Writing an essay

Writing an essay is like riding a bike, practice makes perfect.

Here are my top tips for writing an essay. Each year I mark hundreds of essays. Most could have got much better grades. Clear, well-structured essays earn better grades. I’ll show you an easy way to write clear well-structured essays.

People hate to write

Don't let writers' block stop you writing an essay. Writing begins with research. Most people hate writing. Even professional writers suffer from “writers’ block”. They will do anything else except actually write. Students with assignments do not have the luxury of years to prepare their masterpieces. They work with tight deadlines. If you follow the advice in the earlier post “researching an essay” then you are already past the first barrier, you have begun to write!

Let me explain: As part of the research process, indeed as the goal of that process you have a title and a summary paragraph. I described the summary paragraph like this:

The first sentence should define the areas or issue. The last should present a conclusion. In between the sentences should each address one thing, and together they should present the arguments and sorts of evidence that lead to the conclusion.

If you have actually done this, instead of skipping over it as an unnecessary extra, you have a framework that you will now expand writing your essay.

From summary to essay

Keeping an essay on target means writing a better essayYou are basically going to turn each sentence into a paragraph or two of your essay. So, how many sentences do you have? (Remember, they need to be short and focused.Long and complex sentences should have been edited out!)  If each sentence was a paragraph (of the average length of paragraph you write) how close would you be to the word target? When this estimate is over you may need to begin thinking of what to cut, or trying to write shorter paragraphs – often shorter simpler sentences will help you do this ;)  If the estimate is under, you may need to make each sentence of the summary (or some of them) into two paragraphs. Ideally, at this stage, you are aiming to write an essay that will be 10-20% over the word target. Don’t worry at the next step, editing, you will cut it down to size!

These paragraphs should be easy to write – you have already done the research. They will be focused – since each expands on one simple sentence. They will lead your reader sensibly through the arguments and evidence to your conclusion. Congratulations. You will be one of the few students to write a coherent essay!

Already you are on track for better grades. It would horrify you how many incoherent essays teachers have to mark. If you doubt this befriend some (ex)teachers on Facebook ;)

The final steps in writing an essay

Cutting the flab means writing a better essay.

According to the Daily Telegraph:
Mark Smithers, from Kent, recently revealed that he lost 11 stone in one year

You have two tasks left:

Edit, then edit again. Cut the waffle. In speech we need time to think. So we use words and phrases that mean nothing, or which add little to the meaning. They give us time to think. Cut them out!

We imagine descriptive words, especially superlatives, make our writing and ideas stronger. Usually they don’t – cut them. A slimmed down, taut and powerful essay will come out of this painful process!

Write a conclusion. What it will look like depends on the subject and type of essay. BUT it should say nothing new. A conclusion should merely repeat in compressed form what you have already said. It serves to remind your reader what you said. Ideally it also draws attention to how cleverly and in what a focused way you arrived there.

Researching an essay

Researching essays

Literature search

The first step to a good essay is a “literature search”. Researching essays well is vital to getting good grades. The goal of research, whether conducted with the aid of an academic library or in the wild with “merely” the Internet to help, is two-fold:

  • to get an overview of the topic. If you do not have a narrow topic set for you, also to identify a precise topic to write about (see below).
  • to begin collecting resources (researching the essay). Useful resources are of two sorts:
    • Simple overviews of a broad topic. (We called them “Noddy guides” when I was young ;-) Articles on the topic in specialised dictionaries or encyclopedias are usually good possibilities.1 A good noddy guide will help you gain a broad context of what experts have said and are saying about the topic. It will also probably help you to identify a narrower topic within the broad topic. Pick something scholars are debating. It will make a good topic to write on.2
    • Specialist works. You also need works written by specialists. Often these are journal articles, but (in theology and biblical studies at least) will also include chapters from books3 focused on your narrow topic. As you search you should not read everything. Glance through the works getting an idea what each is about. Gradually you will get a sense of which are the “best” works in the area. They are the ones other authors’ bibliographies and footnotes mention by more often. You should prioritise these for reading later. They may be the only ones you put in the final bibliography for the essay. Quality is usually better than quantity in bibliographies.

Beginning to sketch out the field


The overview(s) you found should begin to give you an understanding of the topic. They will point you to the issues that scholars debate in this area. At this stage, you aim to produce a provisional title for your essay. The title should (if you have a choice) be short, and identify a narrower area within the broad topic. (If you are working with a set title, unless the rubric demands that you offer a broad overview, you should create a private title that identifies the focus – within the official title. So, you will give to your essay a sharp focus.

