An Honours Student’s Guide to the Writing Process

Ethan recommends several strategies and must-do tip when essay writing at the Honours level that will improve your final work and make the process more manageable and less pointlessly stressful.

Everyone has their own approach to essay writing. It develops throughout their time at university. I am still honing certain parts of mine, but there are various principles that I was ignorant of when I started. Things I would have been better off knowing from the outset. If I can present them here, then hopefully you can bypass the more experimental stage of how to write and instead focus on what you are writing about.

Planning, like starting early, should not be regarded as a suggestion but taken as a prescription. If you do not sketch out your argument point by point before writing, then you are only going to put more words on the page that will end up being deleted. The chances of developing a succinct and causal argument are also far diminished without a plan. It does not take long to peruse your readings and bring them together, but the compound interest yields great rewards, in that your first draft is structurally closer to a finished draft. The remaining changes are, hopefully, smaller in scale and at the level of the sentence rather than the paragraph.


After that, you are ready to start writing. The best I can offer here is derived from a standard idiom: do not worry about getting it right, just get it written. The second and third drafts are for getting it right. At this point, your only objective is to put material on the page. Even if you cut thirty percent later on, you would not have the remaining seventy had you not been willing to get that initial amount wrong the first time around (if you outline in detail, it should not come to this). Thus, while ‘first draft’ and ‘second draft’ appear to be close relatives (siblings perhaps), they are in fact different species. Do not confuse one with the other or think that both can be achieved simultaneously.

To maintain productivity during this stage, set aside a time for writing each day. If you stick to this rhythm the words will start to come more easily within a week. Hopefully, an essay should not take that long but the principle is right, and you will have other projects to move on to. If you prefer working with music, put together a playlist of songs that you only listen to when you are writing. This is another simple way of getting into your productive space where all distractions keep their distance. Writing in the same place is another one that works for some people.


Perhaps even more important for me is the set-up of the desk. I use a laptop, but I have it raised eleven inches off the worksurface with a couple of upright books. Using a separate keyboard and mouse, I can sit up comfortably and have the screen right in my line of sight. It almost looks painful for me now to see people working on their laptop for any length of time, their neck craned downward. With a proper desk chair to support your back, you should easily be able to write for an hour, or whatever is your sustainable maximum.

Avoiding procrastination is really a topic in and of itself, though I have learned some useful strategies to subdue it. The best one is to create a schedule and to stick to it – the only way to achieve the latter is to outline a day that you truly want to fulfil. This means including your requisite amount of down time and not kidding yourself that you will do more than you can. Another is to list the things you want to get done for the next day, whether that be writing X number of words or reading Y number of articles. This gives you a clear and manageable goal to aim at, as opposed to the abstract objective of ‘working on the essay’ (one can write fifty words and achieve that). Make your expectations for yourself clear, but equally important is to make them fair – if you do not reward yourself with a break, you are not going to last long.


Beyond grammatic rules, the choice of style is up to you.  While it may seem contradictory that we are instructed to write clearly when the worksx we read often do not accept this principle, my main suggestion is to not to use unnecessary jargon to appear intellectual. It only convinces me, as a reader, that the writer has nothing insightful or interesting to contribute. If they did, it would not have to be masked behind inauthentic pseudo-profound prose. Yet, nor should an essay be colloquial or imagery-laden, though it can make them more readable – there is a balance to be reached but it is not too difficult to master with practice. The same is true of the essay writing process in general, though hopefully these pointers can help you in reaching your maximal productivity and quality.



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