Remember (Sorry to be preachy): It takes two to learn and it is likely your professor is not an ogre (but never rule out this possibility). For now take a chance. A good question from you during class would be welcome. If you have any other kind of problem or concern, discuss it with your instructor before or after class or during office hours. Communicate your concern. In the meantime, do your job. Learn to listen critically, develop skills in taking notes, develop good study habits.
Remember University Guidelines: Three hours of out-of-class study for each hour of class. That means that a three-hour class will cost twelve hours a week. Minimum. Smart students spend significantly more.
2. Syllabus & Notes? If you have done the reading and attended lecture you may want to take a glance at the syllabus (it has lecture titles and reading assignments, etc.) and, to the discerning reader, it has a pattern. Now ask yourself: What is the big deal? What are the themes, the major questions the course and readings ask? Make an outline. If you have a study sheet the task is simpler: Review your notes and required readings. Make outlines for each study question. You may wish to organize a study group to discuss the questions and potential responses. But perhaps you should have done that earlier.
3. Cool! A study sheet! If you have a study sheet in hand and you have reviewed your lecture notes, the next job is to review them again focusing on what the question asks you to do. To be sure, you will have to write something. But what? First, as a rule, the more intelligent prose you write the better. The logic is simple: Ten good pages are better than three good pages. But not so fast. Quality is always the key. If your name is Abe you might be able to write classic prose on an envelope. Alas, most of us do not write with the power and simplicity of President Lincoln. Think before you write. Remember the old apology: 'Sorry I wrote a ten-page letter, I didn't have time to write two.' Good writing is succinct. As a rule it is re-written writing. But you have only one shot with an in-class essay! To be on target aim to be prepared.
4. Preparation: That means getting your thoughts organized in order to write clearly. Your essay should have good organization. As Aristotle suggested: A Beginning; A Middle; An end. If 'The Philosopher' and 'Master of Those Who Know' does not impress you (he is, after all, just another dead guy) recall the standard issue of the United States Army:
i. Tell 'em what you're gonna tell 'em;
ii. Tell 'em;
iii. Tell 'em what you told 'em.
Writing a Blue Book Examination is the academic equivalent of going to war, well, anyway, defending something worthwhile. Boy Scout or Big Green: Be Prepared.
5. What to include? If your thoughts are organized, what do you include in your essay? In general be specific. A good essay has a thesis: It says in simple sinewy prose: I will argue that.... A good essay uses carefully selected examples. Like a good poem or a good piece of science or a good historical argument memorable essays make a general claim supported by specific examples. The general and abstract are grounded in the particular and concrete. Make a general claim; organize your essay with clear arguments; support your arguments with thoughtfully selected examples.
Time is short. Because time is short your essay should show economy of expression. Make it lean and to the point. Truth is simple. Your reader can usually distinguish pepper corns from mouse droppings, so keep fertilizer to a minimum. Grab the bull by the horns, butt heads with issues. Writers kid themselves more often than they fool their readers.
6. Be simple, direct, detailed. With Democritus 'Don't speak at length, speak the truth.' Fifty minutes is short, thirty minutes is twenty minutes shorter. So you must select in advance what you judge worthy of our time. In preparing for the essay you must select and that means you are interpreting. You must make your own evaluation of all that stuff. You must find (create for yourself) an interpretation, a critical position, that you can defend. That requires sound argument and solid evidence. Good writing should have a thesis; clearly stated objectives; a clear structure; careful use of evidence, and appropriate 'telling' examples to illustrate and support your claims.
To be even more specific, be specific. Remember the basic charge: In general, be specific. The most common comments on Mid-Term Exams include the following: Be Specific; Explain; Give Examples; Too Vague. The most common mistake in writing essays is ignoring, overlooking, or giving only short notice to major issues, concepts, or historical figures. Your essay must be balanced. So, look at the syllabus. Consider where the greatest amount of time, effort, and emphasis has been placed. If we have spent several hours talking about Thales, Anaximander, Anaximenes, Heraclitus, Parmenides, Zeno, Democritus, et alia, do not be content to talk about 'the Greeks'. Be specific. These Greeks have names. Mention them specifically, explain their views. Similarly, if we spend days talking about what the Egyptians and the Babylonians observed in the heavens, for heaven's sake be specific about what they observed -- eclipses, occultations, conjunctions, oppositions, risings and settings, that there was some very specific interest in Venus (why?), that there were specific developments with place value notation, with the 24 hour day, the 365 day year, etc. In general, be specific. Finally, notice on the syllabus that we have spent the bulk of our time on Aristotle and Ptolemy. Their views are important. Did they think the same way about nature and knowledge? Can you write a Mid-Term Essay without mentioning them? Think about balance and proportion when you prepare.