Draft summary and conclusion

When you have your defined area or issue to address, try to write a first draft of one paragraph summary of the relevant information, or the issues in dispute. This should suggest a provisional conclusion. (Usually in writing such a summary one side or other of the issue will seem weightier or more attractive.)

If significant things seem still really unclear you should read more. It is better to research an essay more than to write with muddy ideas.

Now revise your summary paragraph. The first sentence should define the areas or issue. The last should present a conclusion. In between the sentences should each address one thing. Together they present the arguments and sorts of evidence that lead to your conclusion.

This summary paragraph will provide the structure of your essay. It may provide also give you its opening. At this stage, indeed until the essay is finished, it is provisional and can be edited whenever you find a need.

Researching the specialised works

Now, you can begin to read the specialised works you prioritised earlier. While you may read short articles from start to finish any longer work should be read following the sort of process outlined here. Note taking will be covered in the another post.. Here it is sufficient to say that you should focus on getting relevant information, arguments, and ideas. They will help you fill out the sentences of your summary. So you are looking for material that relates to the special topics of each sentence.

Excursus: advice on Wikipedia and Internet resources in researching essays

Wikipedia is often a useful place to start, but many scholars depreciate its use. Lack of expert editorial control may allow inaccuracies or ignorant bias in some articles. If you use Wikipedia as your first read, you should still not cite it.  So, make sure that the information or ideas it gave you can be sourced from works of conventional scholarship. (This is not merely pandering to scholarly prejudice, but simple prudence, remember Wikipedia does not have expert editorial control and so is more likely to contain errors or serious bias without supporting arguments and evidence.) Because of how Wikipedia is produced its articles are NOT usually useful in providing an outline for your essay (see above).

Other Internet material.You should treat Internet sources with greater suspicion than material found in an academic library. Articles from online scholarly journals, databases and books may be exceptions. However, librarians act as filters removing works that lack scholarly quality. (Nb. this is more true of academic libraries and less true of public libraries.) The Internet has no such selectivity. You can access any and all sorts of rubbish as well as works of real quality. If you use the Internet (including Google Books as it has little such filtering) you must assume responsibility for this selectivity yourself. Look for works with a scholarly air. Signs to look for include:

  • authors associated with reputable institutions (and who work in the field of study they write about)4 or who have a solid CV
  • referencing – Works that are referenced are more likely to be of solid worth.
  • arguments and evidence – Works that simply state conclusions are of little value. Real scholarship NEVER rests on assertions of authority, but always on arguments and evidence.
  • balanced tone and relative avoiding evaluative language – The more a site expresses clear and strong opinions, the less likely it is to be scholarly. (There are exceptions, but unless other more reputable sources agree do not assume you have found one – however much you agree with the author’s opinions).
  1. Encyclopedia articles are often too long to really serve. However, they may have introductions that set the scene or conclusions that will work well. []
  2. By and large the narrower a title you choose the better your essay. However you need sufficient material to give you the ideas, information, and arguments that you need. []
  3. Sometimes indeed whole books. []
  4. Many scholars in other disciplines have websites on institutional servers (with .edu or .ac domains) that discuss theological topics. Treat these as you would contributions from the general public, a research nuclear physicist is no more likely to be a good theologian than an equally intelligent bricklayer! []

Historical novel of love and early Christianity

CaptureI have been reading Bob MacDonald’s recently published novel Seen from the Street: A Love Story from the first century. It is a historical novel about love and the origins of Christianity within Judaism in the years around and after the life and death of Jesus. Bob describes the book like this:
I wrote ‘new’ recording – not new faith. In line with several post-Shoa scholars, I have examined the Jewish aspects of first century Christ-believers and I have portrayed the Gentile relationships to them in the areas of love and desire for intimacy. Writers who have seen some of my chapters delight in the gentleness of the dialogue.

The story is told through glimpses into the lives of a number of interrelated groups of characters. Until near the end Jesus does not appear directly “onstage” but through the responses of others to his person and to the gospel proclaimed particularly by Paul. The stories of each set of characters are interesting and lead the reader on. These stories interact, and so together weave a portrayal of Jesus and of early Christian life. I am not a specialist in the NT or in the Graeco-Roman world of the first century but the historical detail rang true for me, and more than just seeming without obvious errors (like those even a non-specialist can spot in many historical novels set in this period) created a series of believable “worlds”.

