Preparing for an Essay: Top Tips & Tricks

Since starting my Masters, I have come to truly appreciate the value of a well planned essay. Looking back at the prep I did for my undergrad, for essays and even my dissertation, I am SHOCKED at how little I did. I would do simple bullet-pointed overviews of my main points, barely a page for each plan, and then I would just START WRITING. This may not sound *overly* shocking to some, but considering how detailed and layered my plans have now become, it seems like a world away to me.

I cannot stress enough how helpful it is to take the time to prep for your essay properly, from researching to planning it is so much easier when it is all ready for you. I honestly wish it hadn’t taken me so long to realise, but it makes the actual writing process a lot less stressful and time consuming. I’m aware I won’t have the perfect process for everyone, as we all work differently, but I thought I would give you all my top tips for prepping a history essay, to save time and stress. I should also preface that I use google docs for all my work, and tend to make notes from reading on that as opposed to in a notebook.

Below are my 7 tips/tricks for preparing the BEST essay possible, to minimize any anxiety and help make the writing process clear and concise – please enjoy!

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1. Use Google Docs – This is quite a personal one, but I SWEAR by Google Docs over Word. I will never forget the horror story of a mutual friend at University having her laptop STOLEN and losing all her work (which was stored on Microsoft Word) in third year!! Truly a nightmare. I am aware you can back up Word online, but honestly Google Docs is just superior. It is easy to use, the features smoother and everything is stored online, easily accessed from any computer should you ever be in an awful situation where you lose/break your laptop. It also saves automatically every few minutes, and you can access your document history if you need to retrieve something. GOOGLE DOCS FOREVER.

2. Footnote as you go – This may seem like an obvious one, but you would honestly be surprised with how many of my friends have said they don’t do this. I personally would only footnote as I go when I started WRITING, which is honestly too late. Footnote as soon as you start reading!!!! As soon as you find that article, or that book chapter, MAKE THAT FOOTNOTE! It will honestly save so much time when you start writing, you won’t need to go back and find the exact page range, or the year of publication (something I continually had to do in undergrad) it is so easy.

3. Make a contents page for your reading notes Screenshot 2020-06-25 at 17.14.08
This was genuinely a game changer for me. I use google docs and the feature can be found under: Insert – Table of Contents – Blue Links and all the readings you have done will appear in a contents for your easy access. In order for your readings to show up on the contents, you need to make sure each title is in the Heading Format, so that it is registered on the contents. I’m almost positive that Word has a similar feature, but the important point is that you use the one that DIRECTS YOU to the specific reading through a link (hence the Blue Links). It honestly is so satisfying to be able to click on the reading that you want and be directed there, rather than having to scroll through pages of notes, or search for the authors name (once again something I continually did in undergrad). Table of Contents are unbelievably handy and I will never do research without them again.

4. Do a bullet-point overview of your readings notes – Another game changer, it is a bit of extra work, but honestly so useful when it comes to Screenshot 2020-06-25 at 16.56.11planning and writing. At the end of my reading notes I create another list of all the readings I have used (normally copy and pasted from the contents page so I can have another link to quickly access from this section too). I then go back through each reading and write a brief overview of what each one is arguing, and the key points I want to use in my essay. Having this more concise bullet-proof section, allows me to quickly check what each reading is arguing/how it is useful, so that I have a better idea of where/when I will use it in my essay. It’s also always good to go back through readings and re-familiarise yourself with what they say. Having an overview saves time, and is a useful reference to come back to when planning/writing.

5. Write out plan on paper to VISUALISE – This may just be me, but sometimes I cannot work out an argument on my computer, I have to physically see it written down on a piece of paper, so that the points I am making are clear in my mind. If anyone feels like they have SO MUCH INFORMATION to process, or are worried that they are going to miss out on certain points when writing, I would recommend physically writing them out on a poster/notebook. That could be in a mindmap, or simply as a poster presenting ideas. Colours are also a fun way to differentiate between points (and also make it look more fun than it may feel). It is also (and this may not be a great academic point) quite nice to write and draw something, it’s cathartic and always helps me calm down and de-clutter my brain.

6. Reference what reading you will use for each point – So this refers specifically to the plan. When you are planning I would suggest going through each point you are going to make in detail and REFERENCE which reading you will use to support each idea. Obviously in History this is especially important, as historian’s ideas and primary sources have to be used to boost your argument, and justify your ideas. Do not leave it till when you are writing to identify these things. Put them in the plan so you know what you are referencing and when – even if you think you know it is SO MUCH QUICKER if it is already there for you in a plan. I honestly think it cut my writing time in half because I didn’t have to go back and reading through my notes and then figure out what readings to use. REFERENCE IN THE PLAN! Even if it’s just the author/source’s name, that identification can help you so much when it comes to writing.

Screenshot 2020-06-25 at 16.58.23

7. Colour Code!!! – This is mainly linked to the above point, for when you are planning. What I tend to do after I reference each point in my plan, is to go back to the reading and highlight the quote/fact I want to use in a colour that corresponds with the specific point. This is really helpful when you are using one reading for several points; when you go back to that reading you will know what quote is relevant to which point because they will be colour coded. This is also helpful if you are just scrolling through your reading notes document, having identified colours for each point, it is easier to find things you may have missed/forgotten when writing if they are highlighted in specific colours.

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I am not sure if I explained these points correctly, or if they are even useful to anyone except me! But it is always good to share tips and tricks, and I can honestly say each one helped me IMMENSELY to be more productive and time conscious. Good luck with your writing, I hope this post helps to make your writing process slightly easier!

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