When it comes to writing a brilliant first draft of your Extended Essay, or any essay, I fully believe that a solid structure is one of the surest guarantees of success there is. It’s the skeleton of the essay that makes it into a fully formed being instead of a pile of jelly. And the best way to make sure you have a skeleton instead of just gelatine (is that a rhyme?) is to create a plan or outline.
We’ve talked about how to choose a topic, go about your research, and pin down a research question. So now we’re going to address how you can take all of that work and turn it into a concrete plan. It’s all about organising your ideas so that they are as clear as possible. After you’ve done this, writing the essay will be about simply filling in the gaps!
Preparing to construct your Extended Essay Outline
Know your destination
Although your research question should already suggest what you are aiming to achieve in the essay, your conclusion needs to take this a step further. It can’t just be the same as your introduction but in different words (as tempting as that option is!). Everything in your essay should take the reader on a journey to this conclusion. It should help progress your argument so that we get closer with every paragraph.
If you’re now realising that you don’t know your destination, take the time to figure this out before you start writing. The results of a Science experiment will make it pretty obvious, but even in more subjective subjects such as English, History and World Studies you need to decide what conclusion your research points towards.
My advice to you, if you simply aren’t sure, is to follow your instincts. Think about how your evidence has affected what you personally think about the topic. Chances are it will have convinced you of something. For a reminder of different types of essay conclusions, there are some useful summaries in this article.
Exercise 1: summarise your conclusion in one sentence. Even if it’s not exactly right, or if it doesn’t include everything you feel is important about your topic, compress it as much as you can into one core idea. If you can’t do this right away then set a timer for five minutes and start drafting sentences about what you ‘think’ your essay might conclude. At the end of the five minutes pick the one that you feel summarises it best.
Define your ideas
Take a moment to free your mind from all the details, facts, quotes and data. Go back to the essence of your essay, which is the argument you are trying to make. Without using your research to speak for itself, identify all the different ideas you want to include, and the things you want to say.
For example, you might have evidence that Virginia Woolf uses imagery of flowers frequently throughout Mrs Dalloway, but what does this actually mean in the context of your question? The idea behind it might relate more to her affinity with nature, or the parallels she draws between flowers and people.
Exercise 2: write down all the ideas you want to include in your essay. Don’t worry about an order yet. Focus instead of getting all of your ‘points’ written down somewhere. Not only is this likely to help your organise your thoughts, but it will also mean you can refer back to it later to make sure you haven’t forgotten one of your favourite ideas! This can take the form of a mind map, a list, a Word Doc. Do whatever feels easiest, because chances are this is what will help your ideas flow naturally.
Filter your evidence
I can 99% guarantee you that you won’t be able to use all the research you have done. A lot of it will be:
- Irrelevant to the question
- Repetition of what you already have
- Not quite right for your line of argument
THEREFORE it is important that you filter your evidence so that you only have the best examples and information.
Use your research question as your starting point and your conclusion sentence (the one you wrote earlier) as the end point. It is your job to make sure that every piece of research is part of a bridge between the two. Absolutely every quote, fact or piece of data that you include should actively answer your question. If it doesn’t, don’t include it.
Exercise 3: First, highlight the clearest, most informative research that you have gathered. Next, take all of these pieces of research, and write a short, one-sentence summary next to each one, describing how it relates to your question. Use your own words. You will hopefully start finding that they are backing up some of the points you know you want to include.
Constructing your Extended Essay Outline
There are different techniques you can use to structure an essay. Because the Extended Essay is much longer than what most of you will be used to, I strongly recommend using a particular technique or process to do this. Below are some examples, and you should do whatever works best for you.
The Bullet-Point Outline:
You know this one. It’s the most classic example of how to structure an essay and the one most of you have probably tried before. The trick with this one is to start small and expand outwards afterwards.
- Summarise each paragraph into one line that defines the idea or sub-topic behind it.
- Expand each paragraph summary by adding 2 extra bullet points:
- Evidence, data or a quote
- How the example relates to the idea you are trying to convey
- Expand your paragraph bullet points by adding in other ideas or points that are directly relevant to the overall idea behind it
The Post-it Note Outline:
I’m defining this as anything that involves you breaking down your paragraphs into defined pieces. Post-it notes, cards, and scraps of paper are the most common examples. This option is brilliant if you struggle coming up with an order for your ideas straight away. Instead it lets you play around with all the different parts of your essay as you go, until you have put them in the best possible order.
If you like the idea of this process but can’t stand the idea of lots of physical pieces of paper, there are some apps that perform a similar function such as Gingko or Evernote.
The Spreadsheet Outline:
For the structure nuts among you. The beauty of this is that it lets you easily compare paragraphs in terms of length and content by breaking each one down into clear sections. You can choose how exactly you format it, but it might look like this:
As with the post-it version it is super easy to use this method to change the order of your paragraphs. You can also tailor the columns depending on what categories are most relevant to you. If you want to go a step further you can even colour code your sheet, for example according to 1st hand data or 2nd hand data, or close analysis and thematic analysis.