The writing is really good, though/and1 it sometimes seems to carry overtones that the mind chases beyond the words. The book (though not produced by a well-known publisher) is free from intrusive errors or infelicities, whether because of Bob’s care in composing the text or a skilled editor’s work.

Lest this review seem just a puff piece for a friend’s work I should note my problems and hesitations. I was reading an e-text and the limitations of my Reader were frustrating. Since the story is told through the intersection of a number of different (though related) stories I would have been helped by being able to skip easily between the page I was reading and the list of characters at the start. Since the story is not told chronologically, I would also have been helped by both more dating (this was provided for letters, but not always (I think) for non-epistolatry episodes) and although I have some idea of the sequence of Roman emperors of this period some modern BCE/CE dates would have helped.

The technique of telling about Jesus, rather than telling Jesus, was so effective for me that when he finally appeared “onstage” it was something of an anti-climax. But then I suppose (since Christian dogma and the conventions of the historical novel both suggest he should be portrayed as fully human) perhaps that is inevitable. How would you portray a man whom people come to recognise as God incarnate, rather than the easy task of presenting a docetist God dressed up like a human?

The guiding theme of love, and the mores of the Graeco-Roman world, intersect powerfully in the story. This intersection in the area of sexuality means that the story has its effect on how one responds to contemporary debates in this area. This also leads to perhaps the most unsettling aspect of the book. I am unsure how I feel about Gaius (a/the major character) and though perhaps intended, this uncertainty is difficult – as sexual relationships in the first century (even more than in our time and place) were necessarily implicated in relationships of power.

At just US$3 – 4 this is a book anyone interested in the origins of Christianity in the eastern Mediterranean of the first century, perhaps especially those with a fondness for Johannine styles of thought, will read with pleasure and profit, but which also may/should leave them unsettled.

The Kindle link is here:  https://www.amazon.com/author/drmacdonald for epub and other formats: https://payhip.com/b/Jea4.

  1. I am really not sure which is the better conjunction, on the one hand the almost mystical tone is one I do not relate to easily, on the other it fits the content and ideas well, and contributes to the overall “Johannine” feel of the book. []

Numbers 20: a reading and some critical readers needed

CaptureThe venerable (I think it is the longest-running religious periodical in NZ) Baptist has had a makeover for 2015.No longer newsprint, and with a web edition that looks pretty good.

The trouble is most of the writers are (to put it politely) experienced, and most of the readers inherited from the old format newsprint are (frankly) old folk.

It needs new writers I’d love to see Carey graduates from 5, 10, 15 years ago take up the keyboard. If any of you read this how about either offering yourselves an occasional piece, or bullying your colleagues into writing?

It also needs new readers, online readers, who will argue back, question or add new ideas… all or any of you who read this might be such…
What Kiwis think about sin could be a place to start… (and let’s hope Dale Campbell becomes a more frequent contributor along with others like Mike Crudge, Thalia Rowden, Nigel Irwin, Johnathan Robinson and many many more… mention those I have forgotten or not thought of in the comments here or an email and I’ll add them…)

Sensible Sentencing

Writing is dangerous. Readers often misunderstand. Sensible Sentencing can help. Short simple sentences are easier to understand. To write a good essay starts with writing good sentences.

I have been marking. Some student essays are a joy to read. Some are full of long complicated sentences and I am left guessing what the writer intended to say. I cannot fairly give marks based on guesswork. Not just beginners, but experienced writers too, can write sentences that are misunderstood. Complex sentences are more likely to be misunderstood than simple ones.

The trick to writing that can easily be understood is easy. The trick to writing that is unlikely to be misunderstood is easy. Write simple sentences. Each sentence should say ONE thing.

[Like most “rules”, experienced writers can break this one effectively. PG Wodehouse wrote many long elegant sentences. Often they had a “twist” that added spice to his humour. However, when beginners try to copy such sentences often something goes wrong. The result is puzzled or angry readers. If you are an experienced writer you should still be wary of long sentences. They are dangerous. Check them twice.]1

If each sentence is short and says one thing, then it is almost guaranteed to be clear and comprehensible. Sometimes we need to coordinate two ideas together. In that case use a conjunction. If the ideas are simply placed side by side use “and”. If you intend a contrast use “but”.2

However, beginners should be wary of sentences that use more complicated tricks than this.

