Tips for starting your reflective essay
(Last updated: 12 May 2021)
With all its peculiar codes and conventions, essay writing can often be a tricky business. This is why the reflective essay, which is unique even among academic writing, tends to give cause for confusion. All of a sudden students are being asked to turn the lens inward, to examine themselves, their thoughts and feelings, as opposed to some external object or topic. Here is an example of a reflective essay which demonstrates such internal examination.
As the example shows, with a reflective essay, we are essentially dealing with a combination of traditional, objective scholarly analysis and a form of subjective, diarising or reportage. We are looking at how these objective and subjective elements interact. The overall purpose, therefore, is to show how our experiences have influenced our behaviour; what we have learned and how we will change as a result of those lessons.
So Close and Yet so Far Away
Curiously, the subject matter of the self can be a very challenging field of enquiry. You are so close to you that it can be hard to see yourself at a distance, so to speak; and yet you are the only primary resource on your own experiences. Alas, in this instance we cannot simply go to the library and pick up a scholarly edition on the topic – which is exactly what we would do for any other essay. Thus we are left with the counter-intuitive question: how do I go about studying myself?
Here are a series of steps to follow which may be of assistance:
- Getting Started: Blank Page Anxiety
- “How?” and “Why?”
- Breaking it All Down
- The Mind Dump
- Now Started, Where Next?
- Needle and Thread
Getting Started: Blank Page Anxiety
Getting started is always the most difficult part. The blank page is not a very inviting companion when beginning on an intellectual journey. So, don't look at it. Shut your laptop. Close your notebook. Now – and this will sound a bit strange, but it pays off, trust us – start speaking aloud to yourself. Ask yourself: what did I do? Why? How did it feel?
“How” and “Why?”
“How” and “why” are the key questions. They will lead you through even the most confounding territory. Say for example your reflective essay deals with fieldwork experience as in the above sample essay. The first thing you'd want to do is ask: what did I do? Sticking with the same example, you'd say: “I interviewed elite slum dwellers and politicians in Rwanda.” Why? “To find out about how urban policies affect slum residents.” How did it feel? Okay, so this is where it gets a bit more tricky...
When addressing your emotional experiences you need to be honest and economical. You are taking the reader on an educational journey, letting them feel what you felt – but only where this helps to make the overall point.
In the sample essay, the writer observes: “while it was a generally enjoyable experience, I did make a number of mistakes during the process”. This a perfect example of how the objective and subjective come together. The writer, we know, had a (subjectively) pleasant time conducting the research and yet they acknowledge that (objectively) errors were made in the process.
At first it may seem that these two points are unrelated, but they are not. As the writer continues, “I made sure that I was familiar with the topic so that I could comfortably develop a natural rapport with the respondents.” Note that because the writer is conducting interviews face to face, building rapport is an essential component of their methodology. This means the writer's emotional connection with the interviewees is of the first importance. Consequently, enjoying the process of communication, feeling comfortable, is likely to have an effect on the outcome, the quantity and quality of data collected.
Breaking it All Down
So, let's take this back to “How” and “Why”. How did it feel? “Enjoyable.” Why? “Because I built an emotional connection with the research subjects.” Now we can push this inquiry a bit further by asking how did I build this connection, and why did I do it in that way? When you are able to identify the answers to these questions you may once again pose the “How” and “Why”; and then again for the next set of answers, and then again and again. Keep going until you've got to a point where you feel the detail is probably becoming excessive.
Stop. Take a breath. Congratulations. You have just conducted a dialectic. Also, you've engaged in inductive (top-down) reasoning. And all in one sitting.
The Mind Dump
Having now gotten comfortable with talking to yourself, and hopefully unearthing some insights in the process, your mind should be fairly swimming with ideas and reflections. The objective now is to get all of the information from the mind and onto paper – a “mind dump”, as it were.
So, without wasting a single minute, grab back your laptop, re-open the notepad. Now, just write down everything that is on your mind. Let it all spill out. All the things you've said to yourself and anything new that occurs in the process of writing (and things will occur).
Now Started, Where Next?
Now that the conceptual stage of the essay is underway, the hardest part is behind us. Our next task is to manage all this information. The first thing to remember in this respect is that we are still writing an academic composition. Hence we still need an Introduction, Argument Body and Conclusion, and these should fit together in a logical and cohesive way.
By now you should have a page or two of notes, hopefully in the form of “How” and “Why” type questions. From these, you will be able to identify broader observations, and these will likely make up the content of the beginning of the essay. The more precise reflections will logically speaking, make up the middle section. Any thoughts resulting from the beginning and the middle are of course best placed at the end of the work.
Needle and Thread
So, now you should have a rough draft of a work, a series of perhaps quickly-written but logically connected analyses and reflections. The task ahead is to sow these all together so that they fit in a verbally elegant and analytically rigorous manner. In which case you are ready for the next step – the final write up. To read more about writing up reflective essays, read our blog post here.
Even will all the advice in the world, essay writing can still be extremely challenging for some. Our academics know how to construct the perfect reflective essay to help you achieve the results you need. They'll provide you with a model essay for you to study and build upon so that you're ready for your submission date.