What a German waiter and a Russian student can teach you about the best time to start your essays

Why starting your essays early gives you a much better chance of a good grade, increases learning and makes life more interesting.

We all have friends that claim to have sat up all night, done a 3,000 words essay in one sitting and come away with a decent grade. Among some less modest individuals, this can even be a matter of pride – “Look, I spent way less time on this that you and I still got a better grade!”.

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Turns out the all-night-coffee-and-cramming approach might not be the best way to tackle your essays after all

But last-minute Larry is actually missing out on some pretty essential learning experiences and opportunities – the kind of thing that university is actually really about. (If you hadn’t guessed it already, no one is going to look at the mark you got for a second year assignment 2 years down the line and base a job offer on it.)

The cognitive difference between starting your essay early and burning the midnight oil the night before D-Day can be explained by a famous piece of cognitive psychology known as the Zeigarnik effect.

Zeigarnik was a Russian research student in Germany, and together with her professor and other students, she would frequent a local café after lectures. They noticed that the waiters in the café never wrote anything down – they could remember entire orders and often for long periods of time. However, once the bill had been paid, if someone questioned it, the waiter, without fail would have forgotten the items on the order.

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One might conclude that this was a sneaky way of syphoning off a bit off extra cash for the weekend, but Zeigarnik and her colleagues were scientists, so naturally they thought it might be indicative of something else. They hypothesized that when a job remains unfinished, it stays at the forefront of their mind.

So it proved in lab tests, where recall on a number of tasks proved much better when the participants had been prevented from finishing.

So why is that, and how does it apply to us at university? Well, scientists think that when a job is unfinished, the brain is working hard behind the scenes to help us finish it. Our brain is picking up on all sorts of external cues that relate to our topic that we might not have otherwise noticed. It’s a bit like when you buy a new car and suddenly see you’re seeing it everywhere. In the case of a student writing an essay, it might be that material from your lectures starts to spark ideas you would never have had or conversations with fellow students inspire new routes for investigation.

Procrastination, therefore, can actually work in our favour, as long as the job has been started. Apply this to your essays, and a good approach might be to look at the title, do some reading and perhaps write a first draft, but then put this to one side for a few weeks. You may find that things in lectures, fragments of conversations or even scenes from films or TV programmes all spark off ideas you would never have had otherwise.

For more on how cognitive science can help organise your study schedule, check out out ‘User Your Brain’ workshop. Dates and times for the next course are available here.

Tips to make your writing more complex

During appointments, students often ask what they can do to make their writing less simple. There are many things which can be done to increase the complexity in your writing, so I thought it may be useful to post about it here. First, let me address a common misconception: making writing complex is different from making it complicated or difficult to read. Complex has a positive meaning (consisting of many different and connected parts) and complex ideas often require techniques in writing in order to effectively express the relationship between points which you are developing. The following is a brief list offering 3 tips on how you can make your writing both complex and clear.

1. Use complex sentences

A complex sentence comprises at least a dependent clause and an independent clause in any order. Through effective use of this sentence structure, the relationship between ideas can be coherently and concisely expressed. Vary the position of the clauses so that the structure is not repeated too often in your paragraphs.

*note* You should aim to vary your sentence structure throughout a piece of work, as this will improve the overall ‘flow’ of your writing.

2Punctuation

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Punctuation, which is commonly misused,  performs a very useful function. If used effectively, it can help convey your intended meaning clearly to your reader. If misused, it can change the meaning of what you write (as in the example above).

There are rules governing the use of punctuation; we cover these in our Advanced Academic Grammar class.

3. Nominalization

This is a technique used to cut the clutter in your work. Put simply, it’s about packing meaning into fewer words. Consider the following example:

the disease which affects the cardiovascular system could change to the cardiovascular disease

Some writers have a tendency to write too many words when trying to express an idea. The results are: fewer words with which to express further thoughts and complicated sentences. Aim to be succinct when you write.

A more in-depth look at this can be found in Chris Sowton’s book.

Pete

I want to hold your hand

Helping your reader # 1. Put your argument out there right at the beginning.

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This is post #1 of a series on Helping your reader.

Help your reader find your argument – spell it out

Whatever your worthy personal motivations are for writing your essay, in reality there is only one person you are writing your essay for, and you need to keep this person in mind at all times . This person is your lecturer (or examiner)  and you need to do whatever you can to guide them through your writing so they can be in no doubt that your essay is brilliant.

You need to make sure is that your lecturer knows exactly what your argument is, so spell out your argument in your introduction. It may be that you need to go back and write or rewrite your introduction at the end of your essay,  but whenever you do write it,  make sure it leaves your reader 100% certain about what your argument is.

Remember, reading an essay shouldn’t be a guessing game, and the bets are that if you don’t understand what your argument is, then your lecturer doesn’t either. Don’t make them trawl through your writing trying to look for an argument. Put it right out there at the start. Yes that’s risky, because they might disagree. On the other hand, even if they do disagree, as long as your argument is well supported, they’ll still know your essay is brilliant!

For more information on helping your reader see chapter 5 of  Students Must Write  by Robert Barrass.

Lizzy