How to write an upper first class essay
This is not an essay guide. This article will not tell you how to structure a basic essay. You will not find information here on how to put together a standard response, indistinguishable from all the other standard responses your weary tutors have been compelled to read over the years.
No. This is a set of simple instructions on how to write an essay that stands out, that excels, that is, quite simply, the best.
During your academic career, you will have written enough essays to paper the walls and you could probably write a guide book yourself on how to achieve the mediocre. Yet, you know that, good as your work is, it has never quite fulfilled your potential. You have frequently begun essays knowing that this was going to be the one that finally reflected what you wanted to say on the subject addressed in a new and original yet still specific way - but the end result, even if it has achieved a good grade has failed to contain that special gloss that is the hallmark of an essay that excels.
You know that the means to write an essay that is truly impressive has always seemed within your reach but frustratingly, for reasons you have never quite identified, remained beyond your grasp.
This article will tell you why, and how you can change your essays from simply sufficient to practically perfect and the first place you look is in own your past work.
Marking the Mundane
It may seem harsh to say this but if you have not achieved the quality of writing for which you have always longed, the fault lies partly with lack of effort. Yes, you work hard but to excel above the crowd you need to work harder than the crowd:
- You must want success more than the rest
- You must banish the words ‘that will do’ from your vocabulary
- You must do more research than required - much more than your colleagues
- You must write perfect English as naturally as you breathe
- You must not only read and understand questions thoroughly but identify approaches of response that are so closely allied to the evidence as to be unique in their perspective and presentation.
If this sounds too difficult, stop reading, you will never know the pleasure of writing an elegant sentence let alone a superbly structured essay if you haven’t got the ‘three Ds’: desire, determination and distinction.
If you are still reading, however, then it is only a matter of time before you write the essay that will set you apart from the rest and your own previous efforts should tell you where you have failed in the past as well as where you can succeed in the future.
Look critically at your past work, step by step and try to identify why what appeared on the page was nowhere near what you envisaged in embryo.
Start by looking at the opening sentence and ask yourself the following questions:
- Did I grab the reader’s attention?
- Did I attack the topic with enthusiasm from the first?
- Did I not only make it difficult not to read on but impossible?
If you are being truly objective, you know that the answer to these questions is a resounding, ‘No’!
So, how do you change that? How do you make your first sentence unexpected yet relevant, academic yet appealing and simple yet effective?
Look at what you have actually written. Did you basically just repeat the title or did you interpret it, giving the implication, even at this early stage, of the method you would use and the stance you would take?
Have a look at how this article started. It took you by surprise precisely because it inverted your expectations: by telling you what you were not going to get, the structure made you want to know what you were going to get. What’s more, it worked because you are still reading, aren’t you? Literary technique is not just for novelists, it works just as well in academia, you will find - take a look at any academic textbook and you will see the truth of this at once.
When you realise the importance of perspective nuance in composing an essay that excels you are well on the way to achieving it and leaving behind the mediocre. After all, just think how important perspective is in fiction: ‘Cinderella’ is a very different story if told from the perspective of an ‘Ugly Sister’!
Well, we may not be writing fairy tales but capturing the interest and imagination of your reader is as important in structuring an argument as in a story, as is your acknowledged stance.
This we discover in the thesis statement which, like most of what you need to excel, is very different in a superb essay from an average one and it appears in the introduction, as you know, so now we have looked at the opening sentence, let’s move on to that most overlooked of features in an essay, the introduction.
There is not as much difference as you might think between writing a piece of fiction, or indeed a journalistic feature, and writing an essay – at least, not in the best of each form, as in all of these genres of expression you are ‘telling a story’ that aims to persuade, entertain and, to a greater or lesser extent, inform.
It is well known that most readers make up their minds about whether or not to read a piece of writing within the first few moments of glancing at it and although your academic ‘reader’ will be compelled to read your work, since that is part of their means of assessing you, there is no reason why this should prevent you from making that responsibility enjoyable. After all, if you do, they are that much more likely to see your work as different from the other work they are reading on the same subject.
Part of this is the engagement spoken of earlier in relation to the first sentence. As the introduction develops, this engagement should be maintained and extended, especially within the thesis statement.
