A bunch of things you might want to know about essay writing

'Kúnlé Adébàjò
14 min readJul 7, 2024

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I was recently invited by the Undergraduate Essayists Group to facilitate a workshop on — you guessed it — essay writing.

Fun fact: The group has trained hundreds of young and aspiring writers across Nigeria, Kenya, and Tanzania. When the founder reached out via LinkedIn in May, he mentioned that many of their previous trainers were my ‘disciples’. By this, he meant they had read On Words and Awards, an e-book I released in 2018, right after I graduated.

I’ll digress a little. To complete the paragraph you just read, I had to search through my Facebook timeline and google the book title for hints about the publication year. I had forgotten. I still do not consider myself an author, and I typically leave out information about the books I have written, curated, and co-authored in my profiles because, in my mind, I have not published anything yet that is good enough to permit me that title. Anyway, this particular book is a compilation of my winning entries for various essay competitions alongside a bunch of writing tips. It was a response to constant requests from people asking me to put them through. Rather than answer everyone individually, I thought, I could simply send them a copy of the book. But I never imagined it would be this influential, even years later.

I will be sharing excerpts from the two-hour training event (or more like a full transcript of what went down). I had suggested it would purely be a question-and-answer session. I am usually not a fan of online events, but I enjoyed this one. The WhatsApp group had over a thousand members. The room buzzed with curiosity and humour and emojis. Those who did not participate in real time came back to read the proceedings and left their reactions the following day. It was a fun experience.

My answers were rushed because I was combing through multiple questions at once and the time was limited. So, if you have follow-up questions, feel free to drop them in the comment section.

(Note that I have edited some of the text for clarity and correctness.)

Q: What’s the best and most acceptable format for essay writing?

A: So essays are already a format of writing. But people go about them in different ways, usually varying only in the sense of how formal or informal the approach is. The best thing is to determine what audience you’re writing for and to adopt a style that works for them. Sometimes, competitions also specify. They tell you to include footnotes, to use a cover page, to add sub-headings, etc. However, I personally think more flexible and friendly writing styles are more effective. They keep the reader interested and also allow you to stand out more easily.

Q: Writing is something I have come to find easy, but whenever it comes to writing anything like an essay, I feel scared and begin to doubt myself. I need helpful tips on how to overcome this because I have missed out on many essay competitions.

A: This is understandable. What you should do is interrogate why you’re afraid. Is it the fear of not being good enough? In any case, no one masters anything overnight. All the people you look at with fondness and respect today also started by doubting themselves. Many still doubt themselves. It’s just that they’ve found a way to act in spite of the fear and the doubt. Write in spite of the fear. That’s the only way to conquer it. Find a community that motivates you. Get a friend with similar goals so you can ginger each other. Be humble enough to learn. Be confident enough to act. I really hope this is helpful. ❤️

Q: What makes an outstanding essay? Is it more of the depth of the idea or the beauty of the writing?

A: Everything. It’s like asking what makes good jollof rice. It has to be a perfect blend of all the elements. If you get everything right and it is too watery or salty, it leaves a sour taste in the mouth. Or what makes a good car? Is it the paintwork or the engine or the AC? If you want a good experience, you have to be concerned about all the qualities. Be deliberate about the depth of your research. Be deliberate about how you present them. Be deliberate about the neatness of your article. Be deliberate about grammar and punctuation and concord and font, etc. etc. Let whoever is reading be able to just have an enjoyable experience without being bugged by avoidable impediments.

Q: What’s your take on using AI to write winning essays? Do you think it lessens our creativity and critical abilities? Or is it a great path to harness?

A: I personally restrict my use of AI mostly to editing, transcription, and image generation. If the kind of writing you’re doing is maybe technical writing — you know, SEO/newsletter/social media captions — and you are supposed to churn out lots of content regularly, it’s okay to lean on AI for support. And AI really does a decent job in that area. But if you want to be respected as an essayist or creative writer, then reach into yourself. You have everything you need. The more you rely on AI, the more your abilities atrophy. So make sure not to overdose on the chat-GPT drug. Remain original. Let people be able to tell that you wrote an article even without seeing your name on it because your voice shines through. 👊🏽

Q: I’ve seen people write essays with lots of big grammar. I can write normal essays with simple grammar. I do feel like these people are better probably because of their structured and highly formal way of speaking. What’s your take on this? And how can I improve my grammar to write more formally?

A: It’s the curve of writing. Everyone starts off by writing simply. Then they read Wole Soyinka and think they can achieve that sort of fame only by speaking obtusely. Then, if they’re lucky, they snap out of it and truly learn how to communicate effectively through simple, flowery, evocative vocabulary. Expand your vocabulary, yes. But when you write, do not use a word only because it makes you sound educated; use it because it is the most appropriate and effective way to convey your ideas. If you do not understand a thing enough to break it down to a child or a layman, then you’re only cosplaying expertise.

Q: What do serial winners do in their essays that always make them outstanding and win prizes? How do they write? What do they think? What do they insert in their works?

A: I want to say luck plays a huge role, especially because of the fickle and often unreliable judgement of the jurors. But then it’s also a science, a thing that can be learnt such that even if you do not win, you’re guaranteed to be among the top entrants. It boils down to being deliberate about every single component of your writing, as I said earlier. But one trick that works for me is to also read the minds of potential readers and jurors. Ask yourself, what are they expecting you to write? What will the other essays be saying? Then, do something better that’ll astound and impress them. Never be boring. Master the clichés and then transcend them. By the way, I recommend reading this.

Q: Can someone possibly tell a story in an essay just to state his or her point? Is it advisable?

A: Absolutely! Anecdotes are a good way to illustrate ideas and sustain your reader’s attention. Everyone loves a good story, especially one with a shocking punch line. Just don’t overdo it. 👍🏽

Q: What’s a non-fiction essay?

A: It is an essay that’s based solely on facts and not imagination. It’s why feature writing in journalism is alternatively called creative non-fiction. You have to stick to the reality. E go dey difficult for person wey dey hallucinate too much to write non-fiction because they’re tethered to multiple realities. 👀

Q: How do I stop procrastinating? Cos I have been following this four-cardinal rule: Do things that are important and urgent first, then urgent and not important, then important and not urgent, and lastly, not urgent and not important. However, following this, I always end up writing an essay a day before the deadline or on the deadline date. Please, what’s the remedy?

A: Many of the best minds suffer from this crisis. (Well, because they still excel even after procrastinating. So, they’re not incentivised to do better.) In your case, since you’re so disciplined about how you spend your time, it could be that you have a lot going on and do not really prioritise essay writing. You might act differently if you consider it to be important and a little bit urgent … And you should, especially if you’re not currently getting the desired results.

Q: How can one restrict the usage of AI? Or better still, use it in a way that is very beneficial.

A: I believe I already answered this. It’s best not to have AI do the writing for you but to use it as a support. For translation. For research. For transcription. For editing and proofreading, etc. I have another article you might find helpful.

Q: How can one improve his or her writing skills? Because at times it feels as if there is no idea coming or I don’t know how to start.

A: Don’t be in a hurry to get results. It takes patience. The more difficult the task is, the bigger the leap of improvement you’ll make once you overcome it. So don’t quit because it is hard. It is supposed to be hard. Remain in front of that laptop, and don’t close it until you bleed your heart out. There aren’t many people who are born geniuses. Even Albert Einstein admitted that he only got to solve many groundbreaking problems in physics because he spent an insane amount of time ruminating on them. So, burn the night candle (metaphorically speaking). Be obsessed with ideas. Keep thinking, keep researching until you get that lightbulb moment. I’m afraid there are no shortcuts. ❤️

Q: Do you run out of words while writing, too? What can you suggest at this point?

A: It happens to everybody. Start with an outline as a way to map your journey and all the important things you want to talk about. Write your ideas as soon as they occur to you (even if you’re not immediately drafting the article). Don’t rely on your brain to remember. Take a break. Touch grass. And come back to the task. (Ps. You won’t have this privilege if you’re a chained procrastinator.)

Q: What are the subtle tips most essayists don’t know that make them lose all the time, even after in-depth research and a nice presentation, at least to the eyes of the writer?

A: Three things. If your introduction is dreadfully boring, you have no guarantee the person reading will get to the rest of your in-depth research and nice presentation. To do well, you also need to have an eye for good design. A great essay that is cloaked in terrible and inconsistent fonts will upset the most considerate and unbiased of judges. Lastly, learn to be concise.

Q: In your book, you emphasised the importance of in-depth research before writing an essay. Sir, my question is: knowing that meeting deadlines is crucial to winning essays, how do I know when I have researched enough? What benchmarks do you meet (like reading at least 50–100 papers)? How can one effectively manage time so one doesn’t end up in an unending cycle of writing and research?

A: That’s a really good question. It’s about time management. I don’t think there’s anything like excessive research if you have all the time in the world and you’re able to still sound sane when you’re done. In essence, soak in as much as you can with the limited time available. Go beyond the first page of Google. Do not assume you know about a thing because you’ve read one article or a few. Find a way to derive pleasure from discovering new things so it’s not a chore to you but something you look forward to. But be systematic with your research. Don’t go down one rabbit hole when you’re supposed to plough a vast field. I hope this makes sense. Also, some people go about learning a lot of things, and when they’re writing, they become very showy. They want people to know how knowledgeable they are and end up sounding ridiculous. Don’t make that mistake. Learn to distil the facts. Present only the most refreshing and original details. Do not be repetitive.

Q: There are many essay competitions with different themes. Would you advise an up-and-coming essayist to write as many essays as possible or to write on topics of specific interests?

A: Write on as many as possible. Challenge yourself. I once won a writing competition organised by goal.com, even though I barely watch football. Again, derive pleasure in learning new things and expanding your intelligence.

Q: How do I go about referencing in an essay?

A: I do not think this is something I can answer here. You’ll find plenty of guides online.

Q: Must you include an abstract in your essay?

A: Not at all, especially if the word count doesn’t warrant it and if you’re taking the informal writing approach.

Q: Alright. But what if it’s stated? Does it have a specific word count? And is the word count included in the main essay?

A: Honestly, you can’t say for certain unless you ask the organisers, but it’s best to assume it’s part of the required word count. If an abstract is getting too long, your spirit go do gbish-gbish. That’s how you know. 😅 (Ps. Keep it to one paragraph.)

Q: Do you sometimes run out of words or ideas when writing an essay? How do you handle this?

A: This has been answered. 🙈 What I’ll add is you can’t be a great writer if you’re not a great reader (or general consumer of information). You can’t pull water out of a dry well. The more you know, the more you tend to flow. (Pardon the cheeky rhyme.)

Q: How do I manage my time and work towards a deadline while combining it with other important activities? What is your advice as it regards applying for competitions? Should I apply for as many opportunities as are available?

A: The only thing I can say regarding this is that you should keep yourself occupied with learning and productive activities in whatever form they come. If something is important enough to you, you’ll find a way to do it. So, simply set your priorities right. And yes, apply to as many opportunities as you can, especially at this stage. Be greedy.

Q: I always go overboard whenever I write, whether it’s a topic I already have so much information about or one for which I had to do some new research. What is your advice for me?

A: I’m not exactly sure what you mean by going overboard. But I think what I said earlier about the depth of research and the clarity of communication applies here, too. Going overboard with research is a good thing. You just need to make sure you’re not waterboarding the reader with all that information. Refine it and then give them in immaculate sips.

Q: I stopped writing some time ago, and it has been hard to start again. What can I do to make it easier to write again?

A: Baby steps, plus consistency. Keep a journal. Write in small doses. Write for fun. Write however it comes. Use prompts to challenge yourself. Don’t stop reading, too. Wishing you all the best!

Q: What do you think of getting an essay reviewer? Especially past winners of the essay. And when do you think your essay is full, even with or without reviews?

A: It helps. Personally, I’m too proud and introverted to ask people for help, lol. I try to slug it out on my own. But wallahi, this is not the best approach. If you have people willing to lend you their eyes, approach them. Two heads are better than one. But also, too many cooks spoil the broth. So, you have to find a balance.

Q: Adding proverbs, short stories, and relevant quotes to an essay. Does it increase the chance of winning? What’s your take on this?

A: Use them sparingly and only use them if they add value to your article and sync with the rest of it. Do not rely on quotes if you can craft better-sounding and more profound words on your own.

Q: How can one reconcile writing clear and simple expressions with complying with writing conventions that encourage verbosity, especially in the legal realm?

A: Legalese is a language on its own. If lawyers don’t speak big words that alienate other people, how we go take know say their five/six years of legal education no go to waste? 😅 The most important thing is to communicate. If your audience is a group of lawyers and judges, and the best way to communicate is through Latin and “hereinafters”, then, by all means, use those expressions.

Q: Where can I get book recommendations to improve on essay writing? Especially as one who doesn’t like reading non-academic books but wants to start reading them so there can be water in the dry well.

A: I only ever recommend two to three books. On Writing Well by William Zinsser. Elements of Style by E.B. White and William Strunk Jr. Politics and the English Language by George Orwell. Two kinds of books are essential: those that educate you about the world around you and those that teach you the art of writing about that world. The more diverse your diet is, the better. Be an omnivorous glutton when it comes to books.

Q: Some winning essayists are fond of exhausting the word counts. If it’s 1500 words, they will write 1499 or 1500 or something close. Is it a winning trick?

A: Lmao, no it is not. But I guess it shows they wrote way more than the limit and then had to trim it down. It’s better to do this than to write way below the required word count — especially when it comes to writing competitions. There are other opportunities that’ll ask you to write something and give you a word count, but they won’t hold it against you if you do not meet half that count as long as you make sense.

Q: In as much as you encourage us to explore different topics, do you think it’s advisable to have a niche?

A: Yes. Eventually. 👀 (Ps. Start as a voracious reader and a relentless adventurer. Then, be known for something. ’Cause how can you tell what your favourite food is if you have only tried three meals in your life? As they say, to one who has not travelled beyond his village, his father’s farm is the biggest in the world. So travel. And then decide where you want to settle, all things considered. (It doesn’t mean you should stop experimenting or being curious about other things, though.)

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Days later, one of the participants texted me privately to ask this.

Q: This is like the third time I have read your book “On Words and Awards”, but what kept me going to it over and over again is how you always find different historical stories or events that relate to the different topics you write on. How do you do your research? I really would love to imbibe that habit.

A: A lot of it is from reading widely. The reading you generally do and the reading you do while researching the topic. But it’s not everything. Some people achieve more with little information than others are able to pull off with a ton of it. So it’s also important to spend a lot of time thinking deeply about angles. I want to make this point, but how do I go about it in a way that is interesting, in a way that resonates with the audience. This kind of thinking makes your research deliberate instead of random. You know exactly the keywords to search for. You’re not just typing “What are the benefits of higher literacy rates” into Google; you’re asking, “Which country has the highest literacy rate in the world and who’s responsible?” You’re asking, “Which British colonial policies have led to the alarming rate of out-of-school children in Nigeria?” etc. etc.

Instead of spending most of your time understanding concepts and looking for answers, you are going deeper, looking for examples, and seeking to confirm what you already know.

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'Kúnlé Adébàjò

An arcless half-a-wise-guy who happens to write. All you need to know is at: www.kunleadebajo.com.