What to do when your essay needs clarity

Thoughts don’t line up like people in a queue. Or ducks in a row for that matter.

Thoughts are messy. Untidy. Jumbled up. Muddled. Flying off at a tangent.

You think you know what you’re doing. You understand the question. You’ve done the reading. You sit down to write your essay and…

Nothing.

Nada.

Zip.

Those thoughts you knew, the reading you did, the topic you understood - won’t line up on paper.

Because thoughts aren’t like people in a queue. They don’t line up one, after another, after another. They don’t wait their turn. They don’t linger patiently until you get to them. They are pushy. They jostle for your attention. And they come en masse, grouped together, each one vying for position as your mind makes connections all over the place.

Which is why you THINK you know what you’re going to write in your essay - that is until you have to take this bunch of jumbled thoughts and order them sequentially to make a reasoned argument.

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Oh boy, it took me far too long to grasp this concept when I was an undergraduate! I used to think “why is it so hard to get this onto paper? I’ve done the reading. I know what to say...in my head.”

Ah, Rachael, that’s the problem. You can’t submit what’s in your head. You have to get it onto paper so it can be read, understood and assessed. It’s this act of making all your interconnected thoughts on a topic line up after one another which makes writing an essay (or report, or dissertation) so. blinking. hard.

Yes, it’s not just you. Most people find this hard to do. You think it's only you because you don’t talk to the hundreds of other people who have the same problem. You think you are stupid, or weird or deficient in some way so you don’t talk about the issue. You keep it to yourself and that leaves you isolated and STUCK.

Shepherding interconnected thoughts into order is something I’ve needed to do many times.. When I've written essays, drafted my dissertations, written a research paper for my first academic conference. I'd think all my ideas stacked up while they were in my head, but when I tried to capture them on paper, those ties that bound them together in my mind fell apart on the page.

You know what? It’s still hard work! Whatever stage you’re at in your studies, you’ve always got to work through the process of shoehorning abstract thoughts into a linear format. What can you do? Here’s four methods you can use to make getting your thoughts onto paper easier and make your essay clearer and more focussed.

Clarify your thoughts with a working thesis

A thesis isn’t just something you write for your PhD, it’s the driving force of your essay. It’s a statement about your topic which you use to shape your argument in a logical way, presenting evidence to show why you believe it’s true. It’s your opinion, your argument, your main point about the topic you’re writing on. It’s what you are trying to PROVE in your essay.

It’s a working thesis because it’s likely to change as you gather more evidence to support your argument and figure out whether your thesis needs to be adjusted to stand up to scrutiny. If you’re thoughts are all over the place, try and corral them into one focus by creating a working thesis.

Create a framework or outline

It sounds pretty obvious but you’d be amazed how many people sit down to write their essay without attempting to organise their thoughts at a headline level. As you might guess, this doesn’t work very well because your essay can easily become directionless, with the information it contains meandering from one topic to the next without any coherent or cohesive structure.

Once you have your working thesis done, it’s easy to create outline for your essay. Simply identify the three to five major points you need to cover to prove your thesis and then list the supporting points and examples/evidence to back them up underneath. This will give you the framework on which to build your essay.

Write a draft. Well, several drafts.

The only way you can learn how to make a coherent and cohesive argument is through practice and the best way to learn to write is to WRITE! Like I said, it’s often when we come to write that we realise that our ideas don’t all hang together or build on each other properly. And if the only time you realise this is at the last minute then you are going to have a whole heap of stress.

It’s critical you start writing early so you have the opportunity to go through several iterations of getting your thoughts into order. Writing several drafts will help you understand the strengths and weaknesses of your argument and allow you to move paragraphs about until you feel happy everything is in the right order.

Teach your essay to a friend

Okay, so maybe if your essay is on philosophy or quantum physics it might need to be a GOOD friend! But don’t discount this idea straight away. When you attempt to explain your opinion and why you believe what you believe, you will grasp which points and evidence are essential to your argument - and which are filler ideas you don’t need.

Teaching other people what you know on a topic is a technique I recommend not just for essays but for general understanding and exams too. When I was developing my study system back in the 1990s, it really came on in leaps and bounds once I attempted to teach it to other students on my course. Treat your essay as a topic you have to teach and then find a classmate to listen to you explain it. The parts they don’t grasp or understand are the parts you need to keep working on and clarify.

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Getting ideas onto paper is just the beginning. You still have to order and shape those ideas into an argument which you can provide evidence to support. These techniques will help you to do this more effectively. Just remember, you are not alone. Getting ideas out of your head and onto paper is not an easy task! Especially if you are unfamiliar with ways to do it or haven’t had much opportunity to practice it.

Developing a working thesis, creating a robust outline, writing several drafts and teaching your essay to others are some ways you can get better. Once you can get your ideas out of your mind and lined up on paper, you’ll have a comprehensible and focussed essay, which will get you a better result - both higher marks AND a reputation as a clear thinker!

Remember, there’s an AMAZING plan and purpose for your life. Study well, stand out and start right now!