.  Because if you haven’t, the entire writing project will come to an abrupt halt.

Rather, at this stage, it should just be a question of you making sure all the references are in the essay are accurate and in their proper location. Then, you will have to prepare the reference and/or bibliography page, either using a management system like Zotero, or the old fashioned way, by simply typing it out or cutting and pasting using your discipline’s format.

No matter which method you use, my point here is that there should be no short cuts to this final process of preparing your list of sources and/or citations. Yet, all to often marks are lost in this final area of a paper. So, just remember that it is as important as the rest of the paper.

(10) Revise & Edit

  • Re-read the entire paper.
  • Revise where necessary.
  • Do a final spell & grammar check.

Now, it is time to go back and reread and rewrite. By the time you finish, you will know what you have forgotten. Add that information by all means, but make sure you also modify the introduction, body and summary, and, possibly, the conclusion. Don’t forget to do a final spell and grammar check, as well as re-check of your references and bibliography details.

In fact, if there is time, leave the paper for 24 hours and then go back and reread it. Chances are you’ll make further changes even at that point.

University students & the problem of writing essays

How to write an essay! It is obvious, given the complaints in this column that university professors are having to teach or re-teach their students how to write. What that seems to suggest is that our secondary schools are not preparing students for the expectations of university rigor.

The problem, I believe, is that high school teachers are using rather simplistic templates (such as the “hamburger mode“) with the result that sentences and paragraphs tend to be short, padded and disconnected to the argument or description — perhaps not even defining a problem or answering the “so what” question.

As a result, I am working on a multi-sensory written language model (based on my book) that I used when I was in private practice, as well as with my university students. 

That model is based on writing protocol research done in the 1980’s by Linda Flower and John R. Hayes, still relevant today and involves: (1) pre-planning, (2) translating (writing), and (3) reviewing/editing. See, for instance, the sources on this Google site, as well as on this Illinois Weslayan University page.

However, where my model differs is when the pre-planning and organizing of research sources and ideas are finished — which, by the way, can really be expedited by a software program called Inspiration — the translating part begins with tape-recording, as opposed to jumping right into writing. 

For example, with the pre-planning information in hand, the student simply “talks” the information into a tape-recorder, as though they were giving a speech. While it may take more than one go-round, once completed the student simply has to transcribe (with ear buds) their verbal version into a written format which becomes the “body” of the paper. They then add an introduction and conclusion and edit and revise so that everything is connected from start to finish.

Ontario high schools SHOULD be teaching grammar

I received an e-mail from a regular reader yesterday who explained that her daughter had just graduated from high school and was about to start university in September — without the English grammar and spelling abilities one might expect — and wondered how she would survive university without those skills.

It was also explained to me that she, the mother, had asked her daughter’s high school teachers over the years about why her daughter wasn’t being taught distinct grammar and spelling.  In response she was always told they, high school teachers, didn’t have to do that. That whatever spelling and grammar she learned as a distinct subject would have been done, or at least should have been done, at the elementary level. Since that didn’t seem to have happened, the mother asked for my recommendations.

First of all, you can’t start from scratch. You can’t go back to the junior grades once your son or daughter is eighteen.  So, once your children graduate from high school with the required marks and credits to get accepted into a Canadian university, it is best to deal with where they are at right now.

As such, my first recommendation was that her daughter make sure she take part in her university’s orientation “essay” writing and related courses because some grammar and spelling would be included, if only in a contextual way.

Secondly, I recommended the family purchase a technological aid called the “Franklin Spelling Ace” (with prices ranging from $35.00 up to $150.00.), available at most tech stores such as Best Buy, Future Shop or the Source.  There are other brands but I have found they don’t work nearly as well as the Franklin.  The small phonetic spell checker is # SA-207A (half-way down the link’s page) and is also available on various Internet sites — just google “Franklin Spelling Ace.” (And, by the way, I unfortunately don’t have anything to do with Franklin Electronics.)

The Ace is completely phonetic and there is a more expensive version ($130.00 and up) that also has a “speaking” dictionary, so a student can make sure they have the right word, based on the meaning. The one I used when I taught university could be turned off when in the university library studying. 

The simple palm sized Ace works as follows: Let’s say you want to find the word “physician,” all you have to do is type in how it sounds, “fizishun,” and bingo you’ve got the right word.

Now, back to high schools not having to teach grammar and spelling. As it turns out, Ontario’s high school English teachers SHOULD be teaching courses about those topics. For example, I paid a visit to the Ontario Ministry of Education website — and I assume other provincial departments are similar — and what I found were several English curriculum documents that are applicable.

Here is the link. I won’t repeat what is there but I recommend parents who have high school aged children, read what is there or check out your own provincial or territorial department of education. Because if you are being told that high schools don’t or are not required to teach grammar, that information would be wrong.

Funny also that when I taught university undergraduate courses I had a complete class on grammar and spelling strategies when writing research and related reports and/or essays. And, I always included !0% for presentation as part of each written assignment’s grade. With grammar and spell checkers on every word processing program available, there simply should be no excuses!

In other words, if students don’t have the requisite writing skills, they need to learn them in whatever way they can and if that means taking non-credit short length courses or using tech aids, then they need to do what is necessary.

However, that said. To both elementary and high school teachers: There should be no such thing as “it should have been taught earlier.” Every individual matures at a different level. If high school and university kids need some guidance in this regard, it is our responsibility as educators to see that they learn the skills needed in our society to be able to read and write effectively.

Afterall, isn’t literacy (reading and writing and all that involves) and numeracy what school is all about or should be all about?

Update: Thanks to the regular reader who provided the tip, here also is an excellent resource for checking at what level your young child is spelling. Plus it provides some tips and other related information.