Of course, you are familiar with thesis statements as an expression of your response to the question but in an essay that excels, this is not enough. In the truly brilliant essay, the introduction switches on the light which illuminates the topic. You can do this in several ways but one of the most impressive is again related to perspective. Try to take a different and intriguing position wherein the theme, methodology and concept at the root of the essay combine to provoke both a positive response in the reader and seamlessly move them into the main body.
Deep research will help with this because it compels you to think more widely and profoundly as you perceive the marked differences not only between critics but between stylistic approaches. In other words, your comprehensive research should be discernable by the implicit in your thesis statement.
Take for example an essay on Dickens’ semi-autobiographical David Copperfield. You might begin this by stating something like this:
Dickens’ ‘favourite child’ was a troubled one, reflecting the distress of his own haunted life.
You can see if you look closely at this that in just one sentence the reader learns that:
- You are sufficiently familiar with the novel to quote simply and tellingly from the author’s revealing Preface
- You have read sufficiently widely on Dickens to know that his own life inspired the work
- That he considered this novel his ‘favourite’
- That his life, despite his success was ‘haunted’
- That you have perceived and formed a connective between ‘fact’ and ‘fiction’ which the essay will develop.
Thus, you have covered your theme, your research, your methodology and your sensitive, inferential perspective of the subliminal in just fifteen words.
What’s more, your reader will want to know the answers to all those implied questions (such as just why he was ‘haunted’ by his past) and this will compel them to proceed to reading the main body of your stunning essay!
Now you have whetted the appetite of your reader with the ‘stimulating starter’, it is time to serve up the ‘excellent entrée’ – the main body of your essay.
This article takes for granted that you know how to structure an essay, that paragraphing effectively and correctly comes naturally to you and that you would, by reason of experience, automatically link the different sections of your work by connecting sentences.
All of this is familiar territory but what we are engaged in here is breaking new ground so although these established features of an academic essay must be retained, you must now look for new and more original ways of developing the central argument if you are to excel.
This relies heavily on your ability to quote and analyse.
In the past, you will have used quotation and analysis basically to support the main points of your argument. You will have acquired the skill to argue effectively and to strengthen that with the augmentation of appropriate referencing.
That was in the past. Now, in your pursuit of that ‘extra something’ you need to use that evidence quite differently. In fact, as with so much that lifts the ordinary to the superlative, you need to invert the traditional process.
In this case, that means that instead of building an argument to which evidence is supplementary, you look to the evidence as primary.
In effect, you extract from your reading not only the means to locate and fortify your central structure but also the resource, via analysis, to follow new and original paths.
In fact, you have already seen evidence of how this can be achieved from the way an introductory sentence can combine all the essential elements of excellence in an interesting introduction. Now, you must look further into this line of research by analysing everything you find and trying to seek out:
- What is present
- What is missing
- How you can fill the gaps.
By using evidence from your reading in this way, you involve yourself with a text on a deeper and more profound level than can ever be achieved by simply quoting superimposed evidence and moreover you trace links between bodies of thought to which this imaginative use of evidence is adding.
In fact, you are beginning to read and write like a professional and as you would at postgraduate as well as undergraduate level.
Like the introduction, the capacity for excellence in a conclusion is often crucially, and devastatingly, overlooked by the otherwise excellent essay writer, leading to the impression that you have now become tired of the topic and simply want to rid yourself of it. The result of this is that all the hard work you have put into compiling a superb essay simply tails off leaving the reader unsatisfied.
Of course, you know that you have to summarise and synthesise the argument in your conclusion but in the essay that excels you need to go further than that, you need to give some idea of the nature of the implications of what you have uncovered and proceed, then to outline how future research might address these.
This achieves two important imperatives of excellence:
- It shows that you are aware of the limitations and location of what you have covered in the present work.
- It shows the reader that you do not see the work as entirely complete, since there is much more to be said on the subject.
Both of these emphasise the fact that you are an essay writer who can go further and, if this is an undergraduate essay, can make your assessor begin to consider you as a candidate for postgraduate study. Even if this final point is not your goal, giving the impression that for you it is a possibility should be your aim as part of the excellence to which you aspire and which, ultimately, is in your hands.
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