Tips to write academic essays at university

Create systematically good writing assignments no matter the topic

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I have had to write many long essays and writing assignments during my 6 years at university. When I started at 18, I had little idea how to do this properly. I started building the house from the roof, added windows and rooms, and then I would realize the foundation was all wrong. I wasted many hours this way.

However, as the productivity nerd that I am, I have been developing a technique for this past years that works better and better. And to help the world avoid all those wasted hours, I thought I could explain my method.

I read the book ‘The card box principle’ by Sönke Ahrens, which is mostly about a revered sociology professor called Luhmann who collected 90k+ index cards over the course of his life. The book explains how Luhmann organized his note-taking in a scalable way that allowed him an unprecedented level of productivity with 30+ published books and 400+ published articles.

He accredited his success to a note-taking technique he developed, which he called the Zettlekasten (notes box in German) in which he placed A6-sized cards with short ideas generated while reading, each note being linked to other related notes, essentially creating a hyperlinked database.

If you’re interested in note-taking, you are writing a book or a thesis, or would like to improve your daily productivity, I recommend you read the author’s Quora answer or the book itself.

Unfortunately, there doesn’t seem to be a reliable open-source tool to follow this method in a digital way. I have had to develop my own analog note taking method but I have changed it so many times and unfortunately it has not been very successful. My writing method, however, I believe I can recommend.

In this post, I join the book’s ideas with my personal experience with academic writing during my Bachelor and Masters degrees in university. I will go through an example scenario, where you are asked to write an essay on a topic. I will detail how to research, obtain references, and build your essay step by step.

The problem

In one of your courses, let’s say ‘Introduction to computer science’, you are assigned to write a 15 page essay on sorting algorithms. You are new to the topic, and obviously have no idea what sorting algorithms are. Your deadline is in a month and you can’t imagine how you can write 15 long pages about a topic you know nothing about. Your stress levels go up.

“The oldest and strongest emotion of mankind is fear, and the oldest and strongest kind of fear is fear of the unknown” — H.P. Lovecraft

You are afraid of the assignment because you don’t know the topic. You will be tempted to postpone working on the assignment because you have other deadlines, other courses, but in reality you’re just afraid to start, you have no idea where to begin. Spend just an hour reading about it and your perception of the essay will be much more positive.

The first step: general research

The first step is to get a general idea of what the topic is about, its subtopics and related materials. Usually I go to the Wikipedia page of the topic, read the general sections and take notes in a separate document in my computer.

For instance, for the topic of sorting algorithms, in Wikipedia you will find the history of the topic, comparison of these types of algorithms, and then detailed explanations of several popular sorting algorithms.

After this quick read, you will more or less know what you need to research further. Maybe you don’t understand some concept mentioned here, or you need to spend some time really understanding one of the algorithms. But you have a plan to follow.

The second step: gathering materials

Don’t stick to the Wikipedia information, search more references and materials, articles and tutorials explaining sorting algorithms, books about algorithms where this is mentioned, etc.

Categorize each source and what topics it mentions, and write it in your document. Maybe one article talks about the historical development of sorting algorithms, another talks about algorithm efficiency and comparison of many methods, another explains how to implement these in Python. Write what each link or source talks about in your file.

The third step: make an outline

Once you have enough material, you can create an outline, which parts will your essay consist of. It will start with an introduction, a motivation, definition of sorting algorithms, their history, explanations of different algorithms, their differences, their complexity, their implementation in a programming language, possible applications for each one, and a conclusion.

You can see that when explaining algorithms and their characteristics (definition, efficiency, application, implementation), you can go as deep as you want, you can fill as many pages as you want. If you don’t reach your minimum length of the essay, you can add more depth to these algorithms (adding the implementation part, some figures, opinions of renowned programmers, etc.), or you can increase the length, adding more algorithms to the list.

The fourth step: write the trunk: the middle parts

Now you have the material, you know what you are going to write. I recommend starting from the middle parts, the thick parts. In this case that is the explanations of many sorting algorithms, and all the subparts for each.

This will be the longest part in the writing process, but it’s the main part. Once you do this, the rest are complements. And it will be easy to write this, since you don’t have to write from scratch, you can use your references.

When writing, go through your resources and references, and don’t copy and paste. Combine several references together, reformulate their ideas, write it with your own words. In essays like this, you are not expected to produce novel ideas, but you also should not directly copy from your references. You can give the essay your personal touch by combining several references, and rewriting the information with your own words and creating your own structure.

Remember to cite your references! And review everything when you finish, going through your text and looking for mistakes, inconsistencies, repeated concepts and everything that doesn’t look good to you.

The fifth step: write the leaves: the complements

The big part of your essay is already written. Now you can add the complements, the history, motivation, introduction and conclusion. In this part you will not be combining references, you will have to write text from your own mind, which will require more creativity.

You might get blocked and think: “But I don’t know what to put in the introduction”. Usually, with creative tasks, the most difficult part is starting. Just write anything, a vague paragraph about the topic you are writing about. Most probably, when you finish, you will think: “This is wrong, I should talk about this and this”. You already have something, and it is easier to modify something than to create something from scratch.

The final step: the big review

Your essay is mostly done. Read it from start to finish as your professor would, and try to find grammatical mistakes, weak points, redundant information, or improvements that one section might need.

Depending on your time and importance of your essay, you can also ask a friend to review it and give you their opinion. Pay attention to this opinion but in the end it’s your essay, you decide what to put in it.

Conclusion

With this method, you will get at least a good grade. You can’t get a bad grade because you have extensively gone through the references and resources of the topic, you have covered everything. You did what the teacher asked.

Whether you get a great grade or a good one depends on your information combining skills, your grammar, correctness and your ability when writing.

In essays from another disciplines such as humanities, the references and source materials are probably not so easily found. The information is not so clearly segmented. You will have to spend more time structuring your resources and creating your outline, but the main system and process is the same.

I hope my method helps you, and don’t hesitate to write me on Twitter for any comments or questions :)

Computerlinguistics master student trying to keep up with my reading list and an intermediate hipster. ane.bz