Writing your first master’s essay – a few tips

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Welcome new students! I am so excited for you to start your Edinburgh master’s journey – enjoy the first few weeks, find your footing, explore the course and the city, and do not stress too much about upcoming coursework; you will receive plenty of guidance as the deadlines approach. The first master’s essay can be pretty daunting, especially if you’ve taken a break from academia since your bachelor’s degree (like I did). So, here are a few tips on how to get started writing an essay, and some ideas of things to keep in mind while you’re writing! These have really helped me this past year, and hopefully they will be useful for you too! 🙂

  1. Picking a topic
    1. Choosing a topic is the first step in essay-writing, so it’s important to get it right! In a master’s essay there is generally a lot of flexibility on the focus and case studies you can analyse. This is a great opportunity to learn more about a topic that you’re interested in or passionate about. For me, having an interest in my essay topics was key to keeping motivation to read & research.
  2. Look at your weekly course schedules
    1. A great way to find inspiration for essays is to look into future lecture topics. Not only will having a look at the key weekly readings provide you with a foundation on the topic’s debates and concepts, but it will also save you time in preparing for future lectures.
  3. Do some research/early reading
    1. Before fully committing to a topic, try to do a bit of early reading and research, and jot down some notes on the key authors and their arguments. This will help you see whether the literature and debates are easy to understand, and to keep track of important concepts before your start planning and writing.

      A pretty accurate depiction of researching for an essay!
      Photo by Windows on Unsplash

  4. Read the criteria (carefully!)
    1. This one may seem obvious, but I cannot emphasise it enough! I generally read the criteria in two stages of essay-writing: at the beginning and before submission. Reading the criteria prior to writing the essay helps you understand the task and what the markers are looking for in top-scoring essays (this should be kept in mind throughout the research and writing stages). Checking the criteria carefully side-by-side with your essay a few days before submission will help you identify anything you may have missed that will push your essay into the higher-grade boundaries – this was super useful for me! It’s also a great idea to send your essay and the marking criteria to a classmate or family member to get their feedback (thanks Mum!).
  5. Submit a Plan
    1. If your lecturer gives you the opportunity to submit a plan, take it! The feedback is very useful, and it is a great way to see if you are on the right track and understand the key concepts and arguments.
  6. Meet your lecturers to discuss ideas
    1. Something that I found very useful was to discuss potential topics with my lecturers during their advice and feedback hours. Often this gave clarity on the focus I could take with an essay, improved my understanding of the topic, provided me with new literature, and helped me avoid common pitfalls.
  7. Check referencing
    1. Make sure that you check your department’s (or if taking a module in another School check theirs) guidelines on referencing; it may be different to the system you used in your bachelor’s degree. The University has great resources for several different referencing styles, like Cite Them Right (Harvard) – make use of these! Getting the referencing perfect is a great first step to getting high-scoring essays.
  8. Balance
    1. Finally, it’s important to maintain a balance between writing your essay and doing other activities. Taking a break from coursework and giving your brain some rest is important to be able to get distance and perspective on your work, and to allow you to absorb the readings. For example, I would go on runs, meet friends for a pint or for dinner, or go to dance classes. These other activities played an almost equally important role in producing my essays, compared to researching, writing and editing, as often I would get inspiration on what to write next, how to phrase my thoughts, or I would remember something I had forgotten to include or should double check.

Taking a break to explore the Botanic Gardens (2019)

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