Some technical notes on writing college essays


This is an article dedicated to anyone who is currently struggling with another 10,000 words of guff. I've been there, I feel your pain.

I really don't mind typing, which is lucky for me because I actually do plenty of it. In fact, I quite enjoy transferring my thoughts through the keyboard to the screen.

The thing I hate is copying, transcribing text from one medium to another, say from a book to a Word document. That and formatting footnotes and bibliographies. Ugh! Twiddling fonts and italics to conform to some arbitrary university style guide is time consuming and highly unproductive.

What really burns me up about this whole procedure is that I know the information I am manually copying exists somewhere in an electronic form, ripe for cutting-and-pasting. And I know that a few simple formatting rules would take care of all those citations.

Happily, for the computer savvy student, these frustrations are easily quelled. To this end, I can heartily recommend the programme Endnote for keeping track of your sources. It is a fully featured library organiser which ports to many databases and websites, as well as to Microsoft Word.

Some steps I suggest you take:

  • Get a copy of Endnote. Many colleges will provide the software as a free download for registered students.
  • Familiarise yourself with its MS Word toolbar. The instant citation, footnote, bibliographic reference buttons are invaluable.
  • Set the style template to match your school's requirements. You can download more than 3,000. (I used Harvard.)
  • To input details of a 'physical' book, use Endnote to connect to the Library of Congress, find the title, and import the data fields.
  • Google Books provides an excellent facility for searching your reading list material or your own book collection.
  • JSTOR and other academic databases have millions of articles searchable/viewable online in PDF format. While this is great for research, raster PDFs (i.e. text scanned as images rather than as selectable electronic characters) can pose a challenge when it comes to adding their content to essays. My method is to download any interesting PDF and attach it to its citation within Endnote. Instead of typing large chunks of text, I use Adobe Capture (Cluster Edition) for OCR (optical character recognition) and convert the PDF to plain TXT files, making them cut-and-paste friendly. This has the added advantage of your keeping the entire article on your computer, linked to the citation, for later browsing/searching/copying.

Some of these solutions may seem convoluted, but I believe the minor effort involved in setting up this system is well worth the reward in saved time.

As an alternative, if you're really stuck for time, you could try the Random Post-modern Essay Generator, which I will now use to create a new post.