The peak of essay season is recognizable by multiple indicators. Places in libraries – this year scarcer than ever due to social distancing – are booked several days in advance, the section ‘Click and Collect’ where we are ordering books this year, is a whole pile of them waiting for me. The calendar is full of deadlines – and there is reading week. As already indicated by its name, this weeklong space doesn’t serve relaxation, or trips, but reading which plays such an important role in the Anglo-Saxon educational system that the verb read can be used as a synonym for study. It is through reading that the process of writing an essay begins – forming a closed cycle where reading renders material for writing which in turn enriches other readers, and the volume of secondary literature thus unsurprisingly increases.
A university student develops a specific way of reading. He reads with a general and natural curiosity, but simultaneously with the eye of a detective searching for ammunition to fire concrete arguments, and at spotting it, the student immediately makes notes – careful, including the page number and author. He submerges deeper into the material, not neglecting footnotes – and proportionally with new information, also the list of things I need to read is growing, thinks the student. He is reading about some events already for a nth time, but always from a yet unexplored perspective, and the notes from books become coupled with italicized notes of the reader – where did he already read something similar, what could be rebuked, which statistic used… It is only here that the true reading begins – an interaction of the author and the reader. Notes are always personal: they are the product of our own interaction and our understanding of the work, not an impersonal extract from a book.
The student reader thus becomes engrossed in books, not noticing the lockdown outside as Reading Week passes day by day. Notes are naturally becoming more succinct; the reading is made faster. With every new language mastered by the student, new sources become accessible, and the student is amazed to discover that the University Library in London holds for example an archival book of correspondence between Masaryk and Štefánik. Click and Collect does not pose any limits, there is plenty of material – what a shame that the work is limited by time and wordcount! The student luckily manages to restrict the scope of the essay by defining in advance the question: he creates a framework who to grasp it – and this can be completely different to the framework originally envisioned by the author of the question.
The phase of ‘reading’ would probably last many people for the whole life, but there comes a moment when the student decides that he has amassed enough material for the time being, and bravely tosses himself into the vortex of whirling thoughts that he needs to express in structured academic manner. The first sentences are tough, but once the writer gets immersed in the problematic, he is unstoppable: for weeks, he has been reading texts on this topic, in a second window he has prepared tens of pages of relevant citations, in a third window, a plan of the assay pre-approved by the teacher, and the victorious race of his fingers beating the keyboard is resounding in the library.
The phase of ‘drafting’ is enjoyable in that it is visibly productive, unbound, enabling latitude, and awarding satisfaction upon staying true to the essay plan. The count of words and footnotes is rising, and most importantly: if in the head of a student there is born a though connecting all those small pieces of evidence filling his notes, it is this thought that will become the Argument of the essay. The next phase follows: it is ‘concentrated writing ‘, which develops The Argument.
The last phase called ‘polishing’ lasts as a rule longer than we would like it to. We notice here a citation italicized for no reason; there it is even in bold. All of these are the marks of an enthusiastic writer who a few days ago was spitting out ideas regardless of their format. It is good to print the essay out to uncover further, both grammatical and content-related mistakes. Except for struggles with tight wordcount, this phase can be quite enjoyable: it does not require high level of mental effort, just time and thoroughness, and can therefore be combined for example with relaxing music.
I could go on to describe other phases: peer-editing, self-correction, publication. But – as in any proper essay – I want to return to the initial topic of essay season. I would like to wish everyone in our society to at some point experience their essay season. This is not to be malicious, on the contrary: I think we can all learn a lot from this process which requires us to investigate the origins of the information we use, organise our thoughts – and don’t proclaim them until we are knowledgeable about the context which produced them.
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