Short simple sentences are easy to understand. They contribute to a good essay. Writing sentences well is better essay writing. Once more doing the right thing gets you better grades!

  1. This is good advice. I have been writing for public consumption for over forty years, usually more often than weekly, still most of my bad writing is due to long sentences – like this one? []
  2. You can do this as two sentences, using however, but this can lead to other problems. Not least lots of “howevers”. If you start a sentence with “however” put a comma after it.

    Actually, it is more complicated than this, If “however” means “no matter how” it is not followed by a comma. For example: “However Squiggly tried, he couldn’t get his mind off chocolate.” More here. If “however” means “but” then a comma is needed: in Star Trek (2009) Spock says, “I intend to assist in the effort to reestablish communication with Starfleet. However, if crew morale is better served by my roaming the halls weeping, I will gladly defer to your medical expertise.” – More here. []

Windows Woes

In a previous post I mentioned the old Deadly Green Bar trick that MS Windows has been pulling on complacent PC users sine the terrible days of Vista. (Microsoft-in-the-head as repeat offender) There I mentioned the “fix”1 mentioned at Techspot. I pointed out that it was not a permanent solution.

Actually, at least for me, it is worse than that my opperating system has now decided that as well as the Deadly Green Bar it will also lock me out of my own folders! I can get to the system folders (I told it to “show” them) and others off the C: but I cannot get to those in …User/Tim/ Since that includes My Documents etc. this might be a problem!

Thankfully most of my current work is in Dropbox and not “My Documents”…

  1. Actually a partial patch. But when a firm as big as Microsoft has you in their sights any fix is a good fix. []

Fix for trackpad irritation

Photo from WikimediaI love using a laptop, on my lap. I prefer small notebooks as they are easier to carry and the screen is big enough when it is so close to me. BUT I hate the way in which at random my wrist or a trailing thumb will activate the touchpad while I am typing, and boing, I am now entering text in the wrong place. The cursor jumped :(

[Now I get annoyed with users who claim: “the machine/software just did” this thing I did not want done. I keep telling them that the error is theirs. So, I fully accept the cursor does not in fact jump around at random, it just seems that way. The effect is indeed caused by inadvertent brushes of my wrists or thumbs – but it is nevertheless annoying as all get out!]

There is a cure, a small utility from Google called Touchfreeze. It seems to work well, it turns off the touchpad while you are typing, but turns it on once you stop. I’ve been using it for a couple of days on both my netbook and my ultrabook and it just works. So far no worries where the trackpad is “off” when I want to move the cursor, and no more “jumping cursor” :)

It is just brilliant!

Google describe it like this:

Utility for Windows to disable touchpad automatically while you are typing text
Annoyed when you are typing a document and accidentally the palm of your hand brushes the touchpad, changing the position of the cursor in your document or accidentally clicking on an option. TouchFreeze is simple utility for Windows to solve this problem. It automatically disables touchpad while you are typing text.

“Notes” quick thought starters from NZ Christian Network

NZ Christian Network have begun to produce a series of thought starters. Aimed to fit on one double-sided sheet of A4 (in PDF format for printing and folding). The goal is to be simple, clear, and to start people thinking. They call them “Notes“. So far they have:

S14-01     Secularism 101 – What it is, why does it matter and how to address it

M14-01     Marriage – Why it matters, where it’s heading and what we need to do

M14-02     Marriage – Towards a strategy for Building a Healthy Marriage Culture

S14-02     Secularism is religious – A gospel by any other name

M14-03     There’s more to marriage! – Is marriage for you?

The format is great for people who still live in the print age (like many church people, especially those too old to have grown up in the Internet and mobile ages). 

Since I wrote the last one, I am delighted that they are also making them available in a format that’s more user-friendly for the e-age. As blog posts (with a Feed if you want to subscribe, mine is here, I hope the others will be appearing soon :)

Looks good to me on laptop, tablet and phone, how about you?

Describing the genre of prophetic books

I have finished a first draft of a chapter (for a forthcoming book) in which I seek to defend and illustrate my idea that the genre of prophetic books might best be understood as “prophetic fictions”. (Using “fiction” as I think Alter does to signal a concern for the artistry of presentation rather than as a synonym for “untrue” ;)

I think this idea works several attempts to define the genre together keeping (some of) the best features of each, I also believe it has interpretative power.

