by Ruth Irwin
Writing a coursework essay can be a scary prospect. I often find it hard to get started. If you’re anything like me, then you will begin by obsessively working out exactly how much of your module, year and degree this assignment counts for. Then you’ll go and stare numbly at the lengthy recommended reading list, before noticing the even longer further reading list and starting to feel a bit sick. For me, the first way to make the beginning of this process less daunting is to start early. Then you can smugly acquire all the right books before others have swept the library bare; this avoids that horrendous week-before scrabble to find a relevant article online. Every student’s been there and it’s never fun. It’s then well worth spending a morning getting down and dirty with the post-it notes, marking up all the useful-looking pages and sections you can find. After that, the whole process gets less endless; you now know exactly how much you have to read, and can plan your time accordingly.
Once the reading’s done, though, there’s really no getting away from that blank Word Document. Introductions are tricky things. As an editor of the undergrad Queen Mary History Journal (and never one to look a plug-horse in the mouth) I’ve read a lot of essays recently, trying to decide which should go in the journal and which shouldn’t. Though an interesting process, this has given me strong feelings of sympathy towards academics. So many essays start with a shaky introduction, laden with references and lacking in direction or argument. Many of the essays I read then warmed up into interesting pieces of writing, but the best were those that began with a bang, a statement of intent. Like me, I think most of my fellow undergraduates feel daunted by the prospect of having to express informed opinions on subjects that the essay marker has usually dedicated years of their life to studying. Who am I to tell Tom Asbridge how to think about the Third Crusade? What if he disagrees with me, will I get marked down? The most exciting essays we read whilst compiling the journal, though, are pieces of work where the authors have a strong, immediately stated (and evidence-supported) opinion and stick to it.
The pattern of indecision I’d seen in other people’s work made me question my own; I went back and read some of my coursework from last year. Normally I proof-read an essay right before handing it in and then attempt to forget about it immediately, never looking at it again. Upon properly reading my own work, I discovered that I too was horribly guilty of wobbly-introduction-related crimes. I remember going to a poetry-writing workshop once where one of the exercises was to take a poem you had written and turn it upside down, moving the last line to the top and the first line to the bottom. This was a really useful thing to do because, like an essay, the tone of a poem tends to get more confident as it goes along; by the end you’ve decided what you mean, because you’ve been thinking about it for a while. It’s a trick I’d heartily recommend for coursework. I tried it with one of my essays from last year and the conclusion made a much better introduction than the one I had originally submitted. So here’s my post-reading week writing resolution: when in doubt, go inside out!
Marked undergraduate essays on any subject can be submitted to the QMHJ at firstname.lastname@example.org.