The key is to have a view of the bigger picture of your essay. How you go about it is up to you!
Read Part 5: How to Write It
With summer either already here or very near, it’s time for our next step in the Extended Essay Step-by-Step Guide. This one will help give you that push to put all of that essay preparation to use. Yes, it’s time to bite the bullet and write the thing.
To recap, this is the stage that comes after:
Finalising a Question
If you don’t feel you’ve quite nailed something in that list above, have a read of our previous blogs in the series for a comprehensive breakdown of what you can do to get there. If on the other hand you do feel you’ve done all of this, you should know WHAT you’re going to say. The real question is HOW. This isn’t a post about how to write. I know you’ve written things before. This blog is about how to make yourself get that writing for this Extended Essay on the page in front of you.
1. Know When You’ll Write Your Essay
It should be obvious that the key to making sure you write your extended essay is to find the time to write it. But you’d be surprised how easily the time can slip away without a single word getting typed or written. Especially in summer, that pesky thing called procrastination can disguise itself as everything from the new season of Orange is the New Black to a trip to a lake to swim with pelicans.
To make sure you get the writing done when you want it done, take half an hour to get organised. Work out when, objectively, you will have the time to devote some love and care and sweat and blood to this essay. And do it in chunks. Half a day at a time is ideal. Start by scheduling a few at a time near the start of your holiday so that you can see how much time this will actually take you and adjust your schedule accordingly.
To be extra efficient, don’t just decide when you will work on your essay, but decide what you will work on. Set deadlines for finishing different stages of the essay throughout the summer. For a Language, Literature, or Group 3 essay you might set deadlines for completing the introduction, body, conclusion, and proofreading. For a Group 4 Science essay your deadlines could be more detailed, separated for completing sections on background information, methods and materials, and data analysis, for example.
Exercise 1: Take out your calendar, work out what plans you already have for the summer which you’ll need to work around, and mark out your devoted Extended Essay time. Don’t have a calendar? No problem! Download our own printable Extended Essay time planner by clicking here!
2. Getting the Words on the Page
Now you’ve organised yourself and found time to do the writing, it’s time to sit down and put the words on the page. The biggest tip I can possibly give you is to remind that getting any words on the page at all is more important, at this stage, than getting ‘the right words’. This is only a first draft, and at this point it’s only a draft of a first draft. So do whatever you can to help yourself put pen to paper/hands to keyboard.
If you feel like you can launch straight into writing that essay, great! Sit down and do that. On the other hand if you’re still unsure where you start there are a bunch of techniques you can try to help get you started.
- There’s nothing to say you have to write the essay in chronological order! Instead you could take each paragraph of your essay one at a time, and start with the section you feel most confident, or excited about.
- A lot of people find it easier to write things by hand before typing it. If you’re experiencing what I like to call ‘keyboard fear’, ditch the laptop, take a pen and a piece of paper, and write your essay as if you are answering the question in an exam.
- If you’re struggling to turn your outline into full sentences, forget about eloquence for a while and just write it in whatever way you like. No need for good words. Just write. No one will see it but you.
Exercise 2: Pick one of the three options above and try it: write your favourite ‘piece’ of the essay first, write as much as you can by hand in one writing sprint, or lose the grammar and just get the ideas down in the right order.
3. Perfect Your Extended Essay Language
Perfect language doesn’t matter at the beginning of your writing process. But making sure that your writing is clear, well-paced and polished is essential for the final product. You’ll get a chance to fix up the writing later in the process, but paying attention to your language, tone and style as you go along will save you a lot of time in the long-run. More importantly, it will help you to see what is and isn’t making sense now.
A great way to get into the right frame of mind for writing a formal essay is to read other examples. Have a look at our free resources page to see how other successful IB students have written their essays in the past. Alternatively you could remind yourself of general guidelines to academic writing like this guide here.
In general it’s better to be simple. Avoid the temptation to write as many long, complicated words as you possibly can so that you reach the 4000 word limit faster! I promise you that the most common Extended Essay problem of all IB students is fitting their words into the word limit at the end. So take some time to relax, breathe, and only write what you need to write.
Case in point: Which sentence makes more sense to you?
- It is arguable that during the nineteenth century, and in the latter half of the century in particular, many people perceived a growth in what can be termed the mass market for novels and literature.
- The later nineteenth century saw an increase in the literary mass market.
Exercise 3: Paste one of your completed paragraphs onto a new document and cut out the unnecessary words and phrases. Aim to cut words down by 10%. Do this for each one of your paragraphs either as you go along or at the end.
The only thing left to say now is to just do it. It will be tough, but you won’t have a better time to work on it than this summer*. If you’d like more help from us have a look at our assignments package for online private tuition, or our Mid-IB Extended Essay workshop.
(*And if you hate the idea of doing it now, think about doing it next term when you have 10 other deadlines to meet as well!)
Read Part 6: Motivation