Sections on this page:
- How Long should they be?
- What should a good essay contain?
- How do I cope with an enormous reading list?
- Taking notes
How Long should they be?
Surprisingly, this is a question on which there seems to be no standard answer. There are, however, two practical constraints. The first is that your tutor will probably ask you to read your essay out loud during the tutorial (though some will take them in and read them in advance). The maximum practicable length that will allow your essay to be read and adequately discussed is about five thousand words.
The second is that in order to do justice to the subject and provide yourself with an adequate basis for subsequent revision, the minimum length you can reasonably write is about two thousand words (unless you are an absolute master of concise prose). It follows that somewhere around two and a half thousand words may be a good average to aim for (the current Theology Faculty Handbook recommends between two and three thousand), but this is not a total that need to be adhered to slavishly on every occasion.
What should a good essay contain?
There is no set formula, and to some extent it is a good idea to write to please yourself. The best way to tackle a topic will naturally depend on what the topic is. There are, however, a number of factors worth bearing in mind. The first, of course, is that your essay must answer the question your tutor has set you, and not some other (possibly more interesting) question roughly in the same subject area.
The second is that, wherever it is relevant and possible to do so, a good essay should always consider more than one point of view, contain a good selection of the relevant facts, and come to a well argued conclusion. (The right balance of fact, references to other scholars’ opinions, and your own argument will vary from topic to topic and also according to your own inclination, but a good essay will contain a mix of all three). It is never a question of coming to the “right” answer (though you can expect a tutor to defend his or her position if it differs from yours) but rather of demonstrating that you understand what the issue is about and that you can produce a well-reasoned, balanced and critical argument concerning it.
The third, and possibly most important, factor to bear in mind is that your essays will probably constitute your prime source of revision material. It is thus often worth looking at past papers to see what other essay questions have been set in the same general area, and trying to include enough basic information in your essay to cover the range of ways in which past examiners have slanted their questions. You may find this particularly helpful when the question your tutor has set you seems rather broad or vague.
Whether or not you spend time preparing an essay plan before you start to write is largely a matter of your own preference. Writers seem naturally to divide themselves into “planners” and “drafters”, the former planning carefully in advance and then writing to their plan, the latter plunging straight in and then re-drafting their first attempt. There is no “right” method and you just have to follow whichever suits you best, though it is a lot easier to be a “drafter” if you use a word-processor!
The current Theology Faculty Handbook contains guidelines on writing tutorial essays, and there are probably similar guidelines in other Faculty Handbooks too. The advice given there should take priority over anything I’ve said above, particular in disciplines other than Theology where the approach required may differ.
How do I cope with an enormous reading list?
The first thing to remember is that no tutor who issues a lengthy reading list ever seriously expects any student to read everything on it. The list should be regarded as a series of suggestions for texts you are likely to find helpful, not as a sequence of works which must be read before trying to tackle the essay.
Some tutors are much better than others at giving clear directions concerning which are the most important texts to consult. Where such guidance is lacking, the best strategy is to start with some broad, general or summary work which enables you to get a feel for what the topic may be about and then try to read at least two moderately substantial (i.e. manageable but not too thin) texts by scholars with opposing or at least substantially differing views. This is usually far more satisfactory than relying on a second-hand account of what some important scholar thinks: a summarizer will inevitably leave out much of importance, and an opponent is quite likely to distort; you will often find that your own understanding of what someone is saying when you encounter them at first hand is rather different from that gained at second-hand.
Again, it is important to have looked at any primary text or primary sources relevant to your essay topic. Obviously, the more widely you can read on any topic the better. If you have the time, energy, and inclination to read three, four, five or more different scholars’ views, well and good. Probably the best way to know when to stop is via effective time management. You will soon get to know how long it takes you to write an essay and what margin you want to leave yourself between completing an essay and attending the relevant tutorial. From that you can easily work back to the point at which you need to stop reading and start writing. Do as much reading as you can up to that point and then stop, even if you have not read everything you would like to have read. (It follows that you should prioritize your reading to try to make sure you read the most important texts first). For how much time this may take, see the discussion above.
One difficult question is that of taking notes while reading. My own personal preference has been to keep note-taking to a minimum, since I find that constant note-taking while reading slows me down far too much (an exception being when working from a text confined to a library, when there is really no alternative to fairly extensive note-taking). A technique I found worked well on more discursive texts was to read through a chapter or two and then write down a quick summary of the argument from memory.
Sometimes it helps to tabulate different writers’ views under different headings (for me this seemed to be particularly useful in Old Testament study for some reason). For the most part, though, my preferred technique has been to rely on memory and have the relevant texts to hand for reference while writing.
You will probably have to experiment to find what works best for you; but I would say that some of the note-taking techniques suggested in some of the guides to study methods in the college library seem to me to be far too elaborate to be workable within the time constraints facing an Oxford student.