The Stages of Writing an Essay

Writing an essay is not the same as drafting an essay. Drafting, or the actual typing of the words, is only one step in a series of processes which we collect under the umbrella phrase ‘essay writing’. If you overlook or undervalue any of these processes, your finished essay will suffer, and so will your mark.

The ten stages of writing an essay go like this.

Think about your Reader

It’s a small minority of people who write essays for fun. Most of us do so because we are working toward a qualification of some sort, and our essays are submitted for examination. In these cases, no matter how many people may read the essay, the audience is the examiner and it is their opinion that matters. The number one skill for students writing essays, therefore, is to get into the mindset of the examiner and write everything with a view to pleasing that audience.

Start with a harsh reality: examiners do not enjoy reading essays. In most cases, it will be summertime and the only thing stopping them from enjoying the beautiful weather will be a giant stack of essays all responding to the same question. However, the good news is that, because the best essays are also the easiest and quickest to mark, they really want your essay to be good. They want instantly to connect with your argument, even if they disagree with it, and know exactly what you’re trying to say. 

If an examiner is thinking ‘I don’t really follow this’, you’re losing marks at a rapid rate. On the other hand, if they are nodding in agreement, you will be scoring high marks right from the very start. The two key elements of achieving this are a clear structure and a concise introduction.

Be Organised

Good organisational skills are a transferable skill which you can apply to all aspects of your life, but they are rarely more vital than when presenting a detailed argument in writing. You are going to need a quiet, calm and clean working environment with space for you to spread out. If you can’t achieve this at home, think about alternative spaces which might be available to you, such as local libraries, student facilities or simply a relative’s house which is empty during the day. Be honest with yourself: a friend’s house might not be a good idea.

In order to be able to write an essay you are going to need time, so clear your diary and plan your time off. Take regular breaks away from your computer and try to get physical exercise and fresh air whenever possible. You don’t have to put your social life on hold completely, but you might want to think carefully about when and how you escape from your working routine. A sports class or a coffee with friends might be a good way to spend an hour off, but a late night at the students’ union won’t help your essay marks at all.

Get Focused

Always be honest with yourself about your working habits, good and bad. There is no point spending two hours working at 50% efficiency when you could work for one hour at 100% efficiency. To get the most out of the time you spend working and to maximise your essay marks, it’s time to face some inconvenient truths.

  • If you are still signed into social media, you’re not really working.
  • If the television is on, you’re not really working. 
  • If your room is in chaos, you’re not really working. 
  • If your friends are present but this is not a group assignment, you’re not really working. 
  • If you’re hungry, you’re not really working.
  • If you’re wired on caffeine, you’re not really working. 
  • If you’re on a sugar rush, you’re not really working. 
  • You get the picture…

There may be some items in this list which you don’t really agree with, and others which you feel could be right but which you don’t feel ready to adopt. You may even know people who do all of the above and still get decent grades. Well, that’s okay, and it is important that you take ownership of your own learning processes. However, if you continue to work with bad habits you will never reach your potential and know how well you could have done with the right working routine. Try it properly for one whole essay and see what happens.

Understand the Stages of Writing an Essay

There are several stages to writing a good essay, and I deal with them in greater depth elsewhere, but it is very important to understand what they are and how they fit together.

Think of your essay as something which has to be constructed – something which has to be built, carefully and systematically. For example, imagine you’re assembling flat pack furniture from an instruction manual. You can’t skip straight to page five and start titivating, nor can you stop half-way through and still have a finished product. You have start at the beginning and follow the method which the manual sets out for you. At times, it might seem like the instructions might be wrong, but generally this is a sign that you are rushing the process and need to go back to basics.

All this applies with essay writing. There are right ways and wrong ways to build an essay – and now there is an essay-writing instruction manual, too. To get a finished product which will stand up to scrutiny, you will need to follow the right method and never skip any of the stages.

The ten stages of writing an essay go like this:

  • Create the right working environment – as above.
  • Spend time interpreting the essay question – what are the keywords?
  • Research the topic before fixing an opinion – remain open-minded throughout.
  • Choose an appropriate structure for your essay – it will be the skeleton for your body of work
  • Draw up a detailed essay plan, setting out exactly what you are going to argue throughout your essay.
  • Draft your introduction, clarify what you will argue throughout your essay.
  • Draft the main body of your essay, section by section. Read each paragraph aloud as you go.
  • Draft your conclusion, avoiding the words ‘in conclusion’.
  • Edit your work, i.e. carry out any major changes
  • Print and proofread your essay several times over several days. Read aloud from hardcopy.