How to succeed at essay writing

create a habit of learning

It’s the moment every parent dreads: when your child sits there, glum-faced, looking at a blank piece of paper in front of them. They have a rapidly-approaching deadline for their essay, and nothing, but nothing you do as a parent seems to help them get any closer to completion. What can you do to help? The answer is: quite a lot.

Producing a successful essay can be one of the most arduous parts of the schooling process, and yet, the need to write an essay is everywhere: from English literature, to economics, to physics, geography, classical studies, music, and history. To succeed, at high school and in tertiary study you must master essay writing.

Getting students over this barrier was one of the reasons I put pen to paper four years ago and produced a book called ‘Write That Essay!’  At that stage, I was a senior academic at Auckland University and a university examiner. For nearly 20 years, in both course work and examinations, I had counselled everyone from 17-year-old ‘newbies’ to 40-year-old career changers with their essay writing. Often, the difference between a student who might achieve a B-Grade and the A-Grade student was just some well-placed advice and direction.

In this article I am going to deal with some things you can do as a parent to help your child succeed at essay writing. If you’d like more detailed advice, drop in on my website www.writethatessay.org or grab a copy of the books. Because writing great essays is well within every child’s grasp.

Tips for essay writing success:

1. It’s an argument

Remember that an essay is an argument: the task in an essay is not to write a story or to recount a plot. The teacher knows all of this information. In an essay your child’s job is to present a compelling argument—using specific evidence—for the point they are trying to make.

2. Write a plan: you’ll be pleased that you did

Get your child to write a brief list-plan of the topics that their essay needs to cover. Even a short plan is better than no plan at all, and will start to give the writer a feeling that completing an essay on that topic is well within their grasp.

If your child is a visual learner, move away from the desk and go to a neutral space. Grab a large sheet of blank A3 paper and some coloured pens, and brainstorm a mind map or sketch plan of what the essay should contain. Using pictures, lines, circles, and arrows will all help the visual learner grasp the task at hand and help them see what they have to do.

3. Getting Started

A challenge many kids (and adults) face writing essays is getting started. The person sits there waiting for inspiration to hit them like a lightening bolt and it never happens. What can you as a parent do to help?

Encourage them with the thought that great essays are never written the first time over. Get them to view essay writing as a three-part process. The first draft is only to get out the ideas and words in rough form. In the second and third effort, they will add to their essay where there are blanks, clarify ideas, and give it a final polish. Realising that an essay isn’t supposed to be perfect the first time you write it, really helps some people.

4. Having enough to say

If your child is still stuck, find out if they have read up enough on the topic. Some inertia with writing can be due to lack of knowledge. They will find writing so much easier if they spend another day or two reading more on the topic and gleaning some additional ideas.

5. Try using a neutral sentence

Suggest starting the essay with a neutral sentence: a sentence that merely states an interesting fact on the topic being written about. Here’s one: ‘Mozart was one of the most important Austrian composers of the eighteenth century.’ First sentences in essays don’t need to be stellar – you just need to start!

Now, go write that essay!

Ian Hunter

Dr Ian Hunter is a former Associate Professor at Auckland University and has been a leading New Zealand academic for 20 years. He is the author of over 50 publications, including a dozen books, and his work on education, innovation, business history, and entrepreneurship has been published internationally. He is a regular conference speaker and media commentator and lives in Auckland with his wife Debra and their five children. In 2010 he stepped aside from university life to concentrate full-time on writing and publishing.

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