A good essay is more like a contestant on The Bachelor than you may have realised. Sure, you need some substance, but without structure and presentation, your essay ain’t getting no rose.
A good essay has structure that pulls the reader in and guides them to the end without struggle or confusion.
A good essay doesn’t fill the reader with horror upon first glace. When looking upon a good essay, the reader will smile sweetly and sigh in relief that the text they are about to read is separated by paragraphs.
The three very broad steps involved in writing an essay are:
- Reading the book or watching the film you need to write an essay on;
- Considering the themes/characters/setting or whatever aspect of the book or film or other media you are likely to be asked essay questions on; and
- Thinking about what structure and presentation of the substantive content is going to present your arguments and ideas in the most appealing way to your essay’s reader (ie, the person marking it!).
These three steps are equally important. If one of these steps is missing, you are going to have a very unhappy reader/examiner.
You might understand the deepest and most obscure or profound aspects of the book you have read or film you have watched, but if you present your essay in a way that is convoluted and illogical, the examiner will have no choice but to mark you down. At worst, a lack of structure and presentation might mean that your magnificent insight is lost on the examiner altogether.
How do you ensure your essay has structure?
If you’ve come across our material on essay writing before, you will know that we are obsessed with the SEXI structure.
S = statement (sometimes known as a ‘topic sentence’)
E = explanation
X = example
I = importance
This mnemonic is so simple and so effective for giving your essays the structure they desperately need.
Every paragraph of your essay should start with a one sentence statement about what the paragraph is going to be about. For example, The use of language by ‘Big Brother’ in Nineteen Eighty-Four is an important manifestation of the regime’s oppressive governance.
This is the bulk of your paragraph. Three to five sentences that explain why the use of language by ‘Big Brother’ in Nineteen Eighty-Four is an important manifestation of the regime’s oppressive governance. The bulk of your marks in an essay will come from your explanations.
Unless you’re a politician, we live in a world where you can’t just make stuff up. And to prove that you’re not just making stuff up in an essay, it is really important that you qualify the statements you make. A great essay will back up each explanation with at least one example that illustrates or proves the point being made.
This is the part of your paragraph that will take you from an okay grade to a I’m-so-happy-I’m-going-to-do-a-cartwheel-grade. The point of an academic essay is not simply to regurgitate facts and observations that anyone who has read the book or watched the movie would already know. The point is to provide the reader with an insight, or a connection, or a point that you can’t just get from the face of the words in the book or film. The really fantastic grades in essay writing come when you impress the reader, and this happens when you demonstrate critical thought. Use the last one or two sentences of your essay to demonstrate that you have understood something deeper about the book or film than appears on the surface.
How do you ensure your essays are presented effectively?
First of all, using the SEXI structure is going to kill two birds with one stone – structure and presentation in one go. Don’t make your examiner hate you before they’ve read a single word by not writing your essays in paragraphs.
Second of all, think about what order your essay paragraphs should be in. What order is going to make the essay read in the most logical and effortless manner?
Thirdly, think about the structure of your sentences. When writing practice essays, ready your essay out loud to yourself once you’re finished? Does it make sense? Or do you get lost and go off on random tangents mid-sentence?
Finally, we know it’s hard in the last half hour of an exam, when you’re rapidly running out of time, to write neatly. But for the sake of your precious marks, please try to write as neatly as possible. Don’t give your examiner a headache by trying to decipher your cryptic code. Help them like you and give them something they can read without straining.
As you can tell, these study techniques for giving your essays effective structure and presentation are simple, but put them to use in your essays from now on, and watch your grades skyrocket.
Photo credit: Kelly Teague