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A beginner's guide to writing an essay

Most people know how to write an essay: they just don’t have the confidence to do it. When you tell your friend what you did last weekend, you are creating an essay. You begin at the most relevant spot and give a brief overview of what happened — ‘So did I tell you about how we made meringues even though Mum said we weren’t allowed to?’ You work through the detail and build up to a conclusion ‘... but we got it all cleared up and we had like forty meringues and she didn’t see a thing.’

Last year I met a ‘slow learners’ group of teenagers who were convinced that they couldn’t write an essay about Romeo and Juliet. (They’re the ones whose teachers had moaned in the staffroom about how ‘hopeless they all were, the lot them’ and ‘I don’t know why we turn up, some days’. And, as an aside, I don’t know why they turned up either.)

These kids all had excellent insights into the play — they’d hated it (‘all those words’) until they’d seen the movie. Then they had realised that it didn’t read well, but was absolutely magic when performed. They could analyse each scene ...

I scribbled down what they said, word for word, and showed it to them: instant essay, and one that should get a high mark.

They were astounded. Why had no one ever told them how easy it was? Possibly because those someone’s were too busy moaning in the staffroom that they didn’t know why they bothered to turn up.

If you — or your child — can explain something to another person, then you can write it down, exactly the same way. Then go through it, divide it into paragraphs ... and there you are — one essay.

Most essay problems come from trying too hard, and from thinking that what you’ve noticed about the subject isn’t smart or academic or original enough to impress a marker. It’s easy enough, once you have confidence in your observations, to put them in the order a teacher wants to see. Tell the whole story in a few sentences; go to town on detail in the middle; then tell the story again to finish it off. As the song says, just stick to ‘Doin’ What Comes Naturally,’ and you’ll be fine.

If …and this is a big if.  If you know what you want to say — and know your subject — it will be easy to write.If you don’t know what you want to say, and are trying to work it out as you go or are covering up the fact you don’t have much to say — you’ll end up with a mess.


Step 1.
Work out what you want to say.


Step 2.
Scribble down a few points, and I do mean ‘scribble’.


Step 3.

Work out a brief summary of what you want to say.


Step 4.

Pretend you are telling it to your best friend. Write it down, just as you’d say it.


Step 5.

Divide into paragraphs and whoosh it around a bit — and make sure the first paragraph gives a good idea what the rest will say and that there’s nothing new in the last paragraph.


Step 6.

The last paragraph should sum up what you’ve written, or what you’ve learnt from it, or be the end of the ‘story’.

If the ideas are good, the essay will be good. If you don’t have any inspiring ideas, keep thinking till you do.

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