If those trips down to the demos in Westminster have left you behind schedule for your end-of-term assignment, you may well be forced to write in the small hours this week. Here's how to pull it off safely and successfully.
12am: Get as far away from your bed as possible
Before you begin, avoid warmth and soft furnishings. Propped up on pillows in the glow of a laptop may feel like savvy ergonomics, but your keyboard will start to look pillow-like by midnight, and 418 pages of the word "gf64444444444444444444" will detract from the force of your argument. You could try the kitchen. Or Krakow. But your industrially lit 24-hour campus library should do the trick.
12:25am: Take a catnap
Thomas Edison used to catnap through the night with a steel ball in his hand. As he relaxed and the ball dropped, he would wake up, usually with fresh ideas. "Caffeine and a short nap make a very effective combination," says Jim Horne, director of the Loughborough Sleep Research Centre. "Have the coffee first. This takes about 20 minutes to work, so take a 15-minute nap. Use an alarm to wake up and avoid deep sleep kicking in. Do this twice throughout the night."
12.56am: Reduce your internet options
Temporarily block Twitter, Spotify, Group Hug, YouTube, 4od and anything else that distracts you. Constantly updating your word count on Facebook may feel like fun, but to everyone else you'll look like you're constantly updating your word count on Facebook.
1-3am: Now write your essay. No, really
You've widened your margins, subtly enlarged your font and filled your bibliography with references of such profound obscurity that no one will notice you're missing 3,000 words. It's time to brainstorm, outline, carve words, followed by more words, into that milk-white oblivion that taunts you. Speed-read articles. Key-word Google Books. Remember texts you love and draw comparisons. Reword. Expound. Invent. Neologise. Get excited. Find a problem you can relish and keep writing. While others flit from point to point, your impassioned and meticulous analysis of a single contention is music to a marker's eyes.
3-5am: Get lost in your analysis, your characters, your world Write like you're trying to convince the most stubborn grammarian about truth, or heartless alien invaders about love. Don't overload with examples – be creative with the ones you have. Detail will save your life, but don't waste time perfecting sentences – get the bulk down first and clean up later. "The progress of any writer," said Ted Hughes, "is marked by those moments when he manages to outwit his own inner police system." Outwit your own inner police system. Expect progress. Ted says so.
5:01am: Don't cheat
It's about now that websites such as easyessay.co.uk will start to look tempting. And you may sleep easier knowing that a dubiously accredited Italian yoga instructor is writing about Joyce instead of you. But the guilt will keep you up between now and results day. And you'll toss and turn the night before graduation, job interviews, promotions, dinner parties, children's birthdays, family funerals . . . you get the idea.
5.17am: Don't die
Sounds obvious, but dying at your computer is definitely trending. And however uncool it may seem to "pass on" during a five-day stint at World of Warcraft, it will be much more embarrassing to die explaining perspectivism to no one in particular. So be careful. Stay hydrated. Blink occasionally. And keep writing.
5.45am: Eat something simple
"There are no foods that are particularly good at promoting alertness," says Horne. "But avoid heavy and fatty meals in the small hours. Avoid very sugary drinks that don't contain caffeine, too. Sugar is not very effective in combating sleepiness." Fun fact: an apple provides you with more energy than a cup of coffee. Now stick the kettle on.
5.46am: Delight in being a piece of living research
If you happen to be "fatigue resistant" you should now be enjoying the enhanced concentration, creative upwelling and euphoric oneness that sleep deprivation can bring. If not, try talking yourself into it. "Conversation keeps you awake," says Horne. "So talk to a friend or even to yourself – no one will hear you."
6am: Console yourself with lists of writers who stuck it out
Robert Frost was acquainted with the night. Dumas, Kafka, Dickens, Coleridge, Sartre, Poe and Breton night-walked and trance-wrote their way to literary distinction. John and Paul wrote A Hard Day's Night in the small hours. Herman the Recluse, atoning for broken monastic vows, is said to have written the Codex Gigas on 320 sheets of calfskin during a single night in 1229. True, he'd sold his soul to the Devil, but you're missing out on a live Twitter feed, so it's swings and roundabouts.
7am: Remember – art is never finished, only abandoned
Once you accept there's no more you can do, print it off and get to the submissions office quick. Horne: "You're not fit to drive if you've had less than five hours sleep, so don't risk it. Grab some exercise." Pop it in with the breeziness that comes from being top of your marker's pile. Back home, unblock Facebook and start buffering The Inbetweeners. And then sleep. Get as near to your bed as you can. Euphoric oneness doesn't come close.
Matt Shoard teaches creative writing at the University of Kent.