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Essay tips from a Cambridge humanities student

An insight to transform your approach to essay-writing


Feeling burnt out? Your essay isn’t writing itself? Don’t stress! Make yourself a cup of tea, read this article, and return to your laptop with a fresh perspective on essay writing.

Beat the writer’s block

I know the feeling of staring at a document with only the essay question written, thinking “I don’t know what to write!” We’ve all been there, but it’s easily solved.

Try pretending you’re explaining to a friend what you want to outline in your essay. Write this all down, as colloquially as you please. In most cases, what you’re left with will resemble a clear line of argument that, with a bit of editing, will be a great way into your essay. It is also a great way to ensure clarity of expression, as you’re not approaching your essay tainted by a misplaced desire to sound ‘academic’.

Image credits: Esther Knowles

Write 300 words an hour

Got a 2,000 word essay to write in a day? The “300 word an hour” method is similar to the Pomodoro one but, in my opinion, it’s better. Unlike the Pomodoro method, there is actually a set goal for you to achieve within the time limit so if you’re a procrastinator like me, it’s easier for you to stay focused.

Set your timer for an hour, and make sure you write 300 words within this. If you finish early, great, you can spend some time thinking about what you want to write for the next 300 words, or get a head start for the next hour. At the end of each hour, set a timer for a new one but make sure to get up, walk around, and stretch. Without this mini break, you might get burnt out, but it’s important to keep the timer on to avoid getting distracted from the task at hand.

Don’t over-read

It can be tempting to spend the whole week ploughing through critical articles and cramming all your writing into one evening. Whilst the reading might seem beneficial at the time, this is the worst thing you can do. You may have acquired so much knowledge from your reading, but it won’t materialise if you don’t leave enough time to organise your thoughts.

It can be tempting to spend the whole week ploughing through critical articles and cramming all your writing into one evening. Whilst the reading might seem beneficial at the time, this is the worst thing you can do. You may have acquired so much knowledge from your reading, but it won’t materialise if you don’t leave enough time to organise your thoughts.

This especially applies to your supervision essays that don’t count towards a final grade. Fancy starting your essay with a quote seemingly unrelated to the topic? Go for it, it’ll probably intrigue a reader more!

Experiment – get your supervisor’s feedback and, if it’s positive, you know it’s safe to try in an exam.

Write as little as possible (but still meet the word count!)

Sounds like a paradox, but it’s not. Write as many words as you need to, but every word should add something valuable. The best lecture I ever attended was titled “How to write less” and it taught me just that.

Write with the aim of concision, but with the knowledge that whatever you write can still be cut down. Go through your essay after it’s finished and remove all filler words and phrases. A general rule is that if a sentence has the same meaning without something, it should be taken it out.

Proofread a day later

Obviously, this doesn’t apply to anyone frantically writing their essay an hour before it’s due. But, if you’ve been organised and finished your essay a day in advance, it might be wise to take some time before proofreading.

We all need to separate ourselves from our work before we can recognise its specific faults. If you’ve just finished writing, you will reread your essay with your own train of thought in the backround, making it difficult to notice if you’ve missed out words or made grammatical errors. If you wait a day, you’ll approach it with fresher, more critical eyes. If you have a while until your deadline, perhaps if it’s coursework, waiting for more than just a day could be beneficial.

Switch up your working environment

Losing concentration? It could be because you’ve sat in the same place for too long. Whenever I reach a wall in my essay writing, instead of blaming the work, I get up and move it elsewhere.

There are only so many hours you can spend in the library before it loses its appeal as a haven of concentration. Go to a coffee shop, or at least to a different library that you don’t study in as frequently. If this is not possible (ie. if it’s late at night), move to a seat you haven’t sat in before. You’ll be surprised by the wonders it does for resetting your motivation.

Image credits: Esther Knowles

Take breaks

I don’t mean this as a tokenism: take breaks and have fun! This is even more important as we approach exam season and it might be tempting to never leave the library. Your essay is not going to be better because you’ve sacrificed your social life for it. In fact, it might be worse.

I believe that a good mental state will be mirrored in the work you produce. I’ve written great essays the evening before a deadline after spending the weekend having fun, and equally bad essays having spent more time on them. I’m not saying that correlation equals causation here, I’m just advocating for a good work-life balance. 

So, with these essay tips in mind, open your laptop up and get writing!