An International Student of Literature in England.
I wasn’t sure how to get started with my essays last year, but I think I have developed an efficient way of working — or at least a way that works for me. Past the initial panic I get into (and suddenly forgetting absolutely everything we’ve done in my modules) after reading the essay questions for the first time, I always follow the same ritual. It’s worked every time so far.
First, I go over the essay question (or questions) many many times. I print them and take notes: I rephrase the sentences, explain the hard words and write down a few rough ideas, themes, works or authors we’ve studied related to ALL the questions (even the ones I’d never consider doing). By the end of it, my notes usually cover up most of the page.
The second step is to re-read the entirety of your module outlines if your teachers made good and detailed ones. They’re a very good way to get a good grasp of the module as a whole near the end of the semester and to remember all the texts and authors you’ve studied. After this, I go through all my lecture and seminar notes and highlight the most important words and parts or the recurring ideas. I go through them several times if I feel like the direction the module took still doesn’t seem clear to me. And then I go through my notes again, except this time I write down all these ideas in a concise way and by hand because I think it helps more than typing directly on my laptop. I don’t always know which question I’ll do for the essay (although I’ve probably ruled out some of them) but this stage helps me identify the key ideas, the ones I liked the most.
Once this is done, I have a look at all the lecture slides put on Blackboard because they sometimes have extra information I didn’t have time to write during the lecture or important literary or critical quotes. And then, very serious work starts! I go to my favourite place, the library, and get all the books that are related to the module out (bear in mind the limit is ten books at a time)! I don’t actually read all these books, but I read the chapters that seem more useful in order to find good critical quotes and to learn more about the subject. It is very time-consuming but helps a lot and it’s necessary.
I type all the ideas, themes and important ones I’d previously written down. It is disorganised, repetitive and doesn’t go anywhere but it doesn’t matter. With it, I’m usually able to find two to four (ideally three) main ideas which are going to become the main parts of my essay. This is something we were trained to do a lot at school in France throughout sixth form. They always insisted on us making clear plans with headings and subheadings. I still do that and find it incredibly helpful!
I write the title for each part of my “proto-essay” and then move around all the ideas under the appropriate title and make them flow because the points discussed in the essay need to flow and be connected logically. Sometimes, ideas don’t go anywhere because they’ll be more useful for the introduction, opening or conclusion. However if they don’t fit any of these categories, I don’t bother thinking too much — they’re either useless to my essay or can give me some ideas for an additional part of the essay.
Once this is done, I gather literary and critical quotes from the novels, texts, notes and Power Points I have and try to link them to some of the arguments I’ll discuss in my essay. I always end up with waaay too many quotes but it’s good because I have a lot to choose from. One mistake I always make is that I don’t do enough close reading; it’s something I’m working on at the moment. You may want to bring in further reading just for the sake of it but if you don’t analyse or explain this extract, there’s no point.
My aim is therefore to get a very detailed and complete outline: it takes a long time but that’s also a huge part of the work done! After this, “all” I need to do is to actually write the essay by following my plan. If I’m motivated, writing the essay takes one or two days (without all the editing and proofreading). One last tip: you should ask a friend (preferably a friend who’s good at writing) to proofread and correct your work because after a while you just don’t see the mistakes anymore.
Everybody works at their own pace and will not like the same methods, but I find that this is what works best for me. And never start at the last minute. In fact, it is the only way in which I know how to work because I’ve done it this way for so many years.
Right now, I’m still working on my first detailed plan for Modernism. I’d initially decided to work on the metropolis and its impact on ‘ideas and practices’ of modernist writers, but in the end I’ve picked the following question: In what ways is modernism the articulation of a hostility to modernity? I like it more because it’s broader and allows me to mention more aspects of modernism. I’d like to discuss my plan with you here but I cannot do it as I don’t want to be plagiarised! I’ll meet my tutor to discuss my ideas with him as I don’t want to learn it’s not good too late.
I got the questions for Reading and Writing Translations a few days ago and think I know what I want to do (a translation with commentary on a text related to feminism or gender issues) but finding an interesting text is going to be hard. It has to be a French and untranslated piece, translated into English in the way that I want. The problem is, I don’t know any French text that plays grammatically with gender. I’ll think about it in the next few days once my Modernism plan is out of the way. We also get the option to compare at least two translations (I could do that but you need to find very good examples and once again, I don’t have any) or you can choose from a series of tough theoretical questions based on Munday’s Introducing Translation Studies.
I only just got the question for 18th Century Writings. It is: Choose two texts from the module and draw them into a dialogue with each other, using at least one of the module’s ‘blocks’ (print, genre, criticism) as a guiding framework. No need to say it doesn’t particularly inspire me but I’ll focus on it later. I know which are the texts I didn’t like or didn’t understand so that’s a start.
All these essays are worth 100% of the module and should be about 2500 words long.
Good luck to everybody! 🙂