Final assignments and exams are just around the corner! If you’re like me, you probably have a bunch of essays to do, and you may be looking for advice on how to improve your writing. With this in mind, I took a trip to the Writing Centre to speak with Ron Sheese, a full-time faculty member in both the Writing Department and the Psychology Department, to learn more about essay writing. In today’s #YUBlog post, we’ll be sharing an interview with Ron where he explains lots of tips on writing university-level essays!
Success Tip: Want to learn more about essay writing? Check out York U’s SPARK Toolkit for additional academic and essay-writing resources!
Sophie Morgan: What are some first steps that you recommend students take when they receive their essay assignment?
Ron Sheese: Spend a lot of time reading the instructions. Every instructor is different in how much detail they give and so forth, but there are often key words embedded in the middle of a sentence.
The essay is also intended to give the instructor a sense of whether the student grasped the themes of this course. Can they use them in some way? Contextualizing this assignment within the course is an important thing to do before you get started. Understand what the purpose of the essay is. What’s the instructor’s purpose, and what’s your purpose as you’re working?
SM: What would you suggest to a student who has a limited amount of time to complete their essay?
RS: If you are starting the whole project with only a few days to go then you really have to get to the essence of the project. What’s the most important thing to do here? You’re not going to be able to read as much as perhaps you should, so what will give you the biggest pay off? The standard essay requires you to look through some material and respond to it in some way, so when you’re short on time, don’t underestimate the importance of the reading.
One thing that students sometimes do is, in the absence of time, they just start generating things kind of randomly, and that’s probably not the best way to proceed. Really figure out where the central features are and where you can get the ideas and concepts that will speak most directly to that as efficiently as possible.
Librarians can really speed things up. You can go and fumble through the indexes and the material for quite a while, and that can actually be pretty productive if you have time to do it, but if you don’t, go straight to the librarian, and they will be very helpful.
SM: What would you say to a student who is struggling to get started?
RS: A lot of students don’t recognize that the introduction is probably not the best place to start your writing. The introduction is hard to write because you’re not sure where you’re going. Start with what you know the most about, what you’re most secure with, especially if you’ve got anxiety around it. And then move on from there. A lot of ideas will come to you once you get started.
I would recommend that students take a time period – five minutes, ten minutes, even just two minutes – set a timer, and don’t allow themselves to stop writing for that period of time. Whatever comes to mind, just write it down. Don’t censor yourself in this process. Just write. Later you can figure out whether the grammar’s right or if that’s the exact word you wanted. Usually the first stuff that comes out isn’t particularly good, but as you start writing, you get into it a little bit. Then you can do it again, ten minutes more and keep refining.
SM: What tips would you offer to students who are trying to come up with a strong thesis statement?
RS: The idea of a thesis statement comes up in a situation when you’re going to make some sort of argument. One of the problems that often students have is that they don’t understand quite what the components of a claim are, so what they wind up with is a topic. They say, “I’m going to discuss recycling.” But that’s not a claim – you’re not taking any position about it, you don’t have any purpose with respect to recycling.
If a thesis statement is required, then it should have two parts: the topic, or the issue, and your position, with respect to it. “The government should be more supportive of recycling,” or “The City of Toronto should provide more efficient recycling depots.”
It is the case that for most of the essays that you’re asked to do in university, the style requires that you say up front what you’re doing – there are no surprises in academic essays. And so, I would say that the concern is better spent with the introductory paragraph than with any specific statement within it. Does that paragraph tell the reader what you’re up to? Maybe why you’re up to it? Where you’re going? And does it eliminate surprises for what’s coming?
SM: What are some easy ways students can improve their essays?
RS: What often happens is that you’ve written an essay, you read it through, and you understand everything that’s there. But you give it to your friend or somebody else, and they’re confused. What’s happened is you’ve written something that is really good in terms of the ideas in it, but you haven’t succeeded in getting your reader to understand those ideas. And the problem is you know what all of those things mean, but you haven’t yet attended to what the reader needs to know in order to understand this idea.
Sometimes some terms need to be defined or a source needs to be explained. Sometimes it’s transitions. But it’s very difficult for a writer to put themselves in the position of the reader, so one technique is to get somebody else to read it. It’s better if that person has some understanding of the material, but even somebody who knows nothing about it can tell you where they get confused. Also, read it to yourself out loud. Sometimes if you read it out loud, you’ll stumble over some things that need to be fixed.
SM: What is a common mistake that students make when writing an essay?
RS: A lot of people have trouble with grammar, but make the mistake of spending too much time on that at the expense of the ideas and the organization of the essay. Now that’s not to say you can ignore those things. You want to pay attention at the end, but do that last and get the other things in order. And if you don’t have much time, get the ideas in order because a grammatically weak essay with good ideas will get a better grade than a grammatically correct essay that doesn’t say anything.
SM: How can the Writing Centre help students with their written assignments?
RS: The Writing Centre can help in a couple of different ways. Just making an appointment gives you a deadline before the actual deadline of a paper, so it helps you structure your work. It doesn’t really matter who you see – just the fact that you have to get something ready for your appointment gets you started.
Having said that, at the Writing Centre, we don’t insist that people bring a draft with them. Often students come just with the essay instructions, and we spend our time planning the work because that’s a really crucial part of the process.
Writers are well-advised to get other people to read their work and to give feedback. The advantage of the Writing Centre doing that is that the people here have more expertise – they have a better understanding of what to look for and what to give feedback on. And so typically they are going to give you pretty good advice about how to proceed.
Now that you have all these essay-writing tips and tricks in your bag, you’re ready to take your written assignments to the next level. We hope that this #YUBlog post has provided you with useful information, and many thanks to Ron Sheese for his insight!
Ron Sheese is a full-time faculty member in both the Writing Department and the Psychology Department. He has a PhD in Psychology and has taught several different courses in the Psychology Department including Educational Psychology, Cultural Psychology, Research Methods, Writing in Psychology and Critical Thinking in Psychology. He particularly enjoys working with students who have been advised that they need to write more analytically but who are confused by what “analytic” means and how to do it. He also enjoys working with international students who are seeking to understand better the expectations of North American academic writing.
Note: this interview has been edited for the purposes of the #YUBlog
What are your tips and tricks for writing essays? Let us know in the comments down below or tweet us at @YorkUStudents!