BUT I no longer have colleagues down the corridor whom I can bully into reading and criticising my work :( If you would be willing to read nearly 5,500 words and to comment on the flow of the argument or other features that might help me sharpen or improve the chapter I would be really grateful. I am not so much after specialist knowledge as help strengthening the presentation of the ideas.

Referencing (citing) for beginners

One of the biggest hurdles new students face is learning to reference their work “properly”. Schools seldom teach this skill but increasingly Universities and colleges are demanding it. Life is not made easier by the fact that, to all except for OCD suffers getting proper citations is no fun :(

That’s the bad news. However the good news is that “proper” citation has never been easier.

This is a short guide how to cite. It explains the principles of citing, and also points you to a free tool that makes the job easy!

Software that cites

You can use a program that keeps track of all your references and even formats them differently for different teachers at the click of a button. The two commonest ways to do this (at least in NZ) are:

  • EndNote: an expensive program for which many institutions have bought site licences. These allow students to install a copy. Its greatest advantage is that it may come with institutional support (e.g. free classes on how to use it). Its greatest disadvantage is that it is a big heavyweight that has a history of slowing your wordprocessor to a crawl and crashing machines. (I’m told it is better behaved now, but have no recent experience to confirm this.) It will do everything you need and 16,000 other things as well. You won’t be able to use it when you leave study without paying a whopping fee.
  • Zotero: a free program that works as a standalone or integrates with your browser.1 Zotero also integrates with both MS Word and the main free Wordprocessors. This free program does everything you need and a score or more of things you should use but probably won’t. It has been known to crash, but in my experience less than Endnote.

The choice is probably really simple :)

  1. If your institution offers Endnote and supports it, choose it.
  2. If not choose Zotero.
  3. Unless you like using free software and hate your computer running slowly in which case use Zotero anyway.
  4. Not using either is plain stupid, and if you were stupid you would not be looking at this ;)

Learn to use it. (If there is demand I might do updated Zotero tutorials but I think the ones on the site are good.)

Getting the data to cite

Unless you are a fossil from the dark ages, do not try to enter the data (author’s name, title, etc.) by hand. There are easier ways :)

For books and e-journals your institution’s system should integrate with your bibliography software, on the catalogue page just click the link to “add citation to Endnote” (or however it is phrased).

NB: this data is prepared by librarians so is usually good, but occasionally even librarians have brainstorms or bad hair days. If the author’s name appears in capitals, or the Title includes a description or something, then you may need to “clean up” the data. This is rare, and if you do it in the bibliography software itself you will only have to do it once for any item. One piece of “tidying” I often have to do is add the place of publication.

Citing right

Add your citations in your wordprocessor.

Make sure you have chosen the “correct” format. Hint: the “correct” format is the one your teacher told you to use, even if you think a different one is better :(

There are more possible formats than there are days in a leap year, but there are a few in common use:

MLA 7th Ed Bulkeley, Tim. Not Only a Father: Talk of God As Mother in the Bible & Christian Tradition. Auckland, N.Z: Archer Press, 2011. Print.
APA 6th Ed Bulkeley, T. (2011). Not only a father: Talk of God as mother in the Bible & Christian tradition. Auckland, N.Z: Archer Press.
Turabian Bulkeley, Tim. Not Only a Father: Talk of God As Mother in the Bible & Christian Tradition. Auckland, N.Z.: Archer Press, 2011.
Chicago Bulkeley, Tim. 2011. Not only a father: talk of God as mother in the Bible & Christian tradition. Auckland, N.Z.: Archer Press.

Learn what the ones used at your place look like, so you’ll notice if somehow your document is set to the “wrong” one ;)

What about citing interesting things like videos, blogs etc.?

Ths is the most frequently asked question. The first answer is this: “Don’t panic”2 The second answer is go to Son of Citation Machine, click the appropriate link, and enter the data (or at least those that you can easily discover, how much effort you make probably depends on how IT savvy your lecturer seems ;)  Though nowadays Zotero or Endnote are probably up to the job without Son of Citation Machine once you have done a few and got the feel of things :)

It should look something like this:

Bulkeley, Tim. Not Only a Father: Talk of God As Mother in the Bible & Christian Tradition. Archer Press, n.d. Web. 7 Apr 2013. <http://bigbible.org/mothergod/>.

  1. On PCs, Macs, iPhone/iPad, Chrome for Android, Android Browser, Firefox Mobile Browser or Opera Mobile/Mini []
  2.  Douglas Adams (1992). The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy: A Trilogy in Four Parts. Pan, 537. []