The write stuff

14th November 2003 at 00:00
For trainees of the mature variety, crafting an essay can seem especially daunting. But don't panic, says Sara Bubb, who offers advice

If you've had a break from studying, one of your greatest challenges will be writing an essay. First, there's the reading. Diving into a research book and working through to the end is usually unnecessary and wastes time.

Be clear about what kind of information you want to find, and why. Look for relevant sections and make judicious use of the contents page, introduction and index. Scan headings and summaries. Search the TES archive ( to find up-to-date articles on your topic. Skim-read so that you focus on the most useful parts of the work, the key points.

Making notes not only helps you summarise information and ideas, it also assists concentration and absorption into the memory. Spot and record key words or concepts.

Mind-maps are particularly useful. We quickly forget most of what we read, so put the book down and try to jot down key ideas. Don't take masses of notes or write lots of quotations. Summarise in your own words and jot down page numbers so you can reference ideas and go back to the book if necessary.

You may sympathise with these comments on essay-writing from a secondary PGCE student in English: "Finding my time-management appalling and writing my first assignment well nigh impossible, I completely lack the power to edit and be discriminating. I have read far too many essays in edited books and have lost the power to think and articulate for myself on the heady question of the literacy strategy objectives in Years 6 and 7."

This paralysis from reading too much is common. What you need to do is to close all the books, then consider what the question requires and what you think. Write down the points you want to make, then think of examples from your school experience and other people's views that you've read about. Put them into some logical order so that you develop an argument.

Academic referencing can be a nightmare of tedium if you fail to keep a list of everything you've read in the required format. Start a file of references in alphabetical order so that you can copy them into an assignment at a later date. Check on the style that your course requires.

All right, now let's get down to writing that essay and getting further than the unfortunate PGCE student. Here are some pointers:

* The reader should hear your voice (use "I"). This may be different from the way you were expected to write as an undergraduate. Don't use jargon and buzz-words for their own sake. Say what you mean.

* Aim small: one paragraph at a time. Just write down your ideas and don't look back until you've finished a paragraph. Yes, it probably will look awful but don't try to edit straight away. Leave it overnight and you may well be more impressed with yourself. Once you've written what you think needs to be said, you can whizz through putting in references. Don't use too many quotations, but do make sure that you can't be accused of plagiarism - your lecturers will be able to spot ideas and phrases that you've "borrowed" without referencing.

* Weave theory and practice together. "The code of practice saysI about children with special needs. I consider these aims laudable, but I have found teaching an autistic boy in the mainstream classroom difficult."

* Leave the introduction and conclusion (the most important parts of the essay ) until last. How do you know what you're going to say until you've finished it? No matter how well you plan, your work will evolve.

Your introduction or abstract needs to guide the reader through your essay, so define any terms you're using, describe the context of the school experience you're drawing on, and briefly outline the structure of your writing.

Conclusions are hard. Sum up the key points you've made and perhaps try to end on a "what needs to be done next" note.

* Edit thoroughly. Keep to the word limit, though going over by 10 per cent is usually acceptable. Cut out waffle. Use the UK English grammar and spellcheck installed on your computer carefully, but don't rely on that alone. It won't pick up every error that you make.

A common crime is unsubstantiated assertion - "It is well known thatI " or "Girls learn to read more easily than boys". Who says so? You must attribute any assertion to someone or some institution or particular research. Make sure that any texts you've referred to are organised alphabetically in the references section.

* Leave it alone. Avoid the temptation to hone the essay to perfection.

Accept what is good enough to pass: that's all you need. Now spend your time getting ready for the next deadline.

When you get your essay back, don't just look at the grade. Read through the comments carefully and learn from them so that you get better and better. If they don't mind, read other people's essays - particularly ones deemed to be very good, so that you know what standard to aspire to.

Sarah Bubb is the author of 'A Newly Qualified Teacher's Manual: How to meet the Induction Standards', (David Fulton, pound;16)

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