Friday, 10 October 2008

How to Write an Essay

No, this is not an article on how to write an essay. There are plenty of those around - in fact there are several on the RLF website - and I don't see any need to add to the number. Besides, it's not a subject I actually know very much about!

It seems to me that I harp on about this a bit, but that's one of the oddities of this job. I'm here to teach people how to do something that I'm not sure I know how to do myself.

Of course that's not entirely true. I can write essays, and I know that because I have a degree which means I must have done it well enough to get through. But I can't say that I ever approached the subject with any real thought to developing an academic style. I just tried to answer the question as it was put.

Now I mentioned all the guides to writing essays that the RLF has published and I have read some of them, but I can't say there's much in there to alter my view of how to do it. It's not that I don't recognise that there is a distinct academic manner of putting things or that there are some technical aspects to academic writing that must be learned, such as referencing. I can draw a student's attention to these things, of course, but beyond that I run into what I think is an inescapable limitation.

I can't ask a student to write something that I can't understand! Which means I have to approach the subject in very concrete terms. I tell them to start by explaining the thing they are writing about, and then discuss it - hoping that a conclusion will flow logically from what precedes it and so almost write itself.

Now, this may be all back to front. I know some tutors suggest writing the essay backwards, so that the introduction comes last, as a kind of preview of what follows, but I'm not convinced that's such a good idea. Of course if a tutor insists you could always summarise the whole essay in a paragraph or two at the beginning (though I as a mere non-academic don't really see the point) but how does that help get an essay started? It seems to me that you have to have something concrete to base your argument on, as otherwise all you'll end up with is waffle.

I suppose I shall change my mind when a posse of angry lecturers appears outside my office!

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