- Are you sweating at the thought of pulling a 1000 words out of your sleeve hours before the deadline?
- Do you avoid essay-writing at all costs, only to find yourself stressed and annoyed the night before your essay is due?
- Do leave papers to the last minute because they’re so hard?
No worries! I’ll show you how to make paper writing easier, if not enjoyable.
With the advice from straight-A students (from Cal Newport’s books) and a detailed breakdown of how I wrote my TOK essay (Theory of Knowledge for non-IB students), you’ll learn how to make this process work for you.
The Power of Three’s
Paper writing can be tough, but not as tough as most students make it. It’s easy to fall into the trap of drawing essay-writing out into a long and bloated process. To make our lives easier, we can divide paper writing into three separate components:
- Wider reading and identifying existing arguments on the topic
- Forming your own argument
- Communicating your argument clearly
I used to make the mistake of spending too much time on the writing and editing and too little on the research and overall structure of my essay. As Cal Newport puts it, “The sooner you dispel the notion that writing is the most important part of paper writing, the easier it will become for you to reap the benefits of the straight-A approach.”
The Top Thesis
The first part of the process is to choose a topic (if you haven’t already been assigned one by your teacher). The best way to find a compelling topic is to start thinking early. As soon as you know about the demands of paper, start thinking and reading about areas that pique your curiosity.
Write down these interesting ideas. It can be so easy to forget what you thought was a great topic, and you’ll want to kick yourself for letting that slip.
The next step is to find an intriguing thesis by exploring multiple angles of your topic. An ideal way to do this is to find existing arguments by published authors or researchers, and to look for focussed ideas that are not explored in detail by these writers.
To develop an interesting discussion based on your ideas, your thesis should have these four qualities: “It’s provocative, nuanced, direct and inclusive.”
Note that your thesis may evolve as you try to find arguments to support your ideas.
Formulating your argument
A good argument will:
- Define the context for discussion
- Introduce a compelling thesis in this discussion
- Support the thesis using evidence and careful reasoning, as well as evaluating and dispelling counter-arguments
- Conclude with possible extensions of the argument and the impact of the thesis on other areas
Depending on which subject you’re taking the overall structure of your essay may vary, but to help you with the writing, you’ll want to construct an outline that lists every point you might want to discuss in your paper. For short essays (1000-2000 words, I would recommend between two and three points per argument that supports the thesis).
You should separate the writing process from researching and editing. Writing requires focus, and after an exhausting morning in the library it will be hard to produce a great essay.
Use your outline to guide you in constructing your arguments, and most importantly WRITE. It’s easy to neglect the simplicity of this stage, so just write.
Editing is essential to avoid those silly typos and grammatical errors we all make during writing. But you don’t want to over-edit, three reviews of your work will do.
Review 1: Adjusting you Argument
Read through your entire essay on your computer to:
- Cut out repetitive sections
- Rephrase sentences to clarify ideas
- Add in more information to fully explain your points and facilitate transitions between topics and paragraphs
Sometimes you may find that a paragraph would be better in different section of the essay. Don’t be afraid to shift this as needed.
Review 2: Read out loud
Read the entire essay to yourself out loud. This helps you to catch awkward phrases you would have skimmed over when scanning your draft silently. “Something that looks fine on paper will jump out as strange or poorly worded when you hear it,” explains Jeremy from Dartmouth.
Review 3: Boosting your confidence
To ensure that something embarrassing didn’t slip through, make a quick pass through your printed copy before handing it in. You’ll catch any stray mistakes and hopefully the quality of your argument help you feel proud of what you’ve accomplished.
The Plan in Action
A few weeks ago, my TOK teacher asked our class to write a maximum of 1100 words on the essay question “Who am I?”
To come up with a compelling thesis, I went to the public library right after school, and browsed through the literature in the psychology and philosophy sections. I skimmed the content’s pages of multiple authors, and eventually settled for the book “Wer bin ich? Was treibt mich an?” (German book) by Anna-Maria Rumitz, which only covered the topic superficially, but nevertheless started my thought process through its thesis “Leben heißt Bewegung” or “Life is Movement”.
Coincidently, reading this thesis helped me come up with my own idea for a thesis, namely “I am infinity.” This phrase just struck me in the library, but at that point I had no idea what I would write about, or how I would justify my thesis.
After a brainstorming session in the park (I repeatedly asked myself why I am infinity until I had a few ideas), I came up with two points to support my argument:
- I am infinity from a biological perspective: cell multiplication in the human body as a mathematical infinity
- The influence of our identity on our environment can be seen as infinite. Our actions trigger reactions (actions in their own resort), which once again trigger actions.
I spent a couple of days thinking about ways to flesh out my argument, but only when I constructed an outline I found evidence to support these ideas (using a real life experience).
The next day, I wrote my essay, taking frequent breaks to refresh my mind, but after covering everything in my outline, I was shocked to find that I only had 500 words. I called it quits for the day, and later in the week I did some more research and brainstorming to come up with further ideas that raised my word count by 200 words.
I had only covered my points superficially, so I proceeded to the first stage of editing, in which I made sure to fully explain my points, increasing my overall word count by 250 words. The read-aloud pass revealed several more awkward phrases and after the final pass, I concluded the essay with 958 words.
This is quite far below the deadline, don’t you think?
Well, I decided to leave it at that, because I felt that I covered my argument succinctly and I did not want to add in meaningless fluff that could degrade the quality of my essay overall.
What I wished I had known in advance
Writing is quick if you have an outline
I never wrote essays using outlines, except for maybe fifth grade, when the teachers made us. I regret not using this method earlier, as it speeds up the writing process by millions and it really helps with the overall structure of an essay
I can usually explain myself in fewer words than I think I need
Upon completing my outline, I was afraid that I would go overboard with my word count, hitting a 2000 words or more, but after I actually typed up my ideas, I only had around 500 words. I’ll have to keep this in mind when drafting outlines in future.
Research is not a substitute for coming up with a thesis
I naively assumed that sifting through books would reveal a compelling thesis to me without thought. I was lucky to find a thesis quickly, but I’ll never mistake finding arguments that have already been discussed for coming up with my own ideas.
Finally there’s a few things I would change with Cal Newport’s approach to essay-writing to better suit my needs.
- I would outline in more detail, because for me writing is about linking ideas, not about coming up with them. This should help avoid getting stuck in the middle of my essay and meet the word counts.
- For longer essays, I will include a second out-loud pass to make sure that my ideas still make sense in combination after my edits.
- For TOK essays, I will not evaluate another author’s arguments before coming up with some ideas of my own, because otherwise I may be tempted to base most of my ideas off them.
Next time you have to write an essay, be sure to try the steps above. They really help you space out the daunting process of writing and perform at the top of your capabilities.
When you try this system on your next essay, please comment to let me know what you think of it! I always like to learn from you, and if you have other advice, I’d be eager to try it. Thank you.