Is writing an essay more like making a cake or scoring a goal?

By Mark Aspinwall

You want to make a cake. You google ‘chocolate cake.’ You check out the recipes, get the ingredients, follow the steps to the letter, and pretty soon you have a cake.

Next day you kit up for your weekly five-a-side footie. Been having trouble scoring lately, so you try a different pair of trainers. You’ve tried other things recently too, like taking shorter steps, kicking more with your instep, cutting through the seam of the defenders and getting inside – even shouting at the keeper to scare him. But progress is slow.

Some things in life are exact and procedural. You find out what the steps are in the process and follow them exactly – and it’s not just simple things like making a cake, but complicated ones like heart transplants and building skyscrapers. Procedure is everything. A bit of creativity can be disastrous.

Other things in life are more creative and flexible. That means that there is no set, exact way to do them, only guidelines, general ideas, and best practice. And it’s not just scoring goals that require creativity and flexible thinking, but also things like writing novels and pop songs (despite their obvious creativity, both are structured too and bear resemblances to other novels and pop songs).

Writing an essay is one of these. You don’t look up the formula for writing an essay with exact step-by-step instructions (first write ‘The’, next write ‘institutions’, then write ‘of’ …) because there are none.

Instead, essays involve a combination of structure and general guidelines, as well as creative thinking. Like in footie, there are some rules. Don’t use your hands (unless you’re Thierry Henry). Don’t plagiarize. Structure means things like beginning with an introduction and ending with a conclusion, and in between, considering perspectives (alternative points of view) and evidence.

Creative thinking means linking concepts, digesting the work of others and distilling it, drawing from it selectively and using it to help answer your research question, and writing it in your own words, clearly and crisply (ie, without fluff, detours, irrelevances, etc).

So it’s more like scoring a goal. The way you get better is by practicing over and over, not by finding the secret step-by-step formula. Different coaches may have somewhat different advice. That’s OK – the world is big enough for both an Alex Ferguson and an Arsène Wenger.

So you get your essay back and you ask yourself, why did I get this mark? Here’s where you need to take careful account of the comments, speak to your tutor, read the various guides to essay writing, and visit a TLA class on making the most of essays and exams (www.tla.ed.ac.uk/services/effect-learn/advice.htm).  And keep working on it! Polishing your writing skills makes you a better communicator, and that will help you in the future. Like scoring goals, it gets better with practice.

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