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Jesus College: Essay writing


Woman wearing a red, black and white striped beanie lying reading in a blue and yellow striped tent, trees can be seen outsideThe best thing you can do to improve your writing is to READ. It does not matter whether it is fiction or non-fiction. Most students feel they do not have time to read for pleasure, but there is no longer a need to feel guilty if you curl up with a novel and a cup of tea. The more you read and encounter different styles and ways of structuring narrative and argument, the better your own writing will be. There is a light reading collection on the ground floor of the library, so it couldn't be easier to start reading for pleasure. There is also a local history collection near the Garden Room, including books on Jesus College, so you can learn about the college as you read non-fiction.

For suggestions for reading, look at 'Lizzie’s favourite books' below.

Lizzie's favourite books

Book cover of Lincoln in the Bardo by George Saunders, white with ivy fronds growing around the words and a round sepia photo of a boy in the middle. A sticker saying Winner, The Man Booker Prize 2017 is just to the right of the book titleGeorge Saunders, Lincoln in the Bardo

I usually find tiresome modern books that experiment with the form of the novel and so I did not expect to like Lincoln in the Bardo. But the voice of the character on the first page drew me in as he told the pathetic tale of how he, an older groom, was prevented by death from finally consummating his marriage with his young lissom bride. Then the next few chapters felt like reading my own notes for my history PhD on the British in India. Many of the chapters are made up of a series of quotes from primary and secondary historical sources. At first I did not know what to make of this technique but the format grew on me. So vivid and expressive was the language used by the British to describe their life in India that at times I had wished that I could write my thesis in precisely this way by stringing small details and images from their letters and memoirs into a narrative. Saunders picks out details that evoke action: ‘Nearly lost among a huge flower arrangement stood a clutch of bent old men in urgent discussion. These were Abernathy, Seville, and Kord, all of whom would be dead within the year.’ The quotes bring the reader into the heart of the action and at the same time quietly place the story in its historical context. The structure is innovative and clever but rather than tiresome it is engaging.

The other chapters could be dialogues for a stage play. The spirits caught in the transitional realm of the bardo chatter and squabble. Grotesque and yet loveable with their wobbling swollen members and gory wounds they convey the anguish of being torn out of life mid-action. Saunders skates along the line of tragedy without becoming maudlin and infuses the messy, sad business of life with an earthy absurd humour which I found uplifting. And his language is beautiful: ‘I have grown comfortable having these Dead for company, and find them agreeable companions, over there in their Soil & cold stone Houses.’

Saunders has written many short story collections. I did not get on with those I have tried but he has written another wonderful book: A Swim in a Pond in the Rain. Sentence by sentence, line by line, he deconstructs seven short stories by Russian authors and explores how narrative functions and writing works. 

Further links

The Royal Literary Fund have a good basic guide to essay writing at Writing essays - The Royal Literary Fund ( and they also have an essay writing app at  Alex Essay Writing Tool - The Royal Literary Fund (

On this page there are also recommendations for good books on essay and dissertation writing, style, grammar and punctuation and links to a couple of interesting writing blogs.

Another useful resource is LibGuides on Academic Skills by Wolfson College which has links to resources on time management, using feedback, finding resources, critical evaluation and time management.

Anglia Ruskin University has Study Skills guides on Information Skills and Academic Writing.

Oxford guide on Making the most of your study time.

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