Essays aren’t that bad

I was talking to my sister’s Standard English friends over the weekend because they came over to do a movie night to find related texts for the HSC. Of the topics we talked about, essays were one of them. And each of them groaned as if essays were a burden and a bore. I was almost shocked because, since coming to university, I have come to love writing essays.

I put myself back into their shoes, though, and have a think. When I was in Year 12, I hated essays too. They were never as terrible to me as some of my friends, but they were always a bit too formulaic. Almost everyone wrote the same thing because we were all taught the same content and an essay is just a fancy way of reciting that. It was always summarise, analyse, example, link.

Enter.

Summarise, analyse, example, link. Every paragraph was the same, and if you went from this blueprint and messed up it was punished with a horrible mark. Even worse is the time pressure of exam essays. Writing a convincing, cohesive essay with specific examples from texts isn’t an easy feat to accomplish in, say for English, 45 minutes. That’s what paper two is; three essays in two hours, and that’s scary. I remember cracking under pressure in trials and bombing my English Paper 2, which made me go on to hate the whole subject for the rest of the year. I literally lost all motivation for the subject because I fucked up that hard.

And then came university. I study Creative Writing, which has more essays than one would think, but still not a lot. However, the padding of electives and Communications Cores subjects gave me plenty of them. I remember the first proper essay I did for university was about the address Pauline Hanson gave to the Senate when she was elected in and what that meant for citizenship. Admittedly, I went on a tangent raving about the widespread fear of Australian people that supported Hanson’s policy and political views because she’s the only right-wing populist leader to be elected into Australian parliament twice – a fact I used (and still sometimes do) to demoralise guys over the internet – but I actually had fun writing that essay! Admittedly part of that came from me getting hopelessly lost in Sydney University’s library trying to find the comprehensive guide to Pauline Hanson (that’s not actually the book but it’s close enough), but the cohesion of idea and finding my own evidence to make a unique statement about the question was liberating. It showed I had the potential to have a unique voice, academic as it was at the time.

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Before I go off on another tangent, I want to go a bit deeper on this. My writing style, as you can probably tell, is a bit tangential – it goes all over the place on random notes. This is probably one of the things working against me in a lot of the essays I write – I either go too in depth and don’t leave any room for broad strokes, or I go too broad and miss the mark completely. It definitely pays off to have an understanding of what the essay is asking you to do. For the Pauline Hanson one it asked what the speech can tell us about civic participation – I answered that but I went too specifically into voting and the habits of Australian voters and forgot to talk about the massive backlash that she received from people on the left about racism and other issues that plague her political career both past and present. It pays in dividends to understand completely what you’re being asked, and then filling in that outline with opinion and research and words that show you understand the topic. To be honest, I think even writing this I don’t fully understand what I’m supposed to be telling you – should I be offering advice on how to write essays or advocating their existence as a form of writing and transferral of knowledge? I’m trying my damndest to do both, but I think there’s a bit too much of the second and not enough of the first.

As I write this, I have another essay due in a relatively short amount of time which is probably the most interesting one I’ve done in my whole career. It’s a collaborative essay, which I know sounds like absolute hell, but working with another person to analyse and reflect on a text is such an interesting concept to me. And it’s informal! And yes, essays can be completely informal. This blog post is, in fact, an informal essay. I don’t have any references, but I’m not writing fiction. I’m writing to inform you, the reader, about how fun essays can be!

Of course, the best part about an essay, especially an academic one, is getting marked on it. It feels like a stamp of approval; good job, [insert student number here], you got a Distinction and a few comments on how to improve next time. I remember last semester I did a popular culture unit, and the main assessment was a 2500 word essay that we could choose and use our own popular culture for. My friend and I didn’t get the marks we were expecting at all for it, in fact, we got much lower than we both expected. But when we were talking about it to each other, we were both satisfied with what we did.

I honestly have very little advice about the writing of essays, though. I only follow two really hard rules when I write my own. The first is make sure you know what you’re talking about – you can write shit all you want but at the end of the day you have to make sure you know the shit you’re writing about, otherwise, nobody will believe you. This has carried me through every single essay I’ve written because no matter how tangential I get, I always know those tangents intimately and I can only get marks taken away by not addressing other aspects of the question. The other is making sure your essay ends as if you’re dropping a mic. Read your essay, especially if you’re typing it out for later submission, and if you’re happy with the content, make sure to drive your point home clearly and punchily right at the end. It’ll always be the last thing they read, so come off as confident and knowledgeable.

And that’s it! If you’re going through the HSC right now and essays are slowly eating away at your soul, don’t worry! You’ll get through it, as long as you know your content, understand the question, and have confidence in your answer. And if you need help with any of these things, don’t be afraid to send us a message! Our emails are linked to the page and our Facebook is open for messages, so don’t hesitate to ask